Carl Palmer Surveys Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s Legacy: ‘This Music Is Here to Stay’
On the road this summer with Yes and Todd Rundgren, as the opener for the traveling Yestival tour, drummer Carl Palmer had to figure out how to summarize Emerson, Lake & Palmer's career in a 30-minute set.
He tackled the challenge with ease, and, as he points out, not all of ELP's songs were prog epics. They had a diverse catalog with plenty of “simple rock songs” in addition to the more elongated pieces, he notes. Touring under the banner of Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy, the drummer's set is receiving rave reviews from prog fans. And, of course, he manages to slide a drum solo in too.
But if you’re interested in taking a deeper dive into the ELP catalog, you’ve got no shortage of options, thanks to a recent wave of expanded reissues of their entire body of work, which feature new mixes, rare cuts and live material. Fanfare: Emerson, Lake & Palmer 1970-1997 is the prime option for those who want to take it all home in one shot. The box set, which will be released on Sept. 29, collects all 11 of the band's studio albums, five CDs of live recordings, a Blu-ray containing 5.1 mixes, a book and a wealth of additional content.
Both of Palmer’s ELP bandmates, Greg Lake and Keith Emerson, died in 2016. The trio played its final show in 2010 at the High Voltage festival, a moment captured on audio and video. Palmer says that things ended for the band at the right time. "It couldn’t have gone on much longer than that,” he tells Ultimate Classic Rock.
Another former bandmate, Asia frontman John Wetton, died in January after a battle with cancer. The band was on the road following Wetton’s death, with bassist Billy Sherwood stepping in to handle vocals and bass for tour dates with Journey. “Billy was chosen by John to join the band, so that was it," Palmer says. "There’s nothing we could do. Journey wanted us, they insisted -- they wanted us to find someone. We fulfilled John’s last wish and we took Billy with us.”
Palmer says it’s too soon to know for sure what the future holds for Asia. “I left the tour and had three days off to come into [the Yestival] tour," he explains. "So we’ve had no meetings, we’ve had no talks. We’ve just been incredibly busy, so there’s been no time to define the future or what we should do at all.”
This year marks the 35th anniversary of the release of Asia’s debut album. Palmer remembers the time as “the age of the new social media,” as he refers to MTV, which was still relatively new at the time the album was released. It was an interesting period, he says, making the transition after navigating the ‘70s with ELP.
“Prog rock wasn’t being played on the radio,” he says. “By that time, it had completely disappeared, as far as anyone was concerned. It was all corporate. It was a great time to get in there and try something a little bit different, try some complex pieces, like ‘Wildest Dreams’ to ‘Time Again,’ which were still proggy, but they were only five or six minutes long. We had to have the singles too to survive in that period.”
Emerson, Lake & Palmer were such an interesting band. Stylistically, what was driving what the band became in its formative years? Because the group was truly progressive rock, incorporating elements of classical music in one moment, and in another you’d be off to something completely different. It seems like the band had an open canvas to work with and limitless possibilities.
We were extremely eclectic and we were one of the blueprints for progressive rock. We were keyboard-driven, we didn’t play rock, really. We didn’t play blues or jazz. We played this sort of English art form called prog-rock and we were quintessentially English, taking classical adaptations. That’s what the band was made up of.
The whole collaboration began with the three of you coming from different projects that had all done well. How much of a vision was there from the earliest days as far as where you three collectively visualized that it might go?
We all liked classical adaptations. Both Keith and I enjoyed classical music -- that was a given. Keith had already experienced that with the Nice, so we wanted to carry on experiencing that, hence the second album we did, which is a live album called Pictures at an Exhibition by [Modest] Mussorgsky. That was the essence of the group, but we realized that you needed to have some commercial songs. You needed to have some to get on the radio, and that’s where Greg Lake came into play. That was the makeup of the band.
You’ve been exploring the music of the band with Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy. It seems like that really gives you a chance to take an interesting look back through everything that this band did.
The music was great. It stood alone on its own and it was something quite special. When I revisit it today, I see how versatile the music can be. That’s why [we] can play it with guitars and Chapman Sticks and things. It’s another way of presenting the music. The music is thoroughbred. As we went through all of the albums, the technology improved. By the time we got to [1972's] Trilogy, they had MIDI, so you could trigger [things] What’s happening today is that we have much better guitar players than what we have keyboard players. If you think about it, you know more guitar players than what you do keyboard players. The guitar is so advanced, [with] the techniques and things that they play. That’s why I chose to go this way. I see no reason to copy ELP. This band is just another way to show the versatility of the music and how good it can be today in a completely different instrumental environment.
Choosing guitar as one of the main instruments for this current band over keyboards, did you find that the combination worked pretty naturally right away?
What I did was I actually took the music to a guitar school institute in London and asked how much of it could be transcribed for guitar -- obviously, all of it, but how much could be physically played. That was the research I did before I decided this was the way to go. I was going to play it this way whatever happened, but whether I was going to be successful at it ...
