Keith Emerson, 70 this November, reckons the ‘new’ Emerson & Lake live album is “a bit late in coming, but it takes its position within the whole story of progressive rock”.
When we speak, he hasn’t yet received a copy of it himself. “I hope I get one,” he laughs.
Live From Manticore Hall – attributed to Keith Emerson & Greg Lake – is taken from a 2010 show, and captures reworked ‘duo’ versions of a selection of ELP greats, from Tarkus to Lucky Man, via a cover of King Crimson’s I Talk To The Wind. Greg Lake is on holiday and can’t be reached in time for this interview, but Emerson affably talks Prog through its development and a few associated anecdotes, revealing that the tour began as a warm-up for the trio’s acclaimed brief return at the High Voltage Festival in 2010.
“We needed a bit of a work-out, so it was suggested by our agents in Beverly Hills that just Greg and I go out as a duo. Now I’d done duos with my own musicians before in California, so I knew it was a possibility. All in all, it was a good idea, and led up nicely to High Voltage and playing with Carl Palmer again as ELP – which everybody was delighted with, of course. Most of the music I’ve written for ELP involves quite a lot of orchestration and arrangements so I had to strip it down. The process of getting the repertoire together gave me a chance to look at the chord sequences of those ELP favourites and change them around slightly.”
Reworking those classics proved to be a challenge, but a rewarding one. “Greg and I worked at it and… I wouldn’t say it was easy, but it was extraordinary. For example, I came up with many variations of Lucky Man, one of which was quite innovative. I went over to Greg’s house in London and played it to him on the piano. He said, ‘Wow – what’s that? Who wrote that?’ I said, ‘You did, y’bastard!’ See, with my own band in California, they’re the cream of the crop: they know me inside out and know I’m never going to play the same thing twice.
“But it proved to be an intimate evening. I think this album captures much of the unique introspection in the music. And we did a Q&A session with our audience. In one of the most memorable moments, a young lady stuck her hand up and said, ‘I’ve always dreamed of lying under the piano while Keith Emerson plays.’ I was staggered by this, but to my surprise, Greg said, ‘Come up onstage!’ So she did, and lay under the piano, and I played some ballads. I think they had to clean up the mess afterwards, but there you go.”
Emerson and Lake clearly approached the songs from a different angle on the tour, as “introspection” certainly wasn’t the predominant flavour in the original takes of those ELP numbers – they were epic.
“Indeed, yes. Looking back, I composed them mainly on the piano, but of course everybody got used to hearing them on synthesisers or whatever – which I still play, by the way. And I’m still very attached to the Moog company.”
In fact, it was Emerson who popularised the Moog and synths in many ways, making people aware of them. “Yes, and they’re here to stay. The ironic thing is that when I first started using the Moog, I said to Melody Maker, ‘Well, this can replace most members of the classical orchestra.’ And boy, that got me into trouble! I was banned from the Musicians’ Union for some time. Thank God orchestras today, who I work with a lot, are more accepting. In fact, they demand the new. They’re remarkable musicians and eager for fresh challenges now, regardless of genre. Their knowledge of the history of progressive rock, among other things, is also extraordinary.”
Emerson’s work with orchestras reflects his love of classical music, although his influences also take in prog, jazz, rock and other genres, and all inspire his unique compositions. “It’s the combination of those things,” he agrees. “It’s a very eclectic art. You draw from all sources. Quite honestly, when ELP started, there was no category to put it in. Nobody had the words ‘progressive rock’ back then. Asked by an interviewer what I called the music, I’d just say, ‘Well, it’s contemporary.’ All the greats – from Vaughan Williams to Beethoven to Bartók – looked upon their own heritage and made use of it in their own individual ways. With ELP, my intent was to mix it up a bit. I’ve played with Oscar Peterson, met Miles Davis… all these wonderful artists, heroes of mine, still have a distinct place in the way I compose. In my formative years, I’d only listen under duress to The Beatles. I have a bit more respect for them now!”
