Keith Emerson

2nd November 1944 to 10th March 2016

Author: Mark Wheeler - TNT UK
12th March 2016


Keith Emerson was a Yorkshireman, born in Todmorden, destined to stride across the keyboards and stages of the world, making the then typical journey to end in Santa Monica, Ca. Keith was a consumate musician and performer, but never one to take things seriously, despite the accusations of pomposity levelled at the genre of Progressive Rock. Keith was one of the innovators of the progressive form, being in a supergroup (core Progressive qualification number 1) and incorporating classical influences (core Progressive qualification number 2). A third qualification of the Progressive genre was a commitment to the LP as an art form. This was manifested in the choice of track length and order to make the most of each 22 minute side; Prog bands were also noted for their dedication to high sound quality. Prog was expected to be played on good systems of the time. Your Old Scribe first heard most of Keith Emerson's outings on systems fronted by Transcriptors or Thorens turntables carrying their own or SME or Hadcock arms. We were astonished at the quantity of low frequency synthesiser information often cut onto thin slabs of oil-crisis era vinyl.

ELP's sense of humour can be witnessed in many of their songs and in their videos, including Fanfare for the Common Man, performed in the completely empty Montreal Olympic Stadium. This was at a time when stadium rock was at a peak, so there is a wonderful irony in performing to thousands of empty seats. Aaron Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man was written a year before Emerson's birth to honour the war effort by ordinary folk, in a phrase originally coined by US president Henry wallace.

The piece represents a tribute to people who usually goes through life without much fancy or too much fuss. This fits the Yorkshireman stereotype and contradicts the counterfeit image of three 18-wheeler touring pantecnicons, each labelled with one band member's name. It appeared on the epic swansong of progressive excesses, a triple album entitled Works Volume 1. Releasing a triple album announcing that it is Volume 1, carrying the implication that there will be more numbered volumes of triple albums was lost on fans who were disappoints in its new direction away from the immensely successful Brain Salad Surgery, released over three years before. There was one other volume released the same year, 1977, the year that punk dominated the British charts.

Before The Nice Emerson had been playing in public since his teenage years, developing a flamboyant stage style, even interrupting a fight with spectacular sounds from his Hammond organ during a performance. He formed The Nice in 1967 to work as a backing group for a soul singer. They soon developed their own style and collected a firm following. The recently deceased Lemmy of Motörhead was roadie for The Nice. The Nice toured with bands as diverse as The Bonzo Dog DooDah Band and Yes. They also provided the backing for many other artists, like Rod Stewart. Roy Harper's Flat Baroque and Beserk is a great example. Their most commercially successful albums were Everything As Nice As Mother Makes It (1969) which reached number 3 in the UK album chart and Five Bridges (a 1871 suite inspired by Newcastle's bridges over the river Tyne) which peaked at number 2 in the UK chart.

Emerson, Lake & Palmer (hereafter ELP) came about as a new project spearheaded by Keith Emerson and Greg lake (formerly of King Crimson). Originally Mitch Mitchell was to have been drummer after Emerson and Mitchell had performed together Music From Free Creek in 1969. A jam session had been arranged with him and Jimi Hendrix, and if they'd gone ahead they might have been called ELM (which would have been unfortunate as this was the era of Dutch Elm Disease in Britain at the time). The first six albums (some available direct from their website on 180g vinyl) mixed their own songs, written individually, arrangements of classical pieces and an ever present irony. The second album, Tarkus (1971), included a whole side epic track with a narrative tracing the story, backwards, of the Tarkus anthropomorphism created from half-armadillo and half-tank, a model of which would be on stage. ELP were big in Japan.

Legendary DJ and influencer of much of the album racks of many readers, John Peel, once described ELP as a "waste of time, talent and electricity". This was not unusual, and ELP became symbols of the overweening pomposity of much of the Progressive rock oeuvre. In retrospect this sort of criticism of Prog has often been seen as unfair (although not by Peelie) and as much of its time as the music itself. Prog rock, and Keith Emerson in particular, made important contributions to the evolution of rock music, and are widely quoted as infleuncing various genres and sub-genres, especially of death metal. They also contributed to rise of ownership of audiophile systems as a rite of passge of 70's and 80's youth.

Did nobody heed Emerson's cries for ELP?

"This is all a bit disrespectful," challenge plebs chorus, stage left.

It hopes to keep Emerson's own sense of the absurd alive in the telling. Emerson had been diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disorder that had begun to affect his playing. This and the identification of polyps contributed to Keith becoming understandably depressed. Santa Monica police confirmed to the BBC that Emerson had shot himself. Emerson's body was found in the early hours of Friday morning by his girlfriend Mari Kawaguchi at their flat in the Californian city.

Former band mate Carl Palmer said: "I am deeply saddened to learn of the passing of my good friend and brother-in-music, Keith Emerson. "Keith was a gentle soul whose love for music and passion for his performance as a keyboard player will remain unmatched for many years to come. I will always remember his warm smile, good sense of humour, compelling showmanship, and dedication to his musical craft."

Music enjoyed while writing this review

The first three ELP albums and The Nice Five Bridges, all on elderly vinyl.

Copyright © 2016 Mark Wheeler - -