45 Years Ago: Emerson, Lake and Palmer Mark End of Era With ‘Welcome Back, My Friends’
Emerson, Lake and Palmer's '70s-era live shows were just as outsized as their albums. Maybe more so.
Faced with myriad sound issues – from replicating the group's intricate music to projecting it in an archaic technological period – they chose to make a literal spectacle of the shows.
"Yeah, well, we really think the days have gone when a band can get out on stage, turn their backs to the audience and do a quick run through of their greatest hits," Greg Lake told Teen magazine in 1974. "We wanted to have them leave one of our concerts saying, 'Wow, they sounded great – and didn't their act look terrific too?' It's theater, after all, isn't it? There has to be some kind of magic."
In keeping, the title of Emerson, Lake and Palmer's second live LP, Welcome Back, My Friends, to the Show That Never Ends, serves as both a call back to "Karn Evil 9" from their most recent studio album and a very real introduction to their circus-like concerts.
Welcome Back, My Friends was recorded during an expansive tour that included a groundbreaking sound system, Keith Emerson's tricked-out Moog and a light show timed to Carl Palmer's cadences. The set up reportedly required some 40 tons of equipment, and a massive crew that included seven personal roadies, five trucks and a six-person sound team.
Palmer's custom-built revolving drum set weighed two and half tons all by itself. Emerson was lugging around a total of 10 keyboards. When the caravan arrived in the U.K. after playing the U.S. leg of this tour, it reportedly took them seven days to pass through customs. They paid 3,000 pounds in duty.
"We used to have a saying, and it probably sounds a bit arrogant but it was kind of true: 'After ELP, all that's left is paper cups,' because no one could follow us onstage," Lake told Sunday Express in 2016. "Our act was so climactic."
Listen to Emerson, Lake and Palmer Perform 'Tarkus'
Concert recordings are different. A multi-sensory experience is whittled down to one. Released on Aug. 19, 1974, Welcome Back, My Friends, to the Show That Never Ends – though it became a Top 10 hit in both the U.S. and Britain – also underscored the natural limits surrounding a live ELP album.
"It presented a huge spectrum of challenges, from the visual to the sonic. Getting the music across – you have to work hard as a three-piece," Lake told Newsweek in 2016. "You have to do everything yourself. To raise an audience to a frenzy is quite a challenge."
So, Emerson took to playing the organ upside down or backward, using a specially made rig that spun his grand piano over the stage, and employing two World War II-era German knives to pin down specific keys during his solos. There were incidents: Fireworks went off prematurely, and the whirling piano once stopped short and broke his nose.
They relied on a skull-splitting quadrophonic set up to do the rest. Still, while the sound in the arena itself may have been mind-blowing at the time, Welcome Back, My Friends, to the Show That Never Ends can still sound echo-y and distant. Then there was the trio's steadfast refusal to use taped material to round out their presentation.
"We'd play this multi-layered stuff, complex time-changes – and a lot of stage theatrics, like me spinning into space while playing the piano – without anyone working tapes or pulling strings behind the scenes," Emerson told the Guardian in 2002. "We were a live band. We could play anything we recorded. I've never liked being stuck in studios."
Unfortunately, that's just where he'd been for 18 grueling months – estimates back then said as many of 650 studio hours – perfecting ELP's then-new album, Brain Salad Surgery. "We got critical of ourselves," Lake told Circus Raves in 1974. "We'd record something, mix it, take it home, listen and say, 'Well, I don't like it after all.' So, we'd go back to the studio, do another version of it, and decide, 'Well, maybe the first was the best after all.'"
Listen to Emerson, Lake and Palmer Perform 'Karn Evil #9'
Welcome Back, My Friends, to the Show That Never Ends gave Emerson, Lake and Palmer a chance to return the focus to music – a welcome thing for Emerson. "First and foremost, I'm a composer," he told Prog in 2015. "If I had to choose between artistry and entertainment, then I would have to say that I am more of the former. But I would like to be known as a composer before anything else." As for his onstage antics, Emerson added: "Well, when you're stuck behind a keyboard then you have to do something to attract attention to yourself."
Wally Heider Recording Studio in Los Angeles was responsible for sound on Feb. 10, 1974, at the Anaheim Convention Center, where Welcome Back, My Friends was taped just a few months after the release of Brain Salad Surgery. Their team assembled the 36-ton quadrophonic system for concertgoers, and a 24-track, 40-input mobile recording unit for the album, before 22,000 fans entered the venue.
The set list primarily focused on the new LP, and it proved to be the perfect vehicle for a triple-live exploration. "For the first time we've cared less about exploiting the technical side of the band and looked very deeply into the harmonic and melodic structures," Lake told NME in 1973. "I think it generates more energy than previous albums."
But all of this prog pageantry tended to blow budgets. Emerson, Lake and Palmer played for a whopping 36,000 people during a subsequent series of shows at Wembley in 1974, yet reportedly took a financial loss. At the same time, Welcome Back, My Friends, to the Show That Never Ends shipped gold, but was still subjected to showers of slings and arrows from the music press.
Criticism, in particular of their bombastic live shows, was nothing new. It started on the very first ELP tour. "They were waiting for us with polished teeth," Lake told Hit Parader in 1975. "And of course, they bit in deep, but we'd created enough interest by this time that the people would come to see us anyway."
Afterward, a clearly worn-down Emerson Lake and Palmer needed a break. Welcome Back, My Friends, to the Show That Never Ends marked their last activity together for three years. ELP were never quite the same. They reconvened for a trio of lightly regarded albums in the late '70s, before taking a lengthy hiatus. Two studio projects followed in the early '90s, before the group went dormant again.