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Carl Palmer: “As a kid, I found it easier to play drum solos than I did keeping time”

Carl Palmer
(Image credit: Mauricio Santana/Getty Images)

“I was 10 or 11 years old, and my dad took me to see a film called The Gene Krupa Story,” says Carl Palmer.

“That was the moment of destiny; when the light bulb pings above your head. Up until that point, the drummer was the background guy. You heard him, but you rarely saw him, and he only had one job: to keep time. Gene Krupa brought the drummer front and centre, and you could finally see what an exciting, dynamic, visual instrument the drums were. Sod the guitar! Sod the saxophone! Suddenly, the coolest guy on stage was the drummer.”

As a member of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, Atomic Rooster and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Carl Palmer has long been regarded as one of the UK’s most technically gifted drummers. Like Krupa, he brought the drums ‘front and centre’, often playing 10- or 15-minute solos that featured three different kits, giant gongs, lights, dry ice, church bells played with his teeth and even the occasional costume change.

People would talk about a virtuoso violinist or a virtuoso guitar player… well, I wanted to be a virtuoso drummer.

“As a kid, I found it easier to play drum solos than I did keeping time,” laughs Palmer. “I had to practise really hard at keeping time, but all this other stuff just seemed to be there. People would talk about a virtuoso violinist or a virtuoso guitar player… well, I wanted to be a virtuoso drummer. I wanted to show the world what the drums were capable of.”

Palmer was born in Birmingham and grew up in a seriously musical family. His older brother, his dad, grandad and great-grandmother all played a variety of instruments, and young Carl had no trouble convincing Dad that his future included a drum stool and a set of mallets.

By 13, he was travelling to London every week for lessons with Buddy Rich’s mate, Bruce Gaylor, and at 14, he turned professional, with regular gigs in Birmingham and Wolverhampton. Still in his teens, he joined Arthur Brown in 1969, followed by Atomic Rooster that same year and ELP in 1970.

“Everything happened so fast,” says Palmer. “Suddenly, I’m putting this band together with Keith [Emerson] and Greg [Lake], and our second gig is in front of 70,000 people at the Isle of Wight Festival. Overnight, we went from unknowns to everyone calling us a prog rock supergroup.”

That Isle of Wight show is one of five live ELP performances included on the just released album, Out Of The World: Live (1970-1997). The seven-CD and 10-LP collection also features 1974’s California Jam, Works Live from Montreal in 1977, the 1992 reunion gig at the Royal Albert Hall and the Phoenix show from 1997, just a year before the second break-up.

“Although we recorded every one of our live shows, the technology available in those days was fairly limited,” explains Palmer. “That meant there were only a handful that really made the grade.

“Faulty equipment was a permanent problem, plus the usual buzzes and hums that appeared out of nowhere. The Isle of Wight show was recorded from our desk and you could hear a ton of noise on there. Thankfully, we’ve now got plugins and technology that can forensically pick the whole thing apart, clean it up and give the stereo a bit of width. This is the best these shows have ever sounded by a long way.”

ELP were only a three-piece, but complex, theatrical albums like Tarkus (1971) and Trilogy (1972) shoved them to the forefront of an emerging prog-rock movement that included Yes, Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd (feel free to argue amongst yourselves about the inclusion of Floyd in that list!). But if they were going to play songs like Karn Evil 9 and The Enemy God Dances With The Black Spirits live, they quickly realised that they’d also need a suitably complex and theatrical stage show.

“Sure, we could have gone out there with a couple of spotlights, a disco ball and done it on the cheap, but the music demanded more than that,” says Palmer. “If you’re pushing the envelope on record, you need to go even further when you play live, otherwise people might as well stay at home and put the record on. We felt very honoured that people would pay money to come and see us, so we wanted to make sure they had a night to remember.

“When we went out on tour with the 64-piece orchestra, you were looking at a team of almost 200. Musicians, technicians, riggers, drivers, pilots, chefs… we even had our own doctor.

“Of course, touring became very expensive for us, which subsequently meant that we were never the richest guys in the world, but we felt unbelievably satisfied. And proud, too. If you came to see us, you got your money’s worth.”

Prog rock sold well in the US, but Palmer insists that its roots are distinctly British.

“In America, everything had to be put in its own box. There was rock, there was blues, there was soul, all doing their own thing. But here in Britain, we always liked to mix things up. What happens if you take traditional English folk, a bit of Bartok and William Blake, Avant Garde jazz and experimental electronics? Maybe some beautiful pop songs like Lucky Man or I Believe In Father Christmas. Let’s chuck it all there and see what happens.”

Like so many ‘serious’ bands in the late-’70s, ELP were seen as legitimate targets by the emerging punk movement. Private planes, a mountain of keyboards, songs with more than three chords, beards and flared trousers? No thanks! All you needed was a leather jacket, youthful enthusiasm and a charity shop guitar.

“There was some fantastic music that came out of punk. Bands like the Clash, the Pistols, the Stranglers. Yes, we were constantly told that they hated us, but we didn’t mind. That’s how music works. Things change.

Trying to follow musical fashions never works. Stick with what you know. Keep it honest. Do what you know how to do, but try and do it better.

“The important thing for us was that we didn’t alter what we were doing to try and fit in with what was happening. Trying to follow musical fashions never works. Stick with what you know. Keep it honest. Do what you know how to do, but try and do it better.

“What’s really funny is that Keith and John Lydon became neighbours when Keith lived out in California. They became good mates!”

ELP’s last live show was a one-off 40th anniversary gig at London’s High Voltage Festival in 2010. Rumours of yet another reunion would occasionally appear online and in the music press, but the loss of both Keith Emerson and Greg Lake brought the story to a rather sad end in 2016 - Emerson’s death was ruled as suicide.

Palmer does still tour as Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy, but he’s sensibly steered clear of any attempt to faithfully recreate the ELP sound.

“The line-up is bass, drums and guitar. It didn’t feel right, trying to make everything an exact musical replica of how we used to sound. You can use all sorts of plugins to make the guitar sound like a synth but actually playing them on a guitar gives the songs a different kind of energy.

“What’s exciting for me is that people still want to listen to all the early stuff like Tarkus and Knife-Edge. The music we made all those years ago has stood the test of time. Ha ha! And people said prog would never last!”

Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Out Of This World: Live (1970-1997) is out now on BMG. For details of Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy, visit carlpalmer.com.

Carl Palmer picks three drummers and three singles that changed his life

Drummers

1. Joe Morello (The Dave Brubeck Quartet)

“If a young kid comes up to me and asks about learning the drums, I always say, ‘Go and listen to the live version of Castilian Drums from Brubeck’s At The Carnegie Hall album. Study it, soak it up. Then we can have a conversation about the drums’.

2. Buddy Rich

“People say that Rich wasn’t a musical drummer. Rubbish! Have you ever heard Jumpin’ At The Woodside from his This One’s For Basie album? So many wonderful patterns, constantly sliding in and out of each other. Absolutely magical.”

3. Elvin Jones

“The archetypal small jazz group drummer. With Jones, it’s all about feel; drums that are full of emotion. And so clever. Every now and then, I find myself thinking, ‘Hang on, where’s the 1?’”

Singles

“A perfect picture of London at that time. An entire city captured in a three-minute pop song.”

Ticket To Ride - The Beatles (1965)

“What Ringo gave to the Beatles was absolutely right for that music. An iconic, deceptively simple pattern from a brilliant, brilliant drummer.”

I’m A Man - Spencer Davis Group (1967)

“This one’s all about Steve Winwood. Great songwriter, great vocalist, great keyboard player. Still sounds as fresh and exciting as it did when it was first released.”