Between 1970 -1973 with the studio albums, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Trilogy, Tarkus and Brain Salad Surgery, ELP created some of prog rock's most seminal and enduring music, battalionsof musically adventurous material framed by world class musicianship and powerful vocals courtesy of bassist Greg Lake. Now with the band's catalog being reissued as special 2-CD deluxe remastered editions (Emerson, Lake & Palmer (1970), Tarkus (1971), Pictures At An Exhibition (1971),Trilogy (1972), Brain Salad Surgery (1973) and Welcome Back, My Friends, To The Show That Never Ends – Ladies And Gentlemen - Emerson, Lake & Palmer (1974) teeming with a generous helping of bonus material (new mixes, alternate tracks, live cuts), fans of ELP are in for a thrilling sonic revisitation of their classic catalog. We spoke with founding member drummer Carl Palmer for a look back at all things ELP.
For fans of ELP, what are the real treats in store with the new batch of ELP reissues?
Carl Palmer: You know it’s all great for me. As far as I am concerned. I’m really pleased to be with BMG. They’re a great great company. I’m very happy with the remixes and the packaging; it’s been a great experience. The catalog is a 40 year old catalog but the music is quality and we know it’s gonna last. I’m as happy as I could ever be about a project. It’s hard to pick out any highlights on these reissues as it all stands out to me. I can’t really pick one thing out. The album, even without the bonus tracks, stand out for me so I’m not really going a put my name on one particular thing. I’m really very pleased with the whole presentation, the packaging, the remastering. The artwork has been revisited at times and the color definition is there. I’m very pleased; it all works. So the highlight is that the whole ELP catalog has been completely rejuvenated.
Speak about the progression in the band's sound and songwriting for the first four ELP studio albums, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Trilogy, Tarkus, Brain Salad Surgery.
The first album is very strange because you only have one rock track, which is “Knife-Edge,” and you have one sort of folk song which is “Lucky Man.” Then you have one classical adaptation which is “The Barbarian” by Bartok. But on the flip side you had all these keyboard pieces. So the first album is very strange and extremely eclectic. It’s not really a prog rock album. People called ELP a prog rock band but the hits that we had were all ballads, things like “Still…You Turn Me On,” ”Lucky Man,” “From The Beginning” and “Footprints in The Snow.”
So if you look at the Trilogy album, the writing has matured. There were more songs and there were more pieces. That was an album which was dedicated to overdubbing. Before when we had recorded the first album and things like Pictures at an Exhibition which was a live record which came out at the front end of the band’s career, we always recorded each track as if it was an instrumental and it had to sound so good as an instrumental before we put any voices on it. Now with Triology we did actually override that and say, well, listen, we want to see if we can get above this. On a couple of the songs, Greg put his voice on and we listened and went, wow, that’s great and then Keith or someone else mentioned, why don’t we put a little bit more in here? Wow, that’s an overdub, how are we gonna play in onstage? That would be out first thought but we would add this stuff. So we started adding and we started adding and once you do that you run into a situation where you can’t play that album onstage the way it was actually recorded. But in those times you couldn’t anyway because technology was not as advanced as what it is now. We didn’t have MIDI; MIDI being a system where you can trigger three or four keyboards at the same time from one. If we had that technological advantage then we could have performed that album. Trilogy was probably never performed in its entirety and now was Brain Salad Surgery. Thought Brain Salad Surgery I believe was the pinnacle of the group’s creativity. It also suffered from the same drama in that we added a lot of overdubs to it, which we figured that it needed. So the group was always progressing and we were kind of backing ourselves in a corner because it was getting harder to bring it to the stage unless we had auxiliary instruments and musicians playing with us. And as you know we never really did that and when we did do that, it was with a 64-piece orchestra.
How about “Tarkus,” where does that stand in the creative arc of ELP?
Well, “Tarkus” actually started with a 10/8 riff or a 5/4 riff that I played to Keith, I said, “This is where the accents are, why don’t you write a melody top line to go over that. Let’s try and get away from the normal time signatures. Let’s look at something a bit more interesting.” He loved and went away and came back with the top line which became “Tarkus” and the creative stuff was really strong. Greg didn’t want to record “Tarkus” for some unknown reason; he didn’t want to go that way at all. I was quite solid on ten idea. I thought that we needed to be inventive. We needed to have a conceptual piece and we needed to have a long piece of music with songs that had strong instrumental passages and that’s how it went. Unfortunately, the actual concept of this animal going out to the sea and laying some eggs and coming back, the manticore and whatever, wasn’t a very sophisticated concept; it was more of a fantasy. It didn’t have any political context. It wasn’t like “The Wall” by Pink Floyd. So we had this phenomenal music but it wasn’t intellectual enough. That was one of the problems but it was a great blueprint that a lot of bands followed and maybe some of those bands did it better than us because they had stronger content lyrically. “Tarkus” wasn’t really quite like that although we called it a concept album because it was 22, 23 minutes long.
What were ELP's ambitions at the beginning of you career and once success took hold, did your ambitions change?