I’m sure that it’s easier getting ready to go out on the road with this band compared to the scale of what you did back in the day with ELP. It’s a whole different thing.
Oh, of course it is. I’m not playing in such big places, so I don’t have to carry the lights or the PA that you would in those bigger places. The Emerson, Lake & Palmer tours were epic then, but they’re not now. They would be considered quite small compared to bands that leapfrog shows -- like U2, like the Rolling Stones and the bigger bands. What we did then was outrageous, but by today’s standard, it’s not. It seemed to be really large, big, glamorous, outrageous and extravagant at the time, but compared to today’s industry standards, it would be pretty normal.
How was the transition for you, moving from touring in that way to the way you tour these days?
Well, it’s always a transition, isn’t it? Whatever you do in life, is a transition. That was then and now is now. I still have a 14-foot screen behind me which we project on, I still have the drum riser, I still have the gongs, we have lights, so it’s not exactly the same. But I’m doing what I’m doing. On this Yestival tour, I’m only playing for half an hour -- I normally play for two hours. So everything is a transition, and everything is always moving and going forward in some shape or form.
I would think it would have been a bit of a challenge to put together a 30-minute set for this current tour.
Not really. Emerson, Lake & Palmer have a lot of short pieces of music too, which is interesting. I know “Tarkus” and “Pictures at an Exhibition” were, like, 22 minutes long, but this show that I’m doing now, [we play] “Hoedown,” which is from the Rodeo suite by Aaron Copland. There’s an original piece by Emerson, Lake & Palmer called “Welcome Back,” another original piece called “Knife Edge,” another original piece, “Lucky Man,” which was the first hit here in America. We’re finishing off with “Fanfare,” and there’s your half an hour that [also] features me with a drum solo. The music was so versatile. It was long, it was in-depth. There were folk tunes, there were simple rock songs. There were complex pieces of music like "Tarkus." It was very rich, and that’s why you can present it in so many ways. I mean, the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra just recorded “Tarkus.” This music is here to stay, that’s for sure.
Do you expect that there will be any sort of jam between the Yestival bands as the tour progresses?
No, not at all. That doesn’t happen, really. Not in this environment. There’s three bands. It’s really difficult just getting everybody and to start arranging jams and things.
There’s a stat in your bio about how ELP turned out five platinum albums in four years. With the sophistication of the music that you guys were making, reading something like that is always astounding to think about. There’s touring, which is an additional part of that equation. How do you think that the band managed to generate that kind of prolific output?
We worked incredibly hard, and it’s just one of those natural things that happens. And when it’s coming, it’s coming. When it stops, it stops. It’s like that, really. I can’t tell you how and why. It’s not as if it’s something you can learn, it’s just that if the musicians jell together, they get creative and it keeps coming. And then it drys up and that’s how it goes. It’s just one of those things, really. We had a great run, and we worked very hard for the first eight years, so as far as I’m concerned, it was probably the most productive eight years. The second reformation really wasn’t as successful, Black Moon and In the Hot Seat weren’t so big, but that’s the way it goes. You just never know. You don’t know what ends it. We actually never broke up, we just decided not to speak to each other for 12 years.
Being in a band with strong personalities and people who had opinions, how much do you think that fed the intensity of what came out in the songwriting and the music and the albums?
It was so important. You don’t want to be in a band where you’ve got somebody who just constantly agrees with what’s going on. You want somebody who has an objective point of view. That’s how you get creativity and that’s what it’s all about. We were, as it said on the box, Emerson, Lake & Palmer. That was it.
Do you have any plans to do an album of original material with ELP Legacy?
Not right now. Because there’s so much of the catalog that I’d like to re-record. I’m on the fourth album at the moment, called Carl Palmer - Live in the U.S.A. and there’s a DVD coming out as a tribute to Keith Emerson. So at the moment, there’s plenty to do this way. People haven’t heard this music for years and they’re going to hear it in a different way now, and it’s quite exciting. I want to carry on down this path.
Who's better then you? Your musicianship can't be questioned and you were, to my knowledge, a big fulcrum in the concept of percussion synthesizers as the next step in melodic percussion. So when I say "better," I'm really asking, Who do you feel is a kindred spirit both musically and theoretically in their approaches to this contemporary world of rhythmic/tuned/synthetic percussion?
I don’t think there is any one person that sort of takes that role, to be honest with you. I don’t think it’s down to any one person anymore. When I started, it was more defined -- this person or that person. It’s not quite like that, because there are so many great musicians, individual guys, who are doing so, so well.
Are there things that make you crazy about the succeeding generations of drummers, as far as techniques and lack of finesse and stuff like that?
Oh, not at all. I do YouTube once a month, and I listen to all of the new drummers. I cut articles out of papers, drum magazines, and then I sit for a couple of hours and go through it all and have a good listen to what’s going on. Because what people write about something is different compared to when you actually hear it yourself, you know, as far as what’s going on. I always keep my head down.
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