PUTTING THE “P” IN ELP: Carl Palmer

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The Prog legends’ drummer talks about the notion of a supergroup “brand”; pre-Emerson, Lake & Palmer group Atomic Rooster; the distinctions between pop, folk, and Prog; the new remixes and remasters of ELP albums; and of course his late bandmates. Above: Palmer with his own group in 2014.

BY BILL KOPP

Late-breaking Author’s Note: Very shortly after I turned in this feature for publication, news broke that Greg Lake had succumbed to cancer at age 69. Carl Palmer and I didn’t spend a lot of time discussing Greg specifically, but Carl did, as you’ll see, make repeated references to Greg’s “choirboy voice.” I like to think that Greg Lake would appreciate being remembered that way. – bk

I grew up on the music of Emerson, Lake & Palmer. When I was in high school, appreciation of ELP’s music was one of the few things that gave me any sort of connection with my fellow students. And my love of that music has continued. I had the honor and pleasure of interviewing Greg Lake in 2012, and then saw him in concert a few months later. In 2014, I saw Keith Emerson in what would turn out to be one of his final performances; tagging along with him and his crew for much of the following day, I got the chance to conduct a brief interview with the virtuoso keyboardist.

I haven’t yet seen Carl Palmer in concert. But in 2016 I did “complete the set” and sit for an extensive interview with him. The ostensible reason for this particular interview was the reissue of three expanded-version ELP albums and a 3CD anthology. But we talked about much more. Here’s an edited transcript of that conversation.

BLURT: The new mixes of the first album and Tarkus were done in 2012. Can you tell me how ELP came to work with Steven Wilson?
CARL PALMER – Steven Wilson had created a bit of a name for himself here in England, coming from the band Porcupine Tree. We heard some stuff that he was doing. He was very, very good and very, very keen on what was going on in his certain area, as it were. We were approached by the record company: would we like to have the remixes done by someone outside the group? So we said, “Look, the music’s great anyway; whatever anyone does to it, you know, it’s going to be one opinion against another opinion. It might be good, it might be average, it might be ok. Who knows?”

I mean, it was great music to start off with so, literally, all you could do is make it better or ruin it. Or just produce something which is pretty much the same as the original. But we thought we’d give it a go. When [the first one] came back, we were … ok with it. It wasn’t … it didn’t light us up. It was good; there’s no doubt about that. But as I said, it was good anyway, so this was just a different good, if you see what I mean. So we decided we’d have another go, and that’s how it worked, really. We were very casual about it.

One of the things that is often noted about Steven Wilson’s remixes is that he brings out things that were sometimes kind of buried in the original mixes. As you’ve listened to the new mixes, have you heard anything that you hadn’t heard in the original mixes?
You’ve only got so many tracks, anyway. So, when he goes to mix it, he’s not going to have more tracks available. Whatever was there in the first place, that’s what’s available to him. What’s he got is more refinery to play with; there’s more outboard gear, and you can “mature” the sounds. The EQs are a lot more sophisticated, the distribution spanned across the stereo is a lot better. With ProTools, you can even correct some stuff.

When you mix something in ten years’ time, it’s going to be better than something that you mix today – if you know what you’re doing – because you’re going to have more permutations at your fingertips to play around with. So that’s what he had. Yes, there were some things which sounded better. Some things … I kind of lived with them for so many years the wrong way, [so] it was hard to change. I was on both sides of the fence, really. As I said, I didn’t get overexcited; I just could appreciate what was being done.

I understand that King Crimson’s Jakko Jakszyk took over the task of doing the remasters of the other albums going forward. Do you know when we might see new releases of those?
I was not involved with that at all, to tell you the truth. I wanted to do it at BMG; we had a great relationship with them. We always have over many, many years. We will just see, you know, what happens and how that progresses and just take it from there, really.

Most record companies, now, when they get a catalog that’s been strong as what ELP’s has been over the years, everyone is always looking at how can we improve it. Obviously, technology is better today than yesterday; what can we do? There are certain names that if you immediately add to Emerson Lake & Palmer – like, say, Steven Wilson – start to bring in a different audience. Maybe younger prog fans start to listen to it. So you’ve got to understand there’s an area of commerce here which gets crossed as well. There’s a reason for doing things.

Obviously we’re keen on the sound being good, and if it’s a different way of mixing it on that day, then that’s fine. As long as it’s not any worse than what we’ve got, if it’s better, or if it’s slightly different, or a different version of a good version, then we’re up for it. We will all carry on going ’round with this, I would imagine, and see where we get with it.