Well, our ambitions were always pretty much the same. We were a pretty dedicated six days a week working band. If we weren’t on the road we were in the studio and if we weren’t in the studio we were in the rehearsal room because we had our own. We worked incredibly hard for the first eight, nine years but unfortunately our timing was wrong. We had a lot of creative juices which were flowing at the very beginning and then suddenly we would take three years off and that would really shove a big hole into the wheel. That would make things very difficult to come back out and perform something new because people still wanted to see the old stuff. I out that argument forth because that’s what happened when we came out with “Works Volume 1” and the orchestra. In hindsight we should have come out a three-piece after having being missing for nearly three years and then maybe the second half of that tour showed some musical growth and introduced the orchestra. But we didn’t do it that way so we had a lot of missed timings and things which didn’t work. But overall we had three to four years where we were one of the biggest groups in the world. We were definitely as big as the Rolling Stones or The Who or Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin. For a brief period of time we were definitely in that area. Agreed that we soon slipped down and then we weren’t but there was no doubt in my mind that for a brief time we had. But the music has lived on in such a strong fashion. It’s very intellectually sounding music and to this day, quality is remembered long after the price is forgotten as they say.
Chemistry is not an automatic in bands, it's an elusive quality that eludes so many musicians. What was the musical glue that brought you, Keith and Greg together?
I think the absolute fabric of the band would be as follows. When I first met Keith I was 17 years-old. He was playing in the Nice and I was depping for Mick Fleetwood for a Fleetwood Mac show. I met Keith on that night and became a Nice fan and used to go watch him play at the Marquee. But when I got serious with Keith as far as wanting to play together, I talked to Keith about his record collection and it was the strangest thing to ever happen to me. His record collection at the time absolutely mirrored mine from top to bottom. I couldn’t believe it; the classical records and the jazz records. When I got together with Greg and started talking to him, all this stuff I liked like Simon & Garfunkel and The Beatles and all that Mersey scene, we had similar records. So we all liked this similar music. We’d all been in similar bands; King Crimson, The Nice, Atomic Rooster, Arthur Brown, all kinds of slightly proggy theatrical groups. So we had a lot in common but what we didn’t have in common was as people. We didn’t really get on very well. If we were playing music we got on like a house on fire but if we weren’t playing it was like, “Well, I’ll see you tomorrow.” We didn’t’ socialize a lot. It wasn’t a very chummy band; it wasn’t a patting each other on the back kind of thing. Yeah, we were civilized with each other but it was exactly what it said on the cover of our albums, Emerson, Lake and Palmer. It was three individuals but it worked for us and the reason why it worked it no one ever sat on the fence. When there was something wrong or the music didn’t cut it or the vocal wasn’t right or something that Keith had written really wasn’t there, he could hear not from one person but from two people. I would hear if something I played wasn’t right straight away. “This is wrong, let’s sort this out.”
With that type of approach, if you can take it on the nose like a man, and we all did, you actually get some music that’s worth fighting for. And when it’s worth fighting for it’s usually good. If you’ve got one guy in a band who sits on the fence and says, “Oh yes I like that” or “Oh yes, that’s fine by me,” get rid of him! Get him out! (laughs) You don’t need him and we didn’t have that in ELP. We had three very strong individuals and that reflected in the music. Apart from having two incredibly talented writers, one that could write great instrumental music being Keith and the other one being Greg that could write great folk songs and three great players, we had what we had, which was something really quite unique. I enjoyed being the referee figure that I was in ELP. It was sensational time in my life, absolutely sensational.
“THIRD” TIME'S THE CHARM
Phoenix, Arizona native Cait Brennan turned heads with her debut release, Debutante, which earned her rave reviews and a prestigious placing on The Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop 2016 year end music critics list. In the interim, after cutting demos for Sire Records, Cait cut not one but two albums and soon found herself a part of the OmnivoreRecords roster. The splendid result is Third, which was recorded at famed Ardent Studios in Memphis. Produced by Cait and Fernando Perdomo, Third is a winning kaleidoscopic collection of smartly crafted and lyrically witty songs that tap into a reservoir of influences and inspiration drawing from Big Star to Bowie, Nilsson to Queen, all driven by Cait’s extraordinary voice. As she states in our conversation below, while she might be a “late bloomer” in terms of forging a music career, judging by the quality of this terrific record, we’ll be hearing a lot more from Cait Brennan in the future.
Share the background how Third came together, which is not your third album but second release.
Cait Brennan: Third grew out of a conversation that my musical collaborator Fernando Perdomo and I had with JodyStephens at the Grammy Museum in 2016. Jody was in town for an Ardent Studios' 50th anniversary tribute, and over the course of the evening Jody suggested I come to Ardent and record my next album. As a fan of so much of the music that's been made in that room over the years, I didn't hesitate. We were planning for the sessions before I left the parking garage. Third actually was the third album we recorded together, but it's only our second release. We made a great "second" record I'm very proud of, but things in my life and in the larger world changed a lot, and the songs on Third had an urgency and an immediacy that we all felt needed to be heard now.
Being a huge Big Star, what did recording at the band's studio Ardent in Memphis mean to you and how did the sound/vibe make its way into the record?
