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Carl Palmer on the Legacy of Emerson, Lake and Palmer (Q&A)
Between 1970 -1973 with the studio albums Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Trilogy, Tarkus and Brain Salad Surgery, ELP created some of prog rock’s most seminal and enduring music with their battalions of musically adventurous material framed by world class musicianship and the powerful vocals of bassist Greg Lake.
Now with the band’s catalog being reissued as special 2-CD deluxe remastered editions (Emerson, Lake & Palmer (1970), Tarkus (1971), Pictures At An Exhibition (1971), Trilogy (1972), Brain Salad Surgery (1973) and Welcome Back, My Friends, To The Show That Never Ends – Ladies And Gentlemen – Emerson, Lake & Palmer (1974) teeming with a generous helping of bonus material (new mixes, alternate tracks, live cuts), fans of ELP are in for a thrilling sonic reinvention of their classic catalog. We spoke with founding drummer Carl Palmer for a look back at all things ELP and Palmer’s tour paying tribute to the music and mastery of Keith Emerson.
Rock Cellar Magazine: For fans of ELP, what are the real treats in store with the new batch of ELP reissues?
Carl Palmer: You know it’s all great for me, as far as I am concerned. I’m really pleased to be with BMG. They’re a great, great company. I’m very happy with the remixes and the packaging; it’s been a great experience. The catalog is 40 years old, but the music is quality and we know it’s gonna last. I’m as happy as I could ever be about a project. It’s hard to pick out any highlights on these reissues as it all stands out to me. The album, even without the bonus tracks, stands out for me so I’m not really going to put my name on one particular thing. I’m really very pleased with the whole presentation, the packaging, the remastering. The artwork has been revisited at times and the color definition is there. I’m very pleased; it all works. So the highlight is that the whole ELP catalog has been completely rejuvenated.
Speak about the progression in the band’s sound and songwriting for the first four ELP studio albums, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Trilogy, Tarkus, and Brain Salad Surgery.
Carl Palmer: The first album is very strange because you only have one rock track, “Knife Edge,” and you have one sort of folk song which is “Lucky Man.”
Then you have one classical adaptation which is “The Barbarian” by Bartok. But on the flip side you had all these keyboard pieces. So the first album is very strange and extremely eclectic. It’s not really a prog rock album. People called ELP a prog rock band but the hits that we had were all ballads, things like “Still…You Turn Me On,” ”Lucky Man,” “From The Beginning” and “Footprints in The Snow.”
So if you look at the Trilogy album, the writing had matured. There were more songs and there were more pieces. That was an album which was dedicated to overdubbing. Before when we had recorded the first album and things like Pictures at an Exhibition, a live record that came out at the front end of the band’s career, we always recorded each track as if it was an instrumental and it had to sound good as an instrumental before we put any voices on it.
Now with Trilogy we did actually override that and say, “well, listen, we want to see if we can get above this.” On a couple of the songs, Greg put his voice on and we listened and went, “wow, that’s great!” and then Keith or someone else mentioned, “Why don’t we put a little bit more in here? Wow, that’s an overdub, how are we gonna play in onstage?”
So we started adding and we started adding and once you do that you run into a situation where you can’t play that album onstage the way it was actually recorded. But in those times you couldn’t anyway because technology was not as advanced as it is now. We didn’t have MIDI; MIDI being a system where you can trigger three or four keyboards at the same time from one. If we had that technological advantage then we could have performed that album. Trilogy was probably never performed in its entirety and neither was Brain Salad Surgery. Though Brain Salad Surgery I believe was the pinnacle of the group’s creativity.
It also suffered from the same drama in that we added a lot of overdubs to it, which we figured that it needed. So the group was always progressing and we were kind of backing ourselves in a corner because it was getting harder to bring it to the stage unless we had auxiliary instruments and musicians playing with us. And as you know we never really did that and when we did do that, it was with a 64-piece orchestra.
How about “Tarkus,” where does that stand in the creative arc of ELP?
