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Sex beings reborn: Keith Emerson, Greg Lake, and Carl Palmer back together after 14 years
She called them 'sexy. I can hardly believe my ears. A girl in denim cutoffs and midriff-baring shirt she can be no more than 17 proffers a credit card in exchange for an Emerson, Lake and Palmer T-shirt and turns away from the concession stall. Excuse me, I say, but what is a nice girl like you doing purchasing the wares of a middle-aged rock group from Blighty that broke up when you can have been no more than a toddler?' She seems astonished by my question: ELP are soooooooo sexy! she cries.
And when the celebrated rock trio of yesteryear, back together after 14 years, take the stage at the Great Woods open-air entertainment complex, Massachusetts, USA, some time later, the squealings of a thousand similar young girls mix with the grunts of appreciation of a thousand thick-necked blokes in baseball hats to make a terrific din.
Sex beings? There is Keith Emerson at his bank of keyboards in a spectacularly awful dayglo top. Keith is 47: you can see it in his face. There is Greg Lake with his guitar. Greg is a rotund 43. And, at the drums, ladies and gentlemen, there is Carl Palmer, 41. Carl is - gasp! - quite trim!
Emerson, Lake and Palmer, the group of three rock musical Englishmen, formed in 1970. They were what was called, in those quaint old days, a supergroup (ie, they had all been in quite famous groups of their own before The Nice, King Crimson, Atomic Rooster). They made their performing debut at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970 and everyone thought they were bloody super. The critic of the American trade magazine Cash Box noted: Emerson, Lake and Palmer have no faults!' Blimey!
So, for a time, they were the most famous and lauded group on earth. Classical crashings, extended drum solos and stage extravagance were their fortes. Emerson had an exploding piano (this blew his fingernails off on one occasion; on another he broke some ribs doing silly capers with it). There was the enormous model - half battle tank, half armadillo - that graced the sleeve of their second LP Tarkus: this ran amok on stage in Brighton, spewing polystyrene balls from its gigantic nostrils and putting Emersons grand piano out of action.
Emerson, Lake and Palmer were BIG...until Johnny Rotten and the punk-rock striplings arrived in 1977 and told the world that bombastic music and rich-kid behaviour were out. Upon which ELP promptly broke up...
Its all very different these days. Emerson, Lake and Palmer, reborn, once so hugely famous, are staying in a hotel thats as humble as can be - a cheesy Holiday Inn in New Jersey. I try to interview the three living legends in the hotel bar - but, driven out by karaoke, we withdraw to the slightly quieter restaurant. Gregs is a margarita. Keith and Carl are on white wine.
The lads look pained when I suggest that the 70s Emerson, Lake and Palmer went way over the top.
Its fascinating, says Emerson, rather glumly. We have collected the most amounts of insults of any band ever. We actually once gathered up all the worst reviews and started putting them in a scrapbook, but they were so horrible that we decided to stop. I don't understand it. I never did. We are not an offensive band by any standards.
The Sex Pistols got better reviews than what we got in the late 70s, says Greg, glugging at his cocktail and pondering the unfairness of life.
I beg your pardon?
Palmer: Our name: Emerson, Lake and Palmer. It sounded like a firm of accountants, didnt it?
Lake: But, in actual fact, the only reason we arrived at that was we tried to think of some names of bands and we didnt like any of the ones that we came up with.
Palmer: Surnames! That was the most honest and direct approach.
Lake: The truth of it is that the name of the band is simply the thing that it was.
There is a somewhat embarrassed silence following this profound pronouncement. Perhaps it is time to draw our attention to...the carpet.
The carpet? Yes, back in the ELP glory days Greg Lake was reported to have insisted that whenever he appeared on stage there should be a £6,000 Persian carpet beneath his feet. Or so the story goes...
That story got well out of hand,' says Lake, just a bit cross. What happened was I got electrocuted one night. So I said, Look, put a rubber mat down because I dont want to die up here. Thats fair enough, isnt it?' His colleagues nod. But the rubber mat looked terrible. So I said to one of the roadies, Look, get a carpet and cover the rubber mat up. I imagined that he was going to get some black carpet but he didnt. He went out and bought this really expensive Persian carpet. And he put it down over the rubber and he used to go out with a Hoover and vacuum it at the beginning of our shows. Made us look like idiots. These things happen.
We all have a jolly good laugh at past ignominies. Then Keith turns to Greg and says, What happened to that carpet? Oh, Ive still got it, says Greg. I might get it out again when we play in England. Just to annoy people.
Theres another story about ELP. It concerns lobsters. Live lobsters. In a bathtub. Apparently the group were so fond of fresh seafood that they'd keep their hotel baths stocked with living crustaceans just in case the fancy took them.
'I don't know where that story came from,' say Lake, a frown upon his round visage. 'It's a ridiculous story. It's like it's become a hobby in England to tell ridiculous stories about ELP. It's like The Who, you know. Let's tell another story about how they wrecked hotels all the time.'
Still over the top after all these years: Emerson, Lake and Palmer have lost little of their stage extravagance
What, didnt you wreck hotels all the time?
Lake: Our road crew (42-strong) were pretty excessive. We had a roadie that stuck all the hotel furniture to the ceiling with superglue. That was quite funny. That was a good show. Ho ho. But that all came from boredom and the thing is we are three intelligent people. Intelligent people dont get bored. Road crews need constant entertainment.
So as intelligent people you spent all your time on the road in the 70s reading Sartre?
Lake: Well, I wouldnt say that. Er, I dont remember what we did for entertainment in those days. I mean, we used to do all the things that you normally do. We had girls, you know, a few drugs, that kind of thing. It was so long ago... Puffy eyes go misty in remembrance of what Lake calls carefree frivolity. His partners want, urgently, to change the subject. We produced art, says Carl Palmer. We are leaving something behind.
Art? Like the exploding tank/armadillo, I enquire?
Lake, into his third or fourth margarita, has not heard me. It is pretty glum, it is a pretty lonely existence on the road, he is burbling. Excuse me, love, he says to a passing waitress. Could I have another margarita?
Silence. Apart from karaoke warblings from beyond.
Huh. This is stupid, says Greg Lake. I wish I had dedicated my life to origami wall-plugging.
Emerson, Lake and Palmer. They are so very, very sexy.
REPORT BY TOM HIBBERT
PICTURES BY BRIAN ARIS