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Here’s a question to take you back to the earliest days of Emerson Lake & Palmer. How did the guys in Atomic Rooster (above) take the news when you told them you were leaving to form ELP?
It was a little bit sad, because I had just finished up recording with Atomic Rooster; we had recorded a single, “Tomorrow Night.” “Tomorrow Night” was the only number one single that Atomic Rooster had, so I had to dub the demo which was now going to be turned into a master and I suddenly jumped ship, as it were. Obviously, you know, when the guy kind of leading the band decides to leave, because I had formed Atomic Rooster, it gets a little bit knotty.

The situation was very, very simple. I said to Vincent Crane, “Look, I’m going to do this. You will need to re-record those tracks that I’ve done, and I wish you well, but I’m going to do this.” And I had decided, once I’d spoken to Ahmet Ertegun from Atlantic Records. I was managed by Robert Stigwood at the time, and Keith and Greg were being managed by EG, so it meant that ELP had three managers. It was quite a complicated sort of setup.

But Vincent took it as a great friend as he always was, God bless him, and I moved over. And that was it. But, six months down the road, I was sitting in rehearsals, and Atomic Rooster were number one and I was still rehearsing with Greg and Keith. So I thought I’d made a terrible mistake.

elpThe term “supergroup” was just coming into use around the time ELP got started. And it certainly applied to you three, since each of you had achieved success in previous projects. I would imagine there were expectations placed upon you by the music press and so forth. Did that reality intimidate you at all, or did it encourage you in a way?
Well, to be honest with you, Keith and I were mentioned in a supergroup in 1968 by Chris Welch. He used to write for Melody Maker magazine. He put four [imaginary] supergroups together. It was Keith, myself, Stevie Winwood, and … who else was it? Someone else; lead guitar player or bass player – I can’t remember. And then there was another group, and another. So this supergroup kind of branding, which is really a journalistic sort of phrase, came very early, came way before ELP.

ELP really wasn’t happening until two years later, almost, 1970. So, I was kind of used to having that branding; there was no problem there. I think where it got out of hand was when journalists started to write that [Jimi] Hendrix was going to join ELP, which was not true, because I never saw Hendrix at any time in any of the periods that I personally played in ELP. He was not there at the beginning; he was not there at all. So this was just something made up by the journalists because they could call the band “HELP.”

Chris Welch dreamed it up. You have to realize that at the time he was an extremely well-thought-of writer in the music industry here in Europe, at the time especially in England. He just put those groups together [in his mind].

The ironic thing was that I had actually played with Steve Winwood when I was 12 years old. I hadn’t seen him since, and suddenly 10 years down the line or whatever it was, there I am, in the paper in a supergroup with him. And with Keith Emerson who I went on to play with 2 years later. So some of the bands actually came true! I can’t remember the other groups; I’ve got a clipping here somewhere…

But, yes, it was something that was basically generated by this one guy who really loved music. He knew all of these people and he thought that this was the combination that would work.

We went along with this for a long time, but basically it was all complete rubbish, you know. Nothing ever happened with Hendrix, even though I think Keith might have played with him one night in some club in Central London. But there was never any talk amongst the three of us about Hendrix joining.

Speaking of labels … to your mind, was ELP a progressive rock group, a pop group, a power trio, or something else? You trafficked in a lot of styles.
Keith was by far the better writer than any of us as far as directional concepts, that type of writing. If you wanted two or three chords for the folk song, something really simple, Greg definitely had the upper hand on Keith and myself. So we were very lucky to have two very strong writers in the band going in different directions and being able to put it together.

You have to understand one thing here – and I wish to make this quite clear – they always call Emerson Lake & Palmer a prog rock group. I’m still playing Emerson Lake & Palmer music today with my group, Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy. I’m still playing this music and it’s given me a great, great thrill. But if you go back to the original group, we had more hits with folk songs: “C’est la Vie,” “From the Beginning,” “Still … You Turn Me On,” “Lucky Man,” “Footprints in the Snow.” These are all big hits.

Until we had a hit on a commercial front with a simple kind of folk song, the first one being “Lucky Man,” we wouldn’t get people to go into the album and go three or four tracks deep and listen to the actual complexity and the diversity and the eclectics of flavor the group had. Because we were European, we weren’t American, we were keyboard driven, we didn’t play blues, we didn’t really play out-and-out rock and roll, even. We played a European, sort-of rock music with classical adaptations and a few original folk songs thrown into the mix.

