Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Nice : Keith Emerson

Tom Alford @ Counter Culture

The name Keith Emerson is synonymous with a more effervescent style of musicianship. First with fledgling prog-rockers, The Nice in the late '60s, and then with the monumental Emerson, Lake & Palmer in the '70s, he played keyboards like no one else. Often with knives stabbed into an instrument that had barely settled back onto its feet after being thrown about. Sometimes playing upside down or spinning above the audience, sometimes finishing a show with hands bloody from playing so hard, the occasional broken nose and broken ribs - all the mark of a man committed to putting on a real show.

It wasn't just the theatrics that impressed. His music fused rock and a multitude of styles, most notably with heavy classical leanings. The effect was to bring the focus for the first time in a rock band onto the keyboard. The first ELP single in 1970, Lucky Man, featured the startling new concept of a lead synth solo. It was a prelude to the band taking the world by storm, with a core of five platinum albums released between 1970 and 1974, and a host of successful solo works that continue today.

In ELP's heyday, a hardcore following of prog-nuts were wowed by ever-increasing and outrageously expansive sets. The now infamous image of three huge personalised juggernauts thundering across the US highways, each emblazoned on the roof with one of the band-members' names, has entered the annals of rock excess.

For those who doubt his talent, Keith's musicianship is for real. Not just a rock star with a bit of spare talent, he has also performed as a bona fide instrumentalist with the London Symphony Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and L'Orchestra d'Opera de Paris.

counterculture caught up with Keith in his California home, one week before he flew back to England for rehearsals for the October UK-wide tour with The Nice, and the publishing of his memoirs, Pictures Of An Exhibitionist.

Before he'd even had his breakfast we were putting the questions to him that we hope give a brief insight into what makes a rock legend tick.


Counter Culture (CC): Your performances have not just been about musicianship, but about being a 'showman'. Where did the flag-burning, knives and general Hammond organ abuse thing come from?

Keith Emerson: Basically it comes from the fact that guitar players were the most mobile musicians on the stage and it's very difficult to make a 350lb Hammond part of you. That part of the act was something that just felt natural to do; something that allowed me be more expressive. I learned some of it from watching the likes of Pete Townsend . . . maybe he's not a good name to mention at the moment? But also of course Hendrix.

CC: You weren't worried about stabbing an electric instrument with long metal blades?
KE: I didn't bother about that sort of thing then . . .

CC: So do you think this is part of what Beethoven meant by great music happening between the notes - I don't mean the knives between the keys, but the passion and involvement that makes music rather than sound?
KE: Yeah, well you tapped it there. John Coltrane the jazz tenor player used to create walls of sound and just, well, play between the notes. That's what I hope I do.

CC: Are you going to be getting into any keyboard abuse in your new shows?
KE: I don't know, I may get into trashing instruments again, but the instrument I used to do that on they don't make anymore - so maybe its not such a good idea!

Holst To Wakeman
CC: You quoted Gustav Holst once as saying, "Don't compose anything, unless the not composing of it becomes a perfect nuisance to you." I get the feeling that a lot of music today has been generated for the sake of it, like its just product to fill the shelves - you've been a real influence in your time, would you agree with this feeling?

KE: Well, it's definitely more corporate these days, which was different in the '60s and maybe the '70s. The artist and the record companies were kind of growing together - these days you have to go through a lot of corporate people to be accepted. I really sympathise with new, upcoming bands that have to go through this struggle. Hopefully the world will turn full circle . . .

CC: . . . and music can once again be seen not as product but art?
KE: I hope so.

CC: You had some dance remixes done a while back of Welcome Back My Friends . . .
KE: That's right, with Mike Bennett.

CC: He worked with The Fall and Wishbone Ash to name but two - quite a diverse interest. You're obviously keen on crossing musical borders as well, with the rock/classical thing, pub songs like Benny The Bouncer, the film scores, and albums like Honky and The Christmas Album. So what else is on the cards?
KE: Well, I've actually got a new conceptual piece that I hope to rehearse with the band when I get back, but we'll have to wait and see what happens.

CC: Are you able to place it in any particular genre?
KE: Well, I certainly learned a lot doing the remixes and I'd like to incorporate some of those ideas into the new stuff I've been working on as well as that same sort or progressive quality I employed with The Nice and ELP.

CC: You and Rick Wakeman are perhaps the world's foremost keyboard masters. Rick's getting back to a more progressive sound with his most recent album . . .
KE: Ah right! Which one is that?

CC: It came out this year I think - anyway it's called Out There. He seems to have got back into the prog rock thing once more. In fact there's an increasing number of bands out there with a new take on progressive rock although it remains pretty underground. Do you think progressive music is due for a big comeback?
KE: Yes, I think it is, but it will be in a different form, because when bands like Yes and ELP were developing, what we created in the studio was sometimes very hard or even impossible to play live because we used the studio as another instrument. We used overdubbing and everything like that, so it was not possible to play certain pieces live, but now of course there's a lot of technology around that can help the musician to actually do this. There was no MIDI for a start.

CC: And analogue synths were notorious for going out of tune if you so much as moved them . . .
KE: That's right.

CC: Hopefully things will be a bit easier for you now you're getting back on the road with The Nice. In the shows you say your aim is to present a 'refined' look at progressive music. How have you refined it?
KE: Oh, I hope the instruments used are a lot more refined than first time round! That's basically it - a modern take on an older sound. We're not changing the music - it would be difficult to try and merge the Eminem style of rhythm into what ELP or The Nice do . . . that's something we'll get into a bit later maybe!