Carl Palmer: Well, “Tarkus” actually started with a 10/8 riff or a 5/4 riff that I played to Keith, I said, “This is where the accents are, why don’t you write a melody top line to go over that. Let’s try and get away from the normal time signatures. Let’s look at something a bit more interesting.”
He loved that and went away and came back with the top line which became “Tarkus.” Greg didn’t want to record “Tarkus” for some unknown reason; he didn’t want to go that way at all. I was quite sold on the idea. I thought that we needed to be inventive. We needed to have a conceptual piece and we needed to have a long piece of music with songs that had strong instrumental passages and that’s how it went. Unfortunately, the actual concept of this animal going out to the sea and laying some eggs and coming back, the manticore and whatever, wasn’t a very sophisticated concept; it was more of a fantasy.
It didn’t have any political context. It wasn’t like The Wall by Pink Floyd. So we had this phenomenal music but it wasn’t intellectual enough. That was one of the problems but it was a great blueprint that a lot of bands followed and maybe some of those bands did it better than us because they had stronger content lyrically. Tarkus wasn’t really quite like that although we called it a concept album because it was 22, 23 minutes long.
What were ELP’s ambitions at the beginning of your career and once success took hold, did your ambitions change?
Carl Palmer: Well, our ambitions were always pretty much the same. We were a pretty dedicated six days a week working band. If we weren’t on the road we were in the studio and if we weren’t in the studio we were in the rehearsal room because we had one of our own. We worked incredibly hard for the first eight, nine years but unfortunately our timing was wrong. We had a lot of creative juices which were flowing at the very beginning and then suddenly we would take three years off and that would really shove a big hole into the wheel.
That would make things very difficult to come back out and perform something new because people still wanted to see the old stuff. I put that argument forth because that’s what happened when we came out with Works Volume 1 and the orchestra.
In hindsight we should have come out as a three-piece after having being missing for nearly three years and then maybe the second half of that tour showed some musical growth and introduced the orchestra. But we didn’t do it that way, so we had a lot of missed timing and things which didn’t work. But overall we had three to four years where we were one of the biggest groups in the world. We were definitely as big as the Rolling Stones or The Who or Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin. For a brief period of time we were definitely in that area.
Agreed that we soon slipped down and then we weren’t but there was no doubt in my mind that for a brief time we had. But the music has lived on in such a strong fashion. It’s very intellectual-sounding music and to this day, quality is remembered long after the price is forgotten as they say.
Chemistry is not an automatic in bands, it’s an elusive quality that eludes so many musicians. What was the musical glue that brought you, Keith and Greg together?
Carl Palmer: I think the absolute fabric of the band would be as follows. When I first met Keith I was 17 years old. He was playing in the Nice and I was depping for Mick Fleetwood for a Fleetwood Mac show. I met Keith that night and became a Nice fan and used to go watch him play at the Marquee. But when I got serious with Keith as far as wanting to play together, I talked to him about his record collection and it was the strangest thing to ever happen to me.
His record collection at the time absolutely mirrored mine from top to bottom. I couldn’t believe it; the classical records and the jazz records.
When I got together with Greg and started talking to him, all this stuff I liked like Simon & Garfunkel and the Beatles and all that Mersey scene, we had similar records. So we all liked this similar music. We’d all been in similar bands; King Crimson, The Nice, Atomic Rooster, Arthur Brown, all kinds of slightly proggy theatrical groups. So we had a lot in common but what we didn’t have in common was who we were as people.
We didn’t really get on very well. If we were playing music we got on like a house on fire but if we weren’t playing it was like, “Well, I’ll see you tomorrow.”
We didn’t socialize a lot. It wasn’t a very chummy band; it wasn’t a patting each other on the back kind of thing. Yeah, we were civilized with each other but it was exactly what it said on the cover of our albums, Emerson, Lake and Palmer. It was three individuals but it worked for us and the reason why it worked is no one ever sat on the fence. When there was something wrong or the music didn’t cut it or the vocal wasn’t right or something that Keith had written really wasn’t there, he could hear not from one person but from two people.
