When the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced its latest nominees at the end of September, rap and disco were represented, but Yes, King Crimson, Rush and other prog rockers were shut out — yet again.
“I don’t know why they’ve overlooked it. I do know that progressive rock hasn’t had the cachet that heavy metal or the rappers have had,” observed drummer Carl Palmer from his home in London recently. As a member of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, he helped define the genre, selling millions of albums and packing stadium shows.
“We didn’t play blues, we didn’t play jazz, we played classical music, we were a progressive rock band from the point of view of technology. But it’s never really been recognized,” he says, “the fact that we were a trio, and really the only one of its kind.”
Palmer is philosophical about the lack of recognition. “I can’t let it disturb me,” he says, reaching for a sports metaphor to sum things up. “I do take notice, though, because it’s important to know where you didn’t score a goal.”
After leaving ELP at the end of the 1970s, Palmer joined another supergroup, Asia, with Yes guitarist Steve Howe, John Wetton of King Crimson and Yes/Buggles keyboard player Geoff Downes. Their self-titled debut album spent seven weeks at number one on the U.S. charts. The group is still a going concern, making two new albums in the late 2000s, with plans to release another as part of its 30th anniversary next year.
“We will be producing a boxed set, but with a difference,” reports Palmer — a remastered, remixed version of the first album, coupled with a new disc, a poster from Asia’s first American concert, studio outtakes, live rarities and new artwork from Roger Dean, signed by band members and the artist. “So that makes it a little more unique. It will be a nice coffee table thing to have.”
His own trio appears Thursday, Oct. 20, at Tupelo Music Hall in Londonderry, followed by a Friday show at Tupelo’s Vermont location. Now in the trio’s 10th year, Palmer still plays the classical rock of his past — the current tour is called “Pictures at an Exhibition,” a nod to the third ELP album. But where that band featured waves of keyboards and Greg Lake’s soaring vocals, the Carl Palmer Band is a guitar-centric instrumental unit.
“I didn’t want to be compared to Emerson, Lake and Palmer, I didn’t want to be a vocal group,” he says. “I really wanted to be something that was a standalone idea … a fresh and clean way of progressing into the future.”
The approach presented challenges.
“15 years ago, this probably wasn’t possible because the guitarists didn’t have the technique to know how to do this,” says Palmer. “In 2001, when I started I went to the Guitar Institute here in London and I spoke to various guitar players. One of them was a specialist in transcribing keyboard parts to guitar parts. I asked him what was possible, played him the music and told him what I was looking for, and he explained to me what could be done.”
A few guitarists came and went until Palmer found Paul Bielatowicz, who’s been with him since 2004, transforming ELP standards like “Tarkus,” “The Barbarian,” “Pictures at an Exhibition” and “Trilogy.” To solve the absence of Greg Lake’s soaring vocals on the latter song — the “top line” in musician’s parlance — depends on the talents of Bielatowicz and bassist Simon Fitzpatrick.
“We use a six-string bass, and split the melody up between the two guitars in such a way that you have a vocal line going,” Palmer says. “You have all the arrangement and power and harmonics one can create between two guitars. So you get a different conception of the music … it’s a modern approach on an old song.”
Palmer stresses that most ELP songs were built musically before vocals were introduced: “It had to be viable as an instrumental, it had to sound good, and the voice would just have to sound better. What I’ve done is in that same philosophy but I’ve not removed the voice, I’ve kept it there but transferred it to guitar or bass guitar depending on where we are in a song. Either one of those instruments will play the top line to the song.”
ELP made a pair of regrettable albums in the early ’90s and didn’t play together again for several years. Palmer once told a writer that he wished the group could have left on a high note. They had that chance at last year’s inaugural High Voltage Festival, a massive gathering of English rock legends. Palmer is adamant that the reunion show, released on DVD earlier this year, was the final go-round for the genre-defining trio.
“For me, it was a nice way to finish off the career and say thank you to the British public,” he says. “I’d like to have come over to America and done the same thing, but at that point [ELP] really wasn’t in any condition to reach the same standard that we reached before, unfortunately. So I figured it was just better to call it a day there. It was our 40th anniversary, it was the first High Voltage prog rock festival and it just seemed like a nice way to bow out.”
Palmer keeps busy with a myriad of projects. He’s developed rhythm instruments for blind and deaf children, and he teaches an occasional master drum class. Recently named honorary president of the British Drum Foundation, Palmer is featured in Andrew Cross’s documentary The Solo. The 30-minute film follows the construction of a Palmer solo from single snare to a full kit, providing several striking close-ups of his drum set, handmade from rare Australian eucalyptus wood.
“I’ve always been keen on producing the really good bespoke instruments,” Palmer says.
The drummer recently formed an alliance with Ludwig; for its 100th anniversary, the company produced a Carl Palmer stainless steel snare.
“I’m quite pleased about that — at 61, to finally have a drum named after me,” he says with a laugh. “It’s kind of late in life, but at least now I’ve got it.”