Tracing past to future ventures with one of the world's keyboard greats, including: The first publication of his title music for ‘Inferno’, video and LP reviews and keyboard music to play
From potted history, to reminiscences of The Nice and ELP, and Emerson the composer...
"I started playing when I was eight years old. My father played by ear and I was I very influenced by his likes and dislikes in music. In fact, he got me started by playing duets with him. I adapted quite readily to the piano and every Saturday I would have piano lessons from a visiting teacher — she was 80 years old! The extent of my piano tuition went up to about the age of 13, I think. I used to do the occasional Worthing Music Festival that my music teacher put me in for, but my heart was not really into classics then. The first piano player that I really got to like was Russ Conway, actually (laughs). I did theory and practical exams up to grade 7 and then my teacher suggested I went up to London to finish off my studies. But I wasn't too keen and ended up playing things like 'Sidesaddle' to my friends at school instead! Soon after that I took a liking to jazz piano. I also played piano for my aunt's dancing school and that introduced me to a lot of different styles.
The first jazz piano music I got was Andre Previn's version of 'My Fair Lady'. I went wild over that album! I didn't have the music, just the record, but if I played it enough I could pick up the notes on the piano — I did a lot of Oscar Peterson lines that way. I did gradually develop both types of playing, reading as well as picking things up by ear. Dave Brubeck music was something I enjoyed playing. Later, I joined a local swing band run by Worthing Council. It was a 20-piece unit and we used to do Count Basie and Duke Ellington arrangements. Some of the musicians in the band also did gigs with me in Brighton. I then formed a breakaway trio with the drummer and the bass player — we were called the Keith Emerson Trio.
We played real sleazy bars in Brighton. They all demanded the latest pop music which I improvised around. I'd buy the occasional sheet music and do an arrangement of it. Other musicians used to sit in on our sessions and on one occasion a drummer called Brian Walkley who played with a rhythm and blues band called the 'T-Bones' came along. While I was with the trio I also worked at a bank. I used to play piano all the time on these gigs and had to put up with whatever instrument I got! I got so tired of playing bad pianos everywhere that I saved frantically for an organ — I'd heard this Jimmy Smith record 'Walk On The Wild Side' and I thought "Wow, that's just great!"
Organs were generally very expensive, although I did come across a Bird organ with built-in speakers at each side of the keyboard (it looked like it was made from a Cornflakes packet!). So I started saving for this instrument because it did seem quite reasonable and went off to the Portsmouth Organ Centre to buy it. I went with my father and when we got there we were actually shown another organ, a Hammond, and after trying it we both agreed it was a much better buy. My father chipped in the rest of the money needed to buy it — so that was how I got my Hammond L100. The Hammond wasn't as portable as the Bird, being an original tonewheel type, but it did work once you switched it on, unlike the 'M' model that required its generator to warm up beforehand. (Later on, Hammond brought out the C's, the B's and maybe an A. There wasn't much difference in the actual circuitry, I think it was actually the kind of cabinet it came in — I do remember the chorusing was different.)
I got a Bedford van to do the gigs and used to play Bingo halls, 'Tico Tico' and all that sort of rubbish (laughs). The amplification was a problem too — the amp/speaker system inside the L100 was just not enough. My father got hold of an old amplifier and we fitted this into the back of the instrument. The sound still wasn't very clean and at the time I didn't even know about Leslie rotating speakers. I then formed a band called 'John Brown's Bodies'. We used to play at the Starlight Rooms in Brighton — and that's where we come back to Brian Walkley and the T-Bones because the T-Bones came down to the club to hear me play. They invited me to join them. Their singer was Gary Farr who was the son of Tommy Farr, the boxer. Of course, I didn't do any singing myself. I've since tried singing but I sound awful except when I'm very drunk!
We played one of the Windsor Jazz Festivals and had a residency at the Marquee Club in London. Actually rhythm and blues was on the decline and was changing to something else, which I didn't really like at the time because I was a purist at heart. The T-Bones tried to be very true to their style, like T-Bone Walker and Howling Wolf stuff — all based on 12-bar rhythm and blues. But it was a bit more adventurous, kind of louder and a bit more electronic. They were unlike the Yardbirds who produced a commercialised form of R&B.
As the demand for R&B got less our manager prompted us to change our presentation and do something a bit different. The Who were just coming in at that time (the early 60's) and there were efforts to make us something like that, but it didn't work. Things were falling apart, so I went on to another purist blues band, the VIP's. We toured Germany and France but it was a bit of a fiasco. We didn't make much money and I slept in the van to save what I could. The group actually thought I was quite conservative because they would take drugs frequently and their girlfriends were hookers from Hamburg. They thought I was very boring because I didn't join in.
I remember one occasion when we carried on playing a concert while a fight took place in the hall. That was the first time I got into doing a lot of nonsense with the organ — making crashing and exploding noises, and leaping and jumping around everywhere! The rest of the group said that was great and I'd have to do it again, so when I got back to England I tried it at our next gig and everybody looked at me in utter amazement! However, it formulated a kind of stage act which ended up with me playing the instrument back to front.
