Welcome back my friends to the show that...

Requires 40 tons of equipment,

18 humper/loaders,

Seven personal roadies,

six sound crew,

five trucker/drivers,

four spot manipulators,

three heavy musicians

two outside coordinators and (we guess)

a man to make the tea...

* sing to the tune "Twelve Days of Christmas" (trad)

Words:  James Johnson

Pix:  Joe Stevens


Now and again the organisation around Emerson Lake and Palmer gives the impression of a huge business combine rather than a bunch of people working for a rock band.

In fact ICI and ELP are probably run on similar lines - with a defined hierarchical order, a mania for cost-consciousness and strict controls among their employees. However, since the band take out probably the most gargantuan road show yet devised by man, it seems the only possible way to keep them on the road.

The three concerts ELP played at Wembley last weekend altogether involved 65 people and nearly 40 tons of equipment, carried around in three TIR articulated trucks. Carl Palmer’s hand-made, custom-built, revolving drum set-up complete with drum synthesisers alone weighs two and half tons. And Emerson uses a total of ten keyboards.

Over the weekend they played to 36,000 people, but the costs were so high it looks like they’ll make a financial loss. When the whole outfit arrived in Britain from the States it took them seven days to pass through customs. Three thousand pounds was paid in duty.

Facts like these are bandied around by the ELP crew with a kind of awestruck pride. There’s always somebody talking about the problems involved. On Wednesday afternoon, in Greg Lake’s dressing room, Ted Thrasher, a tall, laconic Canadian, who is finally responsible for problems on the road, was talking about his dealings with the customs.

“I’ve been licking asses for a week and I don’t like it. They checked and charged us for every, possible piece of equipment - even drumsticks Carl was given in the States. If they’d kept us any longer we’d have lost Thursday’s show yet if we’d been an American band we could have walked in - no trouble.”

Sitting in the opposite comer of the dressing room and enveloped in a huge fur coat, Greg Lake suggested with characteristic savoir faire that maybe they should register the equipment on some offshore island.

It was on Wednesday, a day before the first concert, that the crew started to move into Wembley, the first contingent turning up at eight a.m. By five in the evening Keith, Greg and Carl were there for a soundcheck and an almost complete run through of the show.

Situated in one of the most desolate areas of North London, the Empire Pool is hardly the most accommodating of buildings, a shade too cold even for the mice who occasionally invade the backstage canteen.

The crew went about erecting the ELP edifice - basically the drapes and speakers - with a detached, painstaking coolness. Naturally they include a fairly assorted bunch of people.

There’s even a lady travelling with the band now - Judy Ramullson, who looks after the lights, a small blonde American in baggy, ill-fitting levis with a bit of string hanging out of the back pocket. Apparently she’s some kind of lights genius who used to work in theatre in the States.

She clambers around the ladders and catwalks with amazing surefootedness and sees nothing strange in a woman working on the road with a rock band.

“It’s fine. I just get treated like everybody else. The difference is working in rock itself, rather than theatre. My old friends ask me what I’m doing and when I say I’m with ELP they say, ‘Oh well, you’re not really working’... If only they knew.”

The three musicians now have two personal assistants each, basically to take care of the instruments. Emerson has Rocky, who’s been with him almost since the days of The Nice and looks after the synthesisers, plus Liverpool Bob - a mountain of a man who deals with the heavier tasks.

Greg Lake’s personal assistant, Brian McGoogan - known as Magoo - has created a fashionable line in the executive-roadie look. At one time he used to hang out in the Marquee in denims, working on gigs where he could. Now, after two years with ELP, he’s liable to be wearing a suit, a gold watch chain and smokes cigars - all of which he treats with a sort of restrained delight.

The general line put about concerning the crew is that nobody is really a roadie at all; each one is a specialist in his own particular area. Certainly there’s a feeling that it’s tougher working for ELP than for most bands, and maybe there’s not so much chance for the traditional road-crew partyings on tour.

