A manticore is a legendary beast with the body of a lion, the head of a man, the tail of a scorpion and a giant Hammond organ for a bottom. Okay, the last bit is made up. Well, the whole thing is made up; it’s a mythical creature.
It’s also the name of the record company formed by Emerson, Lake and Palmer in January 1973.
ELP’s second album, Tarkus, aside from featuring some blistering prog and a rare guitar solo from Greg Lake, also contained the anti-war Tarkus suite, which ran across all of side one. The Tarkus was a sort of mechanical armadillo, said by Greg Lake to represent the military-industrial complex. ER, right. The Tarkus is eventually defeated by a Manticore. It’s sort of hard to explain, really. You kind of have to listen to it.
Anyway, aside from worrying about World War Three and mechanadillos, ELP were also unhappy with their label, Atlantic Records, and the sort of Seventies supergroup that sold the number of LPs that Keith Emerson, Greg Lake and Carl Palmer did were not in a position to have to put up with being unhappy with their label. After their third LP, Trilogy, they were ready to go it alone.
Along with manager Stewart Young, they set up the label and drafted in Atlantic promo man Mario Medius – who Lake knew from his King Crimson days – to help run it.
Over the next four years, ELP would release their own records on Manticore, distributed first by Cotillion and then Motown from 1975 until the label’s demise in 1977. The label’s first release was Brain Salad Surgery, one of the great sci-fi rock records, and one of the finest of all prog albums. It’s probably the group’s most complete record, with Emerson’s organs and keyboards absolutely titanic and Lake’s voice at its most powerful. Lyrically, it’s certainly their best record, thanks to the input of former King Crimson lyricist Pete Sinfield.
Shortly afterwards, Manticore released an album by Sinfield called Still, which would be his only solo release. It featured an impressive line-up of ex-Crimson members including Lake, Mel Collins and Ian Wallace, but did not prove a springboard to solo success, as Sinfield – although a lyricist of some beauty and imagination – was perhaps not a strong enough vocal presence to carry it off. In addition, he found himself co-opted into ELP as a lyricist, as well as contributing English lyrics to another Manticore act: PFM.
Premiata Forneria Marconi, a prog band from Milan, came to the attention of ELP during an Italian tour and were signed to the Manticore label. They had enjoyed success in Italy with Per Un Amico, and Sinfield was charged with creating lyrics for an English release that would rework existing music but with new words. The resulting Photos Of Ghosts was the first Italian rock record to enjoy significant success in the UK and USA. Over the next four years, Manticore released The World Became The World, PFM Cook, Chocolate Kings and Jet Lag – the last of which, in 1977, would be the label’s last product.
But why have one Italian prog rock band when you can have two? Brothers Vittorio and Gianni Nocenzi formed Banco del Mutuo Soccorso, known also as Banco. They signed for Manticore in 1975 and the label put out a self-titled LP.
Other acts on the label were Hanson – not the boy band trio, obviously – Keith Christmas and Stray Dog.
Hanson were the group of Junior Marvin, the Jamaican-born guitarist (again, not to be confused with Junior ‘Police And Thieves’ Murvin) who would later join Bob Marley and The Wailers in 1977. Prior to this, he released the 1973 LP Now Hear This on Manticore and the album Magic Dragon a year later.
Keith Christmas is probably best known as the acoustic guitar player on David Bowie’s Space Oddity album, but had also supported Crimson, Ten Years After and The Who. Manticore released his 1974 Brighter Day and the splendidly-named 1976 cut, Stories From The Human Zoo. Cat Stevens did the string and horn arrangements for the latter; it’s some nice folk rock Keith had going there. He’s got a website where you can check some out if you fancy. http://www.keithchristmas.co.uk/
Texans Stray Dog had met Greg Lake in London and enjoyed a short and riotous career of hard drinking and hard blues rock, with Manticore releasing their eponymous 1973 debut and While You’re Down There in 1975, which was the year the band broke up.
Turning back to ELP themselves, Welcome Back My Friends To The Show That Never Ends (1974) was an accomplished triple live album, and an excellent showcase of the band at that time. As for the label, the fate of Manticore was naturally inextricably linked to the fortunes of ELP. After the brilliance of Brain Salad, the group was pulled in at least three different directions with none of the three seemingly sharing a vision. With rows about money and the huge costs of their stage shows, as well as the changing mood of the times, it was getting harder to see a future for a prog rock supergroup. The label was closed in 1977.
ELP released Works Volume I on Atlantic Records that year, but it feels like three albums in one, with each member being given one side of the double LP and the fourth being a ‘collaborative’ effort. Works Volume II from the same year is something of an oddity – some blues, jazz and bluegrass thrown into a mix of other offcuts – while ELP’s last album before splitting up was the dire Love Beach, made for contractual reasons only. They split in 1978.
Manticore Records may have only lasted for four years, but it produced some great records by some of prog’s most intelligent and skilful musicians, as well as showcasing some quirky artists who might not have enjoyed much airplay otherwise. Its crowning achievement remains Brain Salad Surgery, and although you didn’t last for ever, Manticore, still, you turn me on.