Of course, up to that time the organ, or any keyboard instrument for that matter, was not a front line instrument — they used it as a sort of filling-out instrument — it was still the guitar player who got most of the limelight, while the organ player was there as a sort of gimmicky thing. I used to sit down and play before all this happened then my organ stool got lost and I had to stand up! There were pedals on the instrument but I didn't use them. I can play a bit on the pedals now, but I'm no Fred Astaire, and I did try the Jimmy Smith approach with left hand and pedals together. Pedal notes could be a problem with a bass player as well, and I would keep my left hand playing fairly light.
Some time later the roadie who used to look after the VIP's told me that P. P. Arnold (an English singer who had made a single on the Immediate label called 'The First Cut Is The Deepest') needed a backing band, so I went to England and formed the band which was called the Nice. The idea actually was that we would go on first and play a half-hour set on our own and then P.P. Arnold would come on and do her set. But sometimes she wouldn't turn up at the gig at all. We were so different — she was going on stage doing all that sort of soul stuff, while we were doing the rock music.
At the next Windsor Jazz Festival we did a spot in our own marquee which we packed out and then, when we went on to the main stage to back P.P. Arnold, everybody was shouting for us. A record company sussed us out and gave us a contract and we made our first record called 'The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack'.
In the band was Lee Jackson who had previously played bass for the T-Bones. There was also David O'List on guitar and Brian Davidson on drums. David and Lee did the singing. Lee did the raunchier, gutsy vocals, while David would handle the more sensitive vocal lines. We were pushed into a studio by Andrew Holden who insisted on us doing all new material. So we produced a 7-minute single, 'America', played at the Albert Hall and got ourselves banned!
We did the concert as a protest — that sort of thing was very much in vogue at the time, with bands doing 'It's Good News Week' and this was the first 'instrumental' protest with visuals to go with the music. It was after the second Kennedy was shot and the concert was in aid of American Independence. We were the only rock band in the show and we showed our protest by burning a painting of the American flag. This got us a lot of press and our next gig at Norfolk the following day brought us an audience that was queuing for miles — when we got to the town we thought someone else must be playing with us!
That was the start of it all, really. We were then given a residency at the Marquee as The Nice and we went from strength to strength. We went to America and played at a club in New York and the Whisky-A-Go-Go in L.A. When we got back to England, David O'List left the band and we continued as a 3-piece.
I was getting lots and lots of different effects out of the Hammond which weren't what the instrument was designed for, such as 'playing' the reverb spring by plucking it while notes were held down. I'd stick knives between keys to hold on notes and roll the organ around the stage to induce feedback. The motor for driving the tone wheels could be slowed down or speeded up for sliding pitch changes.
Looking back on the records I made with Nice, they were all good for me, although I don't get them out and listen to them regularly these days. But I'm quite proud of 'The Five Bridges Suite' which was commissioned by the Newcastle Arts Council. That was my first mixed media project of working with an orchestra, trying to merge orchestra and group together. We were one of the first to do that and we had lots of problems trying to balance it up. We were one of the first Western bands, I remember, to get into Japan. Along with Pink Floyd and, of course, The Beatles.
The Nice were quite a revolutionary band for their day; there weren't many bands then who used keyboards at all, let alone as much as we did. The organ sound was an aggressive one — it proved a keyboard player could make as big an impact as a lead guitarist on stage, if he had the guts and determination.
I think a lot of people were surprised at how successful The Nice were. We weren't a 'heavy' band in the traditional sense but weren't exactly conventional pop either. There were limits as to how far that line-up could have gone though, musically.
We disbanded The Nice in 1968, mainly because the music I was writing was getting more adventurous. Lee was unable to handle the singing stuff I wanted, so I was looking around for a bass player that sang. When I was in San Francisco we were on the same bill as King Crimson and that's how I met Greg Lake. We decided to get a band together when we got back to England and eventually found a drummer, who was Carl Palmer, of course, and that was the start of ELP in 1970.
The first ELP album, 'Emerson, Lake and Palmer' (1971), was totally unlike anything that was being played on the radio stations at the time. We were in a completely different category from the heavy bands like Led Zeppelin and Cream. In fact, I don't think we would have made it if there hadn't been that high level of aggression, because that was what attracted people initially. There were two arrangements of classical pieces on that album, and at that time rock people weren't supposed to be into that at all.
We also had a hit off that album, 'Lucky Man' which Greg wrote. (He wrote all the more commercial tunes.) But it was a good song in its own right and, more important, it got us recognised.
'Emerson, Lake and Palmer' isn't perfect, because at that stage we weren't really playing together as a unit. We were just a trio of individuals. 'Tarkus', ELP's second album, showed that we could play together — it's more musically mature, I think. Also, the first side of that album has got some screaming solo organ and synthesiser lines on it, and that showed that a keyboard player could do more than just lay backing chords under guitar solos.
