Carl Palmer of Emerson, Lake & Palmer

by Carl Wiser

By the time he teamed up with Keith Emerson (ex-The Nice) and Greg Lake (ex-King Crimson) in 1970, 20-year-old drummer Carl Palmer had already done time in Atomic Rooster and The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown (known for "Fire," which Brown would perform in flaming headgear). Palmer powered the trio with his extraordinarily fast and dazzlingly creative stickwork. Throughout the decade, Emerson, Lake & Palmer set new standards in rock, driven by their own quest for innovation and excellence.

We embarked on this interview with the goal of finding out how ELP crafted these songs and also to get a listening guide to their catalog, much of which has been rereleased in a variety of formats, including heavyweight vinyl. This reissue project was dedicated to Emerson, who died on March 11, 2016 at age 71.

In 2001, Palmer began touring as ELP Legacy, playing new arrangements of the group's songs with a guitarist and bass player, as any attempt to replicate the sounds of Lake and Emerson would be futile. Calling in from London, Carl took us through some of the key ELP compositions and explained why at age 66, he still practices about 90 minutes every day.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): I was looking back on an interview I did with Greg Lake, and he talked about how for him, musical success is when he reached someone's soul with one of his compositions. I'd like to hear your definition of success.

Carl Palmer: Well, I think it's when a lot of people are using your music as a landscape or it's part of a landscape of their life. As time goes by, that's quite meaningful. When you play to kids who were in college in the '70s and then you play to them again years later, like we have done with ELP, you realize that you really are part of what they are. You have supplied this soundtrack.

So for me, it's the people that follow the music. That's what success means: when you have dedicated fans and you are part of their lives. They call up or send you messages saying, "We're going to use this at our christening, at our wedding," then you know that you've reached a different level. It's not just a fan - you're actually part of the infrastructure of their family in a way. So that, to me, is success.

And obviously, ELP had a certain amount of that success, which I'm very grateful for.

Songfacts: Yes. And it wasn't just commercial success, it was also artistic success. I'm wondering what specific pieces that you've worked on have really stood out to you?

Palmer: Well, first of all, you have to understand that Emerson, Lake & Palmer had a lot of commercial success with very simple songs - "From the Beginning," "Still... You Turn Me On," "C'est La Vie," "Lucky Man," "Footprints in the Snow" - but that was only a third of the equation. There was still a lot of music to come from ELP. You could call that next batch of music more of a prog rock, more instrumental, more searching, probably deeper intellectually. So there was an awful lot of music involved with ELP. It was quite eclectic.

And I think the one went with the other. We wouldn't have had people listen to those albums as deeply as they did on so many different cuts with music which is quite abstract and eclectic if we hadn't had the commercial side of ELP. People call us a prog rock band, but to be honest, were we? We were a band that played lots of different genres of music, from jazz to classical adaptations to folk music to rock, and even some blues here and there. We were quite varied in what we did, so it's really hard to pick out one particular area, because it all made up ELP.

There wasn't a blueprint before: We were one of a kind. We were keyboard driven, the singer had a choirboy voice, didn't really use a lot of guitar. We played classical adaptations. There wasn't a lot of jazz in it or blues. A little bit of rock in a sort of symphonic way.

So we were completely different, so it's really hard to pinpoint any one section, really, because all the sections made the unit, made it up to be what it was.

Songfacts: Were you ever concerned with the lyrics that Greg was coming up with when you were composing the songs?

Palmer: As far as the lyrics are concerned, the infrastructure that was put together between Greg and Pete Sinfield, who played a huge part in the lyrics, I think was really important, because you can paint a lot of pictures with lyrics. You can open the door and you can get people right into what you're doing if you get them right. You can really state exactly what's going on.

Most tracks recorded by ELP, we would say that the backing track would have to be a killer instrumental before we added any voice, so the music had to stand up on its own without the lyrics. It all went hand in glove. When you look at things like "Pirates," the lyrics are fantastic there, and the combination of those two guys working together, Sinfield and Lake, really worked. When it hit off, it really hit big and fantastic.

