Sucking rats: Tarkus by Emerson, Lake and Palmer

The Adam Roberts Project

Ladies, gentlemen, permit me to present to you the stone cold weirdest SF music ever recorded: ELP’s 1971 magnum opus Tarkus. Interestingly, Tarkus backwards is Suk Rat, which must be more than a coincidence, because that’s precisely what the song “Tarkus” does. It sucks a rat. It sucks a rat’s balls. It sucks a futuristic cyborg rat’s balls.

Emerson, Lake and Palmer - TarkusBut before we get to the suckiness of the song, we need to get our head around the phenomenon that was ‘Emerson, Lake and Palmer’, advocates of that logic of band-naming that goes: ‘shall we think of a band-name that is snappy and memorable? Or shall we just list the surnames of the band members in alphabetical order?’ Had this utility-brand logic of band-naming ever caught on, Kraftwerk would have been called Bartos, Flür, Hutter and Schneider-Esleben, the Scissor Sisters would be Boom-Secore, Gruen-Marquis, Hoffman, Matronic and Shears and The Fall would be a list several hundred names long. Plus the charts would presently be crowded with bands called things like Pew, Pew, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble and Grout. On the other hand, this band-naming strategy at least saved Mr Emerson, Mr Lake and Mr Palmer the bother of agreeing on a collective name like Turd or See My Tonsils or Never Knowingly Undershite. Emerson, Lake and Palmer: I like to think of them as the Three Monkeys of prog: see no reason not to be absurdly pretentious, hear no reason not to be absurdly pretentious, speak no reason not to be absurdly pretentious.

So, the story so far. It’s 1971, and ELP have just released their concept album Tarkus. The title track is a twenty-minute song about a war with a futuristic giant cyborg armadillo. The armadillo is cyborg in the sense that it is part armadillo (part giant armadillo) and part tank. That’s a picture of it, on the album cover, above. A giant cyborg armadillo, as you can see. Where does it come from, this giant cyborg armadillo? ELP aren’t telling. All they’ll say is that the giant cyborg armadillo arrives, that the earth gets ‘scorched’ by its ‘spectral torch’, that humanity fights back (apparently with arrows) and that devastation results.

Now, me, were I contemplating writing a song about a future war with a giant cyborg animal of some sort, I might choose a creature for which there is a greater range of rhyme-words. Cat, say. Cow, perhaps. But armadillo? Put yourself in the lyricist’s shoes. It’s a big ask. What rhymes with armadillo? Hardly anything. In fact, I’ve compiled a list:

  • Brillo
  • Willow

Not a long list, true; although it doesn’t include what are known as ‘comedy’ or ‘light verse’ rhymes (eg: “what’s that on the window sill? oh!—/It’s just giant cyborg armadillo”). EL and P get round the difficulty by never actually mentioning the word armadillo in their twenty-minute song, but it’s an awkward arrangement. The lyrics, indeed, seem to have been written by somebody whose head has been used for kickboxing practice. I’ll give you an example of what I mean:

The preacher said a prayer
‘Save every single hair
On his head—’
He’s dead.

He’s dead but his hair is still alive? That’s a pretty trippy concept. Either that or the preacher’s power of prayer is extraordinarily feeble. ‘I hereby use the POWER of my PRAYER to PRESERVE this man’s life from—oh, he’s dead.’ The next line is:

The weevil in the web that he made.

Now, I’ve looked into this matter. Spiders weave webs. Weevils do not weave webs. Weevils burrow through rotten wood, or ship’s biscuits. Spiders look like this [via]:

goliath birdeater spider

Or, on occasion, like this [via]:


And weevils look like this [via]:


You see the difference there?

But weevils are the least of the puzzles of this song. Ranged up against the futuristic giant cyborg armadillo is a marching parade of peculiar religious types: ‘the cardinal of grief’, ‘the minister of hate’, ‘the pilgrim’, a high priest with a big knife and a bell-ringing bishop. Along they come, with varying degrees of incomprehensibility. The pilgrim, for instance, is clearly a flexible fellow:

The pilgrim wandered in,
Committing every sin that he could
So good!

