Emerson, Lake & Powell - Rockin' Dudes or Art Rock Mofos?

By Dave DiMartino (1986, unknown source)

It's a spacious rehearsal studio, though not the world's classiest. I am in London, behind me the man running the soundboard, watching the three musicians facing us run though some of the new material. They are preparing for an American tour-their first in this configuration, though they've all been to the States previously. The music is almost deafeningly loud, as it should be.

And the three musicians in front of me are Keith Emerson, Greg Lake, and Cozy Powell: Emerson, Lake & Powell, to those who can read.

Two thirds of them are back.

Yep, it's 1986 all right. Genesis are at the top of the charts; so's Peter Gabriel. Yes are still recording the follow-up to 90125, last year's smash rock hitmakin' comeback album. Even the guys in the CREEM offices can't stop talking about GTR, the new art-rock combo featuring guitarists Steve Howe and Steve Hackett. The Moody Blues are hotter than ever: see 'em this summer with the Fixx. And Asia's last album bombed.

ELP are back, sort of. I don't think you are allowed to call them that-the "P" still belongs to Carl Palmer, who's now in Asia and who's probably watching the chart progress of his former mates' new album with considerable interest. And I'll bet he's already seen the video.

Emerson, Lake, & Powell's LP is getting lots of airplay, and it's selling well. Emerson, Lake & Powell themselves are pleased with this. Emerson, Lake & Powell are also not quite sure how to deal with the press in this, one of the better Comeback Years in memory. They are not doing much talking. I am in London, and the implication is that they're willing to talk to me because I am from America, where Emerson, Lake & Palmer used to perform very often, and were treated well. They are not talking to the British press. "They torture us over here", says Greg Lake. He's right.

I, on the other hand, am not here to torture anybody. In fact, if I'm to be completely honest, I must make my art-rockin' confession: in those late 60's, early 70's days of my own youth, when any lad could join a band, I used to play the organ. And I used to aspire to play like Pink Floyd's Rick Wright (easy), Soft Machine's Mike Ratledge (difficult) and the Nice's Keith Emerson (impossible). We even used to cover the Nice. Or try to. They made great records.

Strangely enough, I consider it a privilege to actually speak with the man.

He must have found it odd.

"All I can tell you is that when bands have been knocked, when they've had a successful record, when the fans have bought the album and the concerts have been sold out and the critics still knock it-I'll tell you, that's one of the biggest factors in breaking up bands in the industry."

"Because I can tell you-and I can't tell you specifically, for professional reasons-but that had a lot to do with Emerson, Lake & Palmer's split. For one particular member of the band. When it goes on and on...when one person constantly gets a knock in a certain direction, that plays havoc with certain people. I am very strong, my personality is very strong. Certain musicians aren't. And there was one person in Emerson, Lake & Palmer who wasn't. I can't tell you who."

And he never did. So as I sit talking to Emerson, Lake & Powell in the privacy of their own rehearsal hall in 1986, I wonder, occasionally, who Carl Palmer was talking about.

"I think that we didn't have any breathing space," says Keith Emerson, explaining the break-up. "There were a lot of pressures on us from the record company-financial pressures, I suppose."

"I think we toured too much as well," says Greg Lake.

"We did tour too much," says Keith Emerson. "We just didn't have a break. We came straight off a tour, and the record company said, 'Well, look you guys-let's go back and do an album.' We really wanted to have a break."

Financial pressures? Surely, if you know your ELP history, you'll remember: they toured with an orchestra. An actual orchestra. These things cost money. Money must be recouped. Don't you know anything?

"Really," says Lake, "the album we did not want to make was the Love Beach album. We were persuaded to make it under duress. I think at that time we would've gladly taken a break from touring and recording. And because we were pressured into that situation, I think it was something where we all would've rather said, 'Look, we've gotta stop this for a while.' And that's really what happened."

"It wasn't like one of those break-ups where there was lots of mudslinging and bitterness. We all just felt simultaneously that we'd been pushed too far. We could sense it. And rather than go back out and keep flogging it, purely for commercial reasons...it just didn't feel right. It was one of those things. You'd have had to have been there at the time, but you could've felt it: nobody was that keen to play."

The Love Beach album was, in the parlance of the biz, a stiff. Even today it sits in record stores for $1.99 a pop. An anti-climax to a career that thrived on climaxes, it was a whimper instead of a bang.

That was in 1978. And then. And then...nothing. Keith Emerson went to the Bahamas, recorded soundtracks for films like Nighthawks and Inferno. Greg Lake recorded a couple of solo albums. Carl Palmer formed a band called PM, and then Asia. Art rock died. Punk rock thrived. Battles were fought. Lives were lost. Et cetera. People with funny haircuts took to making fun of bands like ELP and Yes, saying that technique was nothing, feeling was all, one note can be infinitely more expressive than seventeen, that kind of music was dead and gone, man, for this was the era of Sham 69!

"I personally," says Greg Lake, "have always got time for new, young people kicking the ass of people like us out. I remember when I was a young kid, my dad used to play Bing Crosby-I said, 'For Christ's sake, turn it off!' Because if there wasn't new, young people coming up and saying ' get rid of these geezers,' there's no fun in it.

"On the other hand, I have to say in retrospect that there are only a couple of really outstanding people in that punk era that meant anything, you know? I must say, I did like the Sex Pistols and all that. Never Mind The Bollocks."

