Carl Palmer has just wrapped up a successful tour. The legendary drummer of Emerson Lake & Palmer and Asia had taken to the road to remind people that music played by real musicians does actually exist and that the songs he helped create with the aforementioned bands are just as intelligent and fascinating today as when they first hit record store shelves throughout the 70’s – a time when big music was big business.
Palmer had his first flirtation with fame via a freaky psychedelic-type enigma of a band called The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown, whose song “Fire” was a bit of a hit at home in England, selling over a million copies. Palmer followed that up by forming Atomic Rooster, a bluesy prog band he felt had a chance to go big. But by the summer of 1970, he was being lured into a new band featuring Greg Lake and keyboard extraordinaire Keith Emerson. Palmer was very hesitant to leave his band at a pinnacle time and his decision to finally do so was “very difficult,” Palmer explained to me a few months ago.
ELP would proceed to record hits like “Lucky Man” and “Tarkus” and the album Brain Salad Surgery, all featuring over-the-top organ shenanigans via Emerson, who was a rock star in every way, blending classical compositions with modern-at-the-time embellishments of blues, rock and psychedelia. The mixture worked and the band played sold out concerts around the world throughout their 70’s heyday.
Palmer is not known to sit still for very long. He transitioned into the music video fueled 80’s with Asia, featuring Yes’ Steve Howe and Geoff Downes, and hit #1 with their debut self-titled album and spurning a top 5 single with “Heat Of The Moment.” Palmer has toured and recorded with his solo band and just recently was involved with a project labeled the Carl Palmer Legacy. I spoke with Palmer about his recent endeavors, ELP and what it takes to make a drum solo spectacular.
Tell us about the Carl Palmer Legacy and how this tour is different than your average project.
Basically, they’re calling it the Carl Palmer Legacy because this is really a sort of tribute to Emerson Lake & Palmer and classical music in general. As you know, classical music has been a major vehicle for Emerson Lake & Palmer and for the last twelve years I’ve been using the same musical vehicle, classical adaptations, for my own band. So what I’ve done this year is, I’ve put a set together and we’re playing music from the last new album, which was Working Live Volume 3, and we’re playing “Pictures At An Exhibition” by Mussorgsky, which was the big piece on that CD.
But what I’m doing here is, with each of the pieces of music, I’ve added a sort of cinematic approach where, for example, when we play ”Hoedown” by Aaron Copland, which has been played by many groups including Emerson Lake & Palmer and the Carl Palmer Legacy obviously, but what we’ve done is we’ve added things like aerial view shots of the Grand Canyon and of various deserts and mountain ranges, just to give it the spirit of the piece of music that Copland was trying to express. It’s from the “Rodeo Suite,” as you know, so it’s got a little bit of the cowboy-type influence. But what we’ve done is we’ve taken each piece of music and added something to it, which is really important as far as a visual approach. As you know, the group is instrumental so this seemed to be a nice way of doing things in America and America having such situations taking place that have happened through history, whether it be Martin Luther King, whether it be just the flag on the screen, just to give the connection to the music.
We are playing the Leonard Bernstein piece from West Side Story. We also play some original pieces like “Tarkus” and “Knife Edge” by ELP; “Welcome Back” is also another piece of ours. We also had another piece by Copland called “Fanfare For The Common Man” and that starts off with the trumpet, so needless to say on the screen we’ve got these trumpeters playing along with us. We’re also playing the “Karelia Suite” by Sibelius, and that sort of speaks for itself, and we’re also doing another piece of music that we have never played in America, which is a “Fugue In D Minor” by Bach, which was made very successful here in Europe many, many years ago by a group called Sky, another classical rock instrumental group and I believe they had a #1 single with it. Anyway, we have a new version of that which we’re playing. So all in all, with these various guitar features – bass guitar, lead guitar and drum features – I would say that we’re looking at about two hours here, roughly. We’ve got, I think, a very varied setlist and it shows off the expertise of the individual players; and coupled with the cinematic approach, I think it will be quite entertaining for everyone.
You’ve also been working with SceneFour, which is a company that does really imaginative art.
Yes, we started last year when I was on tour with Asia. We’d met up a couple of times and then we met up to try and actually create some art together, which we managed to do in Calabasas, California. I was very interested in what I considered to be the hidden art form. And what it is, Leslie, is basically we set up the drums in a room and we black the room out completely so it’s pitch black. And the drumsticks that I’m using have got small LED lights set into the end of them. So as I play, I create all these various shapes and shadows and things. And if I play various rhythms, let’s say the rhythm to “Tank” or “Tarkus,” you can actually see this other sort of art form taking place. The shadow of the lights and the various colors that we’ve used, we use different colors on each stick, has given obviously a lot of rainbow type effects.