By this time, of course, we were becoming more and more well-known so that our next release, 'Pictures at an Exhibition', which was just a selection of live recordings made before 'Tarkus', had to be rush-released because of popular demand. It was our first LP to go gold, I think. As well as Mussorgsky's title-track there was an arrangement of Aaron Copland's 'Hoedown' which proved very popular, plus another of Greg's ballads, 'From the Beginning' which was a hit single.
After these successes there was a bit of a break before our next album, 'Brain Salad Surgery' came out. The first LPs had come out within the space of about a year, and we felt we needed a bit of time to consider things and not let everything go to our heads.
I think it was worth the wait because a lot of people think 'Brain Salad Surgery' is just about the best thing we ever did. It had another Lake single on it ('Still You Turn Me On') but we certainly didn't feel we were getting stuck in a rut. I think that 'Karn Evil 9' [a 30-minute epic featuring some incredible keyboard-playing] proves that. Again, the most important thing was the way we were playing together as a band. The triple live album, 'Welcome Back My Friends To the Show That Never Ends — Ladies and Gentlemen, Emerson, Lake and Palmer', we put out in 1974 shows that too — it has a very 'together' feel about it.
We had another break after that — it wasn't until 1976 that 'Works Vol 1' was finally completed. We were trying something different — each member of the band doing one LP side and the three of us doing the fourth together — and looking back on it that might have been a retrograde step, though musically I still stand by it. From my own point of view, the piano concerto that made up my contribution was quite a milestone.
We tried to take 'Works Vol. 1' out on tour with a full orchestra, but everything went wrong, and I think the whole affair was a big factor in the eventual break-up of the group: we had an awful lot of disagreements.
'Works Vol. 2' was a much less ambitious affair and it was really a bit of a let-down after Volume 1, because it's really just a collection of old singles that hadn't been available on album before. We were really just trying to recoup some of the losses we incurred on the tour with the orchestra.
We recorded 'Love Beach', our last studio album, in Nassau in 1978. Carl and Greg hated being in Nassau and just wanted to get out as quickly as possible, leaving me to more or less finish the album off single-handed. The LP has had a lot of criticism because it's so MOR, though I think some of it still stands up fairly well. On the other hand, there's no way it could be called classic ELP, and I don't think 'In Concert' (a live album released after the band had already broken up) does the group much justice either, to be honest.
Looking back, the Hammond was the prime instrument for me. It was still the L100. This is from the Nice period around 1966/67. I did use a fuzz box but the act was really based firmly on the L100. I also played a little bit of acoustic piano occasionally. There was a big mistake that Hammond had and they always tried to cover it up. It was with the contacts — if you had a lot of presence on your amplifier you'd get this click clicky sound. They tried to cover this up by using a Leslie, but when I used my instrument with a combination of Leslie and amplifier it would bring up this very percussive attacking sound. The Leslie speaker on its own lost a lot of top and gave a more mellow sound. Another thing that made me aim in that direction, that particular sound, was that I'd got hold of a record by Brother Jack McDuff playing 'Rock Candy' — his organ sound was so growling, so angry! That's what I tried to imitate within the Nice.
So it was a straight Hammond that I used with a Leslie and a Marshall amp at the same time.
[The Leslie speaker was designed originally for Hammond organs and its vented enclosure houses a rotating drum that throws out the sound in a circle at two basic speeds - slow 'Chorale' church effect and fast 'tremolo' Theatre organ effect.]
My L100 had no gimmicks at all, it was just straight drawbars, but not the full range possible with nine of them. I found a good way of getting a technique out of the organ by 'playing' the drawbars, I also used to play around with the tonewheel idea because by holding a chord or something, if you switched off the generator, you'd get a howling sound. (I mean like an air raid siren.) I was doing my 'jumping around' act on the L100 as I said and consequently had to get the organ serviced a lot. One day the chap who was doing the repair work for us saw me on TV and realised why the instrument was coming in with broken keys all the time. The guy actually refused to carry on servicing it because he said I didn't treat the instrument right. Soon after we got hold of Bill Haugh to do the work. One of the things he managed to do straight away was boost up the output of the Leslie.
I brought in another instrument — the Moog — in late 1967-68. I was doing a concert at the Royal Festival Hall. We'd had the record 'Five Bridges Suite' out for some time, which used an orchestra and we decided to do one more concert with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Joseph Eger was conducting it and we did selections from 2001 Space Odyssey, using the Ligeti and Strauss themes in our own style. I was trying to get a lot more effects out of the organ and I went into a record shop and I came across Walter Carlos' 'Switched on Bach' LP. That's when I heard the Brandenburg concerto, which we'd already been doing, played on a Moog synthesiser. I couldn't wait to see one of these instruments and found that Mike Vickers, who used to be with Manfred Mann, had one of the first Moog modular systems in his flat in London.
I went round to see it and asked him if I could use it for one of my performances with the orchestra. He told me that it wasn't really meant to be moved around, that it was really for studio rather than live performance. Anyway, he was willing to have a go, so what happened was that he hid behind the instrument while I played it live, jumping up occasionally to make the necessary patch changes. It amazed everybody because of all the new sounds that were coming out. They said "What the hell is that?"
