Everyone, including Carl Palmer, thought they’d seen and heard the last of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. In 2010, the trio, who took prog to way-over-the top heights musically and theatrically in the Seventies, played its final show at a London festival. “That concert for me was sad, because as I was playing it, I knew this would be it,” Palmer recalls. Six years later, keyboardist Keith Emerson and bassist-singer-guitarist Greg Lake, each grappling with health issues for years, died within months of each other.
But to paraphrase one of their own songs, welcome back, prog-rock friends, to the show that may never end. As Palmer tells Rolling Stone, plans are underway to reunite the trio, possibly late next year. Using previously unseen footage of the band at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 1992, Palmer is hoping to play with his departed bandmates once again — drumming live alongside those unearthed split-screen clips of Emerson and Lake. “That, to me, would be the way to present an Emerson, Lake, and Palmer show again,” Palmer says. “That’s going to be extremely possible. It will look authentic, it will look real, and it will be in sync. And it’ll be something better than a hologram.”
That proposal — which the Emerson and Lake estates have signed off on — is just part of an ongoing effort to revive and possibly rehabilitate the trio, who were largely dismissed by critics but beloved by fans. A new coffee-table book (stuffed with photos and an oral history) and a boxed set of unreleased live cuts are out now, and “Lucky Man” was featured on the Oct. 24 edition of NBC’s Sunday Night Football. Radar Pictures, which has given us the Jumanji and Riddick franchises, has optioned the title and lyrics of “Karn Evil 9,” the sprawling concept suite on ELP’s Brain Salad Surgery, for a movie (other options, like a TV series or video game, are also on the table). “Remember when the Doors had a huge comeback?” says Radar executive Michael Napoliello. “You couldn’t go anywhere without seeing them. It enabled the rest of the band to get back out there and be mentors and inspirations.” Recalling the time when the dead Morrison made the cover of RS and was revived onscreen by Oliver Stone, Napoliello adds, “We hope this is a Jim Morrison moment for the band.”
For the longest time, an ELP revival seemed out of the question. Known for Mooged-up adaptions of classical compositions, many drum and synth solos, spinning pianos, light shows, and even a tour in which they were backed by an orchestra, the trio came to embody everything that many loved (and some loathed) about prog. “We were the guys who went across the grain,” Palmer admits. “We didn’t have lead guitar as the main instrument. We were keyboard driven. We wrote classical adaptations on modern-day instruments. We didn’t play blues; we didn’t play out-and-out rock. We managed to pick up that tag ‘pretentious’ and it stayed with us, and it did more harm than good. People forgot about the music and started talking about how big and overindulgent the shows were. Such a load of rubbish when you consider the shows today. What we did back then was just laying down the blueprint for the future.”
After its Seventies heyday, the group reunited periodically for shows and albums (or, once, as Emerson, Lake, and Powell, with drummer Cozy Powell in place of Palmer). In 2010, they agreed to convene as headliners for one night of High Voltage, a major London festival. Emerson had been dealing with nerve issues in his right hand, and Lake was also coping with physical limitations. All told, the group required six weeks of rehearsal for that one show. Palmer says he thought ELP’s performance that night was adequate, but for him, it spelled the end of the trio. “I knew after the rehearsal period that I wasn’t going to be going on with the band,” he says. “I didn’t want to be the one that pulled the plug. But I did wait a week after that concert and I explained to both Greg and Keith, ‘I think we’ve done everything we can do. I don’t think we should go any further. We’ve treated the fans. We can’t tour it globally because of various health restrictions, or whatever. And let’s just leave it now.’ Keith was very happy because he had some major problems with his hand and he said, ‘Carl, thanks for saying it.’ Greg was a little bit annoyed I’d made this decision and possibly he hadn’t. I didn’t see any reason to watch either of those guys suffer anymore. That was it.”
Recalls Stewart Young, the band’s longtime manager, about future tour plans, “Without Carl, you couldn’t do it. For all decisions, they’d all have to agree — that’s how we ran the band.”
Palmer says Lake “came to the understanding that it was the right thing to do” and went on to form Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy, which recreates the band’s repertoire (but without keyboards). In a 2013 interview with RS, Lake addressed the band’s end as well: “It takes a lot of energy and determination to reach a playing standard that people expect from a band like ELP. The expectation is very high. People are coming to see the legendary ELP. What do they expect? I’ll tell you. They expect to see the band they heard on record or saw on tour in 1974. And now we’re 40 years older, and you’ve got to do it the same.” Lake said he wanted to do play more shows, but added, “Keith and Carl didn’t want to do it. I don’t know why. It’s very strange, but there’s something about ELP that doesn’t work. It used to work, but it doesn’t work now.”