That makes a lot of sense. In one sense, you were very much a pop group if you look at it from the standpoint of the singles.

Yes, and we were very much a prog group as well, because we had all of the latest technology; we really pushed the Moog synthesizer to the front. One of the all-time great Moog solos on a pop tune – which became one of the iconic prog rock solos – is “Lucky Man,” the solo at the end. So we crossed a lot of bridges all at the same time.

They used to call us a prog group, but it was really only half the story. And then you had all the technical expertise: everyone was a really great player, almost a master of his trade, so we had a lot going. [Greg Lake’s voice] wasn’t a blues or rock voice. It was an English choirboy-sounding voice. We went against the grain all the way. I didn’t play like an out-and-out rock drummer, because I had quite a lot of classical training. So I could bring in the tuned percussion – vibraphone, glockenspiel, bells, tympani, whatever – in, and we had a bigger sound as three people.

There was a lot going on in those days. It was very different, and we were very, very surprised that it took off in America, but it did. In hindsight when you look back on it, you can see why: because it was totally different to anything else that was happening.

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The name of the band – equal billing for the three of you – suggests a kind of democracy. In practice, did it feel like an equal partnership?

There was never any doubt about that with ELP. Everything has always been split three ways. The partnership has been 100% like that. It was just the way it was. ELP never, never ever argued over money. We never argued over women, or what restaurant we should go to. The only thing we ever argued over would be four bars of music. And we would argue over those four bars of music for four years. [laughs] That’s the way ELP was.

From a commercial standpoint, was your collective point of view – assuming there was a consensus – a goal of creating each album as a free-standing creative expression?
We just tried to do the best we could every time. What came out, came out. When it went wrong, it went horribly wrong, like Love Beach in ’78. When it was right, you had something like Brain Salad Surgery. When it was absolutely laying the blueprint down for prog rock, you had Tarkus. The very first album, which had the drum solo on it, has “Lucky Man.” It has a classical variation, “The Barbarian,” by of Béla Bartók; not even written by the band. Then on the B-side of the vinyl – ’cause it was vinyl in those days – there’s three pieces of music: “The Three Fates,” with Keith playing a church organ on his own. I mean, what kind of band is that? That shows you how eclectic it was from the get-go. We just didn’t care; we did what we wanted at the time, and it worked. And we’re very lucky. As we went on, we did get more progressive; we did evolve with technology.

With the benefit of studio technology, bands in the early ’70s could overdub and make really dense, layered albums. Reproducing that sound onstage was another matter, especially for a three-piece, I would imagine …

Of course we didn’t have MIDI in those days, so we couldn’t trigger more than one keyboard at a time. [Now] you can play one keyboard, and have four or five of them firing off, and they can sound a lot bigger and fatter, more orchestral sounding. We couldn’t do that then. So when we did overdub on an album – say, like Trilogy – you ended up having something that couldn’t be reproduced onstage, because the technical aspect wasn’t available. The technology wasn’t there; we couldn’t do it.

We were always way in front. The first electronic drum solo is on a piece by Alberto Ginastera on the Brain Salad Surgery album, a piece called “Toccata.” People thought it was the keyboard that was doing that, but it was all from the drums! They were made to trigger electronic sounds from the drum; these were all preset sounds, and they could be changed by an octave divider. The drum solo was really abstract, and we thought it worked really well. We didn’t advertise, “This is an electronic drum solo,” because we weren’t about that. We were about producing a wall of sound our way. We didn’t care what people thought, as long as we knew that we were always one step in front. And we always were, to tell you the truth. Until, as I say, we got to Love Beach.

It seems that – with the possible exception of Trilogy – a lot of the music that you put together was something that you could more or less recreate live onstage. Was that a conscious goal?
No. It wasn’t a conscious goal. Our goal was pretty much the same goal as I carry on until today. I play a lot of ELP music; I play Pictures at an Exhibition and Tarkus, and I play them all instrumentally with virtuoso musicians. I don’t have any keyboards; I have two guitars. And they’re sensational. And all I’m doing today is exactly the same premise, the same thing that ELP laid down when we made those tracks. We said that if the backing track does not sound like a dynamite, explosive instrumental before we put a voice on it, something’s wrong. And that’s the way ELP conducted itself. So the backing tracks were always fabulous anyway, even before the vocal went on. So then when we put the vocal on top, then you had another gain again. The backing track had to sound like a killer instrumental. And most of the time, we succeeded.

