Carl Palmer returns, minus Emerson and Lake, for another busy year with ‘only’ 70 dates lined up. Joel McIver meets the master of progressive rock drumming
Words: Joel McIver Images: Michael Inns (Copyright 2013 Carl Kendall-Palmer)
Retirement isn’t on the imminent agenda of Carl Palmer, drummer extraordinaire for five decades. When, like him, you have a back catalogue of complex yet beloved albums with the now-defunct Emerson, Lake & Palmer and the still-active Asia, people want to see you play – so why not hit the road? This is exactly what Palmer is up to for the rest of 2015, this time with his ELP Legacy trio, initially for a run of spring dates alongside Martin Turner of Wishbone Ash.
“It’s a three-piece band with Paul Bielatowicz on lead guitar and Simon Fitzpatrick on bass,” explains the great man. “We play for roughly 50 minutes on this tour, although at other times we’ll normally play from one hour to two hours. It’s all instrumental music, and it’s all classical adaptations of the classic ELP pieces such as ‘Pictures At An Exhibition’, ‘Tarkus’, ‘Trilogy’, ‘Hoedown’, ‘Fanfare’, this kind of thing. You can see which ELP pieces we play on my website – there are around 30, I believe. There are a few curveballs in there like ‘Fugue In D Minor’, which was a very big single by the band Sky, who you might recall.”
Readers of a certain musical preference will appreciate the confines of squeezing more than a few of these vintage compositions, created without caring a jot for the parameters of the three-minute pop single, into a setlist. Palmer does too. “We can’t play everything in a 50-minute set,” he laughs. “The Carl Palmer ELP Legacy is really a story using instrumental music and letting you know how ELP came about. We actually play King Crimson’s [1969 song] ‘21st Century Schizoid Man’, although not on this tour because time doesn’t permit. But at other times we’ll play it because that was the first piece of music that ELP played together. One of the big rehearsal pieces for us was ‘Pictures At An Exhibition’, but we don’t play that either, because of time constraints. We do play a complete version of ‘Tarkus’, though, so the whole set is a complete history of ELP in an instrumental format.”
He continues: “I always consider putting a list together that is compatible with the kind of show that we’re playing. I like to play a show that climbs gradually, so by the time you get to the end you’re hearing the big pieces. The show is built to be as impactive as possible, which is quite difficult, as I’m sure you can imagine.”
If you were lucky enough to witness ELP in their pomp, or just seen them on YouTube, you’ll know that the length and complexity of their songs’ arrangements are not to be tackled lightly by any musician. Does Palmer ever amend or simplify them? “Well, the songs have all changed a little over the years because it’s a different band and a different era,” he explains. “There are certain things which you can’t change – the arrangement of ‘Tarkus’, for example – so those things are played accordingly. Everything has been changed a little, pretty much, but the flavour still needs to be authentic.”
As for Palmer’s own drum parts, laid down all those years ago, does he reproduce them exactly as they are on the original LPs, or does he add modern flourishes on the Ludwig Vistalite kits and Paiste cymbals, which he’s using? “It depends,” he replies. “Again, if it’s a song as well-known as ‘Tarkus’ or ‘Pictures At An Exhibition’, then yes, I try to reproduce them. What people should realise is that ELP never played songs the same way every night anyway. The songs were highly arranged, of course, but within the structure of the arrangement there was plenty of room for movement and space to do something different at certain moments. At other times you have to pay attention and play the part exactly as it was. But playing the songs in a trio with guitar and bass gives them a fresh slant, and a new sense of energy, and that brings the music to a newer crowd. I’ve been doing it since 2001 and it’s been perfect.”