I can't remember the name of the actual Moog system I first used, but it had no sequencer on it, although there were some 4 oscillators, envelope generators and a lot of other stuff. I tried changing the patches but the whole thing looked to me like a telephone switchboard. I finally sorted it out but it took a long time.
So I became the first person to use a synthesiser on stage and obviously wanted to get hold of a Moog instrument for myself. I wrote to Bob Moog asking for all the specs. He told me there was no 'live' model, but he had produced a new version which had a preset box, which might make live performance easier. All this stuff arrived over from America and I had it in my flat and didn't even know how to start to get the thing working! (There was no instruction manual.) In desperation I called up Mike Vickers who had it at his place for three days and finally got it going.
The preset cards gave me a fair variety of sounds to work with. You couldn't alter the oscillators except with the jacks. There were very few things that were actually able to be preset. Presetting was mainly for the 3 oscillators that I first had, so that you could get 5ths or any other interval you wanted. Also the filter. Any changes like from sine to square you still had to do by changing the jack around. It was quite small really, just with 3 oscillators, a filter bank, a set of envelope generators, a set of attenuators and that was about it really. The first problem was getting it to the hall and keeping it in tune. There was absolutely no way of tuning it except by ear. Consequently you had to do this all evening.
Later, I designed a system where you could switch off the audio out and put in a frequency counter, so that I'd be playing the organ with my right hand, I'd have the audio switch out, I'd play an A, and if I got a read-up of 440, I'd know I'd be in tune. But it was all a very risky business. Most of the time I had a limited patching arrangement where I just needed to make a few alterations. The preset box did help a lot. This instrument that Bob Moog sent me was not generally available — it was just that he was very interested to see how I got on with it. I did meet Bob when I went to America and he stood there in the wings and was absolutely blown away — he couldn't believe the way the instrument was being used. He was very keen from then on to work closely together and often came up with suggestions for improving this or that function.
The Moog system was expanded considerably and I had a sequencer and another row of oscillators — it got so big, I couldn't even reach up to it and tune the damn thing any longer! I think Bob now has the full system that I used sitting in his factory as a piece of history — I haven't seen it for the last three years. If I looked at it now I'd probably be back to square one again in using it.
I used to use the sequencer basically just for the gimmick value it offered on 'Brain Salad Surgery'. I'd written this music about computerisation with very heavy lyrics, and the idea was that the instrument sort of took over in the end — it worked well on stage. The sequencer would be programmed to go through this change of notes and speed up until it blew up. It was very good visually — dry ice and all that.
Talking about the move from Moog to Korg, it was really to do with Bob leaving the organisation. I felt I'd lost that contact which had been so important between Bob and myself. I thought that Norlin music tended to ignore the professional musician and catered more for the general keyboard buying public who wanted cheap gimmicky instruments. But the MiniMoog has been one of the most successful mass produced instruments.
So my relationship with Moog dwindled off when Bob left and while working on an album in Nassau in the Bahamas, my engineers (who often showed me new gear) brought in a piece of Korg equipment, the PS 3100 polyphonic synth. It seemed to offer the programming facilities that I wanted, but when I recorded with it, it turned out to be very thin in quality. Anyway, they gave it to me so I had it stuck on the side and I tinkled around with it, but if I wanted a big fat sound, I'd still go back to the Moog stuff.
Soon after that Korg seemed to pull everything together and I really liked their portable organ, the CX-3, which contained the 'key-click' which that I sort of had exaggerated with the early Hammond organ. It also had chorusing and the right percussion overtones.
Then I really started getting into their instruments to the extent that in May last year, I went over to Korg in Japan to give some specs for a special model they're building for me which is going to be quite impressive. It's both digital and analogue combined — in broad terms it's kind of like a Fairlight where you'll be able to sample sounds and then couple it with an analogue synthesiser. I have used the Fairlight for the 'Tramway' soundtrack on 'Night Hawks'.
Since working with Korg instruments I haven't really been in the live situation. I've done some TV shows, but most of my time has been with records and film music for which I used Korg instruments, Korg stuff is far more reliable from a tuning aspect than those early Moogs I used. I've got the 3300 and the 3100 polyphonics. I also use the Sigma, Lambda, and the Vocoder — I get an amazing harmonica sound that's very bluesy on this one. I just use the built-in keyboard and my voice. In fact with this new instrument that Korg are building for me now, I wanted the vocoder built into it. They looked at me in amazement and said "Are you serious?". I think they sort of lost interest in the vocoder, and maybe they're not all that proud of it, but I think it's unique as a soloing instrument. I've got the Mono/Poly, the Poly 6, the 3200, and the BX-3 organ. I've just received the digital delay and they've given me a sequencer as well but I haven't tried these out yet. I think the sequencer's an old analogue one that they've stopped producing.
