March 6, 2020

One of the first things we played together was 21st Century Schizoid Man – I think maybe because Greg didn’t have to learn it!

Emerson, Lake And Palmer. Can there ever have been a band who more fully encapsulated the idea of 1970s progressive rock more than this astonishing band. Positioned forever in people’s imaginations in their early ‘70s pomp like a fly trapped in amber, they still represent the fullest realisation of the great ideals of grandiose drama, flamboyant imagery, neo-classical adventure and technical excellence. To those who remain their detractors they also represent the greatest ‘follies’ of the era, if you will. However, there can be no denying the fact that ELP entered the musical landscape of 1970 like a force of nature, and for the next few years they exemplified everything which was bigger, better, grander and more exciting in that ‘brave new world’ of the times. Throughout the ups and occasional downs of their career they have left us with a string of albums and performances which rarely failed to contain their share of magnificent material, both before and after their 1992 reunion, which was kicked off by two magnificent shows at the Royal Albert Hall.

Still in commanding form – Carl on stage

It’s hard to believe, but it is now a full 50 years since Keith Emerson, Greg Lake and Carl Palmer left the Nice, King Crimson and Atomic Rooster respectively – all fine bands themselves – to come together as ELP, and begin the short-lived trend for trios to name themselves like a firm of solicitors (West  Bruce and Laing, Beck Bogert And Appice, Paice Ashton Lord and the rest). Keith and Greg are, of course, tragically no longer with us to see this anniversary, but happily Carl Palmer is not only very much in rude health and undimmed musical form, but is performing a tremendous service by way of keeping the ELP name alive by performing the music and curating the recorded legacy. Carl was kind enough to sit down and chat with me about the plans which are in place to celebrate this milestone, and various ELP-related business. First up is the question of the live work he has planned with his regular ‘ELP Legacy’ trio, completed by guitarist Paul Bielatowicz and bassist Simon Fitzpatrick, who manage the seemingly impossible by performing this music without a keyboard player…

‘Well, things are looking pretty busy already. We’re touring Europe right throughout April and finishing up in Spain. We’re starting off in Italy, and unfortunately making our way through the northern part of the country, where they have that outbreak at the moment of course. I’m not sure how we’ll go on about crossing the border there, so I might have to fly over to Germany and hope the crew can make it through on their own okay. In May and June  we’ve then got a series of shows in England, places like Canterbury, Chelsea, Holmfirth, Leeds, Hessle, Milton Keynes, Newcastle and Colchester, so that should be great. The show has come on a lot since we last played in the UK, including that we now feature some vocals, which is another dimension. We’ve added a couple of things in like Bitches Crystal and Benny The Bouncer – I’m singing Benny, which is absolutely great fun I can tell you! There are also synthesizers on the guitars, and we can reproduce some amazing sounds. We’re starting quite late this year, for a couple of reasons. Firstly I wanted to go on holiday in March, because it’s my 70th birthday and I really wanted to make sure to do that. But there’s also going to be a new documentary film about ELP linked in with the anniversary coming out hopefully towards the end of the year, so there has been prep work for that. There are also plans for a quite ambitious stage show that Live Nation have been interested in, using film of Keith and Greg. We have film from the Albert Hall which, unusually, had me stage left rather than centre, with Greg in the middle and Keith stage right, so we’re going to cut me off the film and use the footage of Keith and Greg playing for a few songs, to which my band and I will play along with to a click track, so it’ll be the closest we can get to playing with the guys again. We were considering holograms, but we went with the film instead. I was approached by the hologram company who did the Frank Zappa and Ronnie James Dio events, and they do it brilliantly, but I thought the film option was the way to go. I’ll be playing a lot of stuff like Tarkus and the like just with the band, but there will be a few things with Keith and Greg’.

There might also be a little surprise in the end of the shows as well, but that will have to wait until the time for people to find out! Clearly though, this would have to be in sizeable venues though, with the technology involved. ‘ Yes, of course’, replies Carl. ‘As I said, Live Nation are up for it, and we’re looking at starting off in America to begin with, because that’s still the main ELP market – which is a shame as I’d like the market to have been bigger over here in the UK, but we’ve kept more of a profile in the States. The way Live Nation work, you see, is that they own a lot of buildings from big 50,000 capacity arenas right down to thousand seaters and small arts centres, and if they don’t own a place they have a lease on it, so they have a lot of buildings to be filled. They reckon it’s good for about 1500-1800 per show, with a little more on the East Coast around New York and that part of the country, so the plans are there. It’s not sorted out and in place yet, but that’s their idea’.

