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Off the Beaten Tracks: Keith Emerson, the Hendrix of the keyboards (Part 2)

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AT the end of Part One we left keyboard wizard Keith Emerson announcing that the Nice had ‘outlived their usefulness’ and breaking up the three-man band. None of them wasted any time moving on. By the time their mainly live album Elegy was released in April 1970, bassist Lee Jackson had formed his own band, Jackson Heights, drummer Blinky Davison was in charge of a group called Every Which Way, and Emerson was a third of Emerson, Lake and Palmer.

Greg Lake was the 22-year-old singer and bass player with King Crimson when in late 1969 they appeared alongside the Nice at the Fillmore West in San Francisco. Lake mentioned that he was looking for a change, while 25-year-old Emerson had apparently grown bored with the sound of Lee Jackson’s voice. During a soundcheck he and Lake tried playing together and, in Keith’s words, ‘Zap! It was there.’ The pair approached drummer Mitch Mitchell, who was available after the demise of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Jimi having formed the Band of Gypsies with Billy Cox and Buddy Miles. Lake would later tell Ultimate Classic Rock that Mitchell ‘said maybe we should get Jimi together. He’ll be finished with this Band of Gypsies thing in a few weeks, and we can get together and maybe the four of us should play. I said, “fair enough” and that’s how we left it.

‘A couple of days later, we got a call from Robert Stigwood, who said “Look, I’ve got the perfect drummer for you. A guy called Carl Palmer”.’ Only 19, Palmer was already attracting attention with the band Atomic Rooster, having previously played with The Crazy World of Arthur Brown. Stigwood was the big-time manager of acts including Cream, the Bee Gees and Lulu. Oh, and Carl Palmer too. ‘Of course, when we played with Carl, it was instantaneously obvious that the chemistry was right,’ said Greg. ‘That was the band we were looking for. And so that was it really. We made a decision on the spot. A short while after, Jimi was found dead in an apartment in London. The press had got a hold of the story that we might jam with Jimi, and speculated that the group would be called HELP.

‘But to be honest, I never believed it would have worked, really, in the long run. It may have been great for a couple of days, because Jimi was fantastic, and Keith also. But two virtuoso players in one band, it would have soon melted down.’

By now Emerson had become obsessed with the Moog synthesiser after hearing it played by Walter (actually Wendy) Carlos on the album Switched-On Bach

Having borrowed one from Mike Vickers of Manfred Mann for one of the Nice’s final concerts, he said: ‘I thought this was great. I’ve got to have one of these.’

Armed with Keith’s new toy, Emerson, Lake and Palmer played their debut gig at Plymouth Guild Hall on August 23, 1970. They chose a low-key venue away from London in case their performance was a flop, but their fears were groundless. Six days later they appeared at the Isle of Wight Festival in front of more than half a million music fans. They went down a storm, with Emerson firing a pair of antique cannons from the stage. ‘We’d tried the cannons out on a field near Heathrow airport,’ he recalled years later. ‘They seemed harmless enough. Today we would have been arrested as terrorists.’

Lake added: ‘We decided to fire these 19th-century cannons at the end of Pictures at an Exhibition – to emulate the 1812 Overture. Unknown to us, the road crew had doubled the charge in the cannons. All I can remember was seeing this huge, solid iron cannon leave the ground! It blew a couple of people off the stage. Luckily there was no cannonball in it. Thank God!’ 

The BBC DJ John Peel was unimpressed by ELP’s pyrotechnics, describing their set as a ‘waste of talent and electricity’. Thankfully for the band, Peel’s opinion was in the minority. Around this time they recorded their eponymous debut album, which was released in November 1970 and caused instant glee in a spotty young herbert’s bedroom in Nelson, Lancashire. Buying the record on the day of release after much hype in the music press, I loved it all but was particularly impressed by Emerson’s Moog solo which closed the final track, Lucky Man,  and sounded like someone playing an air-raid siren. Emerson, Lake and Palmer went to No 4 in the UK albums chart and No 18 in America.

The next LP, Tarkus, was released the following June and did even better, reaching No 1 in the UK and No 9 in the US. The title piece is a seven-part rock suite which takes up the whole of side one, telling the story of a huge armadillo on tank tracks which ends up losing a battle with a manticore, a mythical creature with the head of a man and the body of a lion.

In November that year, ELP released a budget-priced live album, Pictures at an Exhibition, based mainly on the work by Modest Mussorgsky and recorded earlier that year at Newcastle City Hall, always a favourite venue with Emerson. Highlights include the climactic Great Gates of Kiev and a jolly version of Nut Rocker  as the encore.

On December 10, 1971 ELP played the Free Trade Hall in Manchester and I had to be there. Tickets went on sale a couple of weeks earlier on a Sunday morning at a record shop in John Dalton Street, round the corner from the hall. I think the opening time was 10am. Too young to drive, I had to go by train from Nelson, changing at Blackburn. A friend and I were up at the crack of dawn, determined to get there early and beat the crowds to get tickets for ourselves and four others. Great. The first train from Nelson was cancelled, as it often was on a Sunday. The next arrived on time but dragged its feet and we missed our connection at Blackburn. By the time we had legged it from Manchester Victoria to John Dalton Street, there was a queue around the block. For hours we watched delighted fans emerging from the shop clutching their treasured tickets, fearing we were certain to miss out. At last, with several hundred others still behind us, we made it into the shop and I got the last five tickets, dotted around the hall at random. Joy!

