by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2015 Anil Prasad. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, No Derivatives license.
Keith Emerson played a pivotal role in transforming the perception of keyboardists from largely stationary, stoic figures into genuine counterculture icons. During gigs with The Nice and Emerson, Lake & Palmer (ELP), he took what was previously thought to be an immovable instrument—a 300-pound Hammond organ—and brazenly tossed it about with abandon, leapt on top of it, slammed it to the ground, and played it backwards as it lay on top of him. As if that wasn’t enough, he ferociously stabbed its keyboard with knives to sustain notes much to the shock, awe and delight of audiences worldwide.
But far more important than the provocative image is the monumental contribution the British musician and composer has made to the development and usage of synthesizers across the history of rock. His pioneering, virtuoso work on the Moog synthesizer has influenced generations of musicians. He’s released several seminal albums as part of ELP, including Brain Salad Surgery, Tarkus and Trilogy. ELP was simultaneously celebrated and savaged for its expansive take on progressive rock, infused with classical and jazz influences. Today, with ELP in the rear view mirror, more people look back at it fondly for its achievements in breaking down barriers between genres and an audacious, one-of-a-kind musical perspective.
Recent years have seen Emerson engaging in varied solo projects. He’s led The Keith Emerson Band, together with guitarist and singer Marc Bonilla, exploring prog-rock territory. He’s also worked with Bonilla and conductor Terje Mikkelsen on the Three Fates Project, an orchestral reimagining of classic ELP repertoire alongside solo and Bonilla-penned compositions. Orchestras around the world are also performing Emerson’s pieces these days, including the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, The BBC Concert Orchestra, and The South Shore Orchestra.
Can you recall the moment when you realized you as a keyboardist could have an incendiary presence on stage?
I do. In 1967, I was playing briefly with a group called The V.I.P.’s, which was a very good blues band. They were very soulful. The singer had really gutsy vocals. We were playing in Hamburg and a lot of the guys had befriended the ladies from The Reeperbahn. You get the rough idea of the standard of ladies they were. [laughs] These ladies enjoyed being looked after. They had money. We were playing The Star Club where The Beatles also played. We had to do so many sets every night. The first set started at 6pm. We’d also go on at 10pm, 2am, and the last one would be 4am. I was pretty tired by that point, but the rest of the band just kept going. They were fine. I couldn’t understand it. I didn’t touch anything. I don’t think I even had a drink.
Later that morning, I went down to a club and there was a lady by the name of Bloody Mary—seriously, that’s what she called herself. [laughs] She was very big, bosomy and probably a madam. She sidled up to me and I thought “I don’t want any of this.” Then the guys said “Come on, take one of these pills.” I said “No. What is it?” I think it was Preludin or something like that. They said “Well, we all take it. This is why we keep going all night.” So, I said okay and took one. I waited for 20 minutes and nothing happened. After a half-hour, I remember “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” came on and I’d heard them before, but never like that. [laughs] I was banging on the table to the music, from what I can remember.
In a moment of madness, I said to the road manager “Don’t worry. I’ll drive the van tomorrow.” The other guys had their girlfriends flying them from Hamburg to Northern France, which is where the next gig was. I didn’t sleep before the gig because of whatever the hell this pill was. I think some woman followed me back to the hotel and my poor John Thomas had diminished. I don’t think I managed to achieve anything at all. It would have been like throwing a sausage down Oxford Street. [laughs] I’m pleased to say the old soldier is okay today, but don’t take Preludin if you want to achieve any degree of success. So, I drove the van and I smashed it up, but we got to the gig. I was still buzzing from this drug I had in Hamburg.
So, I go onstage at this show and it was in a farming community. A fight broke out in the audience. I thought “Great, well, I’ll join in. I’ll show them.” [laughs] I don’t mean I joined in physically, but I started to throw the organ around and played all this stuff. I went absolutely nuts. The fight stopped. The promoter was standing in the wings yelling “Keep going! Keep going!” Everyone was looking at the stage saying “What the hell is this guy doing?” So, that was the moment. It may have had something to do with seeing Hendrix. The Who were also in full flying colors at that point.
The next day, I completely crashed. The band said “You have to do that again.” I said “No, I can’t do that.” But the next night, we were in Manchester and I tried doing the same thing again and it didn’t quite work for me. The band thought “He needs more Preludin!” [laughs] Doing it absolutely straight was difficult and I got a very strange reaction. The Manchester audience looked at me like I’d gone completely berserk.