The cut-out poster which came with Brain Salad Surgery

we always felt that the Brain Salad Surgery album was where we got the concept to catch up to the music

Talking of film, there is much chatter on social media at the moment about the rumoured plans for a film adaptation of Karn Evil 9, which is a rather exciting prospect to say the least. I ask Carl if he can shed some light on this for us, which he certainly can. ‘Yes, indeed. What happened was that Radar Pictures, who did the Jumanji film, contacted me and said that they liked the concept behind the Karn Evil 9 track, from Brain Salad Surgery, and that they’d like to write a script for it. So we’ve got this guy called Daniel H Wilson, who’s one of the big sci-fi writers over in the US, who had a Top Ten New York Times bestseller in 2019, and he’s going to be writing it. It’s based on the ELP concept, with computers taking over and everything becoming automated, that sort of thing, and there’s a lot of support from a guy called Ted Field at Radar, who’s a multi-millionaire who owned the Isotope record label, and who is also a big ELP fan, so he’s on board as well. There’s a lot of enthusiasm, so they’re going to Hollywood now to try to sell it. It’s all looking really good – I mean, it’s not done yet, but assuming it does all come off then it should be out in a couple of years or so, 2022 hopefully. It’s already got further than I dreamt it would, so all the signs are positive.’

Brain Salad Surgery

It’s also been the subject of some speculation what the soundtrack to the film might constitute, with talk of Carl working with some ‘contemporary artists’ having been mentioned. So, would it be possible to answer some of that speculation with any of those planned, or hoped-for, collaborations? Carl is happy to oblige: ‘Yes, well the way it works is that there’s a certain amount of original music that we have to use. I must stress that the plan is definitely to use the original ELP music in there, for certain, but there will be some original material as well, and there is the idea of building radical new interpretations of some of the music up from ground level to give a whole new slant on it – again, not instead of the original ELP music, but in addition to it. There are some names that I’d definitely like to work with, from different backgrounds and genres – for example off the top of my head there’s a guy called Skillet, who’s a big DJ, mixer kind of guy, and he’s really good with sounds and producing stuff, so that would be interesting. There’s also Trent Reznor, from Nine Inch Nails who is at the top of my list as well. I must reiterate that this could all change, but this is just some of the people I’m thinking of right now that I’d like to see happen. There’s another guy as well, who’s been touring with the band Tool, who is called Author And Punisher. He’s just one guy who has loads of machines and is very industrial, and he has to be seen to be believed. He’s built all of these gadgets himself, and I don’t know how he does it all himself but he’s got all of these amazing futuristic sounds. That’s the sort of thing I’d like to do really, because as I said the film would definitely be using the original ELP music which rang the bell, as it were, but then you might hear a bit of the ‘Welcome back’ section done in a completely different, really futurist way or something, just to shake it up and be what the film needs at that point. I’m not closing any doors, let’s put it that way!’

There is certainly a real sense that this could be the perfect time for such a film to work, as the real world appears to be catching up with the nightmare Karn Evil 9 scenario more and more with each passing year, to the extent that it’s edging toward ‘science fact’, and as such people will  relate to it. ‘Absolutely right’, agrees Carl. ‘I was only talking this morning about how it’s getting to the point now where you won’t need human accountants – you’ll just feed the paperwork into a machine or something and it’ll tell you what to pay. Accountants will just become sort of advisors. And the ever increasing automation in terms of manufacturing, the Tesla car and all of that, it’s a fascinating time, with some of it being pretty scary to be honest. The thing is, when we did the original piece it was sort of like our equivalent of The Wall by Pink Floyd conceptually, but it was so far removed from how the world was at the time that people didn’t latch onto it in the same way. ELP did two big concept pieces really, Karn Evil 9 and Tarkus, but the thing with Tarkus was that it was just too childlike really – the story about this creature going out to sea, laying a few eggs and coming back, all that – I mean, the music was fantastic, but as a concept it didn’t really mean much of anything, although as you pointed out things like Battlefield stand up superbly on their own. But we always felt that the Brain Salad Surgery album was where we got the concept to catch up to the music, so we’ll see what happens. Put it this way: I didn’t go out chasing this, they came to me – and that’s always a good sign. Always.’

When men were men and album covers were album covers – the three 12″ albums went in here…

Leaving that exciting prospect aside for a moment, what else is on the horizon for the anniversary, I wondered? ‘Well, as I said, there is going to be a new documentary film about ELP. That’s already being worked on with BMG, and it will come right up to the present day and cover the demise of Greg and Keith, which it has to really. There’s lots of footage, some of which has never been seen before and some which has been available online on YouTube and things, but we’ve taken it off now. There are already ideas about how it can be distributed, and how it can be edited down to 55 minutes if the BBC want to use it, that sort of thing, so I’m really excited about that. I started working on that after Christmas, and there is about 45 minutes already done and another 20 minutes or so filmed and ready to edit. It should be about an hour and a half in total, that’s the aim. That will sort of act as the trigger for the anniversary celebrations in a way, as it should have trailer footage of some of the live plans, and also news about the Karn Evil film, so that will hopefully kickstart it all. I think we could have a 50th anniversary spreading over about three years if everything comes off, which will be great. I’m working on putting some orchestral dates together as well, so all kinds of live work’.

