(The) dichotomy between artistic respect and artistic differences, and between occasional personal conflict and a clear ‘all-for-one’ band mentality, digs right to the very heart of the entity which was Emerson, Lake And Palmer – and it is perfectly laid out here, in perhaps the best and fullest form that I have ever seen it.
Producing an official, in-their-own-words account of the extraordinary career of Emerson, Lake and Palmer is obviously something of a tall order to pull off, not least because Carl Palmer is sadly the only one of the three still with us, following the twin tragedies of Keith Emerson taking his own life and Greg Lake later succumbing to cancer. By the same token, with a work of this significance nothing half-hearted would suffice, so a way to achieve it without resorting to a run-of-the-mill ghosted biography was important to find. Happily, this has been achieved by way of Bruce Pilato working his way diligently and exhaustively through reams and gigabytes of paper and digital interviews with the three band members, from previously unpublished discussions through to masses of archival magazine sources. With the final result being edited by Carl Palmer to ensure that extra stamp of authenticity and quality, the result is the whole story of the band, along with the early lives of E, L and P, told entirely from the horses’ mouths, as it were. The result of this is that it reads as if one is eavesdropping on a conversation with the three men sitting in a room together, and as such provides not only the facts but also the – sometimes contradictory – thoughts and opinions of the guys who were there, in the eye of the metaphorical storm.
This is a premium volume, of course, rather than a relatively inexpensive biog, and so it has to look and feel the part, so let’s take a look at that element first. Happily I can confirm that as soon as the book is opened for the first time, any doubts on that score disappear. This is a beautifully tactile volume – a large format hardback with embossed silver-on-blue cover, heavy glossy paper stock and the final touch of a red cloth bookmark inbuilt. No corners have been cut here. Visually, it is also an absolute delight, with the selection of photographs – painstakingly provided and catalogued by current band archivist Graham Lilley – taking us right through the story from childhood snaps of the trio right up to the final show at the High Voltage festival in 2010. Spread across the opening and closing inside cover double pages is the classic shot of the band standing at the centre of an enormous collection of road crew, equipment and trucks which got them around on the huge Brain Salad Surgery tour. It may be a well-viewed shot, but it is the perfect visual reminder of just how big an entity ELP were in the early-to-mid ’70s. The majority of the photos throughout the book, however, are much less commonly seen, and in many cases will be entirely new to even the most dedicated fan. All are neatly and accurately captioned, including those which grace a double page spread on their own. Every single page here has some photographic content on it, accompanying the text, and the layout cannot be faulted.
So, it’s a handsome volume in terms of look and feel, that much is beyond doubt. But we must return to the subject of the actual text content to gauge the true value and quality of the book – because we have all seen ‘premium volumes’ which look gorgeous, but have little pretence to be anything much more than an array of photographs accompanied by minimal or, at worst, throwaway text. These can often be extremely desirable items, of course – a photo book is an art form in itself, and often sought after – but to truly hit the jackpot a top quality book of this kind must be, at the end of the day, an extremely good read as well as a treat for the eyes. Come for the photos, stay for the prose, as one might say. And, owing to the aforementioned care which has gone into presenting this in entirely the band’s own voices, together with the sheer size of the undertaking (almost 300 large pages with perhaps 90% of them containing reading matter as well as photos), there is no shortage whatsoever of material and insight. This isn’t a book that you will breeze through in an hour – or if you do, you’re not reading it carefully enough!