There's so much happening now it's very difficult for me to keep track of the new developments — from analogue to digital. Recently I was in Japan and used the GX-1 Yamaha instrument, but I really find that I don't need to use much else besides what I've got. I do have a battle between acoustics and electronics — if I go electronic I use the Korg stuff, but I still love acoustic instruments. At home I've got a nine foot concert grand Steinway piano, and, you know, I've still got that something in the back of my mind that acoustic instruments are more reliable. I mean, as good as all the new electronic instruments are, I just don't feel altogether safe with them.
I wrote quite a lot of the music for The Nice and ELP. At the beginning I'd write the odd bit down and scrawl it on a manuscript — and then lose it! There was one piece, it was the fugue that was used on 'The Endless Enigma'. I wrote that out in proper form and always kept that by me. I learnt to write out music from my weekly half-hour lessons with my first music teacher — it's something I still really hate doing, it's a chore. You really have to sit down and work at it, but I've got quicker at it now I'm doing movie scores.
I did some of the scoring for the orchestra too — for 'The Five Bridges'. I admit that I went to an arranger in the end and showed him the parts I'd written out, and he pointed out things like, "Your trumpet player's going to be a little out of breath here". With the Piano Concerto, I worked with a guy called John Mayer. I would go to him with the piano transcriptions and we'd work out what I wanted, with the score all in concert pitch until it was transposed for the instruments. I did refer to Walter Piston's book on orchestration occasionally! I was totally bowled over when I heard the score played by the orchestra — it was a revelation to hear it all played at the same time!
I couldn't multitrack then because I didn't have the facility I have now in my barn studio. Composing for me these days is a matter of building up the parts, and it's really like doing a painting — I just add the colouration. There was a time when I didn't bother to write much down, and Warner Brothers suggested that I continue doing it, but I couldn't face the thought of going back over all those ELP albums, so they got a guy called John Kurtan to help. He would send me his transcriptions for me to do the corrections, which still meant I'd have to sit down with the record and go through it. What he heard was not what I played, but it was a good enough guide to trigger off my memory so that I could insert the right notes for him.
Nevertheless, I haven't really stopped to analyse how I write my music! I think we've had 3 books published altogether, there was Anthology, Tarkus and a collection of pieces just called ELP [see musical quote in this article]. When you get hold of these books, they have exactly what I play on the keyboards. When there was a question of overdubbing lines, I'd write that line in, but generally I'd look at the books being for one keyboard player so that he could entertain himself and play it at home. Quite a lot of the bass lines had to be written in as well, particularly in places like the Fugue where the bass was taking one of the fugue lines.
I listen to classical music a lot — I'd be more prone to going home and listening to a classical LP than a rock LP, or even to the extent now of putting on a jazz LP. I love Shostakovitch's way of orchestration.
When we were touring and playing we tended to have spots in the pieces where we improvised. We'd stick to a general format but there'd always be times where we'd be changing things or we'd have a unique evening where you'd throw your fate to the wind and go completely overboard and do something totally different. If it worked I'd develop it the next night and so on. The other guys usually found a way of following me around the chords. Sometimes it threw them but it kept them on their toes!
I used to like the Brubeck improvisations where he'd chop around with the time changes — we'd do a lot of this, playing 3's against 4's and so on. But I think when I compose I don't stick to a time signature. I just develop an idea. I feel I want to create something and I go to a keyboard and allow that feeling to represent itself through what I play. I've never really sat down and studied pentatonic scales and things like that, and I've never tried using quarter tones with some of the Korgs even though I could. Really, I write at the purely instinctive level — I know what I want to hear and I just keep working at it until I achieve it. Sometimes it doesn't work out. I think that if I'd been more schooled in the art of orchestration (which I certainly wasn't), and the art of counterpoint and harmony, it would have made things easier for me, because you can always fall back on a formula you know. With ELP, I had a lot of ideas that just fell into place but when I sit back and listen to some of the stuff now, I think, Jesus Christ that is the most schizophrenic material I've ever heard in my life! It sounds like a very impatient person trying to get everything done in one go. I think now in my old age I'm getting a little bit more mature and developing my themes a little more fully. I feel I'm taking an original idea to its ultimate objective. Some of the early music, such as on Tarkus and Brain Salad Surgery, I still like very much.
I did some work with Oscar Peterson — we did a TV show for BBC — which was a beautiful experience, because he'd always been a great influence to me and finally to do a show with him was awe inspiring. I remember I was very nervous about meeting him. He was playing at Ronnie Scotts and I'd heard through my management he wanted to meet me. Actually I wasn't keen on meeting him at all, I just thought it would be an embarrassing situation. So I ordered a bottle of champagne and sent it to his dressing room with a note on it saying "you've always been a great influence, thanks a lot". I did finally meet him in his dressing room and it was a tremendous experience, completely unlike I thought it would be.
Other people who've influenced me in jazz are Winton Kelly, Red Garland, Thelonius Monk (particularly his compositions), ragtime pianists like Meade 'Lux' Lewis and Fats Waller, and Floyd Cramer on the rock and roll theme.
