“He never set out to please or comfort, so we often end up with his brilliant musical mind at its best… For that, we can forgive the physical abuse of a few Hammond L-100s”: King Crimson, Marillion, Tangent members and more pay tribute to Keith Emerson

Keith Emerson
(Image credit: Getty Images)

A remarkable composer, arranger and virtuoso with a ruthless disdain for the wellbeing of the Hammond organs that became part of his signature sound, Keith Emerson built the foundations upon which progressive rock stands to this day. Following an initial serving of 15 groundbreaking tracks – discussed by Rick Wakeman, Ian Anderson, Geoff Downes and othersProg presents a second helping of 15 more pieces that stand as illustration of his genius.

1. Abaddon’s Bolero

From ELP’s Trilogy, 1972

Jakko Jakszyk, King Crimson: “Having been privileged enough to remix the whole album from the original multitracks, what really impressed me all round was Keith’s sense of ambition. It sounds like he’s driving this and the whole album, taking them into this quasi-classical area and, of course, Keith had both the knowledge and ability to make it a reality.

“No disrespect to the other two members, but it sounds like Keith is, by default, upping their game as musicians. There’s also something haunting about Abaddon’s Bolero that got under my skin.

“I wouldn’t say Keith had a direct influence on me as a player per se, but that sense of ambition and determination definitely did. To stand out and plough your own furrow musically and to do so with such style, originality and showmanship was pretty unique, particularly for a keyboard player that’s usually pretty static.”

2. Hoedown

From ELP’s Trilogy, 1972

Lynsey Ward, Exploring Birdsong: “I love hearing music that feels like it was fun for the artist to track. Hoedown does a great job of conjuring up vivid images of people skipping around a barn in linked arms, while the less vivacious folk keep to the sides clapping along to the relentless rhythm.

“Here’s a wonderful example of auditory scene-setting and the perfect way to bridge the gap between a light-hearted track like The Sheriff, and the soaring epic that is the titular album track.

“The most mind-boggling thing about Hoedown, certainly to me, is that on many occasions it was performed live several BPM faster than the studio version. This perfectly captures Emerson’s spirit as a showman, hooking the audience in as they hold their collective breath waiting for a slip on the keys that would never come.

“Keith Emerson continues to be a radiant example of a keyboard player who refused to be trapped behind their instrument. Who says organ players can’t be flying, knife-wielding, leather-trouser-wearing rock stars?”

3. Jerusalem

From ELP’s Brain Salad Surgery, 1973

ELP’s take on the hymn by William Blake and Hubert Parry earned them the ire of the BBC, who banned it. Perhaps the Beeb overreacted? Jerusalem might be rocking, but it’s surprisingly reverential.

Robert Reed, Magenta, Cyan, Sanctuary: “I was a prog fan from an early age, but not of ELP. I bought the single of this in a shop, not knowing what it was. At this point I didn’t even know that it was a hymn. For me, it showcases Keith’s talent as an arranger, and his knowledge of chords. We all know he can play a million miles an hour, but this shows his skill in the choice of chords. You can tell the massive influences of the early 20th-century American classical composers like Aaron Copland. Bands like Yes and Pink Floyd were more rock’n’roll in their chord harmonies.

“I think all keyboard players in the prog world can’t help but be influenced by his playing and stage performances. It proved that you could have a band without a guitarist – which I did for a while. Technically though, I think Keith was way beyond all his contemporaries. Amazing player.”

4. Karn Evil 9

From ELP’s Brain Salad Surgery, 1973

Andy Tillison, The Tangent: “I first heard it aged 13 – half a century ago – while already a piano player and prog fan. I was staggered by its construction, the sound palette, the counterpoint, the engagement which each part had with the others and Keith’s ability to multitask with left and right hands – almost impossibly.

“I have often mentioned that, in all honesty, many pieces I composed myself came about as failed attempts to teach myself to play Karn Evil 9 – which to this day I have not got close to being able to achieve. The ideas contained within it can spark myriad others.

