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I’m Still Standing: Carl Palmer — from ELP to ELP Legacy, Art, Documentaries, a Book and More
“Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends.” Rock Cellar’s newest column, I’m Still Standing, continues with our interview with Emerson, Lake & Palmer drummer Carl Palmer. Each month, we’ll visit with a veteran artist that you may not previously have known is still producing vibrant, new music and pursuing other creative projects, when applicable. We’ll talk about the past, sure, but our focus will be the present — and the future. Want more? Check out our recent interviews with Steve Hackett of Genesis and Joey Molland of Badfinger.
Emerson, Lake & Palmer enjoyed immediate success in 1970 with its self-titled debut album. Its single, “Lucky Man,” features one of rock’s first Moog synthesizer solos. The band combined the musicianship of keyboardist Keith Emerson of The Nice, bassist Greg Lake of King Crimson and drummer Carl Palmer of Atomic Rooster and The Crazy World of Arthur Brown. ELP help birth progressive rock with its adaptations of classical works.
In the years leading up to 2016, when both Emerson and Lake died, ELP released songs that have become staples of classic rock radio: “From the Beginning,” “Fanfare for the Common Man” and “Peter Gunn.”
ELP disbanded by the 1980s and Palmer formed Asia with bassist John Wetton, guitarist Steve Howe and keyboardist Geoff Downes. In 1985, Emerson and Palmer hoped to reform ELP with Palmer, who had a few weeks of recording commitments with Asia. Rather than wait for Palmer, Emerson and Lake recruited drummer Cozy Powell to join the group; the combination resulted in one LP.
Palmer took part in a few ELP reunions while continuing to perform with Asia. In 2001 Palmer started his own band with bassist Simon Fitzpatrick and guitarist Paul Bielatowicz. Today the group continues as Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy. Palmer tells Rock Cellar that he hoped to celebrate the 50th anniversary of ELP’s debut LP this year with a multimedia tour that will “reunite” the three bandmates, who were filmed at the Albert Hall in 1992. The COVID-19 pandemic has put a hold on the tour, but not on Palmer’s creativity.
Since 1973, Palmer has experimented with a new art form. Using lights attached to the ends of his drumsticks, he had photographs taken while drumming that transform his playing into abstract art. But it would be more than 30 years before a company developed a drumstick with vibrantly colored LED lights in the tip that are strong enough to withstand the stress of Palmer’s drumming.
Working with SceneFour in Los Angeles, Palmer’s drumming is shot in a darkened enclosure with cameras using multiple positions and shutter speeds. The result is transferred to canvas and conveys the rhythm Palmer brings to songs like “Lucky Man” and “Heat of the Moment.” Proceeds from the sale of Palmer’s artwork go to various charities.
And as they say on those TV commercials, “But wait … there’s more!”
Rock Cellar: Let’s begin with Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy. Why did you decide to go with guitar and bass in the band instead of keyboards?
Carl Palmer: I played with the best rock keyboard player, I thought, in the world. It didn’t seem worth trying to duplicate that in any way even though that was the overall sound, the keyboards. I wanted to show the versatility of the music and that things could be done in a different way and still have the same excitement. And the guitar has always been the main rock instrument.
I’m sure if ELP could have found a guitar player like Paul Bielatowicz way back in the day, we probably would have been a four-piece, but we never could. There was never anyone up to that standard. If you roll forward 40-odd years, guitar players have come on so much. The techniques that they use with the finger tapping and stuff like that, are just unbelievable. You can create a lot of keyboard sounds anyway from guitar with the various gadgetry that you have.
So for me it just seemed a fresher way, a new way, and just trying to bring the music to a younger audience. I thought this would be a nice way to go about it.
And my point has been proven because at some concerts I get the dad turning up with his ELP album, he’s my age, and then his son, who’s mid-30s, he’s got the CPL albums and he gigs it that way. So for me it’s been a great journey.
Rock Cellar: Did the discussion about adding a guitarist ever come up in ELP? Did you ever audition anyone?