But the shapes have been quite eerie because you can’t actually see me but you can sometimes see a silhouette or my face slightly. And the cameras that they use are very high-tech cameras, slow-framing cameras, which captured most of the movement. And there’s two of them always going at any time and they’re hand held. And it worked. We spent about four hours one day playing through various things and we got together since then and experimented. I produced roughly two hundred pieces of art, which I’ve given various names to, depending on what was being played at the time, to give it some relevance. And these pieces are being accepted like in a really big way. Already we’ve sold just over half so I’m quite happy. It’s called The Twist Of The Wrist Collection and the actual tour is called The Twist Of The Wrist. If you go to my website, www.carlpalmer.com, there is information on the site; or if you go straight to the actual website, www.carlpalmerart.com, you can see various pieces of the art work displayed on that website.
So Carl, what keeps you excited about playing music and playing the drums forty years down the road? I’ve never seen you live but I’ve seen videos from all through the years and you’re always smiling.
Well, to tell you the truth, I’ve been playing now professionally since I was fifteen so what am I now? I’m sixty-three in March, I started professionally when I was fifteen so I’ve been playing a long time, that’s forty-eight years, isn’t it. So for me it’s something that I really enjoy. There is always new things to do. I’ve been incredibly successful from the year 1968, having my first hit single with The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown, “Fire,” with the single and the album, to going on to the Atomic Rooster, which was a big underground group here in Europe. We never made it to America unfortunately. Then on to Emerson Lake & Palmer, who was just huge in the seventies and came back in the nineties and were huge again. Had success in the eighties with Asia. Had a #1 single and album for several weeks. So I’ve been incredibly lucky and I’m very, very happy to be doing what I’m doing.
I think the fact that I’m still playing at an incredibly high standard makes me very happy. My philosophy is, as long as I’m playing at a very high standard, I’ll keep playing and I’ll carry on playing even if only to maintain my standards, if I can’t improve. At the moment, I’m still improving so I feel extremely content. But if I don’t improve but I can maintain, I’ll carry on. I think as soon as I feel not up to scratch or if I can’t maintain this high standard that I’ve set for myself personally, then you won’t see me smiling anymore on YouTube and I’ll stop or I’ll play a different type of music which isn’t so demanding. But right now, I’ve been blessed and I’m extremely happy to be in the position I’m in this late in my life.
You mentioned Atomic Rooster and that was the band you were in when you went to join Emerson Lake & Palmer. But I’ve heard that you debated on whether to leave. What finally helped you make the decision to leave?
It was very difficult, you see, because I’d started the Atomic Rooster. It was my group originally and I put all the management together with the Robert Stigwood Agency, who managed people like the Cream, the Bee Gees and Eric Clapton for a while. So I had top in management. It was a very, very difficult thing for me to give up. Also, I had a piece of music called “Tomorrow Night,” which I thought was going to be very successful for the band. I’d made a demo of it. But to cut a long story short, by the time I’d decided to join Keith and Greg, when I left the Atomic Rooster, they had to record this one piece of music, re-record it, and this went to #1 in England. So I thought I’d made a terrible mistake leaving the band Atomic Rooster because it was kind of my baby, as they say; plus I felt there was some success coming it’s way. And sure enough, it was. So the tune got re-recorded by the new drummer and that was it and I was very, very happy.
In the long term, in the big picture, obviously, Emerson Lake & Palmer had a lot more success than Atomic Rooster. But at the time it was very difficult for me to let go and I think the situation was encouraged by Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic Records. He sort of said, “You know, look, we’re going to put a lot of money behind this band but to really get it off the ground, we believe that prog rock with the classical adaptation-type of approach is going to be something which will be successful.” I thought, well, you know, this is the President of Atlantic Records taking time out to convince me to be in the band so I thought maybe there’s more here than what I’m actually seeing. So that’s how it all came about, really.
What do you remember most about recording the first ELP album?