“Keith Emerson was a multifaceted personality, and you could never decide whether he was the traditional classical composer, a rock star, a boogie-woogie man or some kind of circus stunt pianist. Those different sides would often create uneven albums, but in Karn Evil 9 somehow everything this man could do came together in a glorious swirl of creativity that positively sparked with energy and vitality.”

5. Fanfare For The Common Man

From ELP’s Works Volume 1, 1977

After tackling Aaron Copland’s Hoedown on the Trilogy album, Emerson returned to the American composer’s work five years later.

Mark Kelly, Marillion: “I first heard Fanfare For The Common Man on Top Of The Pops. I had only been playing keyboards for a few years and was very excited to see Emerson, Lake & Palmer – not your usual pop pap – on the BBC’s weekly chart show.

“I remember they were playing in a huge empty stadium wearing big furry jackets: very prog, very 70s; but what really got my attention was Keith Emerson’s keyboard, a Yamaha GX-1. This was a cutting-edge instrument costing more than a three-bed semi and it sounded amazing. The rich brass sounds Keith got out of it were perfectly suited to this rock reworking of Aaron Copland’s tune.

“I had the pleasure of meeting Keith after a Marillion gig at the Marquee Club. I was glad I didn’t find out until after the gig that this colossus of the keyboards was watching us. I didn’t see him again until 35 years later when he came to see us play in LA. Both times he was a total gent and a lovely man.”

6. Piano Concerto No. 1

From ELP’s Works Volume 1, 1977

Nikki Frances, EBB: “The first time I heard ELP was as a teenager on a work experience placement at my local music shop. There I met soon-to-be fellow bandmate Kitty Biscuits for the first time. She walked in and immediately introduced herself as a ‘major ELP enthusiast.’ She introduced me to Brain Salad Surgery, which sent me down the deep gravity well of ELP and Keith Emerson appreciation.

“Throughout Piano Concerto No.1 you can hear influences of Vaughan Williams, Gershwin, and to my ears, Holst (Mars, The Planets suite) in the third movement. But this concerto is unique and you’re listening to Emerson demonstrating his musicianship in arguably the most demanding genre. Every listen I find something new.

“I’m unlikely to get within a light year of his technical abilities as a player but there’s much more to admire about his musicianship than that. It strikes me that he never set out to please or comfort, and as a result, we often end up with Emerson’s brilliant musical mind at its best; unfiltered and uncensored. Utterly inspirational. For that, I think we can forgive the physical abuse of a few beautiful Hammond L-100s.”

7. A Cat Attic Attack

From Inferno – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, 1980

Rachel Flowers: “Having listened to Keith’s Piano Concerto No.1 from the first Works album, I wanted to check out what else he did with an orchestra. The score to Inferno has a lot of thematic rhythms, which are first demonstrated in the opening title. While the main title has a lighter, dreamy tone, the rest of the score takes the same idea toward a darker place.

“My personal favourite example comes from A Cat Attic Attack: starting with piano and strings, the music gradually picks up speed, until a call-and-response section happens between the piano and brass. After a brief pause, there’s a dreamy variation on the main title, suggesting that the music is coming to an end. However, it hits me with a surprise – the strings play fast runs, and Keith’s piano goes wild with low notes. The reverb builds until a Wagnerian-style brass and string ensemble completes the piece.

“If you’re not familiar with this score, I think you’ll be surprised at the musical explorations Keith tried out. While it’s different from a melodic John Williams-style piece of music, Keith’s fascination with complex harmonies and rhythm is unusual for a soundtrack. I wish film scores would return to this style of music again.”

8. The Dreamer (Love Theme)

From Best Revenge – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, 1985

The 1984 thriller Best Revenge has long been forgotten, but Emerson’s soundtrack produced this beautiful piano piece that would later reappear on both 2002’s Emerson Plays Emerson and Beyond The Stars in 2018. But before those two albums, the song became a staple part of evenings at home with his children, Aaron and Damon, passing the music onto the next generation.