There’s the classic recollection by Keith about a binge with Alvin Lee during the Love Beach recordings, which went on until daylight and culminated in their decision to attempt to swim back to England. From the Bahamas…
In addition to the amount of text here, the content is also fascinating. Even as a fan of the band going back to when I first heard the Tarkus album in 1973, at the tender age of twelve, there was much here that was new to me. Some of it factual, but much of it being the personal thoughts of the band about how their milestone recordings were made, and other significant events in their timeline. They sometimes disagree with each other (Emerson and Lake occasionally have a tendency to look back on things from a different perspective, such as the artistic success of the infamous 1977 orchestral Works tour), but this only adds to the authenticity of the material, and the feeling of being privy to a private conversation. Of all the things ELP were known for, agreeing all the time has never been one of them – especially in terms of the gulf between the keyboard bombast of Keith and the melodic sensibility of Greg. This is perfectly illustrated, though also put into context by the obvious deep and abiding respect that the three men have – or had – for each other. This dichotomy between artistic respect and artistic differences, and between occasional personal conflict and a clear ‘all-for-one’ band mentality, digs right to the very heart of the entity which was Emerson, Lake And Palmer – and it is perfectly laid out here, in perhaps the best and fullest form that I have ever seen it.
There are some marvellous anecdotes here as well, most of which were completely new to me even though I have been fortunate enough to carry out interviews with both Greg and Carl myself. The story of Greg’s infamous ‘Persian rug’ I was familiar with, along with the story about the synchronicity around the King Crimson debut album artwork, but that only scratches the surface. There’s the classic recollection by Keith about a binge with Alvin Lee from Ten Years After during the Love Beach recordings, which went on until daylight and culminated in their decision to attempt to swim back to England. From the Bahamas. Fully clothed. Thankfully, this was aborted when they reached a certain distance from shore and realised ‘this is ridiculous’. There is also the story of the riot at a stadium show in Japan as fans rushed the stage – a task made easier by the police cordon simply dropping everything and running! As the plug was pulled, making appeals for calm over the PA impossible, Keith and Greg were rushed from the stage, leaving only Carl in place, as the only man on stage still capable of making a noise. As he proceeded oblivious with his drum solo, the other two were bundled into a waiting car, told that the gig was finished, and driven back to the hotel – the last thing they heard being Carl’s repeated urgent playing of their cue to come back on – until he later caught up with them in the hotel jacuzzi… Finally, who can resist the story of how Greg Lake and Pete Sinfield took their research for Pirates so seriously that they not only watched every pirate film and read every pirate book they could, but even went to Disneyland to take the Pirates Of The Caribbean boat ride! And if the thought of them going round in that little boat, arms folded, surrounded by kids doesn’t make you smile, then I don’t know what will!
Those stories are only the tip of the iceberg here, but it does give a clue as to the fascinating look into the world of ELP that can be found in these pages. Not that it’s all smiles and laughs, of course – the darker periods, such as the mean-spirited and destructive criticism which arguably contributed to Keith’s state of mind and eventual fate, are confronted with due gravitas. These are more of an undercurrent, however, as this is not an exhumation of a tragedy in any way or form – rather, it is a celebration of the force of nature – and indeed phenomenon – which was Emerson, Lake And Palmer. The jaw-dropping photographs of such landmark events as the Montreal show with the orchestra (where the Fanfare For The Common Man video was filmed during the day), or the 1974 California Jam (where the band, lest we forget, headlined to approximately 350,000 people, topping the bill above Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and The Eagles) give a real sense of the sheer global size of the band’s audience, while also perfectly balancing those shots with candid and intimate shots backstage and nearby. Perspective is all, and this book manages to balance that out perfectly.
The final pages, reflecting on the final dissolution after the High Voltage appearance, do not turn the spotlight forward to the demise of Keith and Greg – instead they show three men feeling proud and fortunate to have been part of what was an extraordinary ride, an extraordinary band and an extraordinary life. This is the way the fans would choose to honour and remember them. Note that you won’t find anything about Emerson, Lake And Powell here, nor Asia, or 3, or indeed any of the other solo and extracurricular projects the three members took part in during their 1980-92 hiatus. And that is as it should be. This book is about the lightning in a bottle which formed when the collective talents of Messrs Emerson, Lake and Palmer were gathered together to produce music and history. The Show That Never Ends…
Ladies and Gentlemen – Emerson, Lake and Palmer!