As a forefather of prog-rock with Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and an AOR veteran with Asia, drummer Carl Palmer has traversed all levels of the music scene for over a 50-year career. While he had toured with Arthur Brown and was a founding member of Atomic Rooster, Palmer first made an indelible mark as a member of prog rock titans Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Quirky time signatures, iconic records, and memorable – yet sprawling – cuts were the defining characteristics of the legendary London band, and when it comes to prog rock, the 1970s were indeed theirs.
But as the ’80s dawned, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer were no more, Palmer found himself musically adrift. And so the veteran drummer did what any self-respecting musician would do: he picked himself up off the deck, banded together with fellow prog rock stalwarts John Wetton, Geoff Downes, and Steve Howe, and formed Asia to AOR-driven acclaim.
Through it all, Palmer has never forgotten his roots, and though ELP’s Greg Lake and Keith Emerson are long gone, Carl Palmer continues to champion the legacy of his former bandmates. In spreading the word of ELP’s legacy through shows, new releases, and a soon-to-be-released autobiography, new generations can bask in the exotic glory of the U.K.’s greatest musical artform, prog-rock.
After a busy 2022, Carl Palmer took a moment with ClassicRockHistory.com to wind down as he recounted the early years of Asia, ELP’s classic record Trilogy, his memories of playing in Japan, and what’s next for him in 2023.
What can you tell me about the Asia in Asia boxset?
We’ve got a great vinyl version of the album in there, which features the show we did at Budokan on December 6th, 1983. The boxset also has a CD version and a DVD of the show, which was taken from the original satellite broadcast. We’re very excited about this as it’s an amazing opportunity for fans to hear and see the band as it was back then. There’s a book full of pictures, a folder with posters, and all sorts of fun bits that document the era and the show.
What was the genesis of the event?
David Geffen was very excited that Asia was playing in Japan, and he set the entire thing up. So, this is a fantastic live document of that event. We were in Japan, but MTV handled the broadcast and sent the feed to America. But David was the main driver of us getting signed to Geffen Records, and he loved what we were doing. But at that moment, to do a satellite broadcast into America via MTV, there were so many things that could have gone wrong, but fortunately, it worked like a dream. It was sensational; nothing went wrong with the recording, and the audio quality was superb. And the visuals were marvelous, too.
As well as it seemed to have gone, were there any challenges?
The only thing was, unfortunately, we couldn’t take John Wetton with us because he wasn’t very well at the time. As you probably know, John suffered from alcoholism for many years, and it was just too much pressure for him. So, we brought Greg Lake in to do the vocals, and he was a perfect choice, which is probably why everyone suggested him. I remember David Geffen was on board with it, and Greg did a fantastic job. He rehearsed in London, learned the tunes in a bot a week, and then we set off for Japan. So, for Greg to be able to pick up and do that with only a week’s notice was impressive. It’s also a testament to how tight of a band we were that we were able to merge as we did with John unable to perform.
Asia’s debut turned 40 years old this year. What are your lasting memories?
It sounds simple to say, but for me, a lot of it was just another day at the studio. I knew we had a good album there, but I didn’t think it would hit as heavily as it did. We just went into the studio and recorded material that we’d rehearsed. So, it was a pretty straightforward event, really. The only thing that stood out about that moment in time came after the fact with “Heat of the Moment.” As you know, that was the biggest song on the album – I think it was No.1 for about seven weeks – and it was recorded about two o’clock in the morning.
The bizarre thing is that “Heat of the Moment” began its life as a country and western song. From there, the way it turned into what it did was a total haze for me. I think I recall that John had this piece of music, and he’d had it for some time but hadn’t done anything with it. So, he came up with various ideas, which we tried, some of which worked, while a lot of them didn’t. I suppose that the ones that did work are the ones that ended up on the recording.
Japan is well-known for its love of rock music. What are your memories of your time playing there?
I first went to Japan with Emerson, Lake & Palmer in the 1970s. But by the time I came back with Asia, it had been about ten years, and things had changed dramatically. They were very reserved when ELP was there. We played at a couple of baseball stadiums where they stormed the stage, but in general, the Japanese fans were extremely reserved. They would never clap or make any noise until the song’s end. And then, when the concert ended, they all kind of marched out, almost military style, but in a very polite manner. But when I went back with Asia, things changed dramatically. They’d become wild and lost all sense of the former Japanese conservatism. Now they were singing, jumping around, and basically yelling along to every chord, lyric, and note. So, it was a huge change and a lot of fun for us.
I wanted to hit on the Return of Emerson, Lake & Palmer Tour, which features projections of your old bandmates. What can you tell me about it?
So, in the ’90s, Emerson, Lake & Palmer played at the Royal Albert Hall here in London, and both nights were recorded. There were five or six cameras, and all went remarkably well. The second concert, which was the best one, was eventually released on DVD. So, basically, it’s like this: I tried looking into holograms in 2018. I know they’ve done it with Ronnie James Dio and Frank Zappa, and I had an idea that we could use the footage from that concert as the source for holograms of Greg [Lake] and Keith [Emerson].
But I have to be honest, I was a bit spooked out by it, but I guess if it doesn’t look right at me, I’m okay with it. So, I figured we could use those DVD shows and integrate them into the show somehow, and then I could play with Keith and Greg again. So, I decided to incorporate that into the show that I’ve already got, and I think we’re looking at about six or seven songs where we’ll have Greg Lake and Keith Emerson up on the screen playing along with us.
