When Keith Emerson, Greg Lake and Carl Palmer joined forces in 1969—forming a band the name of which (Emerson, Lake & Palmer) sounded like a law firm more than a rock trio—all three had already established themselves. Virtuoso keyboardist Emerson had dazzled with the controversial band, the Nice (earning the ire of Leonard Bernstein). Lake was the original vocalist and bassist in King Crimson, one of the most groundbreaking acts in the nascent progressive rock movement. And drummer Palmer played with high-profile bands Atomic Rooster and The Crazy World of Arthur Brown. The term “supergroup” was coined by rock critics to describe aggregations like ELP and Cream, whose members brought extensive CVs to new, all-star bands.
Emerson, Lake & Palmer went on to massive success and in the process attracted detractors. Some took issue with what they saw as the group’s bastardization of classical music, most notably their album-length rock reading of Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” Others were put off by the trio’s over-the-top stage show, one that played into most every excess of the arena rock era. Many critics would view the rise of punk rock in the middle 1970s as a direct response to the existence, and to them, the inexplicable popularity, of “dinosaur acts” like Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
As the eighties began, progressive rock bands tinkered with their approach in the hope of following the changing tastes of music listeners. Yet when the group changed its lineup for the umpteenth, and certainly not last time, incorporating two members of new-wavers the Buggles (“Video Killed the Radio Star”) in a bid for relevance, the hybrid worked.
Others went the different route. Long inactive, King Crimson resurfaced as a quartet, making decidedly unfashionable—if highly ambitious—music that drew from punk, new wave, free jazz and Talking Heads-style adaptation of world music. As a group, Emerson, Lake & Palmer sat out the decade. But all three stayed busy.
Palmer resurfaced in another supergroup, Asia. That band, also featuring former members of Yes and King Crimson, successfully bridged the gap between prog and classic rock, scoring hit singles and even becoming a fixture on MTV. Emerson got into composing soundtracks. Lake released solo albums, and he briefly filled in on tour for John Wetton in Asia.
Once the 1980s were safely consigned to the history books, ELP reunited. Although both Emerson and Palmer dealt with health-related issues that slowed them down, the trio released albums that featured flashes of their original brilliance and the band toured the world again. The group tried different approaches live, scaling down the bombast and even playing acoustic sets. A 2010 reunion concert was recorded and released on DVD, and a reappraisal of some of the band’s earlier work resulted in remixed and remastered catalog albums.
Emerson’s repetitive stress injuries continued to plague him, and although to outward appearances he seemed well, depression set in. He took his own life in 2016. Lake developed cancer and passed away later that same year.
Carl Palmer—the youngest and always fittest member of the trio—continued his professional career. Although he wasn’t a primary composer in ELP, the drummer’s powerful and deeply finessed style had a great deal to do with the band’s success. He then traded on his fame and reputation, but did so in a brilliantly innovative manner: he formed a tribute to his old group—dubbed Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy—but made a wise choice in choosing not to copy the trio’s sound.
ELP Legacy wouldn’t even have a keyboard player. Instead, a young and technically brilliant guitarist (Paul Bielatowicz) and a bassist-Chapman stick player (Simon Fitzpatrick) join him as he reinvents ELP’s music for twenty-first century progressive rock audiences. As demonstrated by the front-and-center placement of his drum kit onstage, it’s clearly Palmer’s show, but the sixty-nine-year-old drummer amply demonstrates that the fire and passion he exhibited with Keith Emerson and Greg Lake still burns brightly.
Reggies Chicago, 2105 South State, November 1, 7pm, (312)949-0120; $35.
With a background in marketing and advertising, Bill Kopp got his professional start writing for Trouser Press. His more than 2,500 interviews, essays, and reviews reflect Bill’s keen interest in American musical forms, most notably rock, jazz and soul. His work features a special emphasis on reissues and vinyl. Bill’s work also appears in many other outlets both online and in print. He also researches and authors liner notes for album reissues, and co-produced a reissue of jazz legend Julian “Cannonball” Adderley’s final album. His first book, “Reinventing Pink Floyd,” is due from Rowman & Littlefield in February 2018.