I used to see this organ player called Don Shinn at the Marquee Club. He was the weirdest character. He dressed like a schoolboy and used to take sips of whisky from a teaspoon. The audience would just giggle. At one show, the back fell off his Hammond and it the audience thought it was hilarious. But this poor guy had his screwdriver out trying to repair the Hammond while he was playing, with a bunch of girls in the front row laughing their heads off. Don was a brilliant player and I don’t think he intended anyone to laugh at him, which made it funnier. Things were definitely going wrong with his instrument collapsing around him. I left that gig thinking “There’s something there.”
I realized from watching Don that you could sustain notes on the Hammond by sticking things in the keyboard. At first, I started doing it with a screwdriver when I was with The Nice. Then I thought, rather than stick a screwdriver in it, I’ll get a knife. We had a roadie, who was none other than Lemmy from Motorhead. He said “If you’re going to use a knife, use a proper one.” He then gave me two Hitler Youth daggers. That was the start of that.
Now, having stuck the knives into the Hammond, there was the question of getting rid of them afterwards. I’d jam them in the keyboard, pull them out and just drop them to the floor initially, but that was a bit dangerous for the keyboard player. [laughs] The obvious thing was to learn knife throwing, but I don’t think I became very good at it. That became very apparent at a show in which a knife bounced off something and hit the drummer, who wasn’t happy about that. At the end of one show he sported a huge gash in his forehead and yelled “Who the fuck do you think you are? Errol Flynn?” [laughs]
You recently turned 70. What does that milestone mean to you?
It’s exactly that—a milestone. I don’t feel any real difference. I still feel quite alert. I can’t run marathons anymore. I’ve done four in my life. Today, exercising consists of walking, more or less. I remember as a kid looking at 70-year-olds and thinking they were pretty old. My father passed away at age 71. I don’t think I’m near snuffing it just yet. [laughs] From a musical perspective, I think in a way it’s opened up my sense of harmony, harmonics and improvisation. I feel like I can take a few more risks with harmonic development, not just for the sake of it, but for the sake of the music itself.
Elaborate on what you mean by taking risks with harmonic development.
It goes back to my twenties, as part of ELP. We did an adaptation of Bartók’s piano piece “Allegro barbaro” in 1970 and called it “The Barbarian.” It was challenging. I think a lot of people felt my adaptation was a process of showing off, but that had nothing to do with it.
Regardless of what people have written, I never went to any college of music. I consider myself self-taught. Once I got the knowledge of how to read and write music, it was all down to me. When I took piano lessons, I had three teachers. I told the last one, Carol Smith, “I want to learn things like Tchaikovsky’s 'Piano Concerto No. 1.'" She said “Don’t do that. Everybody does that.” In a way, that stuck. If you’re going to play a classical piece, don’t do the usual repertoire like Debussy’s “Clair de lune,” Beethoven’s “Für Elise” or his piano sonatas. I always took a diverse approach to classical adaptations.
As for why I did the adaptations, the main thing is I thought they were pretty good damn tunes and felt we could take them into new areas. Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an exhibition” came about because I wandered into a London Philharmonic concert just before I formed ELP in 1970. I had never heard the piece before and it bowled me over. So, I went down to a music publisher in London the next day. I think they knew who I was. I said “Do you have the orchestral score? I’m going to rearrange it for piano." The guy looked at me like I was really dumb and said “You know it was originally a piano solo, right?” I said “Was it?” [laughs] He said “Yeah” and dug it out. I said “Great, that saved me a hell of a lot of work.” I took it home, learned it and went ‘round to Greg Lake’s house. He had a piano and I played it. Greg said “’Cor, that’s good innit? What’s that?” I said “It’s by this Russian guy named Modest Mussorgsky.” Greg said “Good tunes there.” I replied “That’s what I thought.” So, when we found Carl Palmer, we started proposing doing it, because Greg and I hadn’t learned how to write with each other at that time. So, that was the starting point. Usually when bands get together, it’s “Let’s jam!” But it was never like that with ELP.
I think playing music of the greats such as Mussorgsky or Alberto Ginastera can be an explosive experience. The energy just comes at you. I also always had a great love of jazz and wanted to utilize the different structures, harmony and chord changes from that world. I’d listen to sax players like Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman and how they took risks and went outside of conventional boundaries. That always appealed to me. The other thing for me was it was great to play outside the chords. As long as you have a map of the music and everyone can get back to the right place, you can do that.
In the early days, when I went out and played stuff like “Tarkus,” it left the audience slightly confused, initially. Now, works like “Tarkus” that I composed and helped orchestrate are played by the Tokyo Philharmonic to packed halls. I’m introduced on stage by the conductor. It’s beyond my wildest dreams. I thought “Well, I’ve made it.” I’ve always hoped an orchestra might play what I’ve written and several are doing that now.
