The superstar prog-rock band’s drummer had plans to reunite with Keith Emerson
[Editor’s note: This interview took place after Keith Emerson’s passing but before Greg Lake’s death. When he announced the 2017 tour of Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy, he said: “I will deeply miss Keith and Greg, both of whom the world lost in 2016. It is now down to me to carry on flying the ELP banner and I will be playing that great music with my band for many years to come. The outpouring of support from ELP’s fans has been astounding, so, I felt I owed it to them to continue the music we made as a group.”]
There was largely one unspoken question among many classic rock fans when Keith Emerson sadly took his own life back in March 2016: If he hadn’t died, might Emerson, Lake & Palmer have ever played together again?
“No, no,” insists drummer Carl Palmer. “Our last concert was 2010, 25th of July, the High Voltage Festival [in London’s Victoria Park]. I decided after that particular concert that the group really couldn’t reach the standard we once played at, and for that reason I figured we should stop, because we’d rehearsed for five weeks and just couldn’t get up there. My philosophy has always been that if you can’t play to the standard you once produced, then you should stop. If you can hang on and are actually getting better, that’s great. Unfortunately ELP couldn’t make that standard…. Partly because Keith was having trouble with his hand.
“So I just sent an email out about a week later, saying, look, I couldn’t do this anymore,” he says. “And I think it was right that we stopped, and basically they all agreed. The only one who didn’t agree really was Greg Lake. But Keith got it. I suppose we could have carried on and used an auxiliary keyboard player and another guitar player, which would have been a good idea, many big bands do that. But we didn’t go that route. But I did suggest that. I don’t think Greg Lake was too keen on that at the time.”
Carl Palmer talks like he plays the drums: rapid-fire delivery, precise and detailed with a good bit of punch. And he did reveal in a quick but cogent phone talk as he traveled through New Jersey between the first and second shows of his current U.S. tour that if his former bandmate Emerson hadn’t died, we would have seen the two play together again.
“We were definitely going to play this year, one or two concerts. One for sure,” Palmer says. “He was going to Japan in May and he’d already made various clips he’d put on YouTube saying that. And it was a case of him coming back and deciding on which dates he’d like to join us. And that’s how we’d left it.”
The two-thirds of the band that helped make progressive rock a stadium-packing style had exchanged emails just a few weeks before Emerson’s final day. “What happened was out of the blue. We did not realize the severity of the problem he had,” Palmer says.
“I think he was just concerned about his pride, and that was a problem,” Palmer ponders on the eternal mystery of why someone takes their own life. “He was quite a heavy drinker. I think the mixture of all of it was quite toxic. He was also depressed. Who knows what’s going to happen under those conditions? Unfortunately this had taken place. Much to be lamented with the tragedy that happened.”
One way Palmer is working out his grief is by making his 2017 Stateside tour with ELP Legacy – his band for the last 16 years – a tribute to Emerson, Lake and Palmer. But don’t go expecting to hear ELP music as the superstar trio played it, with Emerson’s keyboards front and center. It’s a guitar, bass and drums band, and Palmer has no interest in retreading old ground.
“We can create some of that nostalgia if we wanted. But it is different,” he insists. “There is no need to try and reproduce what ELP had already done. It seemed a far better way to go with guitars. It’s completely different, and it should be. It should show the versatility of the music and what can be done with it. Keith was totally in favor of it.” Plus if Emerson had joined them, “there’s no keyboards in the band and he would come in with his keyboards.”
Keyboards were a big part of the mix when Palmer salutes his departed bandmate with a special show in Miami, FL, on June 24, 2016, at The Olympia Theater. He played the Emerson, Lake & Palmer showpiece “Pictures at an Exhibition” with fellow prog-rock pioneer Mark Stein of Vanilla Fudge on keyboards and former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett. Plus a contemporary dance company, which was another variation on the performance theme – and for ELP, the presentation and performance were almost as essential as the music – that Palmer and Emerson had discussed doing.
Watch a performance of ELP’s interpretation of Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” from that event…
“We’d talked many years ago about having a group dance to ‘Pictures at an Exhibition,’ or in various sections of it,” he reports. “And there’s possibly also going to be a choir performing at the show.” Hackett’s presence also summons up other possibilities never explored.
“We’d probably have had a lead guitarist in ELP if we could find one,” says Palmer. “At that time we could never find one.” (Sadly, the long-running rumor of ELP almost joining forces with Jimi Hendrix in 1970 as HELP is just that – a rumor.)
Ironically, Palmer – who’d first hit the rock road with the Amazing World of Arthur Brown back in 1969 and then formed the band Atomic Rooster – was a bit reluctant to join up with Emerson (who had already made a splash with his band The Nice) and Lake (who was a founder of King Crimson). “Yes, that’s correct,” he admits. “Only because I had my own band, Atomic Rooster. And we were doing exceptionally well.
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But what won him over to ELP was how “it just really worked well when we played together. We just weren’t very good as individuals at socializing and being with each other. But when we played it solved the problems. When we didn’t play we had problems,” he says, chuckling at the band’s well-known offstage conflicts.
After Emerson, Lake and Palmer broke up in 1979, Palmer enjoyed another run at the top of the rock game in the 1980s with the second-generation supergroup Asia. And then ELP took a few more rounds.
Over the years Palmer has been an avid collector of fine art – he was an early purchaser of paintings by later legend David Hockney – as well as antiques and other objects of art. “I’m always looking at the artisans of today as well as yesterday,” he says.
He also has been developing his own method for creating abstract paintings based on his stick work as a drummer. “I started it in ’73 when I was experimenting with light bulbs taped to the end of the drumsticks, and a cable down to a battery on the floor, and I got a photographer friend of mine to take some pictures,” he explains. “Well, roll forward 40 years and that’s when we developed the LED drumstick, and that’s how I started to move it forward. We have now what I consider to be the first crossover art form – we have fused the traditional painting and the electronics of light into a contemporary art form all its own.” His work can be viewed and purchased at carlpalmerart.com.
With what is now 51 years of professional rock drumming under his belt – “And there’s a lot of miles to go yet” – Palmer finds it “very, very hard to choose” a favorite moment or two. “I think that when any kind of European band comes to America and you play Madison Square Garden, back in the ’70s, that was really a big event. I played for a lot more people than were at Madison Square Garden later on in my career. But that was quite an eventful moment. That one always stayed with me.
“Plus the Olympic Stadium in Montreal. I think it was like 78,000 [people]. You know, there’s the California Jam, which was close to 200,000 people. They’re all magical moments, and they’re all different and they’re all significant in what they were at the time,” Palmer says.
“I just live for the next one every day. Just waiting for the next moment to come along.” he says. “I enjoy what I do. I will be doing this until I can’t get out of bed, that’s how I look at it. For me, it’s just something that, because I’ve been doing it for so long, I just can’t imagine not. Obviously if I’m still improving – and I think I am; I think it’s still there, which I’m kind of pleased about – I’ll just carry on.
“And even if I don’t improve and can maintain my standard, I’m there,” concludes Palmer, who turned 66 in March. “The minute I’ve fallen behind the baseline and I’m not producing it, I’ll just disappear and stop.”
Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy 2017 tour is visiting South America, Europe, North America and the U.K. Click here for tickets.