Not a lot really, because I was very disappointed at that particular stage. There was one commercial song, “Lucky Man,” which obviously did very well for us. There was a rock piece of music called “Knife Edge,” which really we thought we’d written but we didn’t know that Keith Emerson had stolen the piece from the composer Janacek. We did get a knock at the door a year later from the publisher saying this isn’t all yours, you know. Anyway, going back to the original album, I was a little bit disappointed because the one side just had Keith Emerson playing organ on it. There was no bass, there was no singing, there was no drums. So I thought maybe we haven’t got this right. But that’s the way it went and I just let it go and, fortunate enough, American radio was a lot more open than what it is now. It was a true art form where anything and everything could be played at any time of day. And they did play “Knife Edge” and they did play “Lucky Man” and they did get into the top ten and they did play “The Barbarian” by Bartok. I don’t know how much of “The Three Fates,” the three organ pieces, that they played but at that stage it didn’t matter. We’d got three or four tracks on the airwaves and that was enough to get us through. But I was slightly disappointed with the first album on the presentation.
The recording technology has advanced so far since you recorded that first album. What do you think has been the best part of the new technology, in your opinion?
Well, it’s a lot easier. Let’s take a track that’s twenty minutes long called “Tarkus,” an original piece by Emerson Lake & Palmer, which I actually still play on stage now in it’s entirety. When we recorded that, we obviously couldn’t all play for twenty/twenty-two minutes without making a mistake so we would have to get what we call edit points that we would play up to and then stop, review it, join it together to the next piece and re-record from then on. And there would be seventeen edits alone on “Tarkus.” Today, you wouldn’t have to do that. You could just play it all with mistakes and then correct all of the mistakes digitally afterwards. You wouldn’t possibly even have to re-record anything. You could use a system called Pro Tools where you can move the beats around, you could move the notes around, you can re-tune it, you can do this. So probably today to make those concept albums, though they’re not popular anymore and you wouldn’t be making them anyway, but if you were, they’d be a lot easier to make because you could play an entire piece and if you made a mistake you can do all of the corrections, including the vocal corrections, later. We couldn’t actually do that before. We’d have to get a complete piece of music, record it properly and accurately, and to do that there were edit points, and as I said, there were seventeen on “Tarkus.”
In your opinion, what makes a live drum solo a great drum solo?
The fact that drum solos actually start in the first place, is a problem. Cause most drum solos are boring and most people go to the bar or go to the loo, the toilet or the bathroom as you call it, or they go and buy t-shirts. Most drum solos are really boring and some people have to put themselves in a cage and spin themselves upside down and do all matter of tricks. You know, I’ve spun around in circles myself and I know what that’s all about. Basically, a drum solo is very, very hard to get across to the person that is not a drummer. So to get the point across, to make it interesting and to keep their attention, it needs to be visually entertaining. Whether it be in a big way, by revolving, or whether it be in a small way, like playing underneath cymbals or juggling sticks or whatever it might be, it has to be entertaining. And there’s very few instruments that you can have as much visual contact with the audience as drums. Drums are incredibly visual.
If you can play on top of that and you can prove to all of your colleagues or whoever is out there, that you are a great player anyway, and what you’re doing is selling your drum solo by adding these other pieces to keep the model chap or woman in the street comfortable with listening to you, there’s something to latch onto – throwing your stick up in the air or playing on the cymbals in a strange way or backsticking as we call it, or whatever it might be, as long as it’s entertaining, you’ll keep people’s interest. Obviously the more entertaining it is the better it is for everyone. And I suppose you can just put that under the banner of show business. A drum solo is pure show business, really, because at the beginning of the drum solo, most drummers have played all of their licks they can play within the first two or three minutes. I mean, they’ve done it. After that, they’re just going to repeat themselves. Well, what you’ve got to do is you’ve got to repeat yourself but in a very showy way that appeals to the general person. I’m fortunate that I have a huge vocabulary, rhythmically. So I can play for a good hour without repeating myself but I don’t choose to do that. I choose to play a few things finely and really well with quality and then I choose to add a certain amount of showmanship to it, which gets it across to the layman in the street. It makes it interesting and acceptable to all. And that’s what I think a good drum solo is. It’s not how long it is or how fast it is, it’s how interesting it is to the normal person who isn’t really a drummer. And keeping people in the room when you’re playing a drum solo is quite difficult. But I’ve managed to achieve it quite well over the years.
So what happens when you finish the Legacy tour?
You know, we’ve already been to Japan this year. We’ve played all over Europe – Germany, Austria, France, Belgium, Holland, Slovenia. We’ve got roughly a six week tour of America. That will take me through May and then I believe June 5th, 6th and 7th, I’m playing with Asia out in Sweden and Norway; I believe it’s Norway, a festival out there. Then I’ll be with Asia through the summer and then I’ll start up again with my band in October and that’s how it goes.
But to answer your question, I don’t know what I’m going to do after the tour. Probably go on holiday in July, probably end up going to Austria or somewhere like that.