Aaron Emerson: “Dad’s upright baby grand Steinway would sit outside Damon and my bedrooms, so we would regularly hear him playing that song – usually at bedtime. But also my son Ethan played it at the Birmingham Symphony Hall, which was very emotional, and on the album Beyond The Stars.”

9. The Miracle

From Emerson Lake & Powell, 1986

Jem Godfrey, Frost*: “I heard it in Charing Cross Hospital, where I was having a kidney out. It took my mind off the whole thing rather nicely over the following two weeks while I recovered in the ward. It was this juggernaut of sound that was both spacious and yet massive at the same time.

“I was really into Genesis, so Keith’s playing was a complete revelation in contrast to Tony Banks’ more ecclesiastical style – all this massive brass stuff and raging Hammond B3 soloing, full of enthusiasm and a huge sense of fun. The melodies are just fantastic.

“I know this version of ELP isn’t the one that most people like, but it was the 80s and it totally worked for me. The album starts with The Score, which is full-on ELP: lots of references to their past work, Aaron Copland-style brass arrangements and the GX-1 screaming its head off.

“Keith is in his full, wonderful pomp, then it segues into this meaner and moodier track so it’s a 17-minute onslaught of stadium-sized rock that was 1,000 miles away from Phil Collins dressed like a twee little fisherman singing Trick Of The Tail. I thought it was completely fucking marvellous!”

10. Desde La Vita

From 3’s To The Power Of Three, 1988

Emerson and Carl Palmer reunited in a new supergroup with guitarist Robert Berry. While the 3 project only lasted for one album, Berry and Emerson subsequently formed a duo under the name 3.2.

Robert Berry: “I remember the first time I heard what was to become Desde La Vida vividly. It was during rehearsals in Keith’s barn, filled with musical wonders like broken Kurzweil keyboards, old Korg synths, the GX-1 and the latest in keyboard technology. 

“Keith had an idea for a song, and as he played it, he mentioned that he hoped that vocals could fit in. I suggested writing lyrics in Spanish, inspired by Carl’s fascination with Spain. Little did I know this would become one of our most iconic pieces.

“Keith and this song have had a profound influence on me as an artist and as a person. He did more for my standing in the music business than anyone else in this industry. Playing with Keith opened countless doors, and our friendship and musical partnership spanned over 27 years, including our most recent collaboration on 3.2’s The Rules Have Changed.

“Losing him during its completion was a shock, but the response to the album was stunning. I miss him on every level: as a fan, a friend, a musical partner and an inspiration.”

11. Romeo And Juliet

From ELP’s Black Moon, 1992

Arjen Lucassen: “I’ve been a huge ELP fan ever since I heard their very first album back in 1970. I was 10 years old and I bought all the following albums. However, after the disappointing Works and Love Beach I had basically given up on ELP.

“Nevertheless, I decided to give their comeback album, Black Moon, a chance anyway. I remember the huge smile on my face when I heard their version of Prokofiev’s Romeo And Juliet. 

“Usually with ELP I love the combination of Greg Lake’s big melodic voice and the technical prowess of Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer, but surprisingly I don’t miss the vocals in this track. I love the bombastic feel and the way the song builds. Climax upon climax! Should be played loud... obviously.”

12. Close To Home

From ELP’s Black Moon, 1992

John Mitchell, Arena, Frost*, Lonely Robot: “I asked our Amazon ally Alexa to curate a relaxing classical piano playlist for me one afternoon while reading in the garden; and, lo and behold, this beautiful wonderment suddenly danced upon my ear.

Close To Home is a confusingly simple piece to begin with: a fairly straight and figured chordal arrangement belying a classical baroque tradition, before catching your ear with deft and unexpected modulation into familial relative keys, only later giving way to greater flourishes and cluster chords. It’s a trick I adore in music, and one often played on me by other great artists as diverse as Ryuichi Sakamoto, Nik Kershaw and John Barry.