On the other hand, a very simple lyric like "Lucky Man" is fine - you can take that, too. But the lyrics did mature as time went by, and I think Sinfield and Lake did a great job.

Songfacts: It sounds like the lyrics were always put onto the music, not the other way around.

Palmer: What was actually written was always music by Keith Emerson. So basically, you had somebody who could write great music and somebody who could write two, three chords, sort of like pop songs, like great commercial songs. Very simplistic, very folk-like, not rock songs, but really good imaginative, heartfelt songs. That was the two writing elements we had, and both of them had a stronger writing ability than what I did.

The fact that they were different ends of the stick, as it were, was good news, because it meant that if it came together, then we'd have something which was kind of unique. We'd have this deep kind of instrumental classical adaptation approach, and the kind of Dylanesque-type folk song approach. Put the two together, and do you really call that a prog rock band? What you call it is real music, something that's original because it's going off in so many different ways at such a high level.

So the music would always come first. There would be no topline from Keith Emerson, a topline being the main melody. There would be an arrangement, a chord structure, we'd then rearrange it as a band. I would then add sort of rhythmical passages in, which Keith would then write a topline to on the keyboard. None of this was relevant to the tune. This was only relevant to this piece of music being an instrumental in its own right before any topline, which would be the melody, which the lyrics would be added to, would go on last. So that would be the procedure. That's why it took so long.

And that's why you've got this kind of real high-end sort of music, which I think will last for a long, long time. The first five albums are some of the best that I've personally ever heard.

Songfacts: The songs that have followed you around, for instance the ones that you play on your Legacy tours, are a great representation of the band. Can you talk about how you choose these songs?

Palmer: Well, "Knife Edge," which was the only rock track on the very first album, was something which came together very, very quickly in the studio and really worked - it was fantastic. We thought it was an instrumental, and Greg said, "No, hang on." He said, "I could put a topline on this, we could have something."

"Oh, okay."

To be honest with you, it's not completely original, "Knife-Edge." Part of it is written by Janacek [the Czech composer Leos Janacek (1854-1928)], and we got caught out two or three years down the line after the first album was released by the publisher, saying that we'd stolen a piece of music. Now, we didn't know it, but Keith had pinched, sort of taken some music which wasn't his, from Janacek. He used it and didn't tell anyone - we didn't know. I was never a big Janacek fan, to tell you the truth.

But it all worked. And this was the kind of musical engineering that went on within the band. And today, when I play that piece of music with guitars, it sounds even heavier to me. It doesn't have all of the harmonies, even though we use a 6-string bass, and we use a Chapman Stick, which is 12 strings, so you can play synthesizer sounds as well as playing a bass line at the same time. Even though we've got all of that, it doesn't sound as full as it did with Emerson, Lake & Palmer, but it's not meant to be like Emerson, Lake & Palmer. It's meant to be different. It's meant to be what it is today, with virtuoso players of today.

So I've used that policy and that mindset across various tracks that I just can't stop playing. A piece like "Hoedown" just falls under the fingers of guitar players today like you wouldn't believe. I mean, we would have had a guitar player in ELP if we could have found one. I can assure you of that. But we could not find one in the whole of England that really would work with us. I mean, who was good enough?

It's only in the last 15 years, 20 years maybe, that guitar players have been so good. If you think about it, you know more great lead guitar players than you do keyboard players. That's because it's come on that much more and the standard is that much higher. But if ELP had a great lead player, the band would have taken off yet again in another way.

So for me, I'm just doing now what I hoped we could do then, and I don't need to duplicate any keyboard lines by having a keyboard player, because I've played with the greatest keyboard player, so I've done that.

Songfacts: There was a story that Jimi Hendrix was once interested in joining ELP.

Palmer: Unfortunately, that was a journalistic story. People who came up with the word "supergroup" came up with the word "HELP." Oh, Hendrix is going to join.

I can tell you categorically I never saw Hendrix in a rehearsal room with Keith, Greg, and myself. I know that Greg or Keith never rehearsed with Jimi Hendrix, and I know there was really no mention at all about Jimi Hendrix ever joining. That was purely something put together by various magazines, papers, and whatever.