Carl Palmer: We talked about it. There were really no guitar players even close to auditioning. Most guitar players are extremely blues-based. There’s nothing wrong with that, but from that point of view, it wouldn’t really have fitted into ELP because we were a European-sounding band. We played adaptations of classical music in a kind of rock genre. So we needed somebody who had a kind of virtuoso concert classical guitar approach who played electric guitar.
But there wasn’t anyone around like that, there was no one we could even call on or even try out. It just wasn’t there. So it was an avenue that we didn’t go down and when we did need guitar, Greg played a lot of acoustic guitar and he played some electric guitar lines on quite a few albums. So we just did it that way. We never bothered looking any further.
Rock Cellar: How did the mix of classical and rock come about in ELP?
Carl Palmer: It goes back to a gentleman named Jacques Loussier, who was a very, very upmarket, well-respected European piano player. Jazz player. He only ever played in a three-piece.
But he loved to play Bach. So he ended up playing Bach on the piano with a jazz trio. And playing it in a jazz fashion. And this crossover from classical music into jazz was a big movement, it was a big thing. And people like Dave Brubeck started doing it and before you know it, it started coming across into rock music. The Nice, that Keith Emerson was in, was one of the first bands in the rock area to use keyboards in a rock band and play classical adaptations.
So it was a very slow progression. But it really came through jazz to start off with.
Rock Cellar: In that era, the audience accepted prog rock.
Carl Palmer: Because it was very fresh, it was very new. Classical music was coming into the modern contemporary prog rock like “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Mussorgsky that we recorded. When we recorded that, not only was it used in various music schools in America as an exercise piece or an exam piece, we know that the classical versions were played by orchestras here in Europe. We know that sales went up of “Pictures at an Exhibition” because the young people who were watching us were now intrigued and wanted to hear where this came from. So they started researching.
Emerson, Lake & Palmer was never blues-based, it was never really rock-based, it had this lovely crossover thing which really suited me. I just wanted to make it tougher and I thought eventually we will get a tougher sound. ELP was really a heavy band.
I thought if I had a chance to ever do it on my own — and I did, in 2001 I started my band — I thought I would go the same route, but I would just now use a guitar where I could have keyboard sounds as well coming out of the guitar and I could still have that heavier rock approach and just give the music another twist. That was my whole deal.
Rock Cellar: The band was scheduled to do an ELP 50th and Beyond world tour this year.
Carl Palmer: This was the 50th anniversary, which I was going to celebrate with a tour with my band and playing with some local youth orchestras. I wanted to introduce younger orchestras in America to the music. There’s about eight or nine of them that I could have done some concerts with. But obviously the tour is on hold.
I had the idea to go out with Greg and Keith again to celebrate this year, 2021 and 2022. And it was going to be using live footage of them playing on stage, not a hologram, live footage of them playing on stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London. When we played at the Royal Albert Hall in the mid-’90s, we set up the stage differently.
Normally I was always in the middle, stage left would be Greg, stage right would be Keith. So we decided to put the drums stage left, Greg in the middle and Keith stage right where he’d always been. Well, we shot some footage, the footage is fantastic, the camera work is absolutely perfect because both of them are almost side by side, they’re not split up with me being in the middle.
So we have some great footage, which I’ve now managed to adapt and edit along with the soundtrack. We’ve treated it in such a way where I could use the footage of Greg and Keith playing about four or five ELP songs and I could actually play along with them in situ, obviously with a click track and we’ll sync it all up. CPL could start off on its own doing our stuff and then we could slip straight into “Knife Edge” or “Lucky Man” or “Fanfare for the Common Man.”
The longer pieces like “Tarkus” and “Pictures at an Exhibition” don’t work but the shorter pieces we could definitely make work. And of course I could still have Keith up on the screen playing piano on his own, “Creole Dance,” and I have Greg doing “From the Beginning” and I could be live on stage playing the conga drums with him while he’s on film.
So we’ve got all of that arranged and all of the material is in place to do it. Both of the families, the Lake family and the Emersons, are fine with it so we worked it all out. I made sure they get something and I said well, we’ll do it. So that is on the shelf.
Rock Cellar: There is also an ELP documentary in the works.
Carl Palmer: We’ve got 45 minutes already made and we’re just finishing off the last bit now, probably another half an hour. This shows the demise of Greg and Keith and what went on. It was something I felt we needed to do.
