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Weekend Intermission: Greatest Songs Ever (6) – Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s Karn Evil 9 from the album Brain Salad Surgery

Weekend Intermission is our regular feature where we look at an artist or band not from the Nordic countries, just to mix things up a bit.

We’ve covered some ground across genres so far in this very occasional series, encompassing Simon & Garfunkel, The Moody Blues, Mason Williams, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Nightwish.

Now it’s time for a bit of prog and there might be more to come next time out as well, watch this space.

Today the spotlight falls on Emerson Lake & Palmer (ELP) and the song (actually a composition) ‘Karn Evil 9’ from the 1973 album ‘Brain Salad Surgery’, their fourth album and the only one to be released on their own label, Manticore.

It reached #2 in the UK album charts and #11 in the USA. In its support, the trio embarked on their largest world tour to date, including a headlining spot at the California Jam festival.

During writing sessions around the end of 1972 the first two tracks began to take shape. One of them was the first movement of what would become the dominating composition of the forthcoming album, the epic ‘Karn Evil 9’, and the other was an adaptation of the 4th Movement of Alberto Ginastera’s 1st Piano Concerto which appeared on the album as ‘Toccata’, much to the delight of Ginastera, who proclaimed that ELP were the only musicians who had been able to interpret his work as he originally intended it.

‘Karn Evil 9’ is a 30-minute piece, arguably a ‘symphony’ in three movements (referred to as Impressions here) that will still be played hundreds of years into the future, along with a fair bit more of ELP’s vast catalogue. Keith Emerson, Greg Lake and Carl Palmer were quite possibly collectively the three most talented musicians ever to play together in a contemporary band, Emerson for my money the greatest rock keyboardist ever and Palmer in the top five drummers of all time.

For the sake of brevity I’ll examine only the 13-minute long ‘First Impression’ here (parts 1 and 2, at times they have been separated); one that stands as a ‘song’ in its own right. The second impression is an instrumental (piano) piece from Emerson, while the third gets a little lyrically pretentious at times as prog bands were apt to do, quite apart from the vast, grandiose and massively expensive sets they played including travelling all over the world with full orchestras and which was the death knell for much of the prog movement by the mid-1980s.

All of the song’s music was written by Emerson in his usual inimitable style, a futuristic fusion of classical and rock themes. It is difficult to believe now that it was all (the three impressions together) originally intended to be an instrumental piece only.

All lyrics in this First Movement are credited to Lake. For the third movement he had the assistance of Pete Sinfield, with whom he had worked in King Crimson and it concerns a battle between artificial and natural intelligence, which would end with man being taken over by the computer he had invented. I’ll come back to that in a second.

Sinfield also contributed to the song’s title. Originally Emerson called it ‘Ganton 9’ after a fictional planet to which all evil and decadence had been thrown out. Sinfield believed that the music Emerson had written sounded just like a carnival, and so he came up with the title ‘Karn Evil 9’.

Musically the 13 minutes of the First Impression are like a carnival ride for sure, but one that has gone out of control, a breathless helter-skelter of fast-moving (although nothing like as fast as Emerson liked to play) notes, chords and melodies, tied together by Lake’s and Palmer’s equally rapid bass and percussion contributions.

You barely have time to draw breath between the various sections before it lurches off into another one.

Lyrically, the First Impression is Lake at his best. When he was good he was very good. When he was bad he was cringe worthy.

For evidence of that I offer you this line from, ‘The Only Way’, a hymn of sorts from the second album, ‘Tarkus’“Can you believe God makes you breathe? / why did he lose six million Jews?”


There is absolutely none of that here, though. The First Impression concerns a dark, hopeless, dystopian future where the past is recalled by weird exhibits in a fairground show, the equivalent of ‘the spider woman’ or ‘the man with two heads’ that were popular at seaside fairground side shows in the 20th Century.

Referring back to my earlier comment about how ELP foresaw the future (AI) they are some of the most prescient lyrics you will hear, especially in a song that is 51 years old. It is amazing some of the ‘predictions’ that have been made in songs in the latter part of the 20th Century, for example, if I may digress for a moment, Shakespears Sisters’s immortal line in ‘Hello (Turn your radio on)’ –

“Woke up this morning, and my head was in a daze/A brave new world has dawned upon the human race

Where words are meaning less, and everything’s surreal/Gonna have to reach my friends to find out how I feel.”

Social media reliance identified in a song written in 1992!

Lake’s lyrics in the First Impression here are powerful and direct from the very first verse as the dystopian scene is set:

“Cold and misty morning, I heard a warning borne in the air

About an age of power where no one had an hour to spare

Where the seeds have withered

Silent children shivered in the cold

Now their faces captured in the lenses of the jackals for gold.”

