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The ELP legacy

Drummer Carl Palmer talks to Goldmine about the legacy of the grand rock trio, Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

By Dave Thompson

A band’s legacy is a delicate thing.

In the old days, it was sufficient for the group to simply turn up, make some records, play some gigs and the adoration — or otherwise — of the audience did the rest. A few television shows, a decent amount of radio play, a smattering of positive press coverage ... the mechanics of the business, and the machinery of hype really didn’t enter into it, as the “beneficiaries” of such subterfuge often discovered for themselves. Beyond the passing glories of the occasional hit, artists made it big by standing on their own two, four, six, however many, feet.

It’s different today, and has been for a while now, but not only for new talent. The veterans, too, are feeling the squeeze, as it becomes increasingly apparent that it’s not only their future that is held in the grasp of an increasingly smaller and ever more self-obsessed cabal of tastemakers, but our memories of their past as well.

Rightly or wrongly, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is seen as the public face of the conspiracy, a point that becomes ever more focussed every time a new year’s nominations roll in, and we reckon up all the qualifying talents that have still to get the nod. There are more doo-wop groups in the Rock Hall of Fame than there are electro performers, and more rappers than there are prog musicians ... which wouldn’t be so bad if there was a Hip Hop Hall to induct all the proggers whom they’ve sampled, but there isn’t. (Yet. It opens next year.)

Not that Carl Palmer, the octopus-like engine room of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, now maintaining that reputation with his own Carl Palmer ELP Legacy, particularly cares. So far as he’s concerned, he’s been in the Hall of Fame for decades now, and though it’s not the one that the headlines pay attention to, it’s the only one that really counts.

“I’m already in there. You’re taking the time out to talk to me. We sold over 37 million records, we played so many concerts, we did so many firsts ... why do I need to look at a council of five people deciding who should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, when there’s so many fans who tell us we’re in their personal hall of fame?

“Because that’s what matters, the people who listen to the records, come to the shows, read the articles. The other thing — it’s a trophy, it’s a name, it means nothing to me. If we never go in, it’s fine, because I don’t need a committee saying ‘Oh, it’s ELP’s turn.’

“Why would I bother with five people in Cleveland sitting around their desk with their coffee and donuts, deciding who’s the next one to go in? In fact, it’s embarrassing to let the world see them the way they are, because they truthfully don’t know. It’s just ludicrous.”

So, if you had been offered an induction?

“If we had been, I very much doubt whether all three of us would have turned up. We would have been badgered royally because ‘it’s good for your career,’ but at the end of the day, we would have acted the same way as we acted toward the BBC when they told us we couldn’t release our version of ‘Jerusalem,’ because it was a religious piece of music that should only be sung in a church and shouldn’t be played by a rock band.

“So what did we do? We released it not only as a piece of music, we released it as a single as well, knowing that no radio station would play it. We just stuck our fingers up and said ‘cha-cha, baby, we don’t care,’ and that’s exactly how we felt about the Hall of Fame. I certainly doubt Keith (Emerson) would ever have gone there if they’d inducted him. And you wouldn’t see me there either.”

Yeah, legacy is a delicate thing. But if you care about what your fans are thinking, it’s also the most powerful force in the business.

Sadly, news reports seem to suggest that, sometimes, it’s possible to care too much. Coverage of Keith Emerson’s death on March 10 initially concentrated on the succession of injuries and operations that, over the years, had robbed him not of his talent and vision, but of the physical ability to actually demonstrate those things. It was only later that his girlfriend, Mari Kawaguchi, told the U.K. Daily Mail newspaper that there was another factor at play.

“He had concerts coming up in Japan and even though they hired a back-up keyboard player to support him, Keith was worried. He read all the criticism online and was a sensitive soul. Last year he played concerts and people posted mean comments such as, ‘I wish he would stop playing.’ He was tormented with worry that he wouldn’t be good enough. He was a perfectionist and the thought he wouldn’t play perfectly made him depressed, nervous and anxious.”

