The Carl Palmer Interview

The last time I spoke to drummer Carl Palmer, he and his band were preparing to play two festivals at sea. This time, four years later, it was the day after the opening night of Yestival, a dry-land event featuring Yes, Todd Rundgren and Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy. Despite a heavy schedule of touring with his band and Asia, the last couple of years for Palmer have been an emotional rollercoaster. That’s because Keith Emerson, Greg Lake and John Wetton — all one-time band mates of the drummer — have shuffled off this mortal coil. Ever the trooper, Palmer continued to work without pause or distraction.

Losing Emerson and Lake leaves Palmer as the last surviving member of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, the pioneering super power trio that turned progressive rock on its ear in the 1970s. As a call to duty, the drummer is on a mission to keep ELP’s music alive, paying tribute to his fallen comrades along the way. The same goes for Asia, who toured in the spring and early summer with Journey, and had bassist Billy Sherwood (already standing in for Chris Squire in Yes) in Wetton’s place on vocals and bass. Somehow, by staying busy, the drummer seems more determined than ever to carry on the legacy of the two bands he co-founded.

During the following exchange, Palmer spoke at length about Yestival and the recent Asia tour. He also touched on some of ELP’s albums, which have all been reissued by BMG. When prompted, he talked about Emerson, Lake and Wetton — three musicians who played pivotal roles in Carl Palmer’s career. In September, he’ll be honored in London at the Progressive Music Awards where he’ll receive the Prog God Award for 2017. For a man who’s spent most of his life in the spotlight, reinventing drumming, enduring more highs and lows than most folks, and still active and eager to please his audiences, there is really no one else more deserving of the distinction.


Last night was the opening night of Yestival. How did it go?

For an opening night, everything was good. The band played good. There was a reasonable amount of people there. Overall, I’d say, it was the normal teething problems you get on opening night. I’m sure after last night, things will run a lot smoother. We didn’t have any major problems ourselves. We were on first and we played for approximately a half an hour. In a half an hour you’re not able to get in as many tunes as you like, but we managed to play “Hoedown.” We managed to play “Welcome Back,” “Lucky Man,” “Knife Edge” and “Fanfare.” That took a half hour and a couple of announcements and things. It went down remarkably well. Obviously, the Yes audience is well tuned into the Emerson, Lake and Palmer music anyway. From that point of view, it’s a perfect match.

This is a pretty eclectic bill with you and your band, Yes and Todd Rundgren, wouldn’t you agree?

I think the music of Yes and ELP are a lot closer than Todd Rundgren. I’ve heard albums by Todd Rundgren. The Utopia album was played for me the first time, which I had not heard before the other day. He was obviously in that area at one time. He’s not choosing to play that way on this tour, which I think it would have been better if he did I suppose, but you know, he sounds OK. He’s singing very well. It is quite eclectic. It’s a very strange combination.

You have three-quarters of the original Asia lineup and Billy Sherwood, who stepped in for John Wetton earlier this year. Any chance of the four of you playing some Asia music together?

Not on this particular tour. There’s already three bands on, and it would up more time playing Asia. Yes would play even less time. They’re only playing just about an hour and a half now. Because of the change-overs, it makes the evening quite long. And there’s obviously curfews at various venues. I don’t think it will happen on this particular tour, but let me just say you never know what the future might bring. Let me just leave it like that (laughs).

And you’ll be joining Yes next year for Cruise To the Edge, which I know you were a part of back in 2013. You’ve done a few of these festivals at sea. I was on board for the last two Cruise to the Edge cruises. What do you like about doing them?

This is only the second time I’ve done Cruise to the Edge. I’ve done all of them. I’ve done the Moody Blues Cruise, which was really, really very cool. I really enjoyed that. And we’ve done the Monsters of Rock cruise, which was something that people said that maybe it wouldn’t work too well. We had a great time because the band is kind of a heavier sounding prog band. It worked. I really enjoyed that cruise. That’s the most popular cruise, to be honest with you. It had the most people. The Cruise to the Edge, the very first one that I did, was fantastic. We all had a great time. We played indoors and we played out on the deck. It was nice. We didn’t have any problems with that. I’ve liked all the cruises that they’ve put out on that kind of level.

You and Asia were part of another tour earlier this year when you hit the road with Journey. How did those shows go?