"Yeah, " agrees Emerson, "I mean, I love all that aggression, because that's part of my history. You can't really knock it."

Emerson's history, you scoff? You don't believe him? The fellow that burned the American flag onstage at the Royal Albert Hall while performing "America" with the Nice? The same song that can be found on that band's Elegy album, their last, and ends with several minutes of the most ungodly electronic noise ever recorded onstage at the Fillmore East?

"There were a few good things," Lake continues, "but only a few. I think the negative side of what happened to the direction of music-after groups like us and Yes left the scene for a while-was that it became very vogue, fashion-oriented, and less cultural, musically-oriented. And I think to that extent music suffered a little. Because I think the people were sold a lot of duffos for a while. And that wasn't such a good thing."

Then there's the Asia incident. There was a period when that band's bassist and vocalist, John Wetton, was replaced by none other than Greg Lake. It lasted about a minute or two. Did you see it on TV?

"That was a fairly unpleasant thing to be a part of, " recalls Lake, diplomatically. "What happened was, they had apparently fallen out at the time with their singer, John Wetton, and they had committed to do a live satellite broadcast from Tokyo on MTV across America. And these two things had happened at the same time."

"So they were...they were...I suppose the word for what happened was that they were in the dogbox, you know? So they called me up and said, 'Help.' I said sure, I'd come and do it, so we basically got the songs off, went to Japan and played the show.

"And there were discussions about whether I was joining the band or not. Basically, we didn't see eye to eye, me and Asia. They wanted to go in an overtly, corporate-rock type, commercial direction, when I could see that that was really a fast way to the end. And I said, 'No, really, if this band's gonna have me in it, at least it would have to have some commercial and musical foundation.' And that was where we parted company."

What happened next? Emerson and Lake began recording again late last year. They needed a drummer. Cozy Powell was a drummer. He still is.

"I came down first of all," says that same human, "when we were gonna work out some ideas for an album. And we just started-I think we just had to blow through 'Fanfare', didn't we?" His new partners nod in agreement. "And obviously, I'd listened to ELP a lot in the past anyway, so I know a lot of the stuff. I've got all the records at home. And we just started to blow through a couple of tracks and we sounded quite good."

"Looking over these last few weeks' rehearsals," says Lake, "it would've been another matter if we'd just reformed the band with Carl, and then just played through the old stuff. But now, playing it again with Cozy, is quite different. The drum feels quite different. It's an interesting experience, going through this stuff again, to hear it coming out with this stuff again, to hear it coming out with this new power and energy. And it's refreshing-it's not just going back over it."

Emerson agrees. "It certainly wasn't our intention to harp too much back on the past. I mean, for a while, we didn't want anything to do with it at all. We were thinking of a band name. But it was inevitable that we'd have to use our own names in the end."

And there's lots to say about Cozy Powell. He's a great drummer, worked wonders with Jeff Beck, Ritchie Blackmore and even Michael Schenker. He even had the right initials. And of course, at this stage of the game it's an old joke-only a moron would ask who the other "P"'s under consideration were.

Lake: "Ringo Parr?"

Powell: "Charlie Potts?"

Lake: "Actually, funnily enough, there's quite a few..."

Emerson: "There's Simon Phillips, there's Jeff Porcaro..."

Powell: "Neil Peart, Bernard Purdie..."

Emerson: "Yeah, but Bernard Purdie's a little bit old. He's getting on a bit now."

Powell: "But certainly, Porcaro, Phillips, Peart, Ian Paice is another one...there's a lot of drummers whose names start with P..."

Emerson: "But believe me, if Cozy hadn't got the reputation, there's no way we'd get a drummer in just because his surname began with P. That's absolutely ridiculous."

Powell: "But it's not only a P, it's CP!"

Emerson: "It's just an amazing coincidence. We're a bit embarassed about it, really."

Emerson, Lake & Powell are by no means embarassed about their music. That's why they'll be bringing it to America by the time you read this.

Who do they expect to see in the audience?

"That's a good question," says Cozy Powell. "We thought we might ask you that."

"It certainly can't be the last audience," says Emerson. "They've all got kids now, they're mums and dads."

"I think the truth of it is," says Greg Lake, "and this is obviously a cool thing to say in an interview, but this is what it's always been about: we don't care who comes, if they want to hear it. We haven't got an audience-if someone's into the music, they like it, then that's who we like to play to."

What will the audience be seeing onstage? The band, enraptured with new equipment, new stage sets and 80's technology in total, prefers not to comment. Bear this in mind, though: if you tell them they are famous for their past concert excesses, they cheerfully agree.

"One of the things that intrigues me," says Greg Lake, "and the further we go along we realize, is that technology in the hands of someone like Keith can be absolutely extraordinary. Whereas it can also be sort of boringly good, do you know what I mean?"

"It can reach new heights that've never been reached before. And certainly, in the live show that we're going to be involved in, our ambition with that is to take it to extremes that have never before been reached. And that's the challenge in it-that's the hope that we can take it to the point where people have never experienced anything quite like it."

Do you know what year it is?

"It's a drummer's dream to play this kind of stuff," says Cozy Powell. "To be honest, it really is. You can't fail. It's so expressive, the music has got so many changes in it-if you don't like it, you shouldn't be playing, really."