Emerson’s health problems have been well documented, and their past consequences as well. Palmer — his bandmate throughout the ‘70s and again through the ‘90s — explains, “He did have some major problems with his hands ... he had one operated on, but he also had problems with his elbow; that was an operation he had in 1997, but that was 19 years ago. It had worn out again, so it was very difficult for him to play as he wanted to.”

He could still play, though. His 2010 reunion with the L of ELP (guitarist/bassist/singer, Greg Lake), “Live from Manticore Hall,” was an absolute triumph, an album that, in musical terms, stands alongside any of the better-known concert recordings that the full trio enacted. Maybe he wasn’t rocking “Nutcracker” at 1,000 mph any longer, or hurling daggers, carnival magician style, at a blindfolded girl on a brightly-colored spinning wheel, but what he lost in flash, he made up for with panache, and it’s beyond tragic that the probably-misspelt bile of however many anonymous cyber-critics should ever have caused him to doubt that.

The Japanese tour was just one of several projects that Emerson had lined up for 2016. The other, though for just one night only, was a reunion with Palmer for the first time since the full ELP line-up reconvened at London’s High Voltage festival, also in 2010. Marking the 40th anniversary of the band’s founding, it was a sensational performance, richly deserving the plaudits that it earned and the source of another terrific live package, the very sensibly titled double “High Voltage.”

Behind the scenes, however, Palmer reveals that all was not well.

“ELP’s philosophy was always that if we can play like we normally play, let’s carry on. If we can get better, let’s get better. But if we can’t reach the standard that we normally play at, let’s forget it.”

And that was what happened.

“That particular event took five weeks to rehearse because Keith couldn’t play every day because his hand was tired. He could maybe play for 30 minutes. So he put most of his stuff onto a sequencer and I was sitting there with the headphones on, triggering whatever we needed, and off we’d go. It still sounded great, and it was a great show. But it wasn’t a true ELP deal; it wasn’t like we used to be, and if it couldn’t be like that, it wasn’t going to continue as far as I was concerned.

“Unfortunately, I was the one who had to call around the next day and say ‘Guys, that’s it, I can’t do it anymore. We’re done, we’re finished,’ because the band wasn’t as good as it used to be. It hadn’t reached that standard. ‘That’s it, let’s leave the dream intact. That was a lovely nostalgic show but we can’t carry on. And that was the last time Keith and I played together.”

They remained friends, though, and this year was to see their reunion. Plans for the show were first laid last year. “This year is my 50th anniversary as a professional musician, and we talked about him maybe playing ‘Peter Gunn,’ maybe playing the harmonica solo in ‘Fanfare For The Common Man,’ or a bit of ‘Bitches Crystal’ or ‘Knife Edge,’ or whatever he wanted to do. And he was up for that.

“Then what happened was, at the end of the year, he had a call asking if he’d like to play in Japan, so he started to work on those dates and figure out the exact time they wanted. Meanwhile, I told him I was thinking of touring in America during June and July, ‘so why don’t you sort out your Japanese dates first, and we can pick the very best date for you.’ He said ‘OK, fine’ ... and he was just about to lock in the Japanese dates.

“He made a video for YouTube, and was telling everybody about the band and what he was doing in Japan and then we would probably have said ‘OK, which date do you want to do with me?’ ... it was just a matter of getting the right kind of connection between the dates he was doing and the dates I was doing. And that’s where we were.”

In place of the reunion, Palmer planned a full tribute show on June 25 at the Olympia Theater in Miami, dedicating ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ to Emerson.

Mussorgsky’s “Pictures At An Exhibition” is a well-chosen tribute. Performed at ELP’s first-ever live performances in summer 1970, “it’s a piece of music that we both really thoroughly enjoyed playing together.” Indeed, says Palmer, his own knowledge of it actually went back even further, to the days when his grandfather, a professor at the Royal Academy, used to play it on the family piano. “Keith and I really enjoyed this piece, so it’s a very strong connection to the band.”

A 1971 live recording of the piece also became many fans’ introduction to ELP, after they prevailed upon their record companies of the time, Island in the U.K., Cotillion in the U.S., to release it at a special budget price.