Lake offers himself as a Christ-like saviour of the children, presumably tongue in cheek as his ‘Do you believe in Father Christmas’ single hit two years later in 1975 has surely clarified his cynical stance on religion. He continues,

“There must be someone who can set them free/ to take their sorrow from this odyssey

To help the helpless and the refugee/ to protect what’s left of humanity

Can’t you see? / can’t you see? /can’t you see?

I’ll be there! /I’ll be there! /I will be there!

To heal their sorrow/ to beg and borrow/ fight tomorrow!”

After an almost two-minute instrumental break the theme shifts to the ‘carnival’ itself, the “greatest show in heaven, hell or earth” as the weird and wonderful (and quite contemporaneous) exhibits are reeled off, including supersonic fighting cocks, rows of bishop’s heads in jars, a bomb inside a car (a clear reference to the many IRA terror attacks at the time), “some tears to see”, a stripper in a till, a real blade of grass (a nod to environmentalism even then perhaps?), and seven virgins and a mule, a tacky observation that did not find universal favour and which did not feature in some performances.

Meanwhile this ‘House of Vaudeville’ manages to “pull Jesus from a hat”, suggesting you “get into that”.

It is all very surreal but delivered with such pace and conviction it is highly unlikely it was meant to be some sort of spoof (‘fairy tales’ were very popular with some prog bands at the time). Lake meant every word of it and deadly seriously.

And I am certain it has influenced numerous other writers, since. Nightwish’s founder and writer Tuomas Holopainen for example is known to have been influenced by this sort of prog, which is the precursor to the symphonic metal music he writes. The First Impression includes references to “the greatest show in heaven, hell and earth” and I am convinced that may well have given him a lead on his own creation with the title ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ – even if its subject matter is quite different.

Meanwhile Holopainen’s 17-minute epic showcases a selection of brief musical snatches from across the centuries in its final section, from the ‘Dies Irae’ to Metallica’s ‘Enter Sandman’ and including a tantalisingly brief one of Dixie jazz piano which is pretty well note for note the same as the one Emerson plays here as Lake sings about ‘Alexander’s ragtime band’.

I’ve rattled on enough I think. Suffice to say I believe this is one of the finest pieces of rock music ever written and the lyrics didn’t let it down either.

One part of the song, a ‘re-introduction’ after the instrumental break into Part 2, has gone on to be the introductory music for countless sports and other events over the years, and numerous television shows:

“Welcome back my friends, to the show that never ends

We’re so glad you could attend, come inside, come inside…”

Most famously it was the theme tune for the BBC’s Jim Davidson’s Generation Game during the late 1990s and early 2000s (with the vocals regarding seven virgins and a mule being omitted). British Radio show host Alan Freeman also used the “welcome back my friends to the show that never ends” line as a jingle.

There was talk a few years ago of a film being made based on the storyline of the song but nothing has yet come of it.

Keith Emerson took his own life in March 2016 at the age of 71, at his home in Santa Monica, California, a world away from his birthplace as part of a displaced wartime family in Todmorden, West Yorkshire, a 20-minute drive from where I am now.

He had become depressed, nervous, and anxious because nerve damage to a hand had hampered his playing, and he was worried that he would perform poorly at forthcoming concerts in Japan and disappoint his fans.

His death was devastating to his protégé, the blind American keyboardist Rachel Flowers. (If you get a chance to listen to her, take it…she plays everything by touch and ear with 99% accuracy). (You can watch Rachel Flowers playing ‘Karn Evil 9’ on You Tube).

Dorset born and bred Greg Lake died in December of that year in London, of natural causes, at the age of 69.

Carl Palmer, who also found fame with Atomic Rooster prior to ELP and with another ‘super group’ Asia after it, is still very much going and plays frequently including within ELP legacy tribute bands.

‘Karn Evil 9 First Impression’ runs from 00:00 to 13:22:

The final part of the First Impression is also recorded on this video from California Jam in 1974, featuring one of Carl Palmer’s trademark monster drum solos.

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2 Responses

  1. Great article! I miss the guys . Will never forget my favorite band and favorite musicians! Goggle Ethan Emerson . Keith’s grandson he’s a chip of the old block ! He has all of Keith’s keyboards along with the Mogg Synthesizer ! He’s about 16 playing around England and perfecting his play . His father Keith’s son is bringing him along nice and slow rightly so . I wouldn’t be surprised if he goes to one of the better Music College in England ! If he ever plays in the states I will be there , I’ll be there , I’ll be there I will be there!

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