“It’s not what you expect that draws one in – quite the opposite. It’s also a trick to modulate between keys so effortlessly and matter-of-factly, which makes Keith Emerson such an engaging and brilliant musician. It’s all too easy to latch onto technical prowess and musical machismo, but more impressive is the intelligence behind something seemingly superficially simple and beautiful that belies such hidden depth.”

13. Broken Bough

From Emerson Plays Emerson, 2002

Gleb Kolyadin, Iamthemorning: “It may not be the most obvious choice – for many, Keith Emerson is more associated with explosive energy and musical unbridledness; but for me, in this brief sketch I sense much more inner exploration and conflict. 

“There are no familiar virtuosic passages, but there’s a feeling of breaking away from the usual harmonic structure used in rock albums; there’s even a hint of Bartók and Janáček sonatas, but all in a compact form, maintaining a sense of concise and poetic incompleteness.

“I remember stumbling upon these miniatures, such as Solitudinous and Vagrant, from his piano album completely by chance. Some of it is truly splendidly blend jazz and contemporary classical music – which may not be understandable and relatable to everyone, but it’s very inspiring for me.”

14. Tarkus

From Keith Emerson, Marc Bonilla, Terje Mikkelsen With The Münchner Rundfunkorchester – The Three Fates Project, 2012

Marc Bonilla: “Keith and I were like two kids in a candy store with all the musical possibilities of a rock band and full orchestra in front of us. No restrictions and no experiment too crazy to have its day in court. And under Terje’s direction, we renewed a beloved classic.

He demonstrated how melody and arrangement will always be king, how to always be a servant of the music, and to always steer into the skid

Marc Bonilla

“The Three Fates version of Tarkus truly integrates the orchestra with the rock band. In most instances it’s either a rock band upfront being chased by the orchestra or an orchestra upfront with a shadow of a rock band behind it. With Tarkus, Keith and I endeavoured to make moments within the piece that highlighted at times just the orchestra; at times just the band; and at times an encompassing hybrid of both worlds whose sum was greater than its collective parts.

“Working with Keith was an endless lesson in all things musical. He demonstrated what real work ethics were all about; how not to fear anything; to take chances to increase the likelihood of the element of surprise; how melody and arrangement will always be king; how to always be a servant of the music, and to always steer into the skid.”

15. Malambo

From Keith Emerson, Marc Bonilla, Terje Mikkelsen With The Münchner Rundfunkorchester – The Three Fates Project, 2012

Terje Mikkelsen: “Working with Keith was pleasantly gratifying because he was very knowledgeable about classical music. Before we recorded in Munich, we had four full days of practice at Marc’s home in LA with the entire band. Together we really scrutinised the music, so when we arrived at the studio for the first day of rehearsal, the musicians in the orchestra were stunned by how well-prepared we were. Everything was fine-tuned to the smallest detail.

“The musicians in Munich all knew about Keith and had the greatest respect for him, which made him feel extremely welcome. This was a live performance with no click tracks; the tempos change like they do with a normal symphony recording or classical piece. It breathes and it’s alive, and that’s what Keith loved the most. When we were immersed in the orchestral environment, he finally felt like this was his home.”

David West

After starting his writing career covering the unforgiving world of MMA, David moved into music journalism at Rhythm magazine, interviewing legends of the drum kit including Ginger Baker and Neil Peart. A regular contributor to Prog, he’s written for Metal Hammer, The Blues, Country Music Magazine and more. The author of Chasing Dragons: An Introduction To The Martial Arts Film, David shares his thoughts on kung fu movies in essays and videos for 88 Films, Arrow Films, and Eureka Entertainment. He firmly believes Steely Dan’s Reelin’ In The Years is the tuniest tune ever tuned.