What I can tell you is that Mitch Mitchell, who was the drummer in the Jimi Hendrix Experience, was the first drummer with ELP, not me.

Emerson, Lake & Mitchell? According to Greg Lake, Mitch Mitchell was the first drummer he and Keith Emerson interviewed for their group, and Mitchell suggested Hendrix. The issue was settled when Robert Stigwood, who managed Palmer's group Atomic Rooster, called Lake and suggested Palmer. When the trio played together, it was clear that Palmer was their man, and in June 1970 he joined the fold. Hendrix died in September.
Songfacts: In talking about how you would create these songs, I was thinking about how your relationship with technology advanced, and how while Keith Emerson had all this keyboard technology coming in, you were also experimenting with drum technology.

Palmer: Yeah. The biggest move forward I made was when ELP had a boffin: an electronic wizard-type guy working for us 24/7. I went to him one day and said, "Hey, if we have a microphone on a drum, when I hit the drum, that microphone picks up the signal, it goes through the PA. If I had a second microphone on the drum, which would be what I would refer to as a trigger microphone - that word gets used all the time today - that could trigger a sound in a unit that I've got on the floor that's got a preconceived, preprogrammed sound. Could it not?"

The guy said yes.

So I said, "Well, let's build eight different sounds that I can trigger with a separate microphone when I want them and have two microphones on each drum: one for the PA, and one to trigger with." And that was the first area of technology that I really investigated.

We started making an electronic drum. It wasn't very good, but it was OK. I wanted a whole electronic drum set, which I managed to achieve, and the piece of music is on the Brain Salad Surgery album. It's by Ginastera, and it's called "Toccata." In the middle you hear all these atmospheric preprogrammed sort of keyboard sounds, but they're actually all being triggered by the drums with a mitigator on the floor where I could have an octave divided, change the sound up or down to each individual sound. And there were roughly eight of them. So those eight, 16, probably 24 sounds, the same sound, up the octave and down the octave.

So that was my first and my main sort of contribution, really. It never got picked up on because it was so far left - it was so far in front that people thought they were keyboard sounds, so we didn't bother in explaining that, No, they're not. We just let it go, because we were just after creating new sounds and things.

And the piece by Ginastera, which I played on stage with my band Carl Palmer's ELP Legacy many years ago, is a fantastic piece. I don't actually play the electronic drum solo anymore, but at the time, the sounds were really sophisticated. Today, they wouldn't sound so good.

The fifth ELP album, released in 1977, is Works Volume 1, which Palmer has described as the creative high point of the band. On the 2-disc album, each member was granted one side, with Side 4 being the whole band. Side 1 is Keith Emerson's "Piano Concerto No. 1."
Songfacts: What do you consider Keith Emerson's greatest piece?

Palmer: His greatest piece, which should have been something we did as a group, I would say was his piano concerto. I would say his greatest piece as far as what we did as a group, as a collective unit of pieces of music, would be the album Brain Salad Surgery. The greatest piece collectively as a band, which really was a blueprint for a lot of up-and-coming prog rock groups to follow, would have been "Tarkus."

The music in "Tarkus" was very, very simple. It was a 10/8 rhythm, which I played to Keith, and I said, "We could count this in 5/4, this is where the accents are." He wrote, then, a topline that went wherever the accents were, and we had the melody. This was a fantastic piece of music, unbelievable.

All that was wrong with "Tarkus" was it probably wasn't as mature a concept lyrically as what it should have been. It was just a group of songs nailed together, but the actual music itself was outstanding. It just didn't have the political overtones that something like Pink Floyd had with The Wall. It wasn't that in-depth. But the music was superior, was absolutely fantastic. We just never really carried it through far enough intellectually.

So great album, great, great music, just didn't cap it off completely. But very proud of it.

Songfacts: The "Peter Gunn Theme" has served you well.

Palmer: Love it to death.

Songfacts: Can you talk about why that song is such a great opener and why you guys decided to do it?

Palmer: Well, "Peter Gunn" was written Henry Mancini, and it's such a simple piece of music. It's very direct, it's to the point. It's about as rock-y as ELP ever really got apart from things like "Nutrocker," which is more of a comedic piece of music. But "Peter Gunn" has got this sort of great satisfying feeling when you're playing it, because it is simple. It's not very technical, but it means a lot. It gets right to the point. It's a great piece of writing.