However, it’s not always totally intense. There was the time in New York, for instance, when the crew were booked into the Gorham Hotel, a shambling rock citadel and oft-used stopping place for British bands. Out of their own pockets the crew rented a suite, set it up with a bar and a radiogram and created a kind of roadies’ nirvana.

Legend has it that during two months in the summer Emerson’s Moog was taken apart and re-built in the suite, with everybody working all day, only breaking off for the occasional party among the wires and mechanisms strewn across the floor.

Anyway, back at Wembley ELP themselves showed up for the soundcheck; Palmer sort of materialised, and Emerson and Lake arrived a shade more ostentatiously with a Norton 750 and Rolls respectively. An aged Fleet Street photographer valiantly tried to persuade them to pose beside Emerson’s Norton and wave. He was gently refused.

The ELP Hierarchy

Partly through his personality and partly because of the complexity of his equipment, Emerson appeared the most fastidious, spending around two hours checking out his equipment. At all times he seems incredibly distanced, apparently finding it difficult to talk much about what he does. On stage he remained oblivious as two photographers swooped around him.

“Greg and Carl always feel a bit left out when Keith’s pictures appear in all the papers,” said one of the crew, “but it’s hardly surprising, is it?”

Palmer, on the other hand, seems the most forward, rather nervy, almost over-quick to smile and continually battering his feet on the floor with tension. Lake comes somewhere in between the two of them, much more assured and relaxed.

Each has a separate dressing room, almost by tradition. When they’re onstage together they hardly talk and there appears little bond between them.

Lake not only recognises this but feels it’s the way they work best.

“In the States everybody always thinks we’re about to break up because maybe we all drive off in different directions after a gig. But eventually we found we had to live apart from each other. In the beginning we used to socialise more and at that time it helped the band. It became very intense. Keith was into stabbing organs anyway, and I was throwing guitars around - it was a very violent thing.

Now we pace each other. When we’re not working we don’t see much of each other, and it works best that way. We’re still together on a mental level and I feel happier about it now than I ever have in the past. I feel the band has a long future. If we were closer personally it might break up more easily over something silly. I’d recommend it as a way of working to any band.”

Lake talks about how he’s looking forward to recording again after their European tour - maybe finding time to make his solo album, which could be something really great. He’s quite an engaging individual, which helps to belie the impression that he has sometimes given of being a shade flash. There’s the matter, for example, of his 6,000-dollar antique carpet which he stands on when he performs. He justifies what would appear to be an extravagance blown out of proportion.

“I don’t know whether you’ve ever noticed that I wear plimsolls on stage, which cuts down the chances of an electric shock. The carpet’s there for the same reason. Altogether it means I’d still feel it, but I wouldn’t die.

“Also it means it’s like you’re playing at home every night, almost in the same surroundings - which is nice. When I decided to buy a carpet I thought I might as well get one that was worth something.”

“To be honest I never thought anybody would notice it.”

Part of the constant surroundings also includes three sets of beach chairs, taken from concert to concert and placed in each of the three dressing rooms. Beach chairs? In each set there are two kinds of canvas film-director chairs and another that converts into a chaise longue, all in bright summer colours. All that’s missing is the sun lamp.

Says Lake: “If you ask the promoter for comfortable chairs that’s what you get” - he waves at three spartan iron chairs in the corner of the room. “The point is there are some times on gigs” - he redirects his gaze at the bottle of wine on the table - “when you want to just get ripped and lie back.”

Surely, though, with all this portable ambience it doesn’t make much difference to ELP whether they’re playing in New York, London or Tokyo. They seem to travel in a kind of suspended animation that rather contradicts the protestations that there’s nothing better than playing in Britain.

“No there’s a whole different atmosphere. You see people backstage you know, like yourself, Harvey Goldsmith (the promoter), it’s a different feeling. I suppose the hall’s similar to those in the States, but the people are right at your feet here, and that’s great.”