There are some sins that plain can’t be committed whilst wandering along. Or at least, some sins that I don’t believe I could commit whilst wandering. For some of them I’d need to, you know, lie down. Or at least sit. But not the pilgrim; he can combine a pleasant amble with the commission of every single sin and make it ‘so good’ into the bargain. Bravo, I say. And he’s not the only one with amazing abilities. There’s a choir:

The silent choir sing and in their silence,
Bring jaded sound, harmonic ground.
The weevil in the web that he made!

And whilst you’re pondering the zen concept of those lines, try to make grammatical sense of this:

The messenger of fear is slowly growing, nearer to the time,
A sign.
The weevil in the web that he made!

Is it the messenger who is growing? (Growing taller? fatter?). Or the fear? How does a person grow nearer to a time? Or a sign? A sign of what? Wait, there’s more—this will surely explain matters:

Had you talked to the winds of time,
Then you’d know how the water rhyme,
Taste of wine.

You might think that this should be ‘how the water rhymes’, not ‘how the water rhyme’; but that’s because you have yet to have your talk with the winds of time. Once you’ve done that, you’ll find that all conventional wisdom about the way verbal forms get construed goes out the window.

How can you know where you’ve been?

Right. Well, since you ask, I can know where I’ve been metaphorically by using my memory. And I can know where I’ve been literally by, sort of, looking behind me. Does that help? No, you’re welcome. Really. Anything else I can help you out with?

Have you walked on the stones of years?
When you speak, is it you that hears?
Are your ears full?

But, you know what? I’m losing the energy to answer these questions. Frankly I’m losing the will to live. What about the futuristic giant cyborg armadillo? What happened to him? Never mind nonsensical vatic interrogation, let’s get to the nitty gritty of the battle. Let’s have some explosions! Let’s see the lasers, and bodies and a bit of fighty-fighting!

What? It’s over? Already? Dammit.

Clear the battlefield and let me see
All the profit from our victory.
You talk of freedom, starving children fall.
Are you deaf when you hear the season’s call?

Well, if I’m deaf, Mr Preachy, it’s probably because my ears are full of the stones of years crammed in there by the silent choirs of weevil-singers. Or something. Enough, already!

In fact, there is only one thing that remains to be noted concerning this twenty-minute slice of SF gobbledook, and that concerns one of the last lines:

Confusion … will be my epitaph.

Never were truer words spoken by 1970s musicians. Never, I say.


STOP PRESS/UPDATE: It’s weaver in the web that he made. Not weevil at all. D’oh! Don’t I feel foolish! Suddenly the whole song makes perfect sense.

34 thoughts on “Sucking rats: Tarkus by Emerson, Lake and Palmer”

  1. “Confusion will be my epitaph” is a line from In The Court Of The Crimson King during Lake’s earlier incarnation as a member of King Crimson. So any use in Tarkus is a quotation.

  2. I’m sorry I’m always so late to Mr. Roberts columns – I laughed so hard I got the hiccups!

  3. What, do you approve more of “whop bobba loo bop” and the latest lady gags?
    Tarkus is a great listen. Best of ELP, and therefore some of the best ever. Of course, the Crimson, yes, early genesis are better, but try to analyze the word’s from Supper’s ready and tales of Topographic oceans, and the Floyd’s Echoes. Yeah, don’t try. listen to the music and take the words as a collage of images while tripping out. That was the scene in 71 and that’s what I return to when I listen.

  4. OOh, what a clever boy you are! Making fun of some nasty Prog band. What a good thing those highly talented(and not at all manufactured) “Punk” bands like The Clash and The Jam came along and taught ’em huh? I also see you seem to like the Scissor Sisters? You probably listen to Kylie Minogue too, you brainless little git. The central point of Prog Rock was not about the lyrics, it’s about the MUSIC. Writing music that breaks free of the tired 4/4 shackles, and explores other areas. The lyrics do not have to MEAN anything, it is basically whatever vocal sounds match the tone of the music. Hence a line about “shiny purple wolfhounds”, or another about “unreal ghost helmsmen scream”, they suited the tone of the music at that time. YOU, however, no doubt, consider the lyrics of John Lydon and Kurt Cobain to be equivalent to Wordsworth or Chaucer, and can’t understand why anyone needs more than 3 chords. rather than just you know IGNORING stuff that is way beyond your abilities to comprehend, you write this insipid nonsense, and unsurprisingly get various “facts” wrong in your attack. So same old same old from the “kewl kids”.