Musically, it works on keyboards or guitars or both. It works remarkably well.

An inside tip here: It's a great piece of music to use to open a show, because with this piece of music, there's not a lot going on, but all of the frequency bands - low, high, middle - are all in this one piece. In concert, the first tune with any band when they start playing is never as good as the last, so if the first tune is an easy piece to mix, and "Peter Gunn" is because of its simplicity and because its frequency bands are very easy to grasp, then you're going to have a good sound the rest of the evening. So that's another reason for using it, apart from it being an incredibly exciting piece of music.

Songfacts: That's genius. I never would have thought of that.

Palmer: Nor did I.

Songfacts: I read something you said in 1974 where you were practicing two hours a day, like exercises.

Palmer: Yes.

Songfacts: Is that something that you kept up throughout your career?

Palmer: I'm 66 now, and I played about 45 minutes this morning, and I'll probably play another half an hour later today. I don't do two straight hours anymore. I split it up with a 50 or a 45 twice a day.

And the reason I do that is because what I play and the style I play, it's quite energetic and quite an exciting way of playing, and I have to rely on a lot of muscle memory and speed and energy. And the only way to do that is by doing a little bit every day all of the time.

I do take up to two to three weeks off when I go on holiday and things, although I still have a pad with me and sticks. But I find that I need to do a little bit every day just to keep my fingers and my wrists supple. I don't need to play for power, I need to play for dexterity, really. I need to play for suppleness, and keeping muscle memory is really important.

Songfacts: What was the most impressive festival that you played?

Palmer: There's been several. I can tell you now that playing at Carnegie Hall was a big moment. Playing at Madison Square Garden was a big moment. Playing at California Jam to 120,000 people, big moment. Playing in Montreal, 78,000 people, big moment. There's been so many big moments, though the ones I remember the most are Madison Square Garden, Montreal, and Carnegie Hall in New York.

Festivals are really kind of void-y things: You don't see many people, you can't respond with the audience, you can't connect. You're there up on the stage on your own, you have to really play hard and get down to it. That's fine, but there's no real synergy going on with you and the audience, so festivals don't really rock my boat.

The Isle of Wight was great. I didn't see any other bands, nor did the other guys: We flew in by helicopter and flew out. So it's really hard to say with a festival, because they never really meant much to me. Carnegie Hall and the Madison Square Garden are the moments in time which I cherish the most.

Songfacts: ELP was known for theatrics, and you came over from Arthur Brown, who would wear a flaming headdress on stage. What was your thought on the whole visual presentation and all these crazy things that would go on during your shows?

Palmer: Well, there was an agreement we all had that the music is most important. Getting the music right. The sound has to be impeccable, has to be absolutely top drawer. If there's any way we can supply some eye candy, some showbiz to what we do, then why don't we? Whether it be having a video, or whatever it might be. If we can use something personally that the individuals can do - and Keith had already started doing this with throwing knives and jumping over his organ - then let's do that.

I could have a revolving drum riser, then let's do that. It wasn't new. Other people had done that before. Not so much in the rock groups, it was more from way back in the past when people like Louis Bellson with the Duke Ellington Orchestra did that. So it wasn't actually new, but it was new in that genre. It was new in that field.

We felt, "Whatever you can do." So if Greg wanted to stand still, as stiff as a board and not move, then stick him on a great carpet, give him a J-200. Let's do that. Are you happy with that? Yeah, man, let's do it, then. Let's see what we can do.

And we believed that you did come along not only to hear great music and see great musicians, but to be entertained, and that's what we tried to do.

And ironically enough, most bands that I've spoken to that are in the top league have always done incredibly well in places like Las Vegas, which is a big show town. And you'd think ELP would do well in Las Vegas. Funnily enough, even with all of these kind of show-biz-y stuff we did, apart from the great music, which is the most important thing to us, we never went down well in Las Vegas. It's very, very odd. We figured they might like it when he throws his knives or I start playing the gongs and throwing the beaters in the air. We didn't actually make it, so it was very weird.