My musical tastes are pretty diverse, but Big Star, and Big Star's Third in particular, have been emotional touchstones for me since I was a kid. To be in that space--to be standing in the Ardent atrium, talking with Jody Stephens about my songs, to play Chris Bell's Gibson--no words can do it justice, except to say how honored and grateful I was to have the opportunity. I don't know how much, sonically, I have in common with the records made in that space, but I like to think we share the same adventurous spirit, the same willingness to go anywhere and dare anything in the service of the song.
Fernando Perdomo is your primary collaborator/producer on this record. he's a many of many talents, characterize his contribution to Third.
Fernando and I have worked together on my first three albums and he's a great creative partner. We co-produce the records and perform all the instrumentation ourselves, with him generally taking a majority of the instruments and me writing the songs, singing all the vocals, building production tracks and playing various other instruments. On Third, Fernando's virtuoso instrumental talents are front and center, from the blazing lead guitar to the thundering rhythm section to the gorgeous Mellotron flourishes. Ardent's great Adam Hill handled engineering for us this time out, so Fern was really free to soar. There's a real joy and fire in his playing that inspired me and was so much fun to witness. We're very different people, and I like to think those differences make each of us stretch into new territory every time we make music.
If someone only has five minutes to get the vibe of Third what track would you steer them to and why?
Third runs the gamut from classic to contemporary and from rock/soul stompers to ballads, with a lot of harmony and humor. "A Hard Man To Love" is a song from the album that people seem to really love. For the rockers, "LA/Amsterdam" also seems to be a big favorite.
You've already recorded another album and plan to cut yet another record at Ardent in May, what is the spark for your creativity and inspiration?
We did cut a different second record, originally in the winter of 2015-16, that I was and am very proud of. So much happened in between now and then -- major label opportunities came and went, I nearly died as a result of a bizarre accident, romantic relationships blossomed and blew up, and then the kismet of Jody Stephens and Ardent -- and Third was born out of those circumstances. But the songs and performances on that unreleased record are outstanding, and I've written some new ones since. In May, we're returning to Memphis and Ardent to record new material as well as revisit and re-track some of those earlier songs for a new album for 2018. Part of the spark is just being a late bloomer and finally being free to create and express myself, and another part of it is the great team I have behind me, with the rapport that Fernando and I share musically as well as the strength of Cheryl Pawelski, Brad Rosenberger and the brilliant team at Omnivore and ADA making so many things possible for us. I'm very grateful for that.
You're dealing with the onset of Parkinson's, how have you managed to remain so vital and creative given the physical challenges you face each day?
I'm a bit of a late bloomer, and there's a sense of making up for lost time; with my health, there's also a focus and urgency there. I was diagnosed with young onset PD a couple of years back; it's well managed and I'm really in the best shape of my life, but in the back of my mind there's always the sense of urgency to make as much music as I can, do the best work I can and get this music out to the people. It's very clarifying, and cuts away any kind of fame or pretentiousness BS; if that's all a person's after, there are faster and easier ways to get it. These songs really are my calling and I want to make something that matters, as well as leave behind some kind of worthwhile legacy when the time comes.
"Goodbye Missamerica" is my favorite track on Third, what's the back story behind that song?
"Goodbye Missamerica" is a very unusual song. I tend to be very stream of consciousness with my songwriting. I often just hit record and play or sing whatever comes out, and prefer to minimize changes; I like to keep it as true to the original spark as I can. "Goodbye Missamerica" is built on an original demo I recorded in 2011, just me and the piano and that eerie, unearthly vocal effect. It was late at night and suddenly this song hit me out of the blue, and I played it and sang it exactly as you hear it, no edits, I never put pen to paper and it's all one take. I just sang what came out without even thinking about it, then filed it away for years. After everything that happened to me and to the world over the past few months, I stumbled across it and finally understood the message and the weirdly prophetic lyrics. We took that original demo, and Fernando added some instrumentation to it and created the version you hear on the record, but the vocal, lyrics and piano are all from that original moment of inspiration. I believe in trusting the source, and I think of myself as just a conduit and try to stay out of the way. In this case, I'm really glad I did, because I think we captured something pretty special.
Let’s wrap with a hypothetical question. There’s a vinyl thief is roaming in your Arizona hometown and stealing people's records, what 5 albums do you pull from your collection and hide that mean the most to you?
That vinyl thief had better stay away from my record stash! That's a tough one because I have some cool collectibles as well as those I love for just the music itself. One of my treasures is a copy of the UK stage show of Harry Nilsson's "The Point" that starred Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones (who notoriously feuded during the run!) My copy of the album is signed by both Davy and by Nilsson himself. Harry's one of my heroes, so that's one of my dearest possessions. I have a ton of rare Beatles, Bowie and Prince stuff... but from a sheer musical standpoint, I'm gonna grab Sam Cooke's Night Beat, Otis Redding's Otis Blue, Prince's Sign 'O' The Times, Crowded House's debut, and Bowie's Hunky Dory. Ask me tomorrow and it may be a different five.