What sort of emotions run through you when you think about being on stage with them again?
It is a bit spooky, but both had a huge impact on my life, so it’s going to be quite nostalgic for me. It’s the way I think they would like to be seen. I think they’d rather be seen playing a live concert than anything else, maybe. Both the Lake and Emerson family are in agreement with it, so all systems are a go. We’re looking at end-of-year concerts and then a full launch in 2023.
ELP’s Brain Salad Surgery is often a point of focus, but I’d wager that Trilogy – which turned 50 years old in 2022 – is a better record. Would you agree?
I do agree. I love that album. I can remember every minute detail of its recording. But one thing that I can tell you about Trilogy is that it’s significant to me. I’ve just finished a tour with my band where we played a ton of songs off it. I’ve always thought it was an outstanding album, and it’s one of my favorites. And the reason why it stood out was the philosophy that Emerson, Lake &Palmer had at the beginning. With the first three albums and then the live album, we spent a lot of time in the recording studio, creating complex sonic qualities among the three of us.
Another way I can put that is we didn’t want to do any overdubs if we could help it, so we spent countless hours making sure things were perfect. We tried to reproduce the sound of our three-piece to perfection in the studio, and the first three records are an example of that. That was the philosophy, and that was the understanding. By the time we got to Trilogy, we said to ourselves, “We just want just to make the best record we possibly can.”
We took a lot of time to make those albums with the idea that we wanted to be able to play it as a three-piece band on stage, so there were no extras. But with Trilogy, we said, “If we have to overdub keyboards or guitars or whatever, let’s just do it and forget about how we reproduce it on stage, let’s make a great product.” So, that was the philosophy behind Trilogy, and of course, that album turned out to be a great seller for us.
Do you feel Trilogy has received its proper due compared to some of Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s other records?
There are people who feel Trilogy is one of the great British masterpieces of prog rock. Maybe in America, it’s gotten lost a bit as the radio doesn’t seem to focus on that as much, but it’s got quite a following here in the U.K. Here in Europe, people didn’t seem to think of it as secondary to the earlier albums. So much so that Trilogy has received colossal plays here and is still being played on the radio and stuff.
Maybe it’s not that way in America, but in Europe and the U.K., it seems to be held in very high regard. I’d say that ELP has several albums that are part of the blueprint for prog rock, and in many ways, for me, at least, Trilogy is part of that. It was conceptual and highly complex in terms of instrumentation. It was recorded at the height of our powers, and that’s why it, along with the others recorded around that time, is so highly sought after even now.
Having played progressive rock with Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and arena rock with Asia, there are two distinct sides to your musical personality. Which do you identify with most?
I’d say I identify more with Emerson, Lake & Palmer because I’ve been playing that music so heavily with my band for the last 20 years, and I’ve kept that music alive. I do that because I believe prog-rock is an English art form. On the other hand, when Asia came together, you have to understand that prog rock was not getting played on the radio. Back in the ’80s, there were no drive-time plays for prog, it was all corporate, and most radio stations had sold out. And when that happened, you had to do one of two things: either stick to your guns or carry on and do whatever you needed to do to survive. I chose the latter.
You also have to remember that by the time Asia was happening, Emerson, Lake & Palmer were no longer together. We disbanded in 1979, so the time was right for me to reinvent myself with Asia. If you looked at the landscape, the state of the industry was changing with things like MTV, and it was that sort of opportunity that led a bunch of prog rockers like myself, John Wetton, Steve Howe, and Geoff Downes to come together as we did. We realized we had to do something different to get on the radio, so we tried new things. There are some proggy things on the first Asia album, but we really did work to reinvent ourselves with the technology of the day. You could say that we jumped on the bandwagon, as they say, and luckily enough, the first album was super successful.
You mentioned that prog-rock is an important British art form. How do you view Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s importance to the genre’s progression?
Oh, it’s massive. Prog rock is an exclusively British art form musically. You have things like jazz and blues in America, but prog-rock is very British, with great players and highly inventive music. With ELP being one of the early bands in that scene, I think ELP is one of the bands that put prog on the map. You had our weird time signatures, classical adaptations, and use of all the latest technology of the day, which became staples of the genre.
We used weird things that weren’t even for sale in shops to get some of our sounds, and so in many ways, we were Godfathers of prog rock. Sure, there would be other bands like Yes who followed very closely behind us. We actually took Yes to America with us, and they played their first five concerts there with us. So, we were definitely at the forefront of it all in terms of sound and helping other bands break out as they did.
What’s next for you in all lanes, Carl?
Well, my autobiography is done, and I’m working on getting that out there. Obviously, for the last two years, I couldn’t release anything because it couldn’t be promoted, and as you know, books don’t sell well. You really have to promote them; even with that, there’s a short shelf life. But I will have that end by the end of the year or early 2023.
We’ll see. I’m not getting any younger, and I plan to keep playing for as long as possible. But I’m getting to where I’ve got maybe five or ten years left, so I want to savor what’s left of my life and pay homage to certain things. I’ve got more I want to do, but the clock is ticking regarding how long I’ve got to do it. Nobody knows how long they’ve got, so I want to have fun remembering the good times while I can.
Carl Palmer: The ClassicRockHistory.com Interview article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022
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