ON TOUR WITH ELP
MAGIC OF THE UNHOLY TRINITY
Monday: Jim Green reports from Zurich, Switzerland
'DID YOU KNOW that it is possible to swim in quick sand?' asked 'Fingers' Emerson, lobbing a strawberry in my direction and taking a slug of medicinal purposes only. He's full of little gems of useless information like that is 'Fingers' and it's all a part of on-tour humour which is where I am, on tour in Europe with ELP, after 'the Ball' and the Blue Room of the Atlantis Hotel celebrating another notable success.
That night they had played to a mere 6,500 people jammed into a huge prefabricated structure outside Zurich where a festival atmosphere prevailed - hundreds without tickets camping outside just in order to be around when Emerson, Lake and Palmer play. Superlatives are really super-fluous with a band of ELP's magnitude, for they simply have to be heard, to be seen, to be believed. They have the one essential ingredient which no one can define in a truly great group. Some might say it was mystique - I would call it Magic. You can never really put your finger on it, but you can sense it when it is there. ELP have it.
'Fingers' is, of course, the focal point of the action on stage and there he is on his back with the organ on top of him and musically raping the contraption. He thrashes the keyboard, rocks and rides it across the stage and finally hurls it about, raising great clouds of blanco to smother the hordes of photographers and all the time the most amazing sounds are happening. He has the damn thing in pain. Lesser musicians than Carl Palmer and Greg Lake might be swamped by his amazing virtuosity, but they are not. They follow him at every twist and turn of his switching styles, and off hand I cannot think of another percussionist in any contemporary group who could match him as Palmer does and even come out on top. Greg does much to provide the perfect balance between them and still gets his justifiable acclaim during solos with 'Lucky Man' and 'Take a Pebble'. All three together provide a unique identity which far transcends any individual.
I cannot think of another group who get so many different styles into their act or indeed of musicians capable of adapting to them. During one piece of incredible dexterity, Emerson turned to honky tonk piano, blues, jazz, classic, boogie woogie and even threw in a touch of the 1812 Overture.
All my favourite items were there from 'Tarkus', 'Pictures at an Exhibition' plus two new items from their new album 'Trilogy:' 'The Endless Enigma' and 'Hoedown'. Then, of course, the finale to end all finales 'Rondo' which is a National Anthem although ELP are currently providing a recorded classical piece called 'Church Windows' to send the customers home in a more tranquil mood. Despite this, I might add, this particular audience refused to go for almost 15 minutes, during which they set up a non-stop roar of approval for music received and understood.
They cheered when Greg switched to acoustic. They cheered when Carl used a gong. They cheered when Keith switched from piano to organ. They might very well have cheered if he had blown his nose.
ELP are an Earth Band now - that is they belong to the very few international groups who can communicate on a world level in their universally accepted language- music.They are also very real people and if that sounds somewhat trite perhaps it is because that it seems necessary to emphasise in view of their remote image. Concentration on their superb technical and musical proficiency has somehow resulted in a lack of personification. In fact, they are not at all remote as I discovered from this tour. Emerson was looking particularly vulnerable on the flight out to Zurich due to a little celebration at the London Speakeasy the night before. I always tell myself never ever again and I always do it again, he sighed, shaking his head on arrival at the Hotel Atlantis - certainly the finest hotel I have stayed in in Europe and one in which most groups are sadly banned thanks to Alice Cooper who let a few hundred mice loose in it on a recent visit.
We privileged people found ourselves gathered in Greg Lake's suite (just recently vacated by Miles Davis) to discuss the relative merits of the new album 'Trilogy' which Greg produced.
"I worked for so long and so hard with our engineer Eddie Offord that I can't really be objective about it", said Greg, "I can hear little tiny things which no one else might notice in the edits we did which still annoy me. For the Bolero for example I was working with 20 tracks. It's certainly a more relaxed album than we've done before!"
Carl felt that album was good, but the group's real strength seldom came out as an entity. Our much loved and loquacious photographer Bob Ellis then struck in the time honoured tradition of a man who never believes in putting one foot in his mouth when two will do. He said that he thought the new album quite the best they had done and he really 'hated' things like 'Tarkus'. I cringed visibly, but Greg just laughed. "No man, I can dig that - the cat's just being honest. It's just very weird how so many people like different things. I've just sat through an interview with a Spanish journalist and a French journalist doing an interview interpreted by a Swiss and they had some amazing ideas. Personally, I've always felt 'Tarkus' was our best album collectively and so does Carl, but everyone's entitled to an opinion."
There is no doubt that the present European tour has been a great success especially in view of the fact that their new road team had worked out so well. Communication in foreign lands is no problem with ELP's music, as Greg pointed out. "In Europe our biggest single asset has undoubtedly been sound, "Greg told me in between mouthfuls of ravioli and ham - he has his own special sort of diet! "We can get inside people's heads without any problem." There is also quite a good percentage who understand English now thanks to early work by groups like the Beatles. The Beatles probably did more for the English language abroad than anything. "Receptions have been great. In Italy they were just completely amazed and in Berlin I thought we'd started another bloody war. You can always tell when it is going to be a big one in Europe. They turn out the army, the riot squad and the police - it was a bit like that in Germany. It's only when you come out to places like this and begin to travel these distances you really appreciate how small the world really is and how little difference there is between nationalities. We mostly all want the same things and the only barrier is language which we can at least break down with music. You can't really analyse your own success, but I think one of the reasons we have been accepted so broadly is that we don't strike attitudes or attempt to indoctrinate people. Occasionally, we present an idea, but we don't brainwash people."
We took a walk out on to the balcony and looked at the magnificent panorama of dark hills and green forests that surround the hotel. Down below there were a few cows grazing and the sounds of the large bells around their necks floated upwards. Carl brought one of those bells on his last visit and went round testing each respective instrument before selecting the one he now uses on stage.
Back in the room we were able to watch 'Beat Club' which, produced by Mike Leckenbush, is still vastly superior to our own TV shows and in quick succession we saw and heard, the Stones, Captain Beefheart, the New Riders, Deep Purple and Rory Gallagher before leaving for the show.
One thing which continually impressed me was ELP's consideration towards their fans. During the concert Emerson took a few minutes out to pose at the side of the stage for a young fan in a hat he had bought. It took time and in the heat of the performance he patiently waited while their electric flash re-charged.
Back stage the 'blimps' (unidentified flying objects) started to arrive with photographs and posters to be signed, but they were never 'big timed' or turned away. Even when Carl, who had practically been reduced to a human grease spot during his fine drum solo and was half dressed, was bothered from the door. It was a 'please come in' and warm reception for all comers. Emerson is prone on his back, eyes closed and sweating profusely. I venture to suggest it was a good show.
"Did you know," said 'Fingers' with some deliberation and eyes still closed, "That it is impossible to sneeze with your eyes open!"
Next day in Italy, 20,000 are expected to see the unholy Trinity.