We drew lots for the tickets and I got the short straw, a seat in the balcony at the very back, so far from the stage it was almost in Salford. But even though the band were tiny figures in the distance, they were unforgettably larger than life. Emerson was flamboyance personified, racing between the various keyboards in glittering costume, strumming the piano strings on Take A Pebble,  swigging from a brandy bottle and generally putting on a great show. Lake’s singing and bass work were brilliant, as was Palmer’s drumming which culminated in a solo on Tank with real fireworks going off. There was also a pre-Spinal TapStone’enge moment when the mighty Tarkus trundled on stage and turned out to be roughly the size of a rocking horse.

We had to wait until July 1972 for ELP’s third studio album, Trilogy. The cover art, showing the three men’s faces, is the work of the prolific Hipgnosis studio. Salvador Dali had been offered the gig but wanted too much money; $50,000, allegedly. Trilogy begins with a three-part Emerson suite, The Endless Enigma, followed by Lake’s song From The Beginning

Hoedown, an arrangement of the 1942 Aaron Copland composition Rodeo, would become one of the band’s most popular tracks. Lake said Trilogy was his favourite of all ELP’s LPs and it reached No 2 in the UK charts, No 5 in America.

However such was the complexity of the material, recorded in 24-track with countless overdubs, that the band had difficulty reproducing much of it in the concert hall. They decided that the next album must be suitable for playing live, and with that in mind bought a disused ABC cinema in Fulham where they rehearsed songs before putting them down in the studio. The result was 1973’s Brain Salad Surgery.

The album opens with an arrangement of Jerusalem, which was released as a single but failed to chart after the BBC banned its DJs from playing it. ‘I think they felt our version of Jerusalem was a bit of an affront to Britishness,’ said Lake. (Almost 50 years later, the Beeb had no compunction about messing with Sir Hubert Parry’s hymn). 

Next comes Toccata, based on Alberto Ginastera’s 1st Piano Concerto. Although the band had been playing this live for several months, they were told they did not have the rights to record it and were advised to ask the composer’s permission. Emerson flew to Geneva where he met Ginastera and played him a tape of ELP’s version. According to Keith, the 57-year-old Argentinian gave his blessing, telling him: ‘You’ve captured the essence of my music like no one else has before.’

The centrepiece of the album is Karn Evil 9, which weighs in at almost half an hour and had to be split between sides one and two of the vinyl release although it would be reunited when it came out on CD. The second part of the first movement contains the famous line ‘Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends’, which would later provide the title of a live album.

Despite a mixed critical reception, Brain Salad would become ELP’s most commercially successful release, staying 18 weeks on the UK charts with a high point of No 2 and spending no fewer than 47 weeks in America after reaching No 11. The band toured extensively to promote it, the show climaxing with Emerson’s synthesiser pouring smoke and pivoting towards the audience before a pair of silver bat wings sprouted from its rear end.

This stunt was nothing, however, compared with the flying piano routine I mentioned at the beginning of Part OneHere it is again. Interviewed in 2014 for Classic Rock Music, Keith said a roadie told him about a chap named Bob McCarthy who created special effects for TV ‘and he’s made something that might interest you’. Emerson visited McCarthy’s home in Long Island and noticed a piano in a corner. ‘So he called his wife down from upstairs and said, “Darling could you demonstrate this for Keith?” I wasn’t sure what to expect. His wife sits on the seat and up she goes in the air and proceeds to spin around. I thought, “Well that’s great!” Then Bob asked me, “Do you want to have a go at it? You need to understand, below the keyboard there’s an inverted T, like a bar. You wrap your legs around the down pipe and put your heels under the inverted T. Then you go up in the air and try and do your best to play.” It was a little difficult to play at first because of the centrifugal force, so it wasn’t easy. I think we actually used it for the first time at Madison Square Garden, a Christmas concert. People in the audience were so astounded they couldn’t quite believe what they were seeing.’

According to Greg Lake, the piano was a fake Steinway with no insides. It eventually would become surrounded with smoke before disappearing in a huge explosion. The stunt was short-lived because it proved too dangerous, with Emerson suffering finger injuries and a broken nose. However it came up constantly in interviews, to his irritation. ‘Every TV show I did came the question . . . “Keith, how do you spin around on that piano?” I’d say, “What about my music?” When I had the honour of meeting the great jazz pianist Dave Brubeck just before he died, he said, “Keith you’ve got to tell me how do you spin around on that piano?” Brubeck was 90 years old then and I said, “Dave, don’t try it”.’

ELP eventually disbanded in 1979 although there were several reunions over the years. Carl Palmer is still with us but Greg Lake died of cancer aged 69 in December 2016. The previous March, at his home in Santa Monica, California, 71-year-old Keith Emerson shot himself in the head. His girlfriend Mari Kawaguchi said he was depressed because nerve damage had affected his playing and he feared that he would no longer be able to give his fans the performance they deserved at forthcoming gigs in Japan. A showman to the end. RIP.

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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