What made you want to initially pursue the orchestral world in the ‘60s with The Nice?
Working with an orchestra gave us some sort of sense of decency, which may have been behind it all. [laughs] I remember getting into a taxi in London during the ‘60s and the driver said “Are you in a band, mate?” I said “Yeah.” He said “What’s the name, then?” I replied “The Nice.” The guy said “The nice what?” [laughs] Later on, when I was with The Nice and we were about to do a symphonic concert, I got in a taxi again. The driver said “Where are you going?” I replied “The Royal Festival Hall.” He replied “Are you in a band, then?” I go “No, I’m playing with The Royal Philharmonic.” Suddenly, the whole situation changes. [laughs] But working in a rock band and with an orchestra are two different things.
Going back to 1969, I was quite friendly with Frank Zappa. Frank wanted to meet me, because he was distrusted by orchestras in England. He referred to them as a bureaucracy. He asked me “How do I go about working with them?” He knew I had already done it, as well as my contemporaries including Jon Lord and Rick Wakeman. Working with an orchestra takes a different sort of mental energy and it can be very intimidating. Back in the ‘60s, if you were known to be in rock and roll, particularly in England, the orchestras sometimes had an attitude towards you. Frank wanted to know how to deal with these people. I said to Frank “I’ve heard some of your stuff. I think the English, who are very conservative, are put off by titles like ‘Why does it hurt when I pee?’” [laughs] I went on to say he had to start gently when he approached orchestras. These days it’s not like that. There are amazing, brilliant musicians fresh out of college. If they haven’t heard of my music, their parents have. I remember a young violinist came up to me during the last symphonic concert I did on the East Coast and he said “I haven’t listened to your music, but it’s really great to be playing with you. My dad will be so pleased.” [laughs]
Are you working on new symphonic compositions?
Yes. In my music room, there’s a whole load of scribbled manuscripts. They’re things I left until later and thought “I’ll get back to those.” I labeled some of them. Sometimes, out of curiosity, I’ll find something I’ve jotted down a few years ago, stick it up on the piano, and something triggers inside of me. I might think “Yeah, I can do something with this.” That’s happened many times. So, quite honestly, nothing really gets wasted. It’s very rewarding when I find one sonority that meshes with another.
How do you make one sonority combine with another?
Through listening. There was nothing like Pro Tools in the ‘70s. I maybe had a small cassette tape recorder and later a Revox reel-to-reel recorder, but I didn’t really rely on them. I still don’t. I don’t use my computer to write. I find it more satisfying to actually write notes down. It’s a bit like how an artist feels when he draws a sketch and then decides to bring in the oils or water colors to fill it out. It’s the same with music. When I write, I can imagine how a painter feels as they decide if an extra stroke will make a piece better or completely ruin the whole thing. I rely on my ears to do that.
“Tarkus” was an example of testing a lot of sonorities against one another, including tempos. I think at the beginning with ELP, Carl was excited about “Tarkus,” but I don’t think it was the direction Greg wanted to go in. I think possibly Greg thought that it was an opportunity for me to show off. That couldn’t have been further from the truth. It really took a lot of thought to make the changing parts of the piece work together.
You’ve said your compositions and melodic ideas have been inspired by unconventional influences. Give me a couple of examples.
It’s very disturbing for me to have an ear like this. I once had an African grey parrot named Smokey and he was very, very vocal. He once came up with a tune and I was startled by it. As he whistled it, I ran to the piano and put it down and added some chords. I haven’t recorded the piece yet. He’s gone now, but while he was on this planet, he would consistently rip up my mail trying to find his check from BMI or ASCAP. [laughs] I also remember when I lived in Sussex, I had a lovely home. It was a Tudor building with a wrought-iron gate. When I swung it open, it would make this tune. I was married then and I said to the wife “Don’t oil that gate!” When Greg and I were working with Cozy Powell in Emerson, Lake & Powell, I played him something I wrote. Greg said “That’s good. Where did that come from?” I said “Come out here.” I swung the gate open and he heard it play the melody of “Learning to Fly.”
What are your thoughts about the 2010 Emerson-Lake duo tour you did, five years later?