ELP certainly did mix it up. Those complex, labyrinthine albums of the 70s were anything but easy listening, and yet they were also chart-topping commercial giants – something which was a cause of friction within the band.
“I’m sure Greg found it disconcerting that ELP weren’t as commercial as he wanted them to be, so we were always a bit at loggerheads on that one. He was more into melody. And I can see his point! But I tried the commercial side of things, and somehow it didn’t suit me. I never came into the music business to make money, and quite honestly I haven’t made much out of it even now!”
When you consider the gargantuan tours ELP undertook in their stuff-of-legend pomp, this is a surprising revelation…“I know, it’s extraordinary! ELP would go all around North America, South America, Japan, Europe… Well, the thing was, our audience was mainly male. The few females were dragged along by boyfriends or husbands. From the stage, you could spot the females almost going to sleep. The saviour, really, was when Greg got up and did From The Beginning or Lucky Man. Then they’d go, ‘Aw, that’s nice.’ Yes, we were a big live attraction, but generally only to one half of the population!”
And when ELP did most recently regroup for High Voltage, around the time of this Emerson & Lake live album, a chunk of the population beamed. However, “Much to the dismay of myself and Greg, Carl said he’d had enough. I can understand that, but I think he should’ve consulted with me first, as I’d formed the band. I’d chosen that name – as opposed to, say, Asia, or Foreigner – because I always knew eventually we’d go our individual ways.
“If anybody was to make an announcement, we should’ve all got together, instead of Carl just going, ‘There’s no more ELP,’ the next day. Greg and I were the primaries: we formed the band, we chose him. So his ‘statement’ was upsetting for the fans, and it could’ve been dealt with much better.
“Anyway, a duo tour was then planned. Which is when, as normal, I went to Harley Street for a health check-up, for insurance purposes. As I’ve told Prog before, what was mooted as a one-day-in-hospital procedure for a polyp in my colon turned out to be diverticulosis, and I woke up with surgeons standing over me, my body having been cut open from ribcage to pubes. They’d had to take 18 inches of my lower colon out and I was in hospital for a long time. Three blood transfusions followed and I was pretty damn weak. Definitely not fit for touring!”
Despite not planning a globe-spanning live jaunt, Emerson assures us that he has recovered from his operation. “I’m doing OK. I eat little, but often. During that time in hospital, I thought, ‘OK, there’s no more ELP so… it’s time for me to move on.’”
And while he’s back on his feet and back at work, the experience means he has to manage his workload far more cautiously these days. “Let’s say I’m selectively busy. The Tokyo Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra performed Tarkus under my jurisdiction. Last year saw an incredible increase in interest in Japan in my compositions: a great honour. And in October, the South Shore Symphony Orchestra, in Long Island, New York, are playing a lot of my music, mainly to celebrate my 70th birthday. I shall be there playing one of my pieces and conducting another one. Conducting is not as easy as it looks! It’s not just about waving your arms around, I’ll tell you that much. Oh, and last year the Kentucky Symphony Orchestra did an evening of ELP music and involved me.
“I’ve also got involved with a Doors tribute album for Cleopatra Records. Truth is, I was never a huge Doors fan, but I fancied doing Light My Fire. They said, ‘Sorry, but Rick Wakeman’s already taken that one!’ So I thought I’d tackle People Are Strange. I arranged it in the style of Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli, on grand piano, with jazzy, dark chords, and Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter on guitar. Then, just to add more strangeness, I got the Moog into action towards the end. They’d said they wanted it strange. I said, ‘Don’t worry about that – I’ve scored five or six horror films: I can certainly do strange!’”
Still recording and still innovating, Emerson reveals that despite his health problems, he won’t rule out hitting the road once again for some select dates. “I wouldn’t fancy a 10-week tour now, though. I love playing to audiences and feeling appreciated, but… oh, who knows? Once I get back with my band in California and we do one gig, then we might go, ‘Oh that was good, let’s do another one,’ and so it goes on. I love to improvise and go off on tangents. Keeps it interesting!”
Live From Manticore Hall is out now on Cherry Red. See www.keithemerson.com.