  5. Oh, my dear Mister Timm… I’d suggest you Google Adam Roberts to find out just how laughably incorrect your own assumptions and straw-men are, if I thought it would actually make any difference. You should maybe learn to laugh at yourself a little more… of the two of you, I’m not so sure that it’s Adam who’s acting like a petulant teenager.

    If I’d only realised how easy it is to rile up ageing hippies by publishing satirical reviews of prog rock albums, I’d have started a different blog entirely…

  6. My strawmen? I may have made statements that (possible) missed the mark, but why would some “academic” do a “satirical”(you clearly have no idea what the word means) review of “Tarkus” nowadays? My central point is that it is very fashionable amongst a certain type of poser to have a dig at Progressive Rock, since no self-respecting “Clique” member would ever like Prog, or if they did they would NEVER admit it. Now, as for “academics” and “critics”, these are the people who write for rags like “Rolling Stone”, “Q”, or perhaps “Hello”. These people ALL “look down” or Prog, while simultaneously singing the praises of whatever Johnny-come-lately star is enjoying their 15 minutes. And just as they mock Prog out of a sense of uniformity, rather than personal taste, so they have to metaphorically fellate every Elvis Costello, Neil Young and every other whiny “songwriter” with their pretentious “poetic” crap. Some of us can think for ourselves however, and don’t care what some “critic” or self-appointed “boffin” thinks. But I guess when you’re so obsessed with how you look in the eyes of others such thought processes are incomprehensible. And having researched Roberts, I see he’s a science fiction writer. Isn’t that nice. I will change my view only and ONLY if I discover that Mr Roberts’ piece was an attack on the typical type of REVIEW of an ELP album, rather than an attack on the album itself.

    And hippies? NOW who’s making strawmen and laughably incorrect statements. Your Rolling Stone gang referred to ELP as “war criminals”. Another Emerson(the guy in the leather jacket and leather boots btw) quote is “we were the ultimate rock capitalists”. King Crimson were described as “the first firm of solicitors to make a record”. People complained about the EXCESSES and Public School ties of Yes, Genesis et al. Not that that is any more accurate than “hippies”, but it is strange that when the negative stereotypes of Prog musicians and fans is of humourless, excessive Public School old boys that you should refer to me as a “hippie”. Just for the record, I am not(and never have been) either a hippie or a Public School boy. For what it’s worth which are you, if either?

  7. I’m a guy who runs a science fiction website, for heaven’s sake! And Adam’s post is a joke, a joke made by someone who loves prog enough to be able to laugh at it and love it at the same time… it’s a habit that science fiction fans learn early. When someone doesn’t like the same things as you, it’s not the end of the world, y’know.

    You seem to ascribe a great deal more power and influence to “rock critics” than anyone other than rock critics themselves. If you’re so unconcerned by their opinions, though, why exactly has a satirical post on a marginal science fiction website encouraged such a lengthy and impassioned response from you? I suggest, with respect, that a sense of proportion might be useful here.

  8. Well, working in the music business, I can state that what some tedious little twat writes for the “trendy” magazines does play a MAJOR role in whether Joe Bloggs decides whether he likes it. If the right “critic” gives it a good review, and if Radio Candyfloss plays it ad nauseam, then he’ll decides, that, yep he likes it. Many people are not swayed by these idiots, but as with anything(thoughts about war, historical truths, sports, cinema, literature) far too many people DO simply follow what the media says is right and wrong. Now, I actually entered something in a search engine, and this page was site number 2 that came up, which does seem odd, having now explored it and seen what it is. But I’ve also written letters and posted comments to other magazines/papers/websites simply because I’m tired of the Ignorant Pride many self-appointed “Experts” take with regards to Prog. They know nothing, and are damn proud to know nothing, spouting hollow, inaccurate crap about what they want people to think Prog is/isn’t. I agree that some Prog is ridiculous(Relayer for one), yet it still grates after all these years to see some braindead attack on the worst aspects of Prog, written by someone who clearly doesn’t know their arse from their elbow.

