December 2, 2022

A prolific rock journalist and critic since joining Melody Maker in 1964, it’d probably be easier to list the artists Chris Welch hasn’t written a book about. His career body of work is truly impressive, containing at least thirty books, plus also many album liner notes, as well as countless articles in various music publications, including Mojo and Kerrrang. His most recent publication is Keith Emerson; an illustrated history, a large format publication containing probably the most detailed account of the life and legacy of Keith Emerson ever written, containing many new interviews with family and friends who knew him best, plus many previously unseen pictures.  Chris agreed to talk to Velvet Thunder about the book, and he was asked what was the inspiration behind writing this book?

CW: Well, I was encouraged to write it by the family, and also by the publishers, Rocket 88. They’ve published a whole series of books, including ones on Jethro Tull and Syd Barrett, and they do really good productions with interesting memorabilia, and they wanted a book on Keith Emerson, so this was my brief. I was asked to do it, and it was a labour of love for me. I started work last summer (2021) and the deadline was January 2022. I have to say, though, the deadline was pretty tight, only about six months to bring it all together. There was a list of people for me to interview, including Keith’s son, Aaron, and the family members, and various musicians who’d been influenced by him, and I was surprised to discover Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter, who was a great interview, was full of praise for Keith as they’d worked together on some supergroup project in around 1990. So I had to work flat out to get it all the interviews done in the allotted time, though the more technical ones about his equipment were left out.

VT: You knew Keith from the mid-60’s onwards. At what point did you become aware there was something exceptional about his talent ?
I was very fortunate, I joined Melody Maker in 1964, which was mainly a jazz paper at the time, as they’d wanted someone to cover all these amazing groups coming along, inspired by the Beatles and the Stones. My job was to write about all these amazing, upcoming groups, so I’d go to all the London clubs, like The Marquee and the 100 Club, and see all these new bands. But I actually heard about The Nice through friends in other groups, which was my introduction to seeing Keith play. Davy O’List was in The Attack and Brian Davidson was in the Mark Lehman Five. We were friends and we’d drink together, and they told me about this brilliant young keyboard player they’d heard about who was playing in The T-Bones, who’d done a tour with the Mark Lehman Five. This was the ‘Marquee tour’, with about half a dozen other bands on it, so I got to know Keith through O’List and Davidson, who were talking about putting a band together. I went with Davy to his flat in Earls Court, and met Keith for the first time. He was sitting at an upright piano and his way of introducing himself was to play Rondo on the piano for me.

Chris Welch

There were lots of other stellar musicians around at the time, so what qualities did Keith possess which made him stand out?
I was just astounded at his proficiency when I first saw him play. He wasn’t just a great keyboard player, he was also a great pianist, I heard him play piano long before I heard him play the Hammond Organ. But, what made him special was he could play so many different styles, and with great technique. He had a classically trained technique. I don’t know how much classical education he’d had but he certainly had a grasp of it. There were other keyboard players around, Graham Bond in the Organisation was one, but Keith stood out because he played with such taste and feeling as well, quite different from all the other keyboard players, and this was what made him special for me.

From the mid-60’s onwards, there was a lot of stellar musical talent around. Where would you place Keith in the music pantheon?
Keith’s talent was so all-embracing, he loved so many different styles of music, he wasn’t ever stuck in a groove playing just the one style, which is why he had bands like The Nice and ELP, so he could expand his boundaries, so to speak. Many of the great musicians we love from this era did tend to have just the one playing style. If you think about guitarists like Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, we pretty much knew what to expect from them, and the same for keyboard players, like Graham Bond with the blues, or Jon Lord with heavy rock, whereas Keith could play virtually everything, and do it well. So this is what makes him stand out, head and shoulders above all the others, for me.

The book’s extremely detailed and very informative. Do you think this book could be the last word on Keith Emerson?
I think it probably could be, though there is a lot more to say about him. Other writers could also have their thoughts as well as I can’t imagine other writers not wanting to write about him. So I suppose, yes, it could be the last word in the sense it tackles his personality and his family, and being written with the approval of the family. It could also be the last word in the sense this was his story, though there’re probably other writers who’ll have different thoughts about him, and I wouldn’t want to discourage any other writers from writing about him. So, yes, the book is very detailed, it’s his life history and is told by his family members, so it’s a very personal history of Keith, and it’s probably better than the book he wrote himself (Pictures Of An Exhibitionist) which I actually helped him write. I remember sitting and going through some of the stories with him, I kind of co-edited it for him.

But, not everyone was enamoured with Emerson’s showmanship. Some reviewers claimed what he did was little more than ‘keyboard masturbation’ and likened him to being prog’s version of Spinal Tap.
Keith had a great sense of humour and probably loved Spinal Tap, as most musicians do. But, this is a very superficial way to describe him, and I think these are terms used by people who don’t really listen to what he does or have never seen him ‘live.’ I think it’s pretty cruel and tasteless, but I suppose it’s to be expected, as it was right from when ELP started. I mean, John Peel was very rude about them, wasn’t he?