I'm still practising and I'm still changing my technique — I think you do have to change with the way you grow. I don't need to play the piano to keep the strength in my fingers, I think it's totally opposite now. When you're young you do have a lot of strength and a lot of attack, but that doesn't work out in technique after a while, it's now totally the opposite way of playing. I prefer to use keyboards that are weighted — I like to feel that bit of resistance. I really can't stand these little feathery light delicate touches.
Live performance has always been the thing for me — well, it used to be and it's still at the back of my mind at the moment. I'm currently toying with the idea of getting another band together and I know the direction I'd like to put it into. But until I start getting a few more recordings done I can't really augment too much on that.
The challenges that I had before were always growing with ELP. It was one thing after another leading up to touring with that orchestra. I've always found it important to project to the audience, which is what really helped the keyboard become a front line instrument for us. Now, of course, the keyboard is selling more than the guitar, whereas when I came in, the whole image was centred round the guitar. The guitarist moved around while I sat at my piece of furniture! All that moving around while I played is still part of me and if I get a band together I'm not going to rule that out. I think Pete Townshend still smashes his guitar up!
I always used Hammond Leslies with ELP. I finally got up to using the Pro 900 but there was something different about it. I never really liked it as much as the early ones I had. Bill Haugh took out the amplifier of the Leslie and boosted that up so it really shook. A lot of that early organ sound I remember was based on distortion and the right sort of distortion you got. Of course, the Hammonds were all valve instruments and I jumped straight from those to the Yamaha GX-1. Altogether I had the Hammond L100, then I had a C-3 and an A-100 with The Nice.
When playing with the group, I would always leave the bass line alone and I've always disliked one-handed keyboard players! The thing was that when you went to play the organ it would be very boggy if you did too much heavy stuff in the left hand. So obviously the counterpoint style of layering musical lines was quite useful. Occasionally I'd use the left hand for ostinato figures [repeated patterns], but always it complemented what the bass player was doing. My solos with the band were always pretty rigidly laid out within the framework of the composition, but as I said, we would often take liberties and experiment. I never use pedals to set synth volume levels — the guy on the mixing desk would always do that, and we would have a pretty intense sound check beforehand. The guy on the mixing board was also in the studio when we were mixing so he knew exactly what line had to come up.
As far as PA was concerned, we did own a PA at one time but then we got into hiring the large rigs we needed — we did have a reputation for playing very loud! Our ELP engineer, John Robson, created a powerful PA for us in 1970 using cinema-type speaker cabinets with 10-foot folded horns and twin 15-inch loudspeakers for the bass, plus four Vitavox and two JBL horns for the upper frequencies, all driven by Crown amps. We tried quadraphonic at one point with speakers at the back of the hall but it didn't prove successful as a lot of halls didn't like it because of fire regulations. Later on we did our performances in stereo. Our engineer would muck around with the synthesiser quite a bit and throw it from side to side - I think that's what led a lot of people to think that I wasn't playing what I was playing. They thought it was taped because it was coming out of the other side, but we never used tapes.
On the other hand, there were some pieces that we recorded that could never be played live — for example, the Festival Hall organ piece. I'd have probably done the first movement of ;The Three Fates' piece I'm referring to because that was just solo piano. The last movement is 3 or 4 pianos playing away and it wasn't really intended as a live performance piece. These days I like to play piano, the GX-1 and my Korg stuff. The GX-1 cost me £30,000 when I bought it and I never got any free servicing from Yamaha either! I even had to hire a GX-1 when I was in Japan instead of them lending me one.
I've got a ½-inch 8-track tape recorder with a Soundcraft 16-4-2 channel mixing desk, there's a couple of Pro Tannoy speakers, and a Great British Spring reverb unit. I don't have any outboard stuff really or computer instruments.
It's very much easier for me to work out compositions now. I just go in to the barn I use as a studio and start laying the tracks down. I generally work on my own, but if I need a drummer I just call one up and I've got an adjoining room for drums which gives a very tight sound. On some occasions I've taken the 8-track recording I've done up to London and bounced it onto a 24-track (I mainly use Advision), and then I carry on laying tracks up there. I've also used Air and Lansdowne studios.
As far as composing is concerned, I think I'm still as eclectic as ever. I've been writing instrumental and vocal pieces but I haven't really hit on the right sort of group yet. I'm still looking for the right players to play with permanently. At the moment I'm just calling on a drummer and a bass player from time to time. There's a distinct possibility that I might use another keyboard player with me — I think that would be a nice touch. It would also help with the overdubs in the studio because I always like to do live what is on the album.
I would like to become more established as a composer and I would still like to score a really good movie. I've already done several films. I won an award for the one I did in Italy called 'Inferno'. And I did 'Night Hawks' with Sylvester Stallone. There's also a Japanese film I've just had released as well, and there's another movie in the pipeline.
I don't find being tied to the structure of the film too limiting — I enjoy writing film music as the medium helps me to be much more concise in my writing. It's not like recording an album where I'd need a very heavy producer to keep me in check.