I would hear if something I played wasn’t right straight away. “This is wrong, let’s sort this out.” With that type of approach, if you can take it on the nose like a man, and we all did, you actually get some music that’s worth fighting for. And when it’s worth fighting for it’s usually good. If you’ve got one guy in a band who sits on the fence and says, “Oh yes I like that” or “Oh yes, that’s fine by me,” get rid of him! Get him out! (laughs) You don’t need him and we didn’t have that in ELP. We had three very strong individuals and that reflected in the music. Apart from having two incredibly talented writers, one that could write great instrumental music being Keith and the other one being Greg that could write great folk songs and three great players, we had what we had, which was something really quite unique.
I enjoyed being the referee figure that I was in ELP. It was sensational time in my life, absolutely sensational.
Did you feel in competition with other prog bands that emerged in the early ’70s?
Carl Palmer: To be honest we didn’t think there was a rivalry because we thought we were the best. It was as simple as that. We were extremely dogmatic and big-headed internally. We thought, “we’ll lay down the blueprint, boys, and you just follow us.”
That was our attitude. ELP among musicians were not really liked much as people but they loved our playing and they loved the music. But they thought we were very arrogant and we possibly were.
We weren’t really an out and out rock band. We were keyboard driven, not guitar driven. We had a guy who sounded like a choir boy, not a soul singer to a blues singer plus there was very little guitar going on. You had a drummer that didn’t keep time and basically played like a lead instrument within the band so it was all very oddball.
The fact it took off absolutely astonished us because we didn’t think the Americans would enjoy it all because it was so European, playing classical music adaptations and using the latest technology.
We didn’t have any idea of how well it would go down in America and how successful it wound up being.
A lot of musicians like Yes, like Genesis and Jethro Tull thought we were overblown and saber rattling. They thought we were great but they didn’t see it like we saw it. So there wasn’t a lot of friendship going around as far as I can recall. We didn’t mix with other bands. The only favor we did for another band was we took Yes to America.
They’d never been there before but we took them as a goodwill gesture and they performed with us five times on the tour. That was the only time I ever recall being with another band apart from a six week tour we did with a young band called Dream Theater.
We felt they were really good, not too many melodies but great players and we took them out with us.
Tragically, the music world lost Keith Emerson in March of 2016.
Carl Palmer: Yes, that was very sad for me but we managed to do a bit for him this year. I did a tribute DVD that I recorded in Florida of this year and it’s all mixed and finished now. I had Steve Hackett from Genesis come along and play and Mark Stein from Vanilla Fudge sang a couple of tracks, “Welcome Back My Friends To The Show that Never Ends” and “Knife Edge.”
We had a choir on a very interesting piece called “Jerusalem”, which was a favorite of Keith’s. We had advance group there as well which was something Keith and myself had talked about. I also have an album coming out with some tracks that Keith recorded with the Nice, which I’ve re-recorded with my band; things like “America,” which was written by Leonard Bernstein.
So hopefully I’ll dedicate the rest of this year to him. It was very, very sad to lose Keith; everyone was deeply surprised and I had no idea (about his depression) especially when I had spoken to him three weeks before. We started talking last Christmas about him joining me for one date on this tour that I’ve just finished in July. I was waiting for him to come back from Japan in May and we were gonna decide on which date he’d appear and sadly that wasn’t meant to happen.
His passing was completely unexpected by everybody.
What do you miss most about your days in ELP?
Carl Palmer: I think I miss the arrogance of it. Basically, if we could have sustained ourselves and been more programmable as far as calendar time and how we put ourselves out in the marketplace we could have been one of the biggest bands in the world. Fortunately enough the music is saying that anyway because it will sustain and it will last and it will be around for a hell of a long time. It was tough for us to crack the whip, it’s Emerson, Lake and Palmer and if they don’t wanna work they’re not gonna play. It was strange. But when we did work it was right on.
The mistakes we made you can count on one hand; things like Love Beach and In the Hot Seat, those two albums are probably not the greatest albums but everything else to this day I stick my hand up in the air and can say, “Yep, I was on that one.”
April 13, 2021