Carl on stage in Montreal

Having mentioned the passing of Keith and Greg, I mention the fact that as well as the tragedy surrounding Keith’s death, the shock of Greg passing when he did was immense, as few people even knew he was ill. ‘I know’, he replies. ‘Me included! I mean, I got a little inkling that Greg was ill from a mutual colleague who mentioned something, thinking I already knew, but I had no idea it was as serious as it was. I’ll tell you what, I can still remember hearing the news, and where I was. I was in the Cotswolds with my wife, in a little village called Burford. We’d stayed away in a hotel the night before, and the following morning I was in this little village shop when my phone rang and I got the call to say Greg had passed. So I’ll never forget that, exactly where I was and when. It’s a great shame, and a regret, but I didn’t actually speak to Greg for the last six years of his life. We exchanged a couple of emails, but he didn’t want to talk and so I just left it, like you do in those situations. I actually discovered that he was ill from a hand specialist who was treating my carpal tunnel problems in my wrist. He was talking to me and, thinking I’d know; he said something like , it’s awful with Greg and the chemo isn’t it, and I just nodded along and agreed as if I knew about it, but I had no idea. I was just leaving him to things and thinking well, if he is ill, when he wants to talk he will let me know, but sadly it never happened’. There was some very sad footage released after his death of him talking with Bob Harris some months previously, when he was clearly very ill, and Carl takes this up. ‘Yes, there was, and in fact that is something which we are going to use in the documentary. It was on YouTube, but we’ve taken it down now, because I think it’s important that is seen in the film. To be absolutely honest with you, Greg had fallen out with me a bit because I effectively broke the band up following the final show at the High Voltage festival. I don’t regret that, because I wanted to stop it before it really went downhill, and Keith actually said to me later that it was a relief to him. There were things he couldn’t play with his hand problems, and that was awful for him. Greg was more adamant that it should continue though, even though he had his issues himself, he was somewhat overweight and out of shape, and the range of his voice had changed. I knew before that show that it would be the end, but I left it a week or so, in order that everyone could enjoy the aftermath of such a big show, but then I said, guys, I think that’s it. And Greg didn’t agree at the time. He was a wonderful, lovely man though, they both were’.

The inner gatefold of the Trilogy album

Given that we are talking about the 50th anniversary, I wanted to look back over some of ELP’s career. Starting way back in 1970, when Greg came from King Crimson, Carl from Atomic Rooster and Keith from The Nice, I asked exactly how the trio came together, and whose initial idea it was. ‘Well, to tell you the truth Keith and Greg had already got together with a view to doing something. They met up in San Francisco, and they’d run their course in The Nice and King Crimson. They came back to London and set about getting a trio together. The first drummer they tried was actually Mitch Mitchell, but that didn’t work out too well, and Keith’s manager Tony Stratton-Smith suggested me. He said Atomic Rooster were a trio, and that I was a sort of hot young gun in town, so it happened from there. I had actually met Keith three years earlier, at a gig at Battersea Arts Centre, when he was playing with The Nice and I was playing a one off gig filling in with Fleetwood Mac of all people! One of the first things we played together was 21st Century Schizoid Man – I think maybe because Greg didn’t have to learn it! Keith liked it as well, so I went home and learnt it and we had a go. That actually put me off a bit to be honest, because I remember saying that this might not be for me. I had the feeling they wanted a guitarist to make it a four piece, and I loved the power trio format that we had with Atomic Rooster, and I didn’t want a four piece. As it happened Keith called me and said that he wanted a trio as well, partly because there weren’t really that many guitarists around who were suitable. People forget, but there were actually more great keyboard players than virtuoso guitarists at that time – guitar became more prominent later in that way. I mean, you had people like Jeff Beck and Hendrix, but they weren’t going to join! So I agreed to join up and that was it’.

The initial period of ELP, up to Brain Salad Surgery in 1973, was an incredibly productive time. Looking back, so many great albums in so short a time was astonishing. ‘Yes, it was, but in a way it was too productive. At that time you had to do an album a year, or even more, as well as worldwide touring, and after a few years of that we just started to burn ourselves out, like a lot of bands at the time. Nowadays bands can easily go two, three years or even more between albums but that wasn’t possible back then, it was like people would forget you. And the other thing was that when failure came our way, as it did in a way with the Works tour and the orchestra and all that, we started to falter. I mean, it wasn’t a disaster, and we made the money back, but nevertheless we weren’t selling out all of those shows and it was a bit of a knock. We were a victim of the fact that we’d been born with a silver spoon in our mouths if you like, we had success right out of the box on Day One, so we weren’t good with the idea of ‘roughing it in the van’ if you like, to get back on track. The punk thing made things worse – we did try to keep on track with what we were doing, but it slipped a bit. Things like Love Beach, which has some good material on it but wasn’t what we wanted. And the reunion didn’t help entirely. Black Moon was the better of the two reunion albums, but In The Hot Seat wasn’t a great one. We didn’t come back with an all-conquering album like Black Sabbath did with 13 for example, but then again the heavy rock and metal market is a much bigger one’.