Yeah, to be honest, it was one of those combinations of groups, which was absolutely perfect, I mean Journey really being the blueprint for that classic rock. They sound exceptional every night; their standards are unbelievably high — the whole organization as a matter of fact. Asia, being put into that kind of environment, really did rise to the occasion. The connection between the two bands is Mike Stone the producer, who’s no longer with us unfortunately. They had a couple of albums produced by Mike, we did as well. We’ve been talking about playing with Journey for years upon years. So that’s how that came about.

The concerts themselves were absolutely fantastic. We played for approximately 45 minutes and a 20-minute change-over, on came Journey. It went remarkably well. I think between March and June into July, we played something like 42 concerts with them. We had a great time, and we would very much like to look into that situation again in the future, depending on how Journey is.

I think they’ve been having some problems.

I think there’s something going on there, but I’m sure they’ll iron it out. You would never know. We were very close to them, in the dressing room next door. It was all professionally handled and dealt with. They sounded great, that’s all I can say. It’s the music that matters at the end of the day.

Aside from the Asia tour, Yestival, and all that activity, Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy has a full plate of dates in the fall. You’ve been on the road nonstop for the last few years. Have you ever thought about going into the studio with this lineup and cutting some tracks?

We just recorded a live album called Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy: Live In The USA, and that’s got a lot of ELP music on it. That hasn’t been released by this band. And obviously, it’s a new configuration. We’re not using vocals or keyboards. There‘s a couple of classical adaptations on there that weren’t played by ELP. This is going to be coming out on BMG, along with a DVD that I made last year, a tribute to Keith Emerson. We had Steve Hackett come out and play a couple of pieces, and also had Mark Stein from Vanilla Fudge do two pieces, “Welcome Back” and “Knife Edge.” At the moment, this product is available and ready to come out.

There are still some ELP tracks that we’ve never recorded. Things like “Jerusalem,” “Welcome Back My Friends,” “Carmina Burana.” There’s about four of them. Because the catalog is so vast of ELP, there’s so much material — and I know a lot of people want to hear a lot of the old material — because there’s so much of it, there doesn’t seem a real kind of need to try and compete or write something as good as we’ve got already that hasn’t been played for years. I’m quite happy to stick where we are right now because it’s definitely working. This is the only place you can hear that original ELP music. I’m interested in classical adaptations that were not recorded by ELP, but as far as something that was completely written from scratch — no, we’ve not done that.

Speaking of records, there’s been a steady stream of ELP reissues coming out. In fact, I just reviewed the remastered reissues of Works, Vol. 1, Works, Vol. 2 and Love Beach — three records very different from what ELP was doing in the early 70s. Looking back, what’s your opinion of those albums?

Works, Vol. 1 was that moment in time where I think you were seeing the end of Emerson, Lake and Palmer. That was that moment where we got a side each, for vinyl if you remember, and a fourth side was “Pirates,” which was an unbelievable piece of music. I don’t think it gained the notoriety it should have. But it was a fabulous piece of music. I recall playing it with the orchestra and really getting chills. It was fantastic. I really thought that was on a really high level, writing-wise, recording-wise, arrangement-wise, lyrically — it was absolutely perfect.

I have good memories about that period. Works 2 had a lot of tracks we recorded, which we didn’t use, but we recorded so much in that period, that’s why we had to go to that. I think Works 2 looks a little bit disjointed because Works 1 was such a concept. Having a side each and then coming together. Volume 2 was just a single vinyl. I think that was kind of a beginning to the end, to be honest with you. Love Beach definitely was the end. We never actually broke up and said we’ll never play again; we just never spoke to each other and just left it like that.

Love Beach came about (because) Ahmet Ertegan asked if we would go in and just try one more time. And we said, “Well, we’re all kind of vacationing in Nassau and yeah, we can do that.” Chris Blackwell offered us his studio, Compass Point, and off we went. There’s a couple of tracks that are good. It’s not my favorite album. There’s one by (Joaquin) Rodrigo, which we actually play, called “Canario.” Works, Vol. 1 was probably the beginning of the end, and, if you think about, it wasn’t long after that, we called it a day, around the beginning of 1979.

BMG is releasing a box set with all of ELP’s studio albums, plus some unreleased material, 5.1 surround mixes, lots of other goodies. Were you involved with putting that one together?