Palmer says the idea of touring again in the early 2010s came up, propelled by his suggestion that the trio be augmented with other musicians; Young also thought the idea was worth exploring. “We could have carried on by having support musicians like the Rolling Stones and Genesis do,” Palmer says. “Keith was interested, but Greg wasn’t. That logic wasn’t always there — we played with a 64-piece orchestra — but I went along with it. That was the man’s wish: We’re always a trio and we should stay there. It didn’t add up at the time. It doesn’t add up now.”
According to Palmer, he and Emerson were planning to reunite at some point in 2016; plans called for Emerson to join Palmer’s ELP tribute band for at least a few songs on selected shows. But Emerson’s suicide — by gunshot wound to the head, at his home in Los Angeles in March 2016 — put an end to that idea. “He was incredibly depressed,” says Young, who spoke with Emerson just a few days before his passing. “When you could play as well as he could and then you couldn’t play that way anymore, it was a difficult thing.” Palmer himself says he didn’t detect anything alarming when he spoke with Emerson a few weeks before his death. “I felt like he was normal,” he says. “You never expect it. It was totally shocking to me. I knew the physical problems. I knew what was going on there. But he was a tough little guy. He would get on and give it a go.”
Just nine months later, in December 2016, Lake succumbed to pancreatic cancer, which he’d been battling privately for three years. As a result of their earlier friction, Lake and Palmer hadn’t spoken since 2012 or 2013, and Palmer says he heard about Lake’s death from management. “Not knowing he was ill in the first place, it was all a bit of, ‘Well, are you sure?’ ” he says. Palmer only learned of the cause of Lake’s passing from a mutual physician friend. “So I actually learned from a third party,” he says. “It’s a bit sad, isn’t it, to be honest.” (“Greg specifically told me not to tell them,” says Young. “He didn’t want it to be in the papers or public. He didn’t want me to tell anybody.”)
The current plans for a revived-via-film ELP were partly intended to cash in on the 50th anniversaries of the group’s early albums, which started last year, five decades after the release of their debut. Some of the Royal Albert Hall show had already been released on home video in 1993, but additional footage shot by seven other cameras was later uncovered. The reunion-tour tech is in its early editing stages, but Palmer predicts that the show may feature several songs just with the three of them, and others in which ELP Legacy members Paul Bielatowicz and Simon Fitzpatrick would also join in. “I can actually have Keith and Greg playing on a large screen each side of the stage, along with my band, and as all five of us playing together,” he says. “If it needs it, we’ll do what we need to do to make it sound as big. If we can have another rhythm guitar to thicken it up, or if we can have a guitar line duplicating what’s on keyboards, we will. But I will get to that when the time is right.”
In the meantime, plans to transform “Karn Evil 9” into a sci-fi franchise are in the development stages. As Napoliello sees it, the multi-part suite — about an unspecified future world in which computers have taken over society, citizens periodically visit a “Karn Evil” to go wild before returning to society, and man and computers eventually fight it out to reclaim the planet — is ripe for translation to the screen. “The thought was, ‘Where do great stories come from?’ ” he says. “We have books and comic books. Where else should we look?” Napoliello, a longtime ELP fan, flashed on the “Karn Evil 9” suite. “It was telling the story of this epic battle of humanity vs. technology. I said to [Radar CEO] Ted Field, ‘It’s too bad they can’t make movies out of songs!’ “
But maybe they could. Napoliello reached out to the ELP camp last year and received a quick sign-off. “We don’t want to do another dystopian, robot-AI, fighting-aliens movie,” he cautions. “What we want it to be is something more akin to I Robot. Technology has already infiltrated us. What the song is really about is that once we were led by the nose by kings and now by technology, and the ‘Karn Evil’ becomes the respite. As the Karn Evil gets bigger, those who come back see it not just as a vacation but a call back to humanity. It’s not going to be a bleak cautionary tale where we’re back to living in caves and scouring for water. It’s going to be a celebration.” Adds Palmer, “I’ve seen storyboards and ideas, so we said, ‘Fine.’ We were talking and singing about computers back in the mid-Seventies. There will be a considerable amount of ELP music remixed or rerecorded. It’s a very slow process, but it’s really interesting.”
Any possible such project would likely not materialize for another year or two; Radar is still meeting with potential directors and stars. In the meantime, Palmer’s ELP Legacy starts a month-long U.S. tour on Nov. 3, and a combined Yes/Asia/Legacy trek for next year (to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Asia’s debut, which included Palmer) is in discussion.
As for the ELP reunion tour, Palmer dreams of a New York or Las Vegas residency after it’s up and running. Young admits it may be “a bit spooky” for him to see the band pseudo-reunited, but thinks, “It will be an emotional moment for people. I’m sure Carl will do it tastefully.” For his part, Palmer doesn’t seem remotely rattled at the thought of performing alongside his departed bandmates. “I’m going to love it,” he says. “At the end of the day, I can tell you that Keith and Greg would be saying, ‘Yeah, Carl, get out there and do that.’ The biggest advantage is, I won’t have any more arguments or long group meetings about when we’re going on tour. It’ll be very easy for me to decide!”