I haven't ruled out going back on the road again. I think that it is important that I do, but at the moment I don't find it so much of a challenge as doing the movie scores — I haven't broken that yet. The thing is getting the right film. If the film's a success or it stands up then the music has a better chance. Vangelis beat me to it (laughs) with 'Chariots of Fire'. In fact, I did have that film script and turned it down!
I don't think I shall ever do solo performances as I like the live performance touring situation, where you're working night after night with the same group of guys and partying afterwards — that's all part of it. I've been approached to do solo performances with orchestras, but that's not really the direction I want to go in.
Incidentally, one of the things that interested me with the Fairlight was the 'scaling', which enabled me to get some really interesting clusters of notes for cymbals that's great for film music — it helped a lot on 'Night Hawks'. But it's still too expensive for me to buy! I'm now multitracking stuff in the studio and I use a Linn Drum — the first model they brought out. I used electronic drums on 'Night Hawks' and on 'I'm A Man' (the old Stevie Winwood song). Yes, I really like the Linn — it doesn't argue!
I use a lot of trial and error when I'm building up something. I'm not really a big effects man, although I use a Harmonizer in the studio to get a honky-tonk piano when they won't let you de-tune the piano.
As much as I admire the music coming out on the radio now, it's the end product of an industry — that industry consists of a producer and a lot of technological effects, all of which I find quite good. But I don't find the harmonies, I don't find the tunes, there's no real melody there. The recording industry at the moment is in a big turmoil, there's lots of people being hired and fired all the time — they're very, very unrestful.
The record companies that I deal with have a certain concept of how Keith Emerson should be sounding these days. Their last picture of me was with ELP and obviously I've moved on — I've broadened out on how I was writing with ELP. Nevertheless, whatever I presented them with in terms of music was not their preconceived image of what I should be doing. It's a big problem and something I'm battling against at the moment. I've even toyed with the idea of changing my name and releasing a single — that's a distinct possibility! Definitely, if I get back on the road it won't be announced. You won't get a big fanfare — I'll sneak into the back door.
It's now 3 or 4 years since I've been on the road although I've done the odd TV show. I'm not at all worried about the time gap since my last tour as long as I find the right band to take on the road. But I haven't found that right formula yet. In the meantime, I've had the 'Honky' album released that's available on import.
I'm hoping to catch sight of this new Korg instrument they're making for me soon. It's going to be programmable with 16 oscillators and they're going to design the speakers to handle it all. There'll be a lot of outboard stuff that's all remembered by computer, as well as sound sampling, and the computer control will allow me to bring up a sound at the push of a button. I've also asked for a ribbon controller. Mr Kato, the Korg President, is a very intelligent person and he's got wild ideas about building a circular keyboard! I certainly prefer to have a good length keyboard and I don't like the small gauge ones at all.
In order for me to survive in the rock world I'd have to make certain concessions and I don't know if I'd be prepared to make those concessions. For example, I'd really have to simplify the ideas that I use. I mean it's literally drawing out a beautiful complete idea and making a riff out of it and then adding a vocal over the top — I think that's all it's down to these days. I think most modern music gets by with hook lines — you've just got that one, two-note motif, that if you hit on the right formula you're made.
The same thing is evident in soundtrack for films. If you come up with the simplest idea then you succeed — you've only got to hear that 'Jaws' theme. With the opening 2 notes that was made. I'm afraid that's all it's coming down to. This is something I'm battling with because what I write is very complex, so what I have to do in order to survive is simplify it all, and if you listen to my music with ELP and The Nice my music has never been simple. So while I'm learning to do that I don't want to adulterate a gift that I have, and I think it is a gift.
I'm not doing any live performances at the moment because I'm just too guarded. When that day comes and the audience ask me to play 'America', I shall enjoy doing it. I'm currently reorganising my management structure and I'm working on a lot of music. But from the record companies' point of view they would like something new. (Of course, film music is quite different because I shall write whatever is needed to fit the particular film.) I'm certainly not going to wait for the record companies to give their approval. Once I find the right combination, musicians who I enjoy playing with, and we've put a repetoire together, we'll go out and play a little club somewhere - whatever the record companies think and, for that matter, anybody else!"
Here's the opening scoring as written by Keith Emerson for the main title theme from his film music for 'Inferno'.
Precision Video VAMPU 2575
45 minutes — mono
Produced by Lindsey Clennell and directed by Nicholas Ferguson, the original film of Pictures at an Exhibition successfully did the rounds of UK cinemas, and occasionally surfaces for late-night showings even now. This videotape is a shortened version, reduced to the first half of the set played at the London Lyceum in 1971, but still captures much of the atmosphere and excitement of an early ELP show.
The theme, as in Mussorgsky's composition of the same name, is a tour around a picture gallery, with each musical 'picture' separated by a recurring 'promenade'. Greg Lake has put lyrics to the promenade theme, and the content of the pictures are equally divided between Emerson's and Mussorgsky's compositions.