OVER TOWARDS the centre of town, in Mayfair, lies Manticore Records and ELP’s headquarters, containing the offices of Stewart Young, censoriously described as “The Boss” in ELP’s recent Grey Whistle Test film.

Young is Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s manager. He seems on an equal footing with the rest of the band, and it almost seems as appropriate to talk to him as one of the musicians. Certainly he seems to fall in with their consistency of thinking on most points.

Until he came across ELP he’d never been involved with the rock business. He was a chartered accountant in practice with his father. One day the band walked into the office to find a solution to some taxation problems, and the relationship was under way.

“My father rang through to me saying he had these three rather scruffy individuals called Emerson, Lake and Palmer in his office, and had I ever heard of them. I said, ‘No, but I’ll look them up.’ I thought he was talking about a firm of solicitors.”

Later Young went to a show at New York’s Madison Square Garden with some friends and confessed to being “totally amazed”. Eventually he became their manager.

“I look after everything for them I suppose - in the traditional manager’s role. But they still have complete control in everything we do. Really we build it up from there.”

At present Young is especially anxious to defend the cost of ELP tickets and the fact that on this tour the band are only playing three venues.

As expected, the reasons he gives are the high production costs and lack of suitable stage facilities in most halls in Britain.

“It’s not the sound or the lighting, just that we can’t physically get our stage equipment on the average British stage. Carl’s drums weigh two and a half tons, and alone they’d simply smash through most stages. Also, we need a 60-foot area.

“On ticket prices we have no alternative because we have a very large production staff, most of whom have to be flown over from the States. As it is we’ll be playing at a loss.”

If this is the case, is the immense amount of equipment really justified, especially to Young who presumably looks at these things with a fairly calculating eye?

“I feel the bulk of it is. We’re the only band who use a complete quadrophonic system so that doubles the cost almost from the start. But we consider it an essential part of the show. I feel we have better sound than any other band on the road.

“You could say Carl doesn’t need a drum-kit like that, but he’s been playing better than ever before and that must be because he has a tailor-made drum set up. Also it revolves and has its own integral lighting system which helps create an atmosphere.

“That and the lighting we use is very theatrical, and we’re a theatrical band. We all feel a show should be pleasing to the eye as well as the ear.

“We have much more equipment than, say, The Rolling Stones, but we don’t go out with the same personnel. None of the band have extravagant habits. We don’t fly across the States in the Starship - we can’t afford to with our production costs.

“We could have done the same business on our last American tour with a show half the size. We’d have made a lot of money. As it happened, we made a small profit.”

Young now feels ELP have now ended the first stage of the career, which is climaxed by their forthcoming live album. “We’ve got over the hardest part now - the first few years when you learn to live with yourselves and your job. Now they can really branch out, and the stuff they’re writing has never been stronger.”

And does Young feel like the head of a mammoth business operation?

“Yeah, well I’ve got friends who say this. But it’s not true. We only have a small office. I remember when our sound mixer came to ELP, he said all his friends had told him working for us was like working for CBS. It’s not true. I mean, he’s found it okay.”

AN ELP concert is plainly a serious pilgrimage. The crowd who tramped the streets towards the Empire Pool on Saturday were uniform heavy duty denim, unsmiling and dour, almost drab. I think few concerts in recent times have attracted a bunch of people less disposed towards frivolousness.

ELP’s own intensity about their music is obviously matched by their most earnest supporters.

The previous nights had been, according to McGoogan, “very good, very cool. Nobody got blown up,” he added cheerfully.

Inside, people were still quietly filing into the seats as Back Door spluttered into their short half-hour set. They’ve been touring with ELP in the States and, as Stewart Young said earlier, “The band like Back Door. They play well and they’re on and off without too much trouble.”

Back Door have now added a keyboard player who, for better or worse, adds more solidity. They seem less effete and esoteric, though Colin Hodgkinson still rumbles through his solo bass piece, Robert Johnson’s “32-20 Blues”.