All of the music has been checked and approved prior to that. As far as the marketing is concerned, we have a very strong relationship with BMG. I’ve just signed this group (CPL) to BMG. We’re now with them. It’s kind of a bit of a family really. With the publishing, we’re totally in bed with them. We’ve given them complete trust. There’s been a few issues with the colors of the album covers where they’re not been exactly like the original artwork, but as far as the marketing and packaging, we’ve just let them get on with it, and then they present it to us and let us have a look at it. They have designated departments now within the structure of BMG that just look at that catalog. Obviously they want to generate as much as they possibly can, sales-wise. They want to keep the catalog alive. I don’t think they would have signed the catalog — we own it — but they signed it up a couple of years ago. So they will do a really good job. I have total respect and trust in what BMG do. They’re a good, solid German company.

I know you’ve been involved with other ELP releases in the past. When I spoke to Keith Emerson a few years ago and asked him about the The Original Bootleg Series From The Manticore Vaults, he said you were behind that.

That was a simple thing I did. It was very difficult at the time to get Greg and Keith to agree. In Tokyo there’s a music store called Highland. And Highland specializes in bootlegs. We noticed a lot of the concerts were being recorded, and within about three days, you could actually buy that show from the Budokan or where ever we were. You could buy that show on vinyl or CD, whatever it was at the time. You could buy that before we’d left Japan. It was already there.

I think I spent about $1500 one afternoon. I bought everything in this shop and took it back, and I told Greg and Keith this was something I would do on my own. And once it’s all done if they wanted to be a part of it, which I wanted them to be, then we’d just share expenses. So I brought it back and started working with a man called Brian Emerson, who’s no relation to Keith. He was an in-house accountant and bookkeeper. I said, “Brian, this is what I want to do: I want to call it From The Manticore Vault, three CDs, four CDs in each box, and I just want to put a disclosure on there saying they’re as clean as what they can possibly be.

I took them to a forensic sound lab and I managed to spot-wipe most of the noise off of them. I had a lot of problems with Greg because he was involved with a lot of the producing at the time, and he didn’t like anything being done without him being there. But it was such a time-consuming job, I knew he would soon drop out and I carried on with it. It’s become quite an important part. We haven’t got that far with BMG yet, but those will be revisited again. There are some illegal recordings that I have bought since, which haven’t been released. And we’ll repackage that and run it by the side the normal catalog.

The version of us playing at the Isle of Wight…The recording we have from the desk that night was OK, it wasn’t great. I was in an area of London called Camden Town, and there’s a guy selling bootleg cassettes, and I went up and had a look and I saw ELP At The Isle Of Wight. I bought it off him for £10 and that’s the Isle of Wight version in the bootleg set. It’s better than the one we recorded from the desk.

My deal was to try to put the bootleggers out of business by packaging the From The Manticore Vaults in the box sets. I put the right set of pictures, some stories, made the necessary disclosures that sonically it’s not going to be perfect, but you know what you’re buying, you’re buying history, you’re not buying something from an audio point of view — correct and all in good order. You know, the sales haven’t been fantastic, but I’ll tell you what: I’d rather have the sales on that side of the fence than somebody else making something from it. Anyway, the Highland is out of business, I’m very happy about that. The store is still there. I think they call it something else (laughs).

That was a very innovative thing you did because a few others have followed suit.

I don’t often talk about it, taking credit for it. I just did because I was annoyed by the business side that people were making money out of us. The management didn’t want to be bothered — they thought it was too small. But now, when we do record deals, that’s part of the record deal, that they get The (Original) Bootleg Series. So you tell me? It’s obviously stood the test of time.

In the last year and a half, you lost three band mates of yours — Keith Emerson, Greg Lake and John Wetton. And yet, you kept working and celebrating the work you did with those guys. Was it difficult to keep a stiff upper lip during those months?

Losing both Greg and Keith in one year — that was a little bit of a knock. When I heard about Keith, I was in Italy. I got onto the bus and my phone rang and it was one of the Asia managers and he told me that it had happened. There’s a time difference between where I was in Italy and California where he had died. That took a bit of time. We were organizing the tribute to Keith, which we did in Florida last year, and that really helped, doing that for him.