While Greg Lake flits from electric guitar and bass to vocals and acoustic guitar, and Carl Palmer thrashes around a large drum kit complete with orchestral gong, chimes and tubular bells, Emerson displays all the showmanship that made the band famous from the keyboard set-up. Apart from the modular Moog system (no Minimoog available at the time), there are two Hammond organs facing each other, and also a clavinet which isn't seen in use in this section of the concert.
Cartoon animation and psychedelic graphics add to the impact of Emerson's synthesiser runs, drones and abstract noises. The infamous posturing with the Moog ribbon controller is still there, and the intelligent application of a rock format to the keyboard classics turns the film into a virtual Hammond users' manual!
20th Century Fox 1140-50
104 minutes — mono
Keith Emerson's powerful orchestral score is a major factor in the impact of this unusual Italian horror film. Director Dario Argento has a long history of imaginative commissioning of film music, another example being Goblin's atmospheric score for his film 'Suspiria'.
'Inferno' is a sort of spaghetti Exorcist, with very carefully dubbed dialogue and a high-quality soundtrack which captures all the subtle sounds of an eerie old house in New York. According to the plot there are three such houses, the others being in Italy and Germany; each one is home to one of the 'Three Mothers' — Whispers, Tears and Darkness — who secretly control the affairs of mankind.
When a series of murders begins in New York, a young music student makes it his responsibility to find out whether the supernatural associations have any real significance. During his search, rapid intercutting, unusual camera angles and the orchestral climaxes of the score itself create various moods of suspense, sudden terror or anti-climax. A recurring piano theme is invariably the prelude to a gory murder, and manifestations of the supernatural are usually accompanied by Latin choir pieces resembling Carl Orff's 'Carmina Burana'.
Godfrey Salmon's orchestrations complement Emerson's keyboards perfectly, and a wide selection of imitative sounds, from screaming guitars to string and brass sections are on display. The main title music and some other pieces are often obscured by dialogue, but for Emerson fans there's a soundtrack LP available as well.
MCA Records BSR 5196
Bruce Malmuth's powerful thriller features a strong cast, including Sylvester Stallone, Lindsay Wagner, Persis Khambatta and Nigel Davenport. Emerson has come up with an equally powerful soundtrack, which opens forcefully with the brassy chords of the Nighthawks Main Title.
Other tracks such as 'Mean Stalkin' open with subtly atmospheric background sounds, followed by more up-tempo passages with grand piano, disco/funk drums and vocals and rapid synthesiser leads. 'I'm a Man' features Keith's vocals over a Latin percussion backing with organ-like chords producing fanfares similar to ELP's earlier work.
'The Chopper' continues in this vein, with a gliding lead reminiscent of parts of 'Tarkus' contrasting with a string section of deep bass synthesisers. 'Tramway' sounds as if it's recorded by a string quartet with orchestral percussion, but in fact relies entirely on the breathtaking cello, brass and percussive memories of the Fairlight CMI.
Remaining tracks such as 'The Flight of a Hawk' give examples of Godfrey Salmon's orchestral arrangements, which on the whole complement the keyboard pieces well. Recording is divided between Compass Point and Advision, with bass contributed by Kendall Stubbs, drums by Neil Symonette and percussion by Frank Scully.
The orchestra used is the Orchestre de L'Opera de Paris, and other famous names taking part include Tristan Fry (of Sky) on orchestral percussion. Overall it's quite a heavily orchestral album, although in a more dramatic style than, for instance, the 'Piano Concerto No. 1' on 'Works'.
Bubble Records BLU 19608
Keith Emerson's latest solo offering shows his range of tastes and styles to be as varied and interesting as ever. Recorded at Elite Studios and Compass Point in the Bahamas, it displays a certain Caribbean influence, largely contributed by Kendal Stubbs on bass and Neil Symonette on drums; however, classical, jazz and rock styles are also represented, together with a certain element of humour which hasn't been seen since the days of ELP's 'Benny the Bouncer' or 'Are You Ready, Eddie?'
The opening 'Hello Sailor' includes George Malcolm's 'Bach Before the Mast' and comprises a set of variations on the traditional 'Sailor's Hornpipe'. Beginning with a slow bass guitar version of the theme, it works through piano solo and heavier rock versions of the same melody before returning to solo piano for a heavily-ornamental Bachian finale.
'Salt Cay' is a light, Caribbean-flavoured instrumental with multiple synthesiser lead lines, while 'Green Ice' is a more dramatic piece along the lines of American TV music-all jazzy piano and synthesised brass sections.
Side two opens with a wacky introduction and 'Big Horn Breakdown', a country music influenced ragtime piece. It's followed by Meade 'Lux' Lewis' 'Yancey Special', which could have been a worthy followup to the same composers' 'Honky-Tonk Train Blues' on 'Works Vol 2' but tends to be a little diluted by the reggae backing. 'Rum-a-Ting' is another light instrumental concentrating on Minimoog leads and Kendal Stubbs' treated bass, while the closer 'Jesus Loves Me' overlays a revivalist prayer meeting with a fluid gospellish piece largely on Hammond C3. A highly varied album then, and well worth searching for.