    As I stated, if this is meant to be an attack on the typical Prog review, as done by some idiot at Q or Rolling Stone or the like it works very well, perhaps TOO well. If it’s to make fun of ELP, well….why?

  9. I’m afraid I don’t quiz my columnists on their precise motivations for each piece they send me, so beyond my suspicions (based on knowing the guy quite well) that Adam was poking fun at rock reviewing, prog, science fiction and pretty much everything else in the universe (up to and including himself – he chose the title “The Adam Roberts Project” himself, by the way), I can’t say for certain. Adam’s aware of your comments; whether he chooses to respond to them is down to him.

    As to the “why” – well, because it was funny. It made me laugh. No animals or people were harmed in the filming of this blog post. Good clean fun all round, no personal attacks, affectionate mockery of ageing cultural artefacts, Bob’s your uncle.

    To be honest, I’m just flattered that you think anyone would care what a science fiction webzine says about an album that’s nearly a decade older than its editor-in-chief, let alone allow it to influence their buying decisions… but if you’re genuinely offended, then I’m very sorry, as that wasn’t the intent with which I published Adam’s piece.

    But in the grander scheme of things, I genuinely feel your axe would be better ground at a more pertinent forum (such as one of the trendy music magazines you mentioned) and would benefit from you not engaging in exactly the same stereotyping of genres and their fans which seem to offend you so.

    Shorter version: chill out, and don’t take it so personal. My two cents, there. 🙂

  10. I don’t know if you were there at the time, but it was a bit of an embarrasment for long-haired people trying to convince senior citizens that our music was sophisticated.
    We all liked the Nice and King Crimson, but it had to be said that Keith Emerson was only good at sooping-up existing (classical) music.
    Tarkus is what happens when the organ-grinder thinks he’s a composer.
    Pictures at an Exhibition was good.

    By the way: you forgot ‘Pillow’

  11. Well, it is always the desire of people in their teens and early 20’s to win show how similar their tastes are to those of their parents and grandparents? I really couldn’t have cared less what my Elvis-loving father thought of ELP, Yes etc.

    However, the earlier question still stands. There has never been anything more fashionable and cool than to knock Prog. Usually say it’s “pretentious”, “contrived”, “overblown”, than state how much you love the straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll whether it be Presley, Stones, Guns N Roses, Pearl Jam, or whoever. Well whatever. I would be very interested to know what the writer of this article considers good music. And I also just find it sad that somebody needs to get brownie points with his peers by launching a woefully misguided attack on a Prog album that was released nearly 40 years ago! Maybe he can attack “Daze of Future Past” next, and ask how a knight is supposed to go into battle wearing white satin? Or attack Fox Trot and ask where the seventh saintly man came from, perhaps he was the missing knight? Good for you mate. I’m quite sure that in 2100 there will still be “too cool for school” pseudo-intellectuals trying to worm their way into the inner circle of hip by writing attack reviews on Prog LPs from the 1970s. Thankfully I won’t be there to accidentally stumble across one while surfing the internet.

  12. Wow, you are one sad old loser. Stop whining about things and go get a life. If you don’t like something, don’t buy it. No-one but other trolls want to hear what you think.

  13. I never understood what ELP, Yes, Floyd etc were on about either, but then I only have an IQ of 75, and really love listening to Britney Spears and Nirvana.

  14. Oh, and Bill, the only sad loser troll is you yourself. The other people here may disagree, but everyone has stated their case as to why they believe what they believe. Simply saying “Wow, you are one sad old loser” only makes one person look ignorant and prejudiced….

  15. I’m not sure what made more fascinating reading, the review itself, with its hilarious analysis (cuminating in the Emily Litella-esque “weevil”? oh, “WEAVER”…never mind) or the comments…

    What is odd is that I came to this site trying to follow up on a quote from a commenter on Adam Roberts post on the Faerie Queene at The Valve: “[Robert’s] essay appears to me to be in the line of Adam Roberts’ “truth” series (cleverly not named as such in order to avoid trolls)” I wanted to know what the commenter meant.

