The original idea for the song was a planet (called 'Ganton 9') on which evil flourished. Peter Sinfield listened to the music and they developed the name Karn Evil 9 from their original idea, and from his comment that the music sounded like a carnival. The 1st and 2nd Impressions generally follow this idea, dealing with inhumanities and exploitation. The 3rd Impression addresses the concept of computers taking over civilization. This dark prediction was made at a time when computer technology was just beginning to develop.
At nearly thirty minutes, this work occupied part of side one and all of side two on the original LP release, and was broken down into three parts or 'Impressions'. The 1st Impression was further broken down into two parts due to the time limitations of the LP format. 1st Impression-Part 2 is probably the best known track on the album. It has even been used as the theme tune for a British prime time TV show. The best bit in it is 'Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends...' which ELP of course used for years.
Not surprisingly, the three-part musical centerpiece of Brain Salad Surgery was also the subject of the album's initial recording sessions: 1st Impression at Olympic Studios in June; 2nd Impression and 3rd Impression at Advision Studios in August. There was a bit of a dust up in the studio involving Greg's singing of Karn Evil 9: The story was that Greg felt it was pitched too high for him to sing it comfortably live, and Keith had to transpose everything down a step or two, which given the complexity of the piece, he did not appreciate at all. Keith decided to keep the vocals he originally did on the first part of the 1st Impression to tweak Greg's ego. Keith's vocal attribution refers to the 'computer voice' in Karn Evil 9 which says 'negative', 'primitive', 'limited', 'I let You live', 'what else could I do?' and 'I'm perfect. are You?', produced by running his voice through the Moog's ring modulator.
"It's basically a warning. Karn Evil is a place. Everything is heading for for that place unless something is done about it. The first lines tell you that: 'I heard a warning...about an age of power when no one had an hour to spare.' But the rest of the song is more like a satirical sideshow, a joke. There's so much violence it becomes funny, a sick thing, rather like what happens in 'Clockwork Orange'. It's about something gone out of control, which, in Karn Evil, happens to be a computer. It's something that affects everybody.
"I wrote it all on manuscript paper and presented it to Greg and Carl. The first part of 'First Impression' used a lot of counterpoint and that worked well. Occasionally we used to make music up from blues jams, but I didn't always think that it was satisfactory."
"Some of the lyrics are surreal, but then I felt that there is something needed to be said, for instance: like the way the media makes money from photographing people suffering! That is just a strange reality of the way human beings are".
1st IMPRESSION (Part 1 and 2)
Music: Keith Emerson
Lyrics: Greg Lake
In a vision of a not too distant and very dark future there is a selfish and materialistic world where the innocent suffer. The scene shifts to a macabre carnival of the future, reminiscent of something of a Ray Bradbury story. The carnival exhibits - a real blade of grass, a bomb in a car, Alexander's Ragtime Band and a Gypsy Queen in a glace of Vaseline.
"That's the way that we worked. I remember when Greg sang 'Alexander`s Ragtime Band' I ran up to the piano and overdubbed 'Tiger Rag'. It fitted perfectly".
"Soon the Gypsy Queen in a glaze of Vaseline, will perform on guillotine, what a scene!" I wrote that because 'Vaseline' rhymes so well with Queen. Greg thought it was amusing. And he liked singing it."
Music: Keith Emerson
"This piano work expresses the restlesness of our times and the speed of change. I had originally written it for a piano concerto. We structured it and used it as second impression. The 'Caribbean solo' of the 2nd Impression was played on a Minimoog (an interpolation of the song 'St. Thomas' by Sonny Rollins). I had been on holiday in Trinidad and got this crazy sound like steel pans.
I was a big fan of an animated character of a Mexican small mouse called Topo Gigio. As to what I spoke, sped up and overlaid - I really can't remember (??'Hey you guys if you guys would like to go for tortillas, I could probably afford to spot you!'??). It could have been something that sounded vaguely Spanish".
Music: Keith Emerson
Lyrics: Greg Lake / Peter Sinfield
Ever since Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein' man has been aware of the danger of being menaced by his own creations. In this impression man confronts his ultimate creation: the computer. In the ensuing dialogue the computer has the last word: I'M PERFECT! ARE YOU? The dialog between man and computer was probably derived from the conversation between Spaceman David Bowman and computer HAL 9000 in Stanley Kubrick's '2001-Odyssey In Space'.
On Atlantic August LP Sample (Atlantic PR212) an edited version of this part was released for promotional use.
"The organ solo in the 3rd Impression I think, was improvised as well as I can remember. I don't think I played the same one when we took it on the road. The left-hand comping was done on the lower manual of the same Hammond C-3 that the solo line was played on. I didn't remember exactly what the drawbar setting was. Although was played on Organ, a Synthesizer was used for melodic work in other parts of the tune. The trumped sound was played with the Lyra, a prototype of Moog's first synthesizer with a touch-sensitive keyboard. I got quite an impressive trumpet sound".
"At the very end, that’s the Moog going crazy – it’s sped up to sound like an out-of-control computer. I programmed each note one at a time, twenty-four notes in the pattern. They sort of ping-pong off one another as it goes faster and faster and sputters out. It took a while to program, as you can imagine."
"People talk about computers because it's present. We use computers. You can say there's no emotion in a computer. But it's what we are saying about a computer, and in that statement lies emotion. The whole concept of computers dominating peoples life. There is one line in it: 'load your program, I am yourself'. They are rather prophetic words. I really do question sometimes how much good is all doing this bloody technology?"
Interesting to hear is an early version of 'Karn Evil 9 - 1st Impression (Part 2)' on the Video/DVD called 'The Manticore Special', performed live during the European tour in Spring 1973. This 53 minute documentary was originally aired on broadcast television in the UK on Boxing Day 1973, and finally in the United States on January 9th, 1974.
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