Rock Cellar: What period does the documentary cover?
Carl Palmer: We had a DVD come out, four and a half hours long, Beyond the Beginning. We were with Sanctuary. Sanctuary got sold to Universal. This DVD that you might not even know about got lost in the crossover.
So there’s about 45 minutes of that which I’ve extracted, which are the highlights. There’s then interviews that we have and that covers from the beginning of the band ’til right up to the mid-’90s. The next half hour I’ve got footage of Keith in a jet fighter when he went up one day, it was one of his dreams to fly one, or to be in the seat with a proper captain and a proper pilot.
I’ve got Greg’s last interview. We’ve got some unseen footage of ELP which hasn’t seen the light of day. And that ranges anywhere from late ’70s through to the early ’90s.
We’ve got some new interviews with me and it’s quite a cornucopia of ideas. We have a good hour and a half and I’m trying to get it down to an hour-fifteen.
We also had Radar Pictures, who were taking the concept of “Karn Evil 9,” which was on the Brain Salad Surgery album. They wanted to take that concept and make a film. Daniel H. Wilson, the sci-fi writer, is writing the story. It’s now on hold. It’s taking a lot longer because of the pandemic. The film probably wouldn’t happen until late 2023.
The story is 100 percent sci-fi around the idea of computers taking over and robots coming into place, which has happened throughout these years. The actual concept was recorded and the idea of the album was the mid-’70s so it’s really relevant to today.
Rock Cellar: Do you still perform with Asia?
Carl Palmer: Yeah, I performed last year about 34 concerts with Asia on the Royal Affair tour. Asia, John Lodge and myself. So I played in two bands. Steve Howe came and played in Asia and obviously Geooff Downes did, both of them are in Yes, and we had the new singer called Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal, he was with Guns N’ Roses. He plays lead guitar and he’s lead singer. And Billy Sherwood on bass guitar.
Next year, believe it or not, is the anniversary of the release of the first Asia album and Universal wants to do a release on vinyl of that first album because that was number one for seven weeks as well. So that’s got to be fitted in somewhere. There’s an awful lot of work to do but it’s got to be spread out down the line: 2021, ’22, ’23. We’ll be into ’24 before we’re all done.
Rock Cellar: You also have an autobiography coming out. When can we expect that?
Carl Palmer: I was pushing to try and get the book out this year but it seems hardly worth doing that because I won’t be able to promote it, not physically, which would have been nice.
Rock Cellar: Any surprises in the book?
Carl Palmer: It’s not a rock and roll autobiography. I’ve started it from the moment I saw a drum. It goes through all those workingmen’s clubs and pubs and bars I had to get permission to play in right through to joining my first group, playing in the equivalent to the Lawrence Welk orchestra, then having an audition in London, leaving school on the Friday and leaving home on the Sunday.
Obviously there’s a lot to do with ELP in there. It goes through the Asia period, it goes through the period I lived in Spain. I lived out there for 23 years, I had a banana farm and things. It goes into coming back, wanting to start my own band, getting back together with Greg and Keith for the second reformation in ’91 and all of that, and the time when Cozy Powell called me up and said, “They’ve asked me to join the band” and I said, “Well, you’d better do it because I can’t do it for another four to six weeks.”
He couldn’t believe that they wouldn’t wait for me after we’d played for about 12 years. I said, “Just go in and do it, Cozy, that’s fine.” It covers all really good stories, real down to earth heartfelt stories. There’s no Rolls Royces being driven into swimming pools or televisions thrown out of windows. We worked really on that kind of level.
It also touches on that very first time I went to America when I was with the Crazy World of Arthur Brown and we had the number one single and album at the same time in 1968.
There’s also an ELP coffee table book which is being put together, which is a book of lots of pictures that haven’t been seen and possibly a vinyl in there of recorded interviews. We might release the two together, the ELP coffee table book and my book, which is called Fanfare for the Common Man.
When you can’t go out and play and tour and do TV shows or radio because of this pandemic, it feels a bit wrong releasing it now because I’m not going to get the interest. I can’t do anything until there’s a vaccine that’s 100 percent safe.
April 16, 2021