We got confused at one stage. Is this working for us or against us? But to tell you the truth, it's in our blood. As a band, when we work together, when we were all alive, it was something that we had to do anyway, and we would have done it anyway, even before we started talking about it. I mean, everybody was always trying to look more impressive than the next man.

Songfacts: Outside of your work, what contemporary song has the best drumming that you've heard?

Palmer: Outside of my work?

Songfacts: Yes.

Palmer: Wow, that's an interesting one. I've not really considered that. The problem being there's lots of good songs without great drum parts, and there's lots of great drum parts on bad songs. So the choice is from here to eternity.

From my point of view, one of the most exciting, rhythmical patterns and parts and songs that I ever heard, which I thought was really big-time and had it all going, and I'm not a big fan of the drummer - I think he's a great guy - but I really enjoyed a track by The Beatles called "Ticket To Ride." The drum part on that I always thought was exceptional.

Ringo's a great drummer, don't get me wrong. I'm not personally a big, big fan, but this particular drum pattern, whether he came up with it or somebody in the band, is absolutely perfect. "50 Ways To Leave Your Lover," which is Steve Gadd, that's another great drum part. I think the drum part in "Tarkus" is great, but you said not to mention something that I've done. [Laughing] But there are so many.

The Police, Stewart Copeland, some great rock reggae drum parts. "Roxanne," I mean, just beautiful. Really fabulous.

Songfacts: What's the most challenging ELP drum part to play?

"Pictures at an Exhibition" was written in 1874 as a piano suite by the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky. Maurice Ravel did a popular orchestration in 1922 which became the template for the many symphony orchestras that performed the piece. Emerson, Lake & Palmer created their own arrangement in which they incorporated some of their own compositions into the piece. They performed it live on March 26, 1971 at Newcastle City Hall in England, and that recording was issued as their third album.
Palmer: I would say, as a piece of music, probably "Pictures at an Exhibition," because it's about 23 minutes, and it's not actually a time-keeping piece. It's more of a unison playing - unison rolls and fills and sections with melodic instruments. So it's a very strong supportive roll, but not in a time-keeping drummer-type roll. It's more as a fourth instrument, melodic instrument-type roll. So "Pictures at an Exhibition" to me really has a lot to offer and a lot to account for overall. Also, it's one of my big pieces I still play today.

I've just done a DVD, a tribute to Keith Emerson, which will be coming out soon, and I did feature "Pictures" on there, because that was a piece of music that both of us used to listen to when we were young. I used to listen to it with my grandfather, and he used to listen to it at school. Greg wasn't that familiar with it, but he wrote some great pieces that we put into "Pictures."

October 11, 2016.
An excellent musical overview of ELP is their Anthology set. Some of their albums that were reissued in 2016 include Pictures At An Exhibition, Tarkus and Brain Salad Surgery.

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Comments: 5

  • Robert Fullone from Warrenville Illinois Great article. Just found this website and enjoy it immensely. I am very happy that Carl still plays like the old days.
  • Gentle Giant from U.k Thanks great interview
  • Agustin Silva D. from Santiago, ChileI love the wonderful music of ELP since I was a teenager. And of course I admire Carl Palmer as one of the greatest drummers of the last 50 years. I was lucky to see ELP alive (Black Moon) in the Estadio Chile of Santiago, Chile, in 1993. Superb. Thank you, Carl, for your wonderful music and your musical legacy of love and beauty.
  • Peter Mcfadden from UkGreat interesting interview from my newly discovered favourite site - keep up the good work.
    Regards, Peter UK
  • Chipp Ross from Portland Oregon UsaFantastic interview and thank you Carl for the many years of mind-boggling drum work and music! I was lucky enough to see Brain Salad Surgery in Port. Or. USA in '73, when ELP used the Quad sound system. Then seeing Carl's solo tour 30 years on with him playing his cool blue acrylic Ludwig kit and doing a Q&A in Solana Beach Ca. USA was again super entertaining.Looking forward to the DVD release. Take good care Carl. Sincerely, Chipp Ross,Portland Oregon USA.
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