Peel said ‘ELP are a waste of talent and electricity’. Why do you think rock critics and DJ’s like Peel were so damning of ELP?
I often wondered this, but I think, in the case of John Peel, he was a great fan of The Nice. He liked them a lot and went to see them, and I think he felt a little bit betrayed when Keith broke up The Nice to form this much bigger band, this supergroup whose ambition was to be much more successful, and Peel hated bands who were hugely successful, as this kind of broke the rules of hippiedom as they were doing stadium gigs with big PA systems. Peel much preferred bands who were playing in the mud at festivals, and Keith and ELP weren’t underground any more, which is why I think John Peel disliked them.

If Keith was 18 and starting today, do you think he could have the same impact?
That’s a very good question. I mean he should do, but that kind of rock music doesn’t seem to appeal to younger people any more, they don’t seem to go to see bands much any more, in my experience anyway.  I do go to see bands all the time but they seem to attract an older audience.  But I think it’d be much harder for him to make an impact as the whole music scene has changed drastically. Building up a band through playing pubs and small venues, which is how The Nice started, you could do this till you’re blue in the face but with no guarantee you’ll get a record contract, unless you were in America, and you had a record label behind you, but I don’t think it could happen in the same way.

Was it true Hendrix came close to joining ELP?
I don’t think so, personally, though they might have had Mitch Mitchell on drums as a possibility. I know Keith and Jimi acknowledged each other, and they toured together. In fact I saw them together on that big package tour, Jimi with Pink Floyd and The Nice and a few others, at the Albert Hall, and Jimi was very impressed with Keith’s level of playing and showmanship. He said he was the Hendrix of the Hammond organ. But them playing together wouldn’t have been a good idea as Keith always wanted to control the groups he was playing in, which is why the groups he played in were always organ dominated. Hendrix wouldn’t have fitted into this so I don’t think it would’ve worked.

Two really big egos in the one band!
I remember Hendrix sat in with Cream on one of his first gigs in London. Jack Bruce had invited him but Ginger Baker wasn’t very happy about it at all.

Why is it, do you think, ELP aren’t in the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame?
Yes, it is extraordinary, isn’t it? I just don’t understand it why they’re not, because they were hugely popular in America and they had this huge base of fans. I saw ELP playing at Madison Square Garden, and also playing just outside Boston in 1992, and people loved them. I don’t understand it, it just doesn’t make any sense to me at all. I think it’s a kind of resentment thing. But they did have an aura of superiority about them, ELP. Not intentional, they just wanted to be the best so they had the best shows, the most equipment, and perhaps this put peoples noses out of joint. But then critics didn’t like Cream either when they first went to America and they knocked Eric Clapton. So, I’m not sure its jealously, I just think the American critics didn’t ‘get’ ELP, but it’s too late now, though Carl’s still around.

ELP’s last gig in the UK was at High Voltage in 2010 and they seemed to be running on empty by this time. Do you think their final reunion tour was a mistake?
I was at High Voltage, and I was sat right near to the front, though I didn’t see the whole gig, but they seemed to be going down alright. I don’t think they died the death. But of course they were older by then, so perhaps…

Towards the end of Keith’s life, it’s known he suffered from health issues, as well as battles with depression and alcoholism, but it’s claimed he suffered lots of on-line trolling which contributed towards him talking his own life. Is there any truth in this?
Well, his family said it was nothing to do with anyone trolling him, sending him horrible messages, because he never looked at them. His wife claimed he wasn’t up with social media, Twitter or Facebook, so I don’t know where the online trolls would write their stuff as she assured me he never looked at it, so he couldn’t have read anything. But he was aware he was losing it, losing his technique, and that’s what really upset him and was the cause of his depression… the fear people would expect a lot from him and he couldn’t deliver it anymore, not in the same way.

Could he not have just announced he was retiring?
It’s very tragic. He phoned me not long before he passed away, actually, and we had a long conversation late at night. He rang me out of the blue so I didn’t have a tape recorder or anything, but he just wanted to talk, to reminisce. So, yeah, it was terrible. But I remember being in America, in Boston, with a woman who’d won a trip to the US to see ELP from a magazine I was working on, and the first thing I see when I get to the hotel was Keith in the lobby, wanting to play the hotel’s grand piano, and hotel security telling him to get off!!

Last point. Other esteemed rock journalists, Such as Nick Kent and Charles Shaar Murray, have published books of their own journalism. Do you ever plan to publish a book of your own writings?
Well, I’ve thought about it, and I’ve been asked lots of times, with people suggesting I do it, but I’m always busy doing something else. I do lots of sleeve notes for albums and writing magazine articles, but such a book is on my list of things to do. But I will do it… before I forget them all!!