Album Review: 3 – Rockin’ the Ritz

As I and many others have often pointed out, the 1980s were a tough time for progressive rock bands. A few thrived: King Crimson, in its own fashion, was among the few to endure. But most of the artists who had been making that sort of music seemed to go to ground, or to alter their style. Yes, you will recall, did that whole 90125 thing, which was quite different from what had come before.

After the debacle that was Love Beach, Emerson Lake and Palmer each went their separate ways (though they’d reunite here and there in the coming years). But perhaps seeing the success of Asia – prog players bending their talents in a decidedly commercial direction, with lucrative results – two members of ELP decided to take a stab in a similar direction. Keyboard virtuoso Keith Emerson and powerhouse/precision drummer Carl Palmer linked up with Robert Berry, an American (yet similarly minded) bassist and vocalist.

As 3, they released a self-titled LP in 1988. Closer in spirit to their former trio than to Asia, the album even has a three-part suite. It didn’t sell, but success on that scale would have seemed unlikely in any event.

The group was an impressive live act; for fewer dollars than you would have paid for a stadium concert, you could see two members of ELP and another guy, in a club setting. What’s not to love? All of the power and bombast of ELP would be present in 3. Their opening piece for the live set, “Fanfare for the Common Man” is thrilling stuff, especial being as up-close-and-personal as it is. After a fascinating opening sequence, “Desde la Vida” reveals the band’s original personality. Sections of the song have a Journey-esque power ballad feel about them, with new age and prog textures weaving in and out of the tune.

“Lover to Lover” successfully straddles prog and arena rock, but as sturdy as the group’s newer tracks were, most listeners will come to hear the showcase pieces. “Hoedown,” is manic and overpowering, taken at a pace that is actually quicker than the ELP studio version. The trio makes the most of its instrumentation, and in fact they were a five-piece for these shows. Other than a nice soaring lead on “You Do or You Don’t,” guitarist Paul Keller doesn’t get a lot to do, but Jennifer Steele’s backing vocals add some polish to the live readings.

Some of the more pop-leaning tunes sound and feel odd played by these musicians; the simple beats and melodies of tracks like “Talkin’ Bout” seem utterly bizarre when presented by a virtuoso pianist (and the drums on the song sound programmed!) Pieces like the Emerson piano solo “Dream Runner” provide some balance.

ELP had always been serious fans of Alberto Ginasetra, and so Emerson’s solo spotlight “Creole Dance” is a highlight of the set (the other players are surely backstage on break). The anthemic “On My Way Home” is 3 as their most Asia-like. “Runaway” isn’t included on the vinyl set, and it’s so pedestrian a pop tune that you’re unlikely to miss it.

Another extended solos-in-turn piece, “America / Rondo / Carl Palmer Drum Solo / Fugue in D minor BMV 565” is predictably over the top. It has its moments, but while Emerson’s runs are fiery, they feel a bit lacking in precision. The set closes with a crowd-whipping bit that goes on too long, segueing into a strange version of The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High.” The clattering percussion gets in the way of the melody.

The late ‘80s weren’t peak prog, but as a live document of an effort to bridge the gap between progressive rock and mainstream pop, Rockin’ the Ritz does a solid job. This 2LP set features a live recording made for WNEW in 1988 at the Ritz in New York City. The fidelity isn’t perfect, but any slight deficiencies are likely to blow right by most listeners. The vinyl configuration is a couple songs shorter than the CD version, but the vinyl set is so nicely put together that it’s the one to have.