Both the six-legged embodiment of progressive rock’s restless creative spirit and the ultimate benchmark for the genre’s most preposterous excesses, Emerson Lake & Palmer have been in our thoughts more than ever over the last 12 months. On the one hand, the band’s illustrious catalogue has been steadily repackaged and remastered anew, with deluxe versions of Trilogy, Brain Salad Surgery and Tarkus (the latter given a new stereo mix by Steven Wilson) emerging in 2016. On the flipside, of course, we have mourned the deaths of two thirds of ELP: both colossal losses to the prog world that bring extra poignancy to any fulsome reassessment of the music the trio made together.
Prog’s interview with Carl Palmer takes place at the end of 2016, eight months after the tragic death of keyboard maestro Keith Emerson but less than 48 hours before the news broke that bassist and frontman Greg Lake had also passed away, leaving the drummer as ELP’s only surviving member and the man now charged with the preservation of their monumental legacy. The purpose of our chat is to discuss the latest batch of reissues, which include Works I and II and 1978’s much-maligned Love Beach. The latter, of course, is an album that only the most devoted fans will happily purchase anew, but much of the material on the Works albums has retained the power to startle and certainly deserves to be reassessed via the benefits of enhanced sound. In particular, Carl Palmer’s solo contributions to Works I remain an object lesson in youthful precocity married to mind-bending skill, with the drummer’s esoteric tastes revealed in all their quirky glory.
“My stuff on Works was quite eclectic, I must confess,” he says. “I’m still like that, if you came to my house and looked through my record collection. It’s pretty weird, if I’m honest. It’s hard to listen to one genre of music for too long. Last night I was listening to Buddy Guy, a new album of his called Sweet Tea, and I’ve never been a Buddy Guy fan but I heard one track and it was just fantastic. It’s just whatever gets me at the time. I’ve always listened to all kinds of different music.”
There are few more explosive moments in the ELP catalogue than Palmer’s extraordinary reworking of Prokofiev’s The Enemy God Dances With The Black Spirits. Even taking the band’s long-established mastery of classical adaptations into consideration, it sounds like a particularly audacious moment of virtuoso bravado from the then 26-year-old drummer.
“Keith and I had this thing, that we really enjoyed classical music,” Palmer recalls. “I come from a really classical background, with my father being a professor of music and so on, and so Keith and I always used to rib each other, ‘Have you heard this?’ and ‘Have you heard that?’ We’d be talking about various pieces of music and something would come up, and I’d say, ‘I used to listen to that at home with my grandfather!’ [Laughs] So there was a bit of synergy going on there straight away.
“I’d not heard The Enemy God before, but I had a friend who suggested it, saying, ‘If you want something with a lot of bumping and grinding in it, it would definitely transfer to a contemporary kind of band…’ That was it. I heard it and loved it, so we recorded it, without Keith knowing about it, and then I played it to him and of course he loved it too. At this point I haven’t played it for about five years, but it used to go down incredibly well. It’s an extremely tough piece of music.”
Tucked away at the very end of Works I, Pirates is arguably the other truly classic ELP moment lurking within this latest batch of reissues. With lyrics written by Pete Sinfield and a near-chewable sense of the band’s fractious chemistry firing properly for one last blowout, it’s one of the great overlooked prog epics and one that Palmer recalls as a significant challenge for everyone involved.
“Yes, that was us giving the last of our real creativity, I would say,” he states. “After that it was all downhill, incredibly slowly I may add, but Pirates was the last of the big ones. It’s a terrific piece of music. Pete Sinfield, who was absolutely exceptional, came up with the idea, the whole concept, and I thought it all married up exceptionally well. It was recorded in Switzerland, Montreux, in Mountain Studios right on Lake Lucerne. I can’t remember much of the recording, but it was all analogue so it was done in segments and there was probably a lot of editing. We could never play that stuff straight off. If you look at the master tape for Tarkus, for instance, it’s got 17 edits on it, all cut with a razorblade.”
In stark contrast to the Works records’ many highs, Love Beach is widely regarded as ELP’s enfeebled last gasp. It certainly doesn’t help that it boasts one of the most excruciatingly misjudged album covers of all time, but aesthetic calamities aside, Love Beach simply didn’t match up to the band’s best work. Best viewed as an endearing curio, it’s not an album that any of the musicians involved have defended with any great enthusiasm, Carl Palmer included.
“It’s funny, I’ve been saying that I don’t like it, but people have been playing it and it’s still on the radio in America!” he declares with a chuckle. “Listen, there are some good things on it. I just find it hard [to believe] that we called a prog album Love Beach, that’s number one! Number two is that I find it difficult that the three of us were standing on the beach, looking like the Bee Gees. That’s a prog cover!? [Laughs] I find that difficult, when you’ve come from Brain Salad Surgery and Tarkus. America had got to us, obviously!