I was approached about the idea in 2009 by a very good friend who manages us called Martin Darvill and an agent named Jim Lenz. They said “What about you and Greg going out on tour, because Carl is with Asia?” I thought “Well, I’ve had the experience working with my own band and also with Marc Bonilla, so a duo concept could work.” Rick Wakeman and Jon Anderson were working as a duo around that time, which was mentioned. The way it was put to me was “Let’s strip it down.” I thought “If it’s anything to do with ELP, it’s never cut back.” [laughs] They went on and said “The thought is to have you two go out as a lead up to the High Voltage festival in London in 2010 for an ELP reunion.” I replied “Oh, what’s that?” They said “It’s going to be a big festival and the duo shows would be a perfect warm-up for ELP. Carl will have a break from Asia then.” I thought “Terrific, let’s give it a go.” The tour got off to a bit of a rocky start, but by the end of it, it was working.
Despite the tension inherent in ELP, the fact is seminal music was created. Did the tension serve as a catalyst for the classic ELP albums?
Quite honestly, I could have done what I did probably with any other unit. The great thing about ELP is how we dealt with all the different aspects that go along with making a band. That means getting the right accountants, management, lawyer, agents, and promoters. Greg was well into all of those aspects, which was something I didn’t have the time for. Greg liked to socialize with promoters, whereas I would say “What’s the point of going out for all these dinners and sitting around?” Greg was very good at that. He has a very good business mind. One of the problems we had in the very early days is I felt he should be putting more of that genius into more songs. It was always frustrating having written something and wondering if Greg had written any lyrics. When they were slow in coming, I’d often say to him “If you haven’t written any, can you collaborate with somebody?” He would say “No, I don’t collaborate.” Well, thankfully, he did change his mind on that one. Eventually, he said if there was anybody he would work with, it would be Pete Sinfield. I said “I love Pete.” So, Greg said he’d give it a go. I was so grateful. When Pete arrived, things moved very swiftly. I was so happy Greg and Pete got on. They had their ups and downs, but at least I was out of the picture. Things were getting done and that was good.
Your autobiography Pictures of an Exhibitionist flew past the ‘90s ELP reunion albums Black Moon and In the Hot Seat. Reflect on those for me.
Black Moon was produced by Mark Mancina, a great producer. I don’t think Greg was too happy that somebody was stepping in and producing, but I felt it was good to have another set of ears. I look back at the album with great admiration. There’s some great stuff on it. As for In the Hot Seat, it’s no secret that I had arm surgery during that period, which threw me back a little bit. I wouldn't recommend arm surgery to anyone. I had a big incision going the whole length of my right forearm. The surgeon wanted to move my ulnar nerve, which is the funny bone. They were going to transfer it to the center of my elbow. During the surgery, they thought “While he’s out, let’s have a look around.” When I came to, I was told they had a look at my radial nerve and they had transferred my ulnar nerve elsewhere. So, you can bang my elbow now and I won’t feel a damn thing. It was a hellish time.
In the Hot Seat was done as I was in the recuperation stage. I thought it was a very constructive period. Carl was a wonderful influence. I worked a lot in the studio and Greg would work at home. Then he’d come in much later on in the afternoon. We basically block-booked the studio. Carl would say things like “Ooh, I like that. Do that again!” So, I have to thank Carl for that. But I think Greg kind of used my surgery as an excuse. He would imply “Yeah, Keith had surgery, so therefore it wasn’t a good album.” It was also during the recovery period that I got a computer and wrote my autobiography.
In the Hot Seat has a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Man in the Long Black Coat.” Originally, it was going to be a side-long suite. Why did it end up as a four-minute piece?
Yeah, it was a pretty epic number. The producer of that album, Keith Olsen, liked it, but he said “This is a Dylan piece. Why give all the credits to him?” I said “Well, because I wrote this in homage to him. That’s the way I see it. It has great imagery, almost like a Clint Eastwood Western, with lots of mystery.” Keith and Greg went “Well, no. We don’t need to give Dylan any of this stuff.” I said “But these parts were supposed to go with ‘Man in the Long Black Coat.’ You can’t separate them.” They said “Yeah, we can.” And I said “Oh…” So, that’s how it ended up. It was supposed to a big piece.
Provide some insight into ELP’s decision-making dynamic and why you acquiesced.
Well, a lot of times, it was for the sake of peace and quiet. We ran ELP diplomatically. Even today, with my work with Marc Bonilla, I don’t rule out the idea that maybe I could be wrong and that others have a point, so let’s give their way a go. I could see the point of not making the Dylan piece the epic I wanted. It wasn’t just that Dylan song though, as I’ve been doing things like this since The Nice in the ‘60s. We did versions of Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me” and “My Back Pages.” The thing about Dylan is you can take the music anywhere you want to go with it. We did “Country Pie” in The Nice too, which I really loved. I enjoyed playing it with that band, during which I merged it with Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto No. 6.”
