Another Chapter In The Story...
Tired of lurking in the shadows of the contemporary music scene, Keith Emerson, one of the synth world's most influential figures, is now on the verge of re-forming ELP, the band that earned him his reputation.
Keith Emerson ended his last conversation with this magazine (E&MM May 83) with the following sentiment:
"Once I find the right combination, musicians I enjoy playing with, and we've put a repertoire together, we'll go out and play a little club somewhere - whatever the record companies think and, for that matter, anybody else."
Two years on, that still hasn't happened. In that time, the world has heard little from the man who once led the field of rock keyboard players by a fairly considerable margin. There's been no record deal, no band and no gigs. Aside from the odd film and television soundtrack, Emerson has kept himself to himself, playing, writing and recording at his home studio in Sussex - letting the contemporary music world get by without him.
And got by it has. Synthesisers and computers have become integral parts of the commercial pop field, the keyboard player has begun to enjoy a status at least equal to that of other musicians, and better synth sounds have been made more easily accessible to a greater number of players.
Yet Keith Emerson has been oblivious to almost all of it. His distaste for much of modern music - and the way it's written - is already well-documented, and it's probably a major reason for his recent lack of creative output. Since the demise of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, he's showed no great interest in the prospect of compromising his musical ideals just to get back into the swing of things. So while he's stuck to his artistic guns, his admirers have had precious little to get their teeth into.
Until now, that is. Months of trying to find 'the right combination' have proved fruitless, so Emerson has teamed up with Greg Lake in an attempt to rekindle the progressive spirit of old.
'I think it's no secret now that I've been working with Greg Lake and a whole load of drummers. We needed a 'P' so we asked Buddy Prich to join, and we've been talking to Phil Pollins, Ringo Parr, and a few other names like that. I don't want to speculate too much, except to say that we are viewing things very seriously at the moment: I just don't want to name any definite names until we've got something solid in the can.'
Unfortunately, getting something in the can might be the first of Emerson's problems. He's got plenty of material, make no mistake, but an awful lot of it is written with a particular synth in mind.
The name of that synth? Yamaha GX1. Thirty thousand pounds' worth of hand-built polyphonic prototype, the ultimate analogue performance instrument, and for all its idiosyncrasies, Emerson's pride and joy.
"If anyone out there knows someone who might he able to design a MIDI retrofit for a Yamaha GX1, I'd love to hear from them."
'I bought this great beast back in 1976, and used it for the first time on ELP's Works album (from which the chart hit 'Fanfare for the Common Man' was taken). It was a lot of money then - those were the days when the pound was actually worth something.
'I remember these little fellows coming over from Japan with it and setting it up at our recording studio, which was in Fulham at the time. We wandered back down there one day after a very heavy lunch, and found all these Japanese guys bowing courteously at us. Anyway, I sat down and tried it, and that was that: I was at home with it from day one, and I had to have one. It was just so complete, even with its silly little drum machine, which seems very home organ-ish now but was quite revolutionary at the time. In fact, I often use it still for waiting.
'The main thing about the GX1 was that it had such a good, fat sound that I've really been able to make my own, probably because very few other people were ever able to afford one, I suppose. The only thing it can't do is produce really strong bass sounds, but I got round that by getting my engineer, Nick Rose, to put CV and Gate connections on it so that could control a Minimoog from the lower keyboard (there are three manuals on the GX). That was long before the days of MIDI, of course, though I'd really like to get it brought up to date in that respect. If anyone out there knows someone who can design a MIDI retrofit for a GX1, I'd love to hear from them. That way I'll be able to use it in conjunction with the latest MIDI synths, which would really be some thing.
'But the real problem is that I'm scared of moving the thing, not because it takes eight grown men to lift it, but because it's also extremely delicate, and servicing would be a real problem: I don't think there's anyone outside Japan with any circuit diagrams. In fact, we just moved it from one side of the studio to the other, and even then, a few things on it stopped working. So I think when it comes to recording it we'll have to bring a multitrack machine down here and do it or alternatively, sample it into something. I'd hate to have to abandon it, because like the Hammond and the Moog system it's got a sound people associate with me.'
Yes, those were the other two great Emerson instruments. The Hammond L100 organ ('the first instrument I actually owned') on which he made his name as keyboard player with The Nice in the late sixties, and the modular Moog system (along with its more manoeuvrable successor, the Minimoog) which earned him the reputation as being one of the most refreshing and dexterous keyboard players in the rock arena.
Looking back, Emerson finds it difficult to pick a favourite from those key items of hardware, though his own particular Moog story is a fascinating one...
"But it really was a classic instrument - once I'd got the switch to defeat the output while I was using the visual tuner."
