Rock and Roll is seen by many as yielding simple and straightforward songs, free from key changes, complex time signatures, and abstract lyricism; a world away from the world of symphonies, operas, and librettos. That ‘many’, however, does not include Keith Emerson, the virtuoso keyboardist who strove to unite the rhythmic drive of Rock and Roll with the ambition of Classical music, a trail which firmly established him as an interminable fellow of the pantheon of Progressive Rock greats.
Keith Emerson was born on the 2nd November 1944, in the market town of Todmorden, Yorkshire, although he would be brought up in the town of Worthing, West Sussex. He learnt classical music through his piano lessons, and became obsessed with the Hammond Organ after hearing a recording of ‘Rock Candy’ by Jack McDuff. Between the ages of 15 and 16, he would finally obtain his dream instrument, through a hire purchase.
it was to be his next band, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, or ELP for short, where he would find lasting success
After a series of short stints in various bands, Emerson formed The Nice with Lee Jackson, David O’List and Ian Hague, in order to back the soul singer P.P. Arnold. Replacing Hague with Brian Davidson, they quickly developed a devoted live following, known for their showmanship and unique rearrangements of classical pieces and Bob Dylan singles. It was with The Nice that Emerson recorded his first hit, a tempestuous reworking of Leonard Bernstein’s ‘America’.
However, it was to be his next band, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, or ELP for short, where he would find lasting success. The Nice were scheduled to co-headline a series of concerts at Fillmore West in San Francisco, alongside King Crimson, which at the time featured a disenfranchised Greg Lake. Looking to jump ship, he and Emerson jammed before one of the concerts, and decided to form a group. Originally considering Mitch Mitchell of the recently defunct Jimi Hendrix Experience, the two were persuaded by Roger Stigwood, the manager of Cream, to ask the Atomic Rooster drummer Carl Palmer to join. Immediately swayed by a jam session, the eponymous line-up was solidified. A slot at the Isle of White Festival in 1970 sealed the band’s integrity.
Emerson blended his dazzling performances with vehement theatricality
ELP quickly became a dominant commercial force, topping the UK charts on multiple occasions and cracking the Billboard Top 10, a towering feat for almost any band, and especially for one whose first live album was a contemporary interpretation of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Combining his classical orientation with jazz and blues, alongside Carl Palmer’s rapturous drumming and Greg Lake’s mix of melodic bass guitar and tender acoustic ballads, ELP were able to carve out their own niche within the progressive rock world, and leading to the creation of noted prog gems such as ‘Lucky Man’, ‘Trilogy’, ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’ (a reworking of Aaron Copland’s composition) and the epic half-hour ‘Karn Evil 9’, as well as what is arguably Emerson’s defining 22-minute opus, ‘Tarkus’, a song thought by many as being one of the greatest keyboard performances in recorded history.
Ever the showman, Emerson blended his dazzling performances with vehement theatricality. The earliest example of this comes from his time with The V.I.P.’s wherein a fight broke out at their venue in France. Using his organ, Emerson was able to produce sounds akin to a machine gun and several explosions, which stopped the fight. Impressed, his bandmates convinced him to repeat the stunt at the following show, which he did.
he would stab the keys with knives, embedding them within the keyboard, and pretty much redefining the term ‘shredding’
However, perhaps his best-known example comes from his consistent abuse of Hammond Organ; in order to sustain certain notes, he would stab the keys with knives, embedding them within the keyboard, and pretty much redefining the term ‘shredding’. One of the knives he used most frequently had been given to him by the late Lemmy Kilmister, who served as a roadie for The Nice for a short period. However, it appears that this was not enough to satisfy his audience, leading to him performing such feats as playing it upside-down, lying down, and even suspending himself in mid-air with a piano, which would then be rotated end-over-end, and when stabbing the keys and acrobatics were not sufficient, he would simply resort to throwing the organ around onstage. A common joke at the height of ELP’s popularity was that they were responsible for singlehandedly keeping the organ industry alive.
Although 1979 saw the initial end of ELP, it did not mark the end of the member. Outside of the rock world, Emerson enjoyed a profitable career composing music for film and television, with credits on numerous projects, including Sylvester Stallone’s Nighthawks, Godzilla: Final Wars, and several 1990s Marvel Comics cartoons, such as the short-lived Iron Man. Alongside this, Emerson and Lake would team up with drummer Cozy Powell for a spiritual revival of ELP in 1985, as Emerson, Lake & Powell. A similar reformation occurred in 1988, when Emerson partnered with Palmer and Robert Berry to form 3. The original ELP lineup reformed to tour throughout the 1990s, whilst The Nice reformed for a series of concerts in 2002. The final ELP concert was held in 2010, to mark the band’s 40th anniversary.
Keith Emerson was a defining force in rock music
Keith Emerson was a defining force in rock music, he quintessentially proved that ambition and raw virtuosity could be taken to the very extremes of songwriting and still yield awe-inspiring results. Indeed, his raw talent in itself was practically unmatched by any other keyboardist of his time. Whilst some may argue that Jordan Rudess of Dream Theater and Rick Wakeman of Yes come within striking distance, for sheer technical accomplishment, showmanship, and ability, Emerson was untouchable.
Emerson’s music may have been occasionally divisive, owing to its scope and style, but it was never boring, never lacking in creative ambition, and constantly pushed the boundaries of contemporary music. These are qualities which should never be overlooked. A true original, and an undisputedly brilliant one at that.