Prior to Black Moon, you recorded the just-reissued solo album Changing States in 1989, produced by Kevin Gilbert. What do you recall about the making of it?
Crikey. It included “Montagues and Capulets” before ELP got hold of it and called it “Romeo and Juliet.” I think a lot of people thought Changing States was done after Black Moon, when it was actually done before. Yeah, the late Kevin Gilbert produced it, which was a result of Patrick Leonard calling me in England and saying “We want you to come to Los Angeles. I’ve got a studio and you can have it for two months, open-ended. We just want you to come here and play. We’ve got a great, talented producer who’s 22, called Kevin Gilbert.” I thought “Yeah, alright” and it was very productive. As it happened, I had some stuff to work on and it was ideal. Kevin was an utter genius and it’s so sad that he’s gone.
You spent a lot of time with Kevin Gilbert. Tell me about your friendship and working relationship.
Kevin recorded “Close to Home” originally in Patrick Leonard’s studio, while I was going through a divorce. I remember Kevin saying “You could call it ‘Close to Losing Your Home.’” [laughs] He had a great sense of humor and he was a very, very good-looking guy. He was also a very good producer. He was extremely talented in so many ways. I remember sometimes when I’d play something during the Changing States sessions, he would say “I think you could do a lot better.” I’d go "What? How old are you? What do you mean? That was great!” [laughs] He’d reply “No. Try a different tactic.” I’d say “Geez, okay, alright. You might have a point. I’ll give it a go, but if it doesn’t work out, I’m keeping the earlier take.” Normally, Kevin would prove to be very right.
The other thing about Kevin’s genius was that he could somehow play any instrument he picked up. There was one piece and he said “It needs some clarinet on there.” I said “Where are we going to get a clarinetist from?” He replied “There’s one in the studio.” I said “Do you play clarinet?” He said “No, but I’ll learn.” [laughs] A half-hour later, he had actually learned how to play it. Amazing.
The last I heard from Kevin, he called me up and said “I’ve formed something called The Tuesday Night Music Club. The concept is it’s musicians who are fed up with the way the recording industry is. It’s too stagnant. There’s no sex, drugs and rock and roll anymore. It’s not like it was with you guys in the ‘60s.” I said “Wait a second Kev’, it wasn’t really that way with me.” A lot of people think I was all over the place indulging in drugs, but I wasn’t. I know you can see pictures of me with a bottle of Courvoisier, but I guarantee you it was mainly water. It was such a stupid sense of bravado. It was like following in the footsteps of Janis Joplin, who would have a bottle of Southern Comfort on stage. I thought “Great, I’ll do the same thing.” I stopped doing that after I got back to England after a tour. I got a piece of fan mail from a guy who said “You don’t realize what it means when you do that for guys who have problems with alcohol.” I thought “He’s right. That is fucking stupid and irresponsible.” So, I didn’t do that anymore. These days, I like a glass of wine, but it doesn’t go much further than that.
Changing States didn’t get released until 1995, three years after Black Moon. What was the reason for the delay?
That’s the way things often worked. I’d play a solo project to some record company and they’d go “Oh, that’s good. But it would be even better if you played it with ELP!” [laughs] I would say “You won’t release it?” They’d reply “Keith, it is good, but we can sell it a lot better if you do it with Greg and Carl.” There were quite a lot of times like that. There just seemed to be no way of getting around it. The attraction of a big record company during that era was there. Greg would probably call me up and say “Keith, we’ve got to do this. Do you understand how much they’re offering us to do this?” And I could see my bank balances dwindling, so I thought, “Okay, let’s do it.” That’s pretty much how Black Moon came about.
I consider the 1986 Emerson, Lake & Powell self-titled album one of your career highlights. How do you look back at it?
It goes back to a similar situation. I did a whole bunch of demos for Geffen Records at the time. They gave me a $10,000 advance to come up with 10 demos. I thought “Okay, that’s great. I’ll do it.” So, I came up with the demos and Geffen heard it and said “You know what Keith? This would be great if you played it with Greg and Carl.” [laughs] The interesting thing is—and I think every musician will agree—that demos always come out sounding better than how the final tracks end up, which can be overproduced. Demos have that energy level going.
After I did those demos, they were heard by Polydor. It was suggested that if Greg sang on them, the album would be a hit. So, we went into the studio and it was good and very productive. Greg liked the demos, but wanted to change some of the lyrics. I wasn’t bothered about that. There was some really good music like “Lay Down Your Guns” on the album.