'The first time I actually used one on stage was with The Nice at the Royal Festival Hall in 1969. It belonged to Mike Vickers, and he came along and programmed it for me. He hid behind it for most of the duration, then occasionally he'd leap up, pull a few jacks out, swap them around, and change the sound. That was how we proved you could use the Moog modular system live - just.
'Just after ELP started up, I got in touch with Bob Moog and he sent me an instrument which he said was probably the nearest he could get to something that could really be used on stage on a regular basis. And it did allow me to make a few changes. You could make alterations to things like filtering and pitch, and at that time, strange noises were still very much in vogue: people had that underground mentality of thinking that wild noises equalled freaky music!
'You know, I was in Japan last year, and it was really weird to see all these ELP clones: they treat those odd noises as gospel. They feel they've got to copy every whoop and glitch I happened to produce on the particular evening we recorded on the Pictures at an Exhibition tour. They don't have ribbon controllers (as I did) to make these sounds, but they waggle away on Poly 800 joysticks, making noises they obviously regard as nusic. I certainly never thought of them like that - to me they were just part of the live show.
The Minimoog was the other great godsend of that middle ELP period. It's interesting that I never really got into that bend-wheel thing which guys like Chick Corea have really made their own, but the reason for that was that I never had the spare hand. At that time, Greg was starting to play more guitar on stage, so I used the Minimoog to do the basslines while he was otherwise occupied.
Sadly, Emerson no longer has that Minimoog, and both his L100 and its successor, an extensively-modified Hammond C3, are lying dormant awaiting extensive technological surgery that may never come their way. What with the GX1's inherently delicate disposition, what newer machines has the player seen fit to invest in?
"I never really got into using the bend wheel on the Minimoog - but the reason for that was that I never had the spare hand"
'Well, the first point to make is that I still do almost all my writing on piano, a Steinway. And most of the material I'm working on currently is still GX1-based, because when it's working as it should do, it's still unbeatable. Nick Rose built me a sequencer and several control levers for my knees and feet, so it's a highly personalised instrument.
The one thing I really love about it - and which is going to be very difficult to replace - is the way I can use the upper solo keyboard in conjunction with the ribbon controller. You see, not only is the keyboard sensitive to both pressure and side-to-side movement (which is great for personalised vibrato - much more expressive than introducing an LFO), but you can transfer at any time to the ribbon controller. It runs above the keyboard along its entire length, and you can take complete pitch control from it while the gate is automatically held open. It's a unique feature and much nicer to use than a wheel system, because when it comes to transferring back to semitone intervals on the keyboard, you don't end up with a transposed keyboard.
'Still, I suppose I've got to be realistic. I've started to use a few more modern keyboards, like these little Poly 800s Korg keep sending me. But you can't deny things are difficult these days. There's so much good stuff coming out, but a lot of it is also quite expensive. I desperately want the next big instrument I buy to be the right instrument.
'I tried the Kurzweil, but before I make a decision on that, I need to hear their sampling update. The one I tried just had the standard sounds in it, including a nice Bosendorfer piano sound which could come in useful if you were in a studio that didn't have a piano. But then again, I've got my Steinway, and I'm perfectly happy with the sounds I get from that. The Kurzweil's string sounds were a little bit scratchy, but at least you can really play them, which is more than most synths allow you to do: usually it's more a case of just holding the notes down. I'm still toying with the idea of the Kurzweil, but it's a lot of money just for the presets: I'll have to see the sampling first.'
A sampling capability is important, then?
'Yes. Ideally I'd like to have a really good sampling system now, but there are so many due to come out over the next few months that I'm just going to have to wait and see. I've yet to try the Emulator II, but I've heard some very good things about it.
'On the synth front, I've just got myself an OSCar, which I really like. I suppose it's a sort of modern version of the Minimoog, if you like, but in some ways it's better because of its ability to create digital waveforms and because it doesn't need continual tuning. Then there's the Elka Synthex, which is good for string and brass sounds, and I've just got a PPG Wave that also sounds pretty good, though in a different way, obviously.'
If you're getting the impression that Keith Emerson is only just beginning to realise the sort of leaps and bounds musical technology has taken over the last three or four years, you'd be right. Because up until now, he's been content to remain aloof from the march of progress, and in fairness, anyone with a Yamaha GX1 has a right to pause for reflection while the rest of the keyboard-playing world catches up.
So it's only now that Emerson has decided he's waited long enough, that there's little point trying to gain a reputation as 'Emerson the Composer', that he can't go on writing music for low-budget films and television programmes, and that it's time to get well and truly back into the limelight.
And in the long run, that can only be a good thing. Because while contemporary popular music has seen a more democratic distribution of musical power, it lacks the presence of musicians who really care about the way instruments are played, not just programmed.
Work on the new ELP album is expected to begin in earnest within the next month or two, so watch out, world. And welcome back, Keith Emerson.