“Our view was, it’s a live album and it didn’t cost us as much to make, nowhere near what a normal studio album would cost, and we wanted to pass that on to our fans. The late great Ahmet Ertegun from Atlantic Records (Cotillion’s parent) didn’t agree; he thought it should be full price, but we thought no.

“They didn’t like it, but this was in the days when the artist had a bit more control over their record company. We weren’t slaves to them, so it worked out really well. It became a historic piece of music. In fact, it was one of the first prog-rock albums to be played in its entirety on the radio ... it was actually played to us when we got into the limo at JFK, making our way into Manhattan.

“It got played completely, from top to bottom, by WNEW. Scott Muni played it. Atlantic Records had sorted that out — as we came through customs, somebody called up the station, said they’re in the car now, put it on, and they did. Those were great days.”

At the same time, he admits that ELP were never prime radio fodder, either in the U.S. or back home in the U.K. — where the one DJ whose show might have been expected to accommodate them, John Peel, famously dismissed them as “a waste of electricity,” and avoided their records ever after.

“You have to understand ... I’ve had my band now for 15 years and we’ve played America a lot of times. We play a lot of dates and we play a lot of ELP music with guitar and stick and six string bass, and I know we don’t get a lot of drive-time radio. A lot of Internet stations play this stuff, but it will never be as popular with radio as other bands, and it never was, not even when we were at the top.

“Heavy rock or metal or whatever you want to call it, the Led Zeppelin type of thing, was definitely stronger on the airwaves during the ‘70s, and ELP really didn’t make it after that. We had a great three to four years — we sustained it from about 1971 through to ’77, early ’78 and then it was all over, and during that period there was only three or four years during which we were in the top echelon of the big bands.

“ELP was not like U2 or the Stones or Floyd, it was never in that category. Those bands stayed in that category all of their career once they got there. ELP didn’t, but that’s because ELP was completely different. It wasn’t a blues band, it wasn’t guitar driven, it didn’t have a soul singer or a blues voice. It had a choir boy-type of voice, it played classical adaptations, it was keyboard driven, and it was extremely difficult sustaining power in America because you were getting these bands coming along like Black Sabbath, who were starting to really rock the airwaves. Greater music, but a lot simpler.

“Tony Iommi is a big friend of mine, so I’d never say anything bad about Sabbath, but that was the common denominator for the man in the street. That music appealed much more, those crowds were that much bigger and those venues were huge. ELP really didn’t have that about them.”

They certainly had their supporters, though. Physical numbers aside, ELP were responsible for some of the biggest concerts of the era, in terms of putting on a show, a point that is confirmed by a browse through author Garry Freeman’s “Do You Wanna Play Some Music?”, an unputdownable consumer’s guide to ELP’s entire live career.

Around the world, they were playing all the colosseums, velodromes, omnidomes and sports stadiums that the promoters could throw at them, and filling them beyond capacity. Critics still hated them, but there was rarely a dissenting voice in the house and, when ELP concluded their 1974 world tour with a triple live album, “Welcome Back, My Friends, to the Show That Never Ends...” and it really felt as though it wouldn’t.

But it did. A two-year layoff was followed by “Works,” a double album return that served up just one side of new ELP material, and three more of solo projects. That was followed by “Works Volume 2,” which offered little more than outtakes and more solo oddities, and in between times, ELP went out on tour with an orchestra and came close to bankrupting themselves in the process.

Palmer laughs at the memory. “That probably was a bit too high brow at the time, not that we were the first to play with an orchestra; people like Deep Purple had done it, Procol Harum had done it. But we decided to tour with it and that nearly broke us. If we had one empty seat, we were losing money.

“A six-week tour turned into a three-week tour with the orchestra, and a three-week tour as a trio, and in hindsight, we should have started off as the trio and added the orchestra for the last three weeks. That would have been the way to build it. But ELP was only about the music, and when we wanted to do something, we did it.

“We didn’t make truckloads of money or anything; we put everything back into the music.”

It was not always an easy ride. “The band was incredibly highly strung. We weren’t the best of friends. We didn’t go on holiday together. We didn’t go out for dinner. But when we were working together, it was full on. We never argued about where we were playing, we never argued about women, we never argued about this and that. The only thing we’d argue about was music, and we might argue about four bars of music for four years, every day. It was an extreme situation.”