“To write a prog album, you’ve got to sit in traffic jams and go through a lot of shit before you get to the studio, and then you come up with the goods. When you’re living in the Bahamas and you’ve got the beach and the sea and you’ve all got boats, what are you going to get? You’re going to get Love Beach.
“But I will say that it does have Canario by [Spanish composer Joaquin] Rodrigo, which was an idea of Keith’s, and that’s a fantastic piece of music.”
Recorded at Compass Point Studios in Nassau, in the summer of ’78, Love Beach is undeniably the band’s creative nadir [Worse than 1994’s In The Hot Seat? – Ed], but the circumstances surrounding its creation suggest that it was always doomed to be an anticlimactic clanger.
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“I don’t mind telling you this now… the band had actually broken up when Love Beach was being recorded,” Palmer reveals. “Ahmet Ertegun [legendary Atlantic Records co-founder] came along and asked if we’d give it one more go. We said, ‘Okay, but we’ve been touring for the last seven or eight years and we’re fried!’ People wanted to take time off, but we ended up in the Bahamas. Keith had bought a house there and Greg had bought one in conjunction with our manager at the time. I didn’t own anything there, I just had a speedboat, which I eventually sold of course! [Laughs] But I remember being there and Ahmet saying, ‘Guys, chill out down here and I’ll set up the studio.’ That’s how we dealt with it really. It was very laid-back. If you wanted one more album out of us at that point, the business people probably thought that it was the only way it was going to happen. I’m surprised it’s not more reggae-sounding, because that could easily have happened!”
With this latest trio of reissues now unveiled, ELP fans may be feeling a profound sense of relief that their wallets may finally stop taking a regular beating. However, it’s worth noting that the band have always maintained high standards and managed to ensure that each successive revisit to an old record boasts some kind of renewed perspective or unexpected bonus. As Palmer explains, it’s a simple matter of keeping the crown jewels glittering.
“At this point there isn’t any more stuff [in the ELP vaults]. We’ve owned our own catalogue for many years, probably 40 years, so when our contract comes up and we go with another company, they want to remaster them or revisit the artwork, just to keep the standards high. We want to keep the standards high, because it’s ours and you can make those demands when you own everything. You can keep on refreshing it. I think it’s a healthy situation, to be honest. I’m sure some people will grumble but it’s all done with the right spirit, and it’s about keeping the music alive.”
With that in mind, the new reissues will also be available on vinyl, but on 140gsm vinyl rather than on the more standard 180gsm. In June 2016, Greg Lake posted a brief explanation of the move to thinner vinyl, stating that, “The best audio quality is actually achieved using the lighter 140gsm weight. I am honestly not sure why this trend of using heavyweight vinyl came about? Probably because of the ‘more equals better’ in the world we live in. However, in the interests of delivering the best quality audio to our fans we have decided to go for quality rather than quantity.”
“Yeah, I’ve played a couple [of the new vinyl reissues] here and I’m quite happy with what’s gone on,” Palmer shrugs. “The pressing today, even on thinner vinyl, is much better than it used to be, and it’s more sophisticated. But to quote an Asia song, only time will tell!”
Vinyl has made a big comeback recently, so is that good news for ELP and other bands from the golden era of prog, particularly given that those classic albums were all recorded with vinyl in mind?
“Well, when we moved to BMG, I went to the company that we’d just left, Razor & Tie in NYC, and I bought all of the vinyl that they had left over. I bought maybe 400 or 450 units, from across the catalogue, and they’re all picture discs. Within eight months of touring with my own band I think most of them had gone. So there’s definitely a resurgence in collecting. People want all that stuff. This time, I thought it was okay putting the album cover on one side of the vinyl, but I said to BMG, ‘Why don’t you put a great picture of the band from that period on the other side?’ That didn’t seem to go down that well and I was never contacted again after that! If you do repackage things, you need to inject new ideas. I thought my idea was a cool way to do it, but it didn’t happen.”
As ELP’s sole representative, Carl Palmer must now feel the weight of responsibility on his shoulders, particularly when it comes to ensuring that the ELP catalogue is monitored, refreshed and made relevant for new generations. But when it comes to keeping the band’s extraordinary music alive, he has been laudably dedicated in recent times anyway, not least with his ongoing live project Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy. While we may never see the likes of ELP again, the trio’s virtuoso beating heart is still pounding away and flying the flag for the most prog of all prog bands.
“The legacy is important, and I’ve looked after it in what I think is the most honest way, I’m out there playing the music,” he concludes. “In my band, I didn’t want to replace Greg or Keith and I didn’t even want a keyboard player, but we can reproduce the sound quite closely. It shows you a different flavour and the versatility of ELP’s music. It’s the way to go for me and I’m enjoying it. I like the musical depth I have with my own band.
“It’s really uplifting to play some of the ELP stuff, like Pictures and Tarkus. It’s all rewarding and I do feel that someone has to keep it going, so here I am.”
The Works Volume 1, Works Volume 2 and Love Beach remastered reissues are available on May 26 on BMG. See www.bmg.com for more information.