Songfacts®: You can leave comments about the song at the bottom of the page.
This is ELP's most popular song from their most popular album. The song is most commonly interpreted as ELP's take on a shortened history of the world into a futuristic tale. The First Impression begins on the "Cold and misty morning" of the Earth's birth, through the ice age ("Where the seeds have withered, silent faces in the cold"), and to man's growing lust for money ("Now their faces captured in the lenses of the jackals for gold"), which leads to various wars. Afterwards, the world is described as a carnival, wherein various elements of humanity are reduced to circus sideshows ("A bomb inside a car," "Pull Jesus from a hat"), representing the human race's growing selfishness and indifference toward others. Even human misery is described as a "specialty" in the "show."
The second part of the First Impression focuses on the growing artificialization of the world, describing something as natural as "A real blade of grass" as some bizarre circus attraction. Despite the fact that the world is becoming more and more consumed by artificiality and given control to computers (see Third Impression), the human race insists that it is still in control, as it created all that the "Carnival" encompasses ("We would like it to be known the exhibits that were shown were exclusively our own.").
The Second Impression is an instrumental piece (mostly a piano solo), symbolizing the blissful ignorance of humanity towards the impending danger of the conquest of the computers, which culminates in the Third Impression. At this point, the "machines" have concluded their superiority to humanity and begin to take on mankind's necessity to prove their own superiority. The computers are represented by heavily distorted vocals, while the voice of the all-representative "Man" is clean and without effect. The computers finally wage a violent conquest of the Earth. Mankind is shocked that its own creation is fighting back against him ("Walls that no man thought would fall") and is unprepared for the conflict. Finally the machines determine that they are sentient beings and the new "Humans," or rather the new dominant species ("Load your program. I am yourself."), pushing humanity to the subservient status that they had once occupied. After their victory ("Rejoice! Glory is ours!"), they make sure not to wipe out the human race, but preserve it to demean humanity and gloat about their superiority.
The last stanza of the suite epitomizes the conquest and the arrogance of both the old and new masters of the earth, wherein man struggles to maintain his presence as the dominant species on Earth and the computers assert that they have surpassed their creators: "I am all there is." "Negative! Primitive! Limited! I let you live!" "But I gave you life!" "What else could you do?" "To do what is right." "I'm perfect! Are you?" (thanks, Mike - Long Island, NY)
"Roll up... see the show!" represents the carnival barker. "Roll Up" is a British term inviting people to come check something out - Paul McCartney said it at the beginning of The Beatles "Magical Mystery Tour
When asked in 2009 if he knew how prophetic the lyrics, to this song would be, Greg Lake replied: "Yes we did. The reason for this was that Pete [Sinfield] and I had both written Schizoid Man
some years before and could already see the writing on the wall."
Why #9? When we spoke with Greg Lake, we surmised it may have had something to do with John Lennon, who was a big influence on Lake and an affinity for the digit
. Greg's response: "I have no f--king clue what number 9's got to do with anything, to be honest with you."
With that theory debunked, we can look to Keith Emerson, who says that he had an idea for lyrics about a planet called Ganton 9. Lyricist Pete Sinfield shot down the planet idea, but perhaps kept the number.
"Karn Evil" is a series of songs on the Brain Salad Surgery album which were conceived as one piece. "Karn Evil 9: 1st Impression, Pt. 1" runs 8:37 and closes the first side of the album. The second side begins with "Karn Evil 9: 1st Impression, Pt. 2," which is by far the most famous part of the movement. Running 4:45, it's the section that begins, "Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends." This is what radio stations typically play, as it works as a self contained song and is a practical length for airplay.
"Karn Evil 9: 2nd Impression" follows, running 7:07, and "Karn Evil 9: 3rd Impression" closes out the original album at 9:07.
No part of "Karn Evil" was ever released as a single, but it helped the album reach #2 in the UK and #11 in the US.
The title is a play on the word "Carnival." Pete Sinfield, who wrote some lyrics for the band, came up with the phrase after hearing some music Keith Emerson wrote for the piece - he thought it sounded like something you would hear at a carnival. Sinfield says that the work of the musician Tom Lehrer and the author Kurt Vonnegut were an influence on the words he wrote.
The "Karn Evil" suite was written with live performance in mind, and it served ELP well as a concert favorite. The band's previous album was Trilogy
, which contained songs that required sound effects and other assistance to play live. In our interview with Greg Lake
, he explained: "We decided that the next album we made, we would make sure that we could perform it live. And so, I know it sounds horribly extravagant, but this is what we did: We bought a cinema in London and we set up on the stage, and we wrote the album, performing it on the stage in the theatre. So as we created the album, we made sure that we could perform it live.
So it came about, this line, 'Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends.' It was a kind of live idea behind it."
Chris Robinson of The Black Crowes
"Great songwriters don't necessarily have hit songs," says Chris. He's written a bunch, but his fans are more interested in the intricate jams.
The top Contemporary Christian artist of all time on song inspirations and what she learned from Johnny Carson.
Greg Lake of Emerson, Lake & Palmer
Greg talks about writing songs of "universal truth" for King Crimson and ELP, and tells us about his most memorable stage moment (it involves fireworks).
John Lee Hooker
Into the vaults for Bruce Pollock's 1984 conversation with the esteemed Bluesman. Hooker talks about transforming a Tony Bennett classic and why you don't have to be sad and lonely to write The Blues.