  16. What I find to be far more fascinating, is the need amongst a certain type of person to prove their credibility, not by praising that which they admire, but rather by knocking that which it deemed intellectual and cultured to despise. I am quite sure that many people simply do not like Emerson, Lake and Palmer, many progressive Rock fans included. That is fair enough, as everyone is entitled to their own opinion and taste. But what is rather interesting is that Mr Roberts finds it necessary to make an article such as this. Clearly some people find it “hilarious”, but I am not amongst them. Not because I am some pofaced Progressive Rock fan who can not take fair criticism, but rather because I find this sort of thing to be rather immature. Had a similar article been done on the Spice Girls I likewise would not have been amused. This is no doubt indicative of the current social climate where it is deemed far more impressive to denigrate than to praise. Mocking and belittling earns merit badges, there is no reward in looking for positives. Likewise the Great God of the Media dictates to us those who are worthy of our interest, and those who exist merely to be scorned and reviled. The past is rewritten, then rewritten again. People howl with laughter at simplistic insults, and are baffled and bewildered by anything that requires any sort of personal thought process. Who said that Orwell’s vision of the future “got it wrong”?

  17. So posts that snipe in intellectual tones against weathered icons of bye-gone popular culture are immature, but comments decrying said posts, delivered in equally intellectual tones with a side-serving of pique, are perfectly reasonable responses to such, yes?

    Just trying to get this one clear in my head, you understand. 😉

  18. Well, to speak in another tone then, what is the point of this “funny” article? The message in Tarkus is plain and clear for anyone who actually pays attention, not just to the words, but also to the shifting time signatures and moods of the piece. I understand that for some people anything beyond “She loves you yeah yeah yeah” or “Tonight is the night that two become one” may be very challenging, but for others(including people who don’t style themselves as “intellectuals” or “wits”) something with a bit more depth is preferred. Yes, there is a place for pop fluff such as The Scissor Sisters, but there is also a place for something somewhat less one-dimensional. And you don’t find fans of Dream Theater or Opeth writing “funny” articles about Osmond Brothers songs from 1971 now do you? Yes, some aspects of ELP are now woefully dated, but that is so with most music from nearly 40 years ago. But hey, the “weevil” eh eh? Even Wilde couldn’t have come up with something so sidesplittingly hilarious, and it works on so many levels too!

  19. Straw men aplenty. If I parse your argument correctly, it boils down to “this stuff can’t be bad, because I like it”, and in your opinion, yup, that’s quite true. But here’s the thing: opinions are subjective. One man’s meat is another’s poison, and all that. There are two ways to respond to a difference in opinion: you can put forth your counterargument in the spirit of discussion, or you can call the other person an idiot/intellectual/hater/pleb for not holding the same opinion as you. Guess which one makes you look exactly like the humourless prog fan you claim not to be?

    And you don’t find fans of Dream Theater or Opeth writing “funny” articles about Osmond Brothers songs from 1971 now do you?

    Well, I wouldn’t know, I’ve never looked, but I wouldn’t rule it out. I like both of those bands, and – if the mood took me – I might write just such a piece about the Osmonds. That’s the beauty of the internet – anyone can say whatever they like, and the choice to read it (or to respond to it) lies with the individual user. I’m very sorry Adam’s piece upset you so much, but I’m afraid that’s not going to make me remove it or apologise for it in any way. And if having the inconsistency and petulance of your responses criticised bothers you so, I recommend your best course of action is probably to, y’know, stop leaving ’em. 🙂

  20. Oh, this IS clever! “I don’t understand something, therefore it must be stupid.”

  21. Oh this was supposed to be funny? “Sucks rat’s balls”… Ha-ha? Nope, it doesn’t work, sorry. Perhaps the “joke” sucked rat’s balls. It happens…

  22. This post really is the gift that keeps on giving. So much for the old cliche about prog fans being humourless nerds, eh? Oh, wait… 🙂

  23. It’s “weaver” in the web that he made. No doubt an intentional mis”heard” wurd. You should read the Japanese liner lyrics to ELP album songs. Misprints and misheards aplenty. More seriously, listen to ELP “Welcome Back My Friends”. It puts the ELP experience in context. Sort of like GW Bush to Democrats; or Obama to Republicans. Next to Cheney (or Rahm)…… Speaking of ZEN, your take on Close to the Edge (Yes)? Let me guess. “No”