It was not built to last, either. A decade apart followed the career low “Love Beach” album, but ELP was never far from the band members’ consciousness and they regrouped in the early 1990s for a reformation that Palmer concedes “wasn’t as good as when we first started off, but it was successful, so I’m very happy with the way it worked out. Prog Rock is an English art form after all, and we laid down many blueprints in that area.”

Blueprints which included a refusal to be tied down even within the vast landscape that Prog, perhaps more than any other musical genre, grew to encompass.

Palmer agrees. “They call us a prog-rock group, but that’s a slightly wild and wonderful title. To call ELP prog rock was kind of limiting anyway, because we were quite eclectic — all the big hits, like ‘Still...You Turn Me On,’ ‘From The Beginning,’ ‘Footprints In The Snow,’ ‘C’est La Vie’ and ‘Lucky Man’ were more like folk songs, simple things.

“They had some classic solos on them, like the Moog solo in ‘Lucky Man.’ And while there were big moments like ‘Karn Evil 9,’ ‘Pictures At An Exhibition,’ the music was always eclectic. We had a vast musical vocabulary and covered a lot of bases. The only big instrumental hit that we had, ‘Fanfare for the Common Man.’ wasn’t even written by us. It was written by Aaron Copland.

“There was also always a very comedic side to the band, and we always wanted to get that through, which is where songs like ‘Jeremy Bender,’ ‘Are You Ready Eddy?’ and ‘The Sheriff’ come into it. We were highly serious, but yes, we could pull our trousers down as well.”

Emerson was the ringleader on many of these occasions. “He was incredibly humorous,” affirms Palmer. “A very, very funny man, and probably the best musician I’ve ever played with in my life.” Reading Emerson’s autobiography, the decade-old “Pictures of an Exhibitionist,” it becomes swiftly apparent that he knew his music history — not just the classics that he is perhaps best associated with, but the vaudevillian classics as well, the silly little music hall numbers that lightened even the band’s grimmest vistas.

Even on the landmark “Brain Salad Surgery,” it’s the tragi-comic tale of “Benny the Bouncer” that leads us into the epic “Karn Evil 9,” and when he scored his first solo hit single, during that 1975-1977 breakthrough, it was not with some sweeping classical adaptation, but a neat piece of self-explanatory jazz called “Honky Tonk Train Blues.”

Palmer continues, “When I first met him, and we talked about jazz albums, he had nearly every jazz album that I had, and if you said ‘Can you play the Summertime solo by Oscar Peterson from such-and-such an album, he could probably play it to you note perfect. His vocabulary was gigantic, absolutely gigantic.”

And his loss, to Palmer, to his family, to his fans and to the musical world at large, is just as gigantic. At 71, Emerson was beginning to look toward retirement — not necessarily with wholehearted enthusiasm (illness, again, forced it upon him) but at least with equanimity, and the knowledge that a true artist never really retires. He just has more time in which to do the things that are important to him, which in Emerson’s case would always have come back to music in the end.

For ELP — for the music that they made throughout their years together — it will demand a fresh look back at the canon, as new licensees BMG (and in Asia, JVC) prepare to relaunch the catalog, and possibly a new live album as well.

“There’s a concert from Peru in 1997; it was possibly one of the last of our concerts to be recorded live, and it was recorded for TV so the actual masters are perfect. The soundtrack is on a separate reel, and we’ve had a look at it and there’s definitely a good hour of footage that’s never been seen. So we’re thinking of reissuing that.”

As for more permanent memorials to their late bandmate, it’s still too early to say. A new box set, maybe? (It’s been nearly 10 years since the last one, the admittedly magnificent “From The Beginning”). A solid revision of the original albums? (A series of bonus track stacked 5.1 remasters petered out after just three releases). Plus, of course, a full-scale reappraisal of the rest of Emerson’s career, on either side of his years with L and P is a must.

Whatever is ahead, however, one thing is for sure: The show that never ends ... will never end. Welcome back.