By the time we got to the end of year, I didn’t think for one minute that Greg was in such bad shape, mainly because I hadn’t spoke to him in an awful long time. We had exchanged a couple of emails. He wasn’t very happy that I wanted to end of the group. Keith was happy. After High Voltage in 2010, I decided not to do it anymore. Keith understood completely and said, “Someone had to do it, at least you did it.” Greg kind of wasn’t very happy about it. Anyway, we didn’t talk a lot. I was really quite surprised when I heard he was as bad as what he was, and then he died that December (2016). That was a bit tragic. And then, obviously Wetton on the 31st of January. So three key people in my career, in a very short time, an 11-month period.

So I’ve done shows dedicated to both Keith and Greg. There’s a DVD I’ve done for Keith. I’ve been involved with a form of art using light. You can go to I’ve done a dedication to Keith, “Welcome Back”; I did one for Greg, “Lucky Man”; and did one for John called “Heat of The Moment.” I call it “My Legends” series. I’ve kind of put back in wherever I can to sort of make it better for everyone, as it were. But obviously, it was very difficult.

With Asia on the Journey tour, that was interesting because we didn’t think we’d be able to do it without John, but Journey were insistent. They said, “No, find someone else, find a singer. We want you.” So we said, “OK.” It was John’s wish, to make it very clear. John was asked; I asked him first actually. “What do you want to do if you can’t make all of the concerts? Or you need some help when you’re playing — if you just want to sing and not play?” He didn’t come back to me for a couple of weeks. And then he didn’t come back to me personally, he went to the management and said, “If I’ve got to have anyone help me out” — he was still talking very positively at the time — “I’d like it to be Billy Sherwood.” Billy Sherwood was someone who’d already worked with John on a solo project. So that’s who we used. We carried on and we did that March tour, we did that June, July tour with Journey, and that was with Billy Sherwood on bass guitar and lead vocals.

I had read that you and Keith Emerson were talking about working together prior to his passing. Is that true?

Yes. What was happening was we were going out last June. I. The management here I had, Bruce Pilato, called him up and tried to get a date fixed. This was like in February, about three weeks before he died, we were still talking. Keith — from what we could gather and I knew him quite well — he wanted to get to Japan in May and then see how he felt when he came back. Obviously, he never got to Japan and he never got to play with us. The accident happened I think in the beginning of the second week of March. But we talked about him coming out and just playing one concert, a couple of tunes. That’s where it was. We never finalized the date; we never finalized anything, but talked about it. We understood at the time that it was something we’d discuss when he returned from Japan. But that never happened.

He wouldn’t have done a tour or anything like that, but he might have come and played one date if it was on his doorstep. We were actually looking for a concert directly outside his front door, so he could just walk out and play. That’s what we were going to head for once we knew he was ready for it.

Next month, you’re receiving the Prog God award in London. Congratulations on that.

Thank you.

Progressive rock is still alive and well. You’re still at it. Yes and a second version of Yes with Jon Anderson, Rick Wakeman and Trevor Rabin are touring. Ian Anderson keeps making records and touring. Artists like Steven Wilson and Dream Theater have brought prog to new audiences. To what do you attribute prog’s longevity?

To be honest with you, it’s actually deeper than what you just said. If you were to go to towns like Chicago, they had a prog fest in a tiny little club called Reggies. It lasted the weekend — Friday, Saturday and Sunday night — and they had different prog bands on every night. Some of them are real young prog bands from Philadelphia. There’s a lot out there, especially here in America. A lot of young bands playing the music. If you look at England, there’s a lot of stuff. Classic Rock magazine, I’m on their board and they send me all this stuff that’s going on. I see all these new prog rock names coming up all the time. So, the music is very, very strong.

It’s like this: it’s never going to be the way it was, that’s for sure. Music never comes back to the full power that it once had. But it’s always going to be there. It’s like classical music will never be as popular what it was years and years and years ago, but it will be there. It’s an art form that’s part of our mainstream, it’s part of our everyday life, it’s part of our landscape. It’s a bit like jazz here in America. It will never be super, super popular again like it was maybe in the late 40s and 50s, but you know it will always be there because it’s a true art form. So, the popularity has really to do with the actual art itself now. It’s here forever. However people chose to listen to it for however long for whatever period of time, it will always just be there. And that’s really what prog rock is on a global level. It will just be around.

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