We loved every moment of the playing experience, it was only when we stopped playing that the arguments started.

The post-reunion albums aside, however, whatever one’s view of them, the live shows were still superb. The original Royal Albert Hall shows, for example, were fantastic to be at, exceptional shows musically and visually. ‘Yes, well there is a thing with some musicians whereby whenever you play together with certain other people it just works, and that was the case with us, we had that chemistry. We might not have always got on personally, but whenever we played we got on like a house on fire. We loved every moment of the playing experience, it was only when we stopped playing that the arguments started. I’ll tell you exactly how it was with ELP: none of us ever remotely sat on the fence. If we didn’t like something we said it, and we said why. And we listened to each other’s opinions. I wrote the least so I tended to have more opinions as an impartial observer of their material, and when I complained about something they would stop and ask me, ‘why do you think that isn’t working Carl?’ – we respected each other as musicians, and that helped it to work’.

Carl’s ELP Legacy, L-R: Paul, Carl, Simon

One of the things that might not have helped ELP was the big lay-off between the huge 1974 Brain Salad Surgery tour and the emergence of Works in 1977. Plus the fact that, until the 1992 reunion, ELP never played in Britain again after 1974. Carl is open and in agreement with this. ‘Yes that’s absolutely the case. That lay off was a strange thing, it was Keith just not wanting to do anything. It’s not that he had solo stuff to do or anything crucial in his life, he just didn’t want to do anything.  He might well have gone a bit dry creatively after all of that output, or just that he was a bit older than Greg and myself, but the fact of Brain Salad Surgery being the pinnacle that it was seemed to affect him. The long absence from shows in Britain was terrible, that shouldn’t have happened at all, but I’ll be honest with you, that was really all from what the press were writing which affected Keith a lot. I don’t know why, but he was always very sensitive about what people wrote regarding the band and, most of all, his playing. I tried to say to him ‘Keith, what does it matter if John Peel says something about ‘a waste of talent and electricity’, when you look and see thousands of people coming to the shows and buying the music? One man’s opinion against thousands doesn’t matter’. But he always let it get to him, and a lot of that criticism was in the UK. I always critique myself, I don’t let it affect me, and Greg didn’t too much either, but Keith always did. I’ll tell you one thing though, which is amusing looking back: we said to Keith that if people criticised us as being too ‘showbiz’ or whatever, we should go and play Las Vegas which is the very home of over-the-top showbusiness, so we did. And they didn’t like us! One of the few places in America where we really didn’t do it. And that made Keith worse! So we had to backtrack and say ‘never mind, let’s get back to New York or Boston or LA, where they’ll love us’. And of course they did, but Keith always saw the one negative voice, sad to say’.

I leave the last words to Carl to sum up ELP and his thoughts on the legacy of the band. ‘What I’d say looking back is that ELP were at the very top for about four years or so – for that time we were one of the biggest bands in the world, and it was incredible to be a part of it. After that, we let it slip a bit, for whatever reason it may have been. Bands like Pink Floyd and Genesis kept it going and never lost that momentum, but we didn’t manage to keep building on it, but nonetheless that time we did have at the top is something I’ll always look back on as being remarkable. I suppose we weren’t as commercial as some other bands, although we did have big hits, particularly in North America, with Greg’s material like Lucky Man, From The Beginning, Still…You Turn Me On etc. C’Est La Vie was number one in Canada. It was odd when people called us a prog band when we kept having hits with this stuff that wasn’t prog at all. Of those songs, only Lucky Man had drums and a full band on it, and even then Greg used to most often play it unaccompanied live. I loved that material, but I do wonder whether it might have had more impact if we had made more of it and fleshed out the pieces with more accompaniment, that’s all I’d say about it. But Greg was always very protective of his pieces, which I suppose is natural. Overall, the legacy of ELP is something I’ll always be proud of and I’m delighted to be able to keep it going with this anniversary. Also, my autobiography is coming out soon, which will be called Fanfare For The Common Man, and that’s sure to have a lot of stories and memories in it’.

All in all, it sounds as if it’s going to be a grand time to be an ELP fan with all of this activity going on, and we certainly should be thankful that Carl is there, giving it every ounce of his still considerable energy to make it all happen. Welcome back, my friends – or have you ever really been away?

For any further information please visit the official CARL PALMER website