Which ELP album is your favorite, and why?
I would say Brain Salad Surgery, mainly because we were at the creative pinnacle of our powers. We never played all of it onstage, incidentally. Not because we couldn’t; it just didn’t work in a live situation as well as it worked as a recording. Mainly because of technology, and the limitations we had of not being able to sound as “big” as we needed it to with three people. Because that was another album which was heavily overdubbed.

On the other hand, I would say to you Trilogy, as well. And Pictures at an Exhibition; probably those three. Trilogy is heavily overdubbed. What happened is, we came off the rails. We started adding a bunch of stuff, saying, “Yeah! We got it!” And then we’d say, “But if we add another line, another melody going up the back of the chorus the second time around, going into the middle eight before the instrumental section, that would just tie it up!” And before you know it, Keith would go out into the studio, and he would play 6 or 7 lines, and they would make you cry. You wouldn’t know which one to pick. We’d pick one and put it on, and before you know it, we’re in overdubbing mode. And we know we can’t reproduce this onstage unless we had auxiliary musicians. Which we never did, but we could have done. Because it was becoming a music industry standard; Pink Floyd have had backing musicians; the Rolling Stones, the Who … you name it. But we didn’t do that, unfortunately. When we did do it, we took out a whole orchestra! 54 people! We messed up. But that’s another story.

You mentioned Love Beach, which is of course notoriously unpopular among fans. As the story goes, that’s when things went a bit sideways for ELP. But I have to say: listening to the new 3CD set The Anthology, when the title track from Love Beach came up, I didn’t have the track listing in front of me. And once I realized what it was, I thought to myself, “Y’know, this is better than I remember.”
Well, that’s nice. Listen: music has got legs. This music will be around for a long, long, long time. And it’s all in the writing; the lyrics are incredibly mature. I have no problem telling people that I don’t like something [we did]. And we weren’t sure [about it] when Love Beach came out. But if you play certain tracks, you might say, “Wow, yeah.” It’s not exactly prog rock or cutting-edge, but … great tunes played really well.

There’s a piece on there by [Joaquin] Rodrigo, “Canario,” a classical piece. We absolutely nail it; it’s unbelievable! I still play it today; I haven’t played it this year, but I played it last year as part of the repertoire. So there are so many great, great things. If you listen to Brain Salad Surgery, there’s a lot of depth in that. I wouldn’t say that just because I’ve been in the band, and had a great time in the band.

There’s been a lot of controversy over the years with myself, Keith and Greg. They had even got another drummer [Cozy Powell] in for awhile. But at the end of the day, I can truthfully say that the music that was made when I was there is here to stay.

ELP had an amazing run in the 1970s. With all that you accomplished, do you ever look back and think there was anything that ELP left undone, didn’t quite realize a goal?
The only thing that I can say to you – you know, unfortunately Keith committed suicide the beginning of this year, which was extremely tragic – we were going to play together this year. Not as a group; Keith was going to come along and be in my band, Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy. He liked the group, and he said he would come along and play maybe one night somewhere.

There is a tribute to Keith that is coming out on DVD, with people like Steve Hackett on guitar, and Mark Stein from Vanilla Fudge singing, a choir singing “Jerusalem,” and a contemporary dance group. One of the things that ELP talked about – which is why I used dancers and things – was getting involved with ballet or dance, and orchestra and auxiliary musicians. We talked about that, but it never really happened. So I did some of the stuff which we talked about but didn’t do. But ELP, I would say, fulfilled most of its dreams very quickly, but there was the odd thing which we didn’t do. We did do the orchestra thing, but unfortunately we didn’t do it for very long: three weeks. It should have been six weeks, but things weren’t going our way as far as selling tickets, so we had to look at the situation. But all in all, I would say we completed most of our dreams. (Below: Palmer live in 2010 with ELP)

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Photos via CarlPalmer.com. Bill Kopp is editor of BLURT’s Jazz Desk. Postscript: After Greg Lake died last week, Palmer posted this memorial to his old bandmate at his official website:

 It is with great sadness that I must now say goodbye to my friend and fellow band-mate, Greg Lake. Greg’s soaring voice and skill as a musician will be remembered by all who knew his music and recordings made with ELP and King Crimson. I have fond memories of those great years we had in the 1970s and many memorable shows we performed together.

Having lost Keith this year as well, has made this particularly hard for all of us. As Greg sang at the end of Pictures At An Exhibition, “death is life.” His music can now live forever in the hearts of all who loved him.

Carl Palmer
December 8, 2016

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