  24. Well well well, After i had revisited ELP after finding the videos on Youtube i “stumbled upon” this site as i was “looking into” the ELP album “Tarkus” and any meanings it may have. (before i proceed further, let me apologize in advance for my sentence structure and punctuation, spell check does not help that and i am an underachieving product of public education). I read these posts and i have an observation, for what its worth. First, let me comment that, from my perspective, it would be a CRIME if we didn’t have Youtube to see and hear the events of the recent past, not everyone has the money to “purchase” all the interesting music, video and books that are available in the world to “expand their consciousness” (maybe their is justice in the universe, after all we do have it, which is whole other subject, excuse the detour) It is interesting that this has evoked such “emotion” for an album/event so old. first on criticism, it does “sound” negative, however, we need criticism to “hone” our ideas, otherwise we may drift off into total unreality and error.(another subject) I encourage all to be open to criticism, you can learn from all sources, even ones that seem not to understand the subject at hand, maybe there is something to apply, (“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” ~Aristotle). Secondly i understand the importance of the “positive” “encouraging” remarks because, when something is praiseworthy , it may “spark” the interest of other people likewise , and they “look into it” if someone detects something valuable “in there”. It would seem we need balance in everything. What i “take” from the music and visuals of ELP of this era is, “the ORDER and CHAOS of life” you cannot seem to get around it(“Each of us has heaven and hell in him…”— Oscar Wilde). i think therefore i am, oops i mean i think some of the early 70s ELP illustrates this very well if you listen to it, maybe i am way off base though, time will tell, if there is such a thing as time. user:Jimheaton

  25. WOW some of you guys get real riled up, hey it’s just rock and roll not the word of God! Quite funny really his review. The Weevill pictures etc.
    I suppose I may be accused of having a strange sense of humor though.

  26. “So much for the old cliche about prog fans being humourless nerds, eh?”

    The assumption here is that the “Tarkus” piece is actually funny, and therefore if ELP fans don’t agree, then prog fans in general are humorless. Since Paul likes to generalize about the personal qualities of progressive rock listeners on the basis of a highly limited sample, perhaps it’s also fair game to generalize about the logical and analytical abilities, or lack thereof, of sci-fi bloggers.

  27. And yet here you are, taking umbrage to the light-hearted ribbing of a band long gone, in a post nearly two and a half years old, in exactly the aggrieved paternal tone used by almost every other commenter above… *shrug*

    You wanna generalise about me on the basis of what I do, go right ahead. Science fiction’s had a long time to get used to people taking the piss out of it. Give it another decade, maybe prog’ll catch up. 😉

  28. And here you are, making irrelevant remarks (Who cares how old the thread is? I just now happened to find it while searching for something else, and left a quick comment), and mischaracterizing the tone of others’ remarks (e.g., complete tone-deafness to my irony). *shrugs*

    As for prog fans’ having a sense of humor about prog, they do–as I mentioned, they just don’t happen to find this bit of puerile vulgarity particularly amusing. This strip, on the other hand, is pretty funny:

    So is this:

    The Lego Tarkus is a riot:

    There have been one or two pretty funny Tarkus battlebots constructed over the years, too, but I can’t find any good images online right now.

    And frankly, I’d like for you to find an ELP fan who didn’t get a laugh out of the Tarkus which appeared at some of ELP’s 1972 concerts and shot foam at the audience:

    Anyway, sorry to upend your misplaced sense of superiority. I am sure, though, that I couldn’t reverse your misperceptions if I were a combination of Bruce, Carlin, and Monty Python. So, signing off, now.

  29. not quite sure how I stumbled upon this, but Ihave’nt laughed this hard in a long time. But I do enjoy a lot of ELP stuff

  30. Came to this late. ELP was the first band I saw live. Maybe you had to be there. But Adam’s column is really funny, & I doubt the band ever took the song as seriously as some listeners still seem to do.

  31. I love Tarkus and always realized it’s a vague concept. Emerson’s basic chord structure and Palmer’s unique time was very inivative. Lake did not care for the somg so maybe the lyrics are weak but back in the day if you had a buzz it was great fun. The extended version on Welcome back my friends which includes Epitaph is

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