You’d never know it from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but progressive rock – prog for short – was a key alchemic ingredient in the soup of 1970s pop culture, when music seemed to spin off in a thousand different directions at once. Although the ambitious hybrid of rock, classical and jazz isn’t on a whole of contemporary playlists, its reverberations are still being felt today.
Until Yes was inducted in 2017, the Cleveland-based Hall of Fame had ignored the pioneers of prog rock, nearly all of them British, entirely. And unless one counts the (only occasionally proggy) Moody Blues, there hasn’t been another addition since.
A Royal Affair, tonight at Ruth Eckerd Hall, brings together Yes with one of its offshoot bands, Asia, plus sets from singer/bassist John Lodge of the Moodies and a trio called Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy.
That’s Carl Palmer of ELP. As in Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
With worldwide sales of nearly 50 million albums, Emerson, Lake & Palmer is the top-selling prog band in history. Nine of the trio’s albums were certified gold in the United States; indeed, there were few young people in the ‘70s whose record collections didn’t include Tarkus, Trilogy or Brain Salad Surgery.
Between 1971 and ’75, Emerson, Lake & Palmer was one of the biggest touring acts in the world.
ELP consisted of keyboard wizard Keith Emerson, who’d begun blending classical motifs with pop in his ‘60s band the Nice; singer and bassist Greg Lake, whose otherwordly vocals on King Crimson’s “In the Court of the Crimson King” gave prog its very first (semi-) hit single in 1969; and Palmer, the thundering drummer behind ’68 soul vocalist Arthur Brown (and his Crazy World), and later the prog band Atomic Rooster.
The trio celebrated its 40th anniversary with a standing-room-only reunion concert at London’s High Voltage Festival in 2010.
Both Emerson and Lake died in 2016, leaving Carl Palmer the sole survivor. He doesn’t see himself as the keeper of some immortal flame, however.
“As far as I’m concerned, I just love the music,” the straight-talking Palmer says in a telephone interview. “So for me it’s very important to play it, It’s been a celebration for me since I formed my band 15 years ago.”
In ELP Legacy, Emerson’s complex keyboard lines are interpreted by guitarist Paul Bielatowicz, with bassist David Pastorious (nephew of jazz titan Jaco Pastorious) handling Lake’s intricate bass parts.
Brown, 74, is on the tour as well, singing his hit “Fire!” and a couple of ELP tunes with the Palmer band.
As with many ‘70s other bands that dared to explore (see Jethro Tull, King Crimson, Yes, Gentle Giant, early Genesis), the music press was rarely kind to Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
“We were making the music not for a handful of critics, but for the world,” says Palmer. “For the public. And the band was world-renowned for three, four, five years. It was in the top slot, you know. That’s what we set out to do, and we made it.”
Although many of their songs were epics, clocking in at 20 minutes or more, ELP scored a couple of hit singles, including Lake’s “Lucky Man,” “From the Beginning” and ‘Still … You Turn Me On.”
Palmer, who has homes in Cypress and England, insists he doesn’t give a toss about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“I’ve got so many accolades – without being big-headed – and to tell you the truth, everything I’ve won with ELP in the past has been driven by the public,” he says. “The Hall of Fame in America is driven by five, six guys behind a desk, who decide who’s to go in.
“And I don’t mean to be rude, I’m just using this as an example, that’s why somebody like Joan Jett is already in the Hall of Fame, yet Emerson, Lake & Palmer isn’t. Who actually were part of a new music form, a new way of life in music, prog rock.
“I’m not saying Joan Jett didn’t do anything that was new, but I’m just saying that’s how diverse and strange the actual rooting is of the voting. How they decide who comes up and who goes in.”
When the “six guys behind a desk” finally deign to acknowledge the contributions to music made by Emerson, Lake and Palmer, they’ll have to do it without Emerson and Lake.
And, quite possibly, without Palmer. “If they do invite me, I’ll probably send somebody from the record company ‘round to pick it up for me,” he chuckles.
“Look how long it’s taken Yes to come into the Hall of Fame – and, by the way, Yes played their first live dates in America with ELP! We were already here. So there’s no logic to the understanding of the Hall of Fame in America.”
Four years after ELP collapsed (times were changing, record sales were dwindling, and the musicians themselves were beginning to lose interest), Palmer joined Yes guitarist Steve Howe in Asia, a “prog supergroup” plotted, in part, by record mogul David Geffen (who’d done something similar, many years before, with Crosby, Stills & Nash).
Out of the gate, Asia – which also included King Crimson and U.K. vocalist John Wetton and latter-day Yes keyboard player Geoff Downes – was a smash.
Asia, Palmer explains, couldn’t have opened so big if long-form prog was still in vogue in 1982.
“Radio was on our side,” he says, “because by then it was completely corporate, lots of people investing in radio stations. Which meant the programming changed. Lots of advertising. So we had to create music that we could get across within like five, six minutes, maybe seven minutes at the longest. We had singles as well, which were shorter.
“But no longer was radio an art form in America like it was in the ‘70s. Radio in America in the ’70 was unbelievable; you could get (long) things like Pictures at An Exhibition, Tarkus, played in the middle of the day, drive time. When the corporates kicked on, that was gone. So everyone had to change.”
Asia came along at almost the same instant as MTV, so ….
As usual with such things, there were lots of personnel switches in Asia (Greg Lake even replaced singer Wetton for a period). Howe left and eventually went back with Yes; he’s been in and out again numerous times in the interim (currently he’s in, and will anchor Yes at tonight’s concert).
Wetton died in 2017. The current Asia lineup includes Downes, Palmer, relatively new Yes bassist Billy Sherwood and guitarist/singer Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal. Howe is expected to sit in for a few numbers.
Everyone, Palmer says, is having a lovely time on this sweetly nostalgic prog rock mystery tour. The bloodlines run deep.
“Don’t forget, I’ve known Arthur for 51 years. I first came to America in 1968 with him. Obviously I’ve known Steve for years – he actually auditioned to be in Atomic Rooster! John Lodge is from Birmingham, my hometown, so we’ve known each other for many years. Great guys in his band, too, just great people.
“So all in all, yeah, it’s quite a family event. Although we do have our arguments – making it work, four hours with four bands, is quite difficult!”
Tickets and info here.