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ELP Has Carved Out Its Place in the History of Rock Theatrics


Rock theatricality didn't begin with KISS.

Long before Gene Simmons ever breathed fire or vomited blood, even before Alice Cooper started sticking his head in nooses and guillotines, Keith Emerson was accustomed to going on stage night after night and plunging knives into his organ.

His Hammond organ.

This seemingly mindless violence against a perfectly respectable musical instrument began with a practical purpose, Emerson noted in a recent phone interview from a hotel in St. Louis. Fate had placed him in Room 1812, a fittingly Tchaikovskian perch for a man whose virtuosic sallies on piano, organ and synthesizer were among the most important overtures in the development of progressive rock, the form that wed rock energy to elaborate song structures and flashy playing techniques derived from classical music.

Emerson's victimization of his keyboards began when he was playing in the Nice, his late-'60s precursor to Emerson, Lake & Palmer, the '70s prog-rock trio with which he became internationally famous. (ELP, which also features singer-bassist Greg Lake and drummer Carl Palmer, plays Saturday at Irvine Meadows, along with Jethro Tull.)

The knife business started as a way of making an impressive exit, Emerson said. He wanted his Hammond to keep blasting after he had left the stage.

"The original idea was to sustain various notes while I walked off in the wings. It was possible to leave this instrument wailing all on its own. Rather than wedging the keys down with screwdrivers or pieces of wood or whatever, I thought it would be a much more dramatic occasion to use the knives." Two usually sufficed--sometimes three--in what became a fairly constant ploy in Emerson's stage repertoire.

The Nice had a hit in England with its epic instrumental rendition of "America," from "West Side Story," and Emerson says the knife-play came to be reserved for that number, intended to evoke the Sharks-versus-Jets gang rumbles of the source material, and to symbolize the penchant of 1960s America to assassinate its most inspiring leaders.

Emerson says he has been nicked, but never badly cut, by this bit of showmanship. He has had hairier moments with another of his theatrical staples, in which he pushes a bulky Hammond around the stage, sometimes toppling it over on himself while he plays.

"Yeah, I've had my share of accidents on stage. I remember once, outside of New York, I actually went over the side of the stage into the audience with the organ. It was lucky the road crew was in the pit, and they managed to catch 315 pounds of organ as it fell, with me on top of it. I went right over the top and ended up in the second row of the audience. [The crew] grabbed the organ and threw it back on stage, then grabbed me and threw me back on top of it. Miraculously, nobody was hurt. I was just bashed a bit."

Emerson says his early keyboard sallies were far more sedate--much too sedate for his own tastes.

His piano training, begun at 8, involved "simple classical stuff, Beethoven sonatas, which bored the hell out of me."

He became a fan of boogie-woogie piano players and cites Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" as "a turning point that increased my interest in jazz." Emerson started to copy the solos of such jazz eminences as Oscar Peterson and Thelonious Monk.

The genesis of his classical-rock merger came, he said, when he would play for classmates at school. "If ever I played a classical piece, everybody would go, 'Oh, boring.' So I'd do my own arrangement of it, and funk it up a bit. When I was improvising in a jazz context, I'd sometimes put in a quote from a classical piece. People would like that and want to hear more."

Emerson, 51, began playing in bands on the English R&B circuit in 1965. The Nice was launched in 1967 with the idea of doing something different.

"We thought, 'Rather than do what everybody else is doing and being influenced by black American blues artists, why don't we look to our own roots for inspiration?' Much the same as when Bartok and Shostakovich and Vaughan Williams looked to their folk roots to get inspiration for their great works. We thought it was a more honest way of doing things. We were European. Why not be influenced by European music?' "

In 1969, the Nice and another early British prog-rock band, King Crimson, shared a bill at the Fillmore West in San Francisco. Emerson figured that a golden-throat like the Crimson's singer-bassist, Greg Lake, could better fulfill his vision than the Nice's scratchy-voiced barker, Lee Jackson. Emerson and Lake soon recruited Carl Palmer, who had played in two other keyboards-driven bands, the Crazy World of Arthur Brown and Atomic Rooster.

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