There are a few things we need to acknowledge now that Greg Lake and Keith Emerson have passed away, in this same year in which we lost Bowie, in which we lost Prince and Phife Dawg and Merle Haggard and Leonard Cohen. You don’t care about the first two guys at all, much less as much, as the other five, and that’s fine, I’m not really asking you to. There’s just some stuff I need to get out of the way.
First, prog’s status as the go-to hipster whipping post isn’t funny anymore now that you’re basically mocking dead people for making music you don’t like. It hasn’t really been funny since like, the 1990s, unless it was either The Venture Bros. or David Thorpe’s “Garbage Day” column on Something Awful that was doing the whipping, and fella, you are not close to either one of those things. Oh, prog is for dorks? Good one, Trent. Hey, let’s throw in some gags about how D&D players have trouble getting laid too, as long as we’re all sitting around the keyboard, inventing comedy. What’s that? Animal Collective sometimes sounds like the Beach Boys? My God, you are astute. I’d read your blog any day.
It is a strange and troubling thing, watching people try to mock something they’ve never interacted with or thought about longer than a Stereogum article informed them was necessary. Keith Emerson got some slack because he had a big synth rig, and there’s nothing music nerds like more than sharing pictures of people playing big synth rigs. He also took his own life under agonized circumstances, which gives his passing an added layer of cultural panache. Emerson had a visible effect on popular musical forms that we now think of as being cool, and died in a way sort of like how an old-school classical composer or a Gen-X singer-songwriter would have been able to pull off. He’s “safe,” and will likely grow safer with the passage of time.
But boring old Greg Lake played the boring old bass guitar, and was a singer in a genre where the vocals are often the least remembered or remarked upon component of the music. A lot of people spend years of their lives not knowing the guy who sang their favorite King Crimson songs and the guy who was ostensibly the least talented member of what was ostensibly one of the worst bands of the 1970s were in fact the same guy. Some of you didn’t know that until you just now finished reading that previous sentence.
Greg Lake didn’t invent a style of playing or shatter octave barriers or have cool knife tricks he could pull out on stage like Emerson did. Boring old Greg Lake played the boring old bass guitar over his boring old vocals, and then he got fat and greasy and middle aged and, boringly enough, stopped making music altogether. Boring old Greg Lake didn’t catch a cool disease and drunkenly shoot himself in the head, he died instead from boring old cancer. From a glance there’s nothing to remember him by, nothing you can use to defend his legacy from a truly determined dickhead. Boring old Greg Lake is boring old fucked.
But I would like you to listen to “Bitches Crystal” and take note of that howl that leads into the keyboard solo, the one that probably would have even given Roger Daltry pause had he tried to replicate it in all its venom. I would like you to note the mythic eloquence with which Lake’s vocals guide and swirl through “Epitaph,” the mischievous hiss that lights up “Cat Food.” There is an idea I’ve been playing with recently in which I look at every component of a song like a character in a play, and its player as the actor; in this light, it is easy to see that Lake was performing, actively, whenever he took the microphone stand. Take note of how many people outside of hip-hop this can still be said of. It is more difficult than it looks, and more valuable than it may seem.
Emerson, Lake and Palmer was at one point the biggest touring act on the entire planet Earth, second only to Led Zeppelin. They sold over 30 million albums. Hundreds of millions of people have probably heard their music in the span of 45 years. Koji Kondo cited them as inspiration when he composed the music for The Legend of Zelda. They mattered. They still matter.
Not that they matter in the sense that they are precisely relevant; coolness as a concept is brittle and diaphanous alike. Emerson, Lake and Palmer were trying to compose the rock music of the future and in doing so they tragically, ridiculously, created music that will never be mistaken as anything other than something that belonged in 1972 and stayed there. Bowie and Prince have the blasé, lusty charm of the Edith Piafs and Charlie Parkers of the world; kids are going to use them as secret passwords to get into each other’s clubs for probably at least a couple more generations, and pop enthusiasts are forever going to remember 2016 as the year that took them, like Californians remember 1978 as Harvey Milk and Jonestown.
Conversely, Lake and Emerson are rooted in the early 1970s: that’s when they made music, that’s when they made their profits, and that’s also when both those things stopped for them in the popular conscious. Some musicians might cite ELP as an influence if they want to make their interviewer tilt their head in a funny way, but that’s it. They were briefly melted from their amber only to be tossed again into the soil as the news cycle rapidly spun away from them, onto the next beloved celebrity passing or nightmarish Trump cabinet appointee.
But I have faith. We like things that mark the time they came from. We like Diana Ross, we like Disney Channel Original Movies, we like beat poetry, cumbersome old synthesizers, Jane Austen and John Waters. And someday soon maybe we’ll appreciate the era embodiment of Keith Emerson and Greg Lake, too. Only a dipshit ridicules something for looking like when it was made. That’s how you know it was here.
Christopher M. Jones is a comic book writer, pop culture essayist, and recovering addict and alcoholic living in Austin, TX. He currently writes for Loser City as well as Comics Bulletin and has been recognized by the Society of Illustrators for his minicomic Written in the Bones (illustrated by Carey Pietsch). Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.