We needed a drummer, because Carl was busy with Asia. I’d known Cozy Powell a long, long time. We’d hang out sometimes, together with Jeff Beck. So, it was suggested “Why don’t you get Cozy?” I thought “Hmm. Okay. I know Cozy is kind of a heavy metal drummer. Can he handle the sort of stuff we’ve been doing?” So, I called up Cozy and he was a lovely guy. We had exactly the same interests. We both loved motorcycles.
I loved how the album came out. I think Cozy was also great with ELP’s standard repertoire. His optimistic, fun nature meant we bonded very well. It wasn’t until we went on tour that we suddenly realized he had the same initials as Carl Palmer. Honestly, it hadn’t really occurred to us at the time. We thought perhaps we could call it ELP. I don’t think Carl was too happy about that, but I think he realized in the end that he had his own band Asia and he’d continue to get royalties from ELP through this, as we’d keep the catalog alive. So, he didn’t say we couldn’t use the ELP logo. I designed the ELP logo. I sat with ELP’s manager Stuart Young and sketched it out. An artist came and redrew it and that’s the logo that stuck.
Why didn’t you make a second Emerson, Lake & Powell album?
There was no attempt to make a second album. I recorded some material on my own with the band in mind. But at the end of the Emerson, Lake & Powell tour, there were some altercations between Greg and Cozy. So, Cozy decided to move on. It was the usual stuff. I remember waking up in my hotel room one morning and all I could hear was all this yelling going on. I thought “What the hell is that?” So, I stuck my head around the door and there’s Cozy. I hear “Where the fuck is he? I’m going to kill him!” And I thought “Uh oh…” I don’t know what the altercation was. I have no idea at all.
Live in Boston ’88 by 3 is coming out shortly. What are some of your memories touring with Robert Berry and Carl Palmer with this short-lived band?
It was certainly lots of fun working with Robert. He’s very talented and Carl is a very funny guy as well. When you put the two of them together, watch out. The album came out on Geffen, and we worked with the A&R man John Kalodner. He used to credit himself as “John Kalodner of John Kalodner.” [laughs] John said “We want radio playable material and you have to have women involved.” So, of course, all three of us being hot-blooded guys back then were happy with this suggestion.
It was quite fun auditioning the female backing singers. One after another would come in and Carl and I were arguing about attributes that had nothing to do with whether or not they could actually sing. [laughs] The truth is, they all could sing though.
We were given a budget for this process. Carl is going to kill me for saying this, but he went to Frederick's of Hollywood, a lingerie shop, to choose all their clothes for them. Then we had the singers model them. I said to the guys “Listen, nobody gets involved. You don’t get involved. Do not get involved with the singers!” I certainly didn’t. I was married at the time. God, you can imagine what my ex-wife thought about that at the time. It wasn’t easy to tell my wife “I’m going out on the road with these ladies.”
I remember, halfway through the tour, I got a letter from a fan and it said “Shameful. How can you have these scantily-dressed women onstage, when you’ve written ‘On My Way Home,' a beautiful song in memory of Tony Stratton-Smith, who managed The Nice?” I thought “Whoever this guy is, he’s got a point.” He left his telephone number and I dialed it. His wife answered and I said “Hi, can I speak to your husband?” She said “Who’s calling?” I said “It’s Keith Emerson.” She said “What?” I can hear yelling on the phone line with her husband. He said “Is this a joke?” I said “No, it’s Keith. I got your letter. You’ve got a point.” I’ve stayed in touch with him ever since. The tour started with three girls, went down to two, and then just the one singer.
Tell me about the process of working with Dario Argento on Inferno from 1980, the first film you scored.
It was a horror film. I was living in The Bahamas at the time. That might sound extravagant, but a lot of musicians got out of England because the taxes were like 90 percent. The English government would take that much. A lot of bands like The Who and The Stones relocated. What’s the point of burning yourself out, touring all year, and then you’ve got to give 90 percent to the government? So, we all left. When I was there, the manager Stuart Young called me up and said “Would you like to be flown to Italy to meet with Dario Argento?” I said “Well yes, sure.” I met with Dario at the film studio one afternoon and he played me two of his films, which were both very gory horror movies.
Inferno was done in a very traditional way. It was filmed at Cinevox Studios in Rome. We did the soundtrack live to the actual movie playing. It was important to rehearse the orchestra. We had a great conductor in Godfrey Salmon, who helped out amazingly. We’d see the film stream come across and know what point we were at. We’d either slow down or speed up a bit so we hit the right cue, like when some guy had his head chopped off or was being attacked by rats. [laughs] It was great fun and worked out wonderfully.