The Nice To ELP
CC: Was there a reason for going back out on the road again with this band - are you on a mission?
KE: No, not at all, we'll just play it by ear, see how people react. I'm not going out to educate people. But I am definitely going out to have some fun. Until I get into rehearsal, I really don't know what's going to happen, I'll just have to wait and see and we'll play off each other . . . that sounds a bit weird doesn't it, but you know what I mean?

CC: Well you've got some old friends with you in Brian Davison and Lee Jackson from the original Nice line-up - but no Davy O'List - wasn't he interested?
KE: No . . . I don't think that would go down very well with everybody else.

CC: Do I detect a bit of tension there?
KE: No, there's no tension, but I had to say goodbye to Davy in the late '60s because of things that I don't think would be a good idea to discuss right now . . .

CC: Okay, you've got a full compliment of musicians to work with - but any special guest appearances at all?
KE: I haven't even considered that actually, who would you suggest?

CC: Oh I don't know, maybe that Greg Lake will be up for it now perhaps? How about Carl Palmer, what's he up to?
KE: Oh no, definitely not, I don't think Greg will be there. I don't think Carl would be interested either, but having said that I'm quite approachable by both of them. If they were to call me up and say, listen, could I come along and play, I wouldn't turn the offer down.

CC: I read that it annoyed you that Greg Lake had failed to keep his voice intact during the ELP tour you did with Deep Purple in the '90s. "He's done nothing, its an incredible fucking waste" you said. You have also said "Everything I compose is a gift." It seems you very much believe that anyone with a talent should use it to the fullest extent - is that a fair reckoning?
KE: Well you know I think you're a musician for as long as you can and want to be one. Hopefully I'll carry on for a long time in the grand style of my heroes . . . but endorsing the statement I made about Greg; I respect him tremendously, but he may have made his own decision to stop playing. He certainly didn't rehearse a lot and every time we got back together I'd have to sit and write all the notes out for him again so he was never really prepared when he came back into the studio.

CC: The commitment wasn't there?
KE: That's right. And that's fine. The problem is that one should be very honest and say, listen, I just don't want to do this any more, I want something else, but Greg didn't say anything . . .

Writting and Comedy
CC: Thinking of your past then; you've got your autobiography out soon and unusually you really have written it yourself. Did the writing experience help you make sense of who Keith Emerson is today?
KE: Actually I hope my book doesn't just reflect on me totally, I hope it reflects on the period of music I was involved in. I hope it gives a certain feeling of what it was like back then with the touring and so on. Although it's my autobiography I wanted it to be a reflection of the times - it was pretty wild with the groupies and everything else, but it's got nothing on Mötley Crüe, I can tell you!

CC: What sort of stuff do you read - who influenced your style?
KE: I was very much inspired by Clive James, Bill Bryson, Terry Pratchett . . . that style of writing.

CC: You go for the dry humour then? I can't normally get into the fantasy genre but what Terry Pratchett does makes it quite accessible - it doesn't take itself too seriously, like some of them.
KE: Yeah, that's why I like it! I don't claim to aspire to any of these great authors but they were an influence in the way that I approached the writing of my book.

CC: So how did you get into writing it, what gave you the idea?
KE: Really what started it off was my mother who had kept all these scrap-books of my career in her loft. She said 'did you know I kept all these' and I went 'wow!' No I didn't. I spent ages looking through them, and I thought if anyone's going to write a book about me, I should be the one. You know, I think its very sad that someone like Eric Clapton has had so many biographies written, but he's never done it for himself. I thought it would be great if he'd written his own - and if Hendrix was still alive for him to have written up his own memoirs . . .

CC: Are you planning to write anything else, like maybe try your hand at some comedy fiction like Bruce Dickinson from Iron Maiden? You've done the groundwork - that thing in your book about the fox wrecking an office and your studio is pretty funny stuff!
KE: And that's absolutely true, but one of the tamer incidents! I don't know about writing novels, but I'd certainly like to write a sequel to my book. I'll probably start on that next year some time.

CC: Sticking with the comedy connection; I understand Jim Davidson is a big ELP fan. Are you a Jim Davidson fan?
KE: He's a great mate. I'm not saying that just because he likes my music! I was introduced to him in a club in London by one of his earlier wives. I wasn't living in England at the time, I was in the Bahamas and really didn't have any idea of who Jim was. I'd seen a clip of something he did on one of these talent shows before he was discovered and I thought he was very funny. He came up to me and said he was a real fan, and after that we used to hang out an awful lot together. He invited me to one of his stand-up comedy shows, I just laughed my head off.

CC: Didn't he use some of your music for one of his programmes?
KE: Yeah, he wanted to use something for one of his pantomimes, and I said "Jim, you can't use that you're gonna scare the children." He said: [affects cockney accent] "No mate its really gonna work, trust me."

CC: What did he use?
KE: Oh, stuff from The Score and Emerson, Lake & Powell - and of course when he did The Generation Game, ELP recorded Welcome Back My Friends for that.

CC: He puts himself about a bit - he does a lot of Forces work.
KE: Yeah, he's a very generous guy - not that I'd want to approach him on that level. But I just hope he takes care of his finances - he's got four wives to support!

And with that I left Keith Emerson to enjoy his breakfast in the Californian sunshine. =>>>>>>>>>>>

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