This was greeted for the most part with only mild interest.

Until Back Door moved off, the main portion of ELP's stage equipment was shrouded by a heavy, black curtain. When it was pulled back to reveal Carl’s pagoda-style drum set up and Keith’s assorted keyboards it produced for the first time in the evening a kind of “Faaaar out” reaction that was repeated several times later.

Meanwhile there was still time to pick up a multitude of souvenirs - T-shirts, badges, records, programmes. There were even paste-up posters telling of an “Attractive Wembley Ashtray - 50p” which could be purchased somewhere within the monolithic building.

Backstage, the band, as usual, kept themselves apart. In his dressing room Lake entertained parents, uncles and aunts up from Surrey and Bournemouth, and, also, Alan Freeman who was talking about, among other things, Brentford Nylons. Apparently people are always stopping him in the street to ask about said items.

In fact it was Freeman, a long-time fan of the band and possibly the only DJ to play their records on radio, who introduced them on stage. “Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends - Emerson, Lake and Palmer.” Naturally, this was the cue for thunderous applause.

Somehow as Keith and Carl positioned themselves among their equipment it was like the machinery was more immense than the man and had to be boarded carefully, in the fasion of astronauts placing themselves in a space capsule. Swiftly the spikey, leathered, bucanneer [sic] figure of Emerson struck the two opening chords of  “Hoedown” and take-off was successfully completed.

In execution the show was faultless. Somebody said later it might as well have been a film of the show, perfected some while back. At headlong speed, Emerson’s manic, spiralling solos were note-for-note exact, mostly the slides were beautifully apt, and the spots pounded the stage with colour. All was triumphal in the extreme.

So much so everybody in the hall appeared glazed by it all. It was odd. Only when Emerson took a portable keyboard, spurting blobs of fire into the front 30 rows, with a muscular roadie to help him on and off stage, did anybody edge forward in their seats.

This all happened some way into “Tarkus”, which, played in full is a rather exhausting piece to follow. It’s changed a little over the years, with Lake playing more guitar, but still seems rather heavy-handed and laborious in parts.

Wisely they followed it up with a lighter spell led by Lake, featuring “Still You Turn Me On”, “Take A Pebble” and “Lucky Man”.The band could benefit from more of these spells of tranquility and contrast.

Lake is also an excellent songwriter, and has one of the few strong, pure English voices in rock. “Lucky Man” was really effective with his voice echoing around the auditorium.

All three then wandered off into a spell in which Emerson led them on piano through various conglomerations of jazz and classics until at one point they sounded like a supervamped trio at the Talk of The Town or somewhere.

Finally they headed back towards the heavier areas of techno-rock with the suite from “Brain Salad Surgery”, a piece that varies from strength to over-embellishment.

Palmer gave a spectacular drum solo, rattling around his extrvagant set-up, battering two huge gongs, pulling with his teeth a chord [sic] that rang an enormous bell and eventually revolving together with his complicated apparatus.

The piece ended with music encircling the building and Keith’s Moog sort of blowing up.

Before returning for an encore they waited until the applause had lasted maybe five minutes, Emerson then telling the audience, “We really needed to hear that.”

OBVIOUSLY ELP are painfully sincere about what they're doing, but some of the old criticisms still apply. At times they seem to feel there’s almost a virtue in overkill. Every effect is exaggerated: at all limes they seem anxious to prove they can all play with incredible speed and technique.

Certainly part of their attraction must lie in the show’s grandiose nature. It’s an epic. But there again, awe-struck wonder does no [sic] always endure for over two hours.

Maybe it’s now time for ELP to think of being just a little more subtle and to employ more contrast.

At present the show is all rather humourless. One may be left open-mouthed at the size of it all, reeling at the sound and the complexity, revelling in the splendour, but it’s so intense I wonder whether anybody, on either side of the stage, really had very much fun.