I remember going to the premiere in Rome. It was terrific to watch the audiences. They were hiding under the seats. Women were running out screaming. If you watch it today, it’s pretty tame. But back then, it was pretty scary.
Contrast composing music for soundtracks to working on standalone pieces.
With the so-called concept albums I’ve recorded in the past, I just went along with them during their creation. I think the working title for Brain Salad Surgery was Whip Some Skull on Yer. Now, some people might wonder what that’s all about, but it doesn’t take much imagination. [laughs] Eventually, it became Brain Salad Surgery, which was taken from one line of Dr. John's 1973 tune "Right Place, Wrong Time.”
With soundtracks, I could work with someone else’s concept. Movies typically have a storyline and a time period. It could be a Victorian piece. It could be science fiction. You’ve got something to go on when you compose. The only obstacles are that you’ve got the director and producer that want to put their two cents in. Sometimes you learn that all or part of what you’ve written won’t be in the film. So, you have to accept that they may edit out stuff. In the case of Inferno, I don’t think Dario changed anything. The only thing I remember him being concerned about was he wanted to use Verdi’s “Requiem,” because it was sung at one point in the film. He asked me to do a version of it and I did one in 5/4. After he heard it, he said “Where’s the Verdi?” I said “It’s there—in 5/4.” [laughs] He went “Oh!” That was the only comment he made.
You’re one of the most celebrated musicians in rock history, but also one of the most criticized. How do you deal with the criticism?
I use it to my own benefit. I do take criticism to heart sometimes, but not so much now. I think one of the earliest criticisms that got to me was someone, it may have been from the New Musical Express, saying “Emerson can’t write his own music. He relies on adapting the classics.” That upset me. I thought “I’ve written The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack, Trilogy and Tarkus”—all of which have proven themselves in prog history. But I felt “This isn’t enough. I’m going to write a piano concerto.” And that’s what I did. At the time, I had a beautiful barn studio and could afford a very nice Steinway nine-foot grand piano. It inspired me to start writing. I found myself recording my “Piano Concerto No. 1” with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, who weren’t that helpful to begin with. I had to have two sessions with them, because the first session didn’t work out well at all. They had the attitude of “What’s a rock musician doing writing a piano concerto?” That pushed me on as well.
Now, I’m pleased to say the concerto is being performed by some great classical pianists, including Jeffrey Biegel who plays it wonderfully. There’s also a live recording of me playing it, but it hasn’t been released yet. I thought “I’ve rocked up other classical musician’s pieces, so I’m going to do the same with mine.” I did a kind of rock adaptation of the last movement. I’m also happy to say that with all the adaptations I’ve done, if the composer has been alive, he’s always given his full consent. I can quote Aaron Copland, Alberto Ginastera, and to a degree, Leonard Bernstein, in that regard.
Trilogy was just given the deluxe edition treatment, remixed by Jakko Jakzyk. What’s your perspective on the ELP back catalog remixes done by Jakzyk and Steven Wilson?
You’ll be surprised to know I haven’t actually heard them. I’m aware of them. I don’t have a system to play 5.1 surround mixes on. I don’t think my neighbors would be grateful if I was to whack them up at full volume. So, I left those projects up to Greg and Carl. I said “If you’re happy with them, so am I.” Management and the record company were very enthused as well, so I said okay. For me, it’s like when Paul McCartney once talked about The Beatles back catalog, he said “I really meant it all to be in mono.” [laughs] The truth is, I rarely listen back to any of my recordings. I find it painful to listen back to myself sometimes. I can’t stand watching myself either. I’m working on a DVD of a symphonic concert I did with the South Shore Symphony performing my “Piano Concerto No. 1” and other pieces, so I have to do it.
One thing I remember about making Trilogy is I played the solo of my life on the Minimoog, which was in its infancy at the time. Getting it in tune was always a challenge. It was 4am and after playing the solo, I listened back to the tape and said to the engineer “Where’s my solo?” I could tell by the stunned look on his face that it wasn’t there. He said “Umm, I thought it was there.” I said “You’ve wiped it off, haven’t you?” It was the middle of the night and the engineer was very tired. But Greg stepped in and said “Oh come on Keith, you can do another one.” I said “At 4 o’clock in the morning?” So, I did another one. Even now when I listen back to it, it’s okay, but it’s just slightly out of tune.
What song are you referring to?
I’ll leave that to your readers to guess. Everybody is going to be searching for that now, aren’t they? Here’s a hint: it went “Ba-diddly-dah-dah, ba-diddly-dah-dah.” [laughs]
Do you perceive a spiritual element in your musical output?
I’d like to think so. Certainly, on the odd occasion, I’ll go “Wow, where did that come from?” I choose not to answer the question. I think a lot of other musicians feel there is some sort of higher power. I wouldn’t regard myself as being overly religious. I admire all religions. I’ve had girlfriends who are Hindu. My father was certainly not religious. My mother was, to a degree. I attended church. I’m not really a church-goer now, but there’s something that always amazed me in church music and its gothic atmosphere. When I got my first Hammond organ, the first thing I played on it was Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D minor,” which is very gothic to me. I didn’t listen to a lot of Bach, but his music was wonderfully religious. His “St. Matthew's Passion” also made a real impact on me. I really do value all religions though, as long as people don’t wave them in other’s faces or become manic about it all.
I understand you once had an intriguing meeting with the Queen. Tell me about that occasion.
Oh God! [laughs] It was absolutely hilarious. It was her Golden Jubilee celebration in 2002 and I was invited to play solo piano, along with a lot of other musicians, including the great Stan Tracey, who is sadly no longer with us. After I played, I was lined up to be presented to her Majesty. You have to learn the correct etiquette. If she does speak to you, the first thing you say is “Yes, your Majesty.” But you can only use that once. After that, if she shows any interest in talking to you, you address her as “ma'am.” So, I was in line and she came up to me and I said “Yes, your Majesty.” She said “What do you play?” I said “Tonight, ma'am, I played piano, but sometimes I play synthesizers.” She said “Synthesizers?” and then shrugged her shoulders and walked on down the line. [laughs] My good friend Jim Davidson, who had met the Queen many times, warned me that the best approach was to talk to her about horses. But I knew nothing about horses. And she knew nothing about synthesizers. [laughs]
So, then she’s followed by her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, with his hands behind his back. He looks me up and down and looks back at Stan Tracey’s jazz quartet behind me and said “Do you play with that lot?” I said “No sir, I played solo piano tonight.” I don’t think he knew what a piano was. [laughs] Then he said “Do you bang or do you scrape?” I said “Excuse me?” Again, he said “Do you bang or do you scrape?” I said “Well sir, with the pianoforte being a member of the percussion department, I suppose I bang.” He said “Well, keep on banging!” And he walked on. [laughs]
It got funnier. Kate Bush and Brian May were also there. The royals didn’t know who the hell they were either. There was somebody from one of the ‘80s bands as well and the Duke of Edinburgh goes up to him and said “What do you do?” The artist said “Well sir, I’m a singer and songwriter.” The Duke didn’t get that at all. So, he goes up to Kate Bush and said “What do you do?” She said “I’m a singer and songwriter, sir.” And this rather confused the Duke. He then said “Do you two work together?” Kate said “Well, no sir. We do know each other, but we don’t work together.” Next, he said “Well, why not?” [laughs]
The concert promoter Harvey Goldsmith was there too, and he had designer stubble that day. The Duke goes up to him and said “Is your beard on or off?” Harvey said “Well…” Then the Duke points at a seafaring general and said “That’s a beard! Yours is not a beard!” And it just got worse from there on.
I was told I must ask you about your one and only karaoke experience.
When I got to know Mari, my girlfriend, I learned she loves karaoke. During the beginning of our relationship, she asked me if I’d come hear her sing karaoke. So, we found this club and thank God nobody knew who I was. We get there and sit down at this booth. The DJ has a library of music you can choose to sing. Mari chose a couple of things, got up and sang and I thought she did well. So, we sat back and had some wine. I decided “Oh, this is okay. I can give this a go.” I look at the library and to my great delight, I saw "Karn Evil 9" by ELP. I thought “Yeah, alright” even though I sing so badly that deaf people refuse to read my lips.
Much later in the evening, I went up to the DJ who didn’t know who I was. By that point in the evening, I don’t think I knew who I was either. [laughs] I put my name down for “Karn Evil 9” and to my horror, my name is announced. I go up on the stand, the intro begins, four beats, and I was in. “Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends/We’re so glad you could attend, come inside, come inside.” I thought “My God, I wrote this, but this is going at a hell of a rate. I don’t know how Greg sang this.” I struggled all the way through. I was tripped up when I realized some of the lyrics were wrong. They took out the line “Seven virgins and a mule, keep it cool, keep it cool.” They felt it was too suggestive, I guess. So, I finished singing and there was stunned silence. I remained thankful nobody knew who I was. I walked off the stand and passed the first table and this guy sternly looks at me and said “You just ruined a great song.” Then the guy next to him turned to him and said “He should know. He fucking wrote it!” [laughs].