30 Years Ago: ELP (Sort Of) Reunite for ‘Emerson, Lake and Powell’
After limping to a halt with 1978's Love Beach, Emerson, Lake & Palmer went on a much-needed hiatus — but by the mid-'80s, Keith Emerson and Greg Lake were ready to reunite, even if it meant going on without Carl Palmer.
Palmer, at the time, was still contractually obligated to Asia, the prog-rock supergroup he'd co-founded with King Crimson vet John Wetton and ex-Yes guitarist Steve Howe after ELP folded. But neither Emerson nor Lake had found much in the way of solo success outside the group, so when Emerson's label suggested a reunion, it proved a difficult idea to resist even without a third of the trio on board.
"I did a whole bunch of demos for Geffen Records at the time. They gave me a $10,000 advance to come up with 10 demos. I thought 'Okay, that’s great. I’ll do it.' So, I came up with the demos," Emerson laughed to Innerviews. "And Geffen heard it and said, 'You know what, Keith? This would be great if you played it with Greg and Carl.'"
Half-jokingly telling the Los Angeles Times that he and Emerson got back together "to make money," Lake admitted his own solo woes. "My solo records were in the wrong direction. I had played with keyboards all those years. But I'm a guitar player. I wanted an opportunity to play with other guitar players. But that direction wasn't the best thing for my career. It was a real mistake."
Needing a new drummer for the project, Emerson thought of Cozy Powell, whom he'd known for years. "I thought 'Hmm ... okay. I know Cozy is kind of a heavy metal drummer. Can he handle the sort of stuff we’ve been doing?' So, I called up Cozy and he was a lovely guy," Emerson told Innerviews. "We had exactly the same interests. We both loved motorcycles."
Even though both Emerson and Lake later insisted that it hadn't necessarily been their intention to revive the ELP brand, the shape the material took — coupled with the completely coincidental involvement of another drummer with a last name starting with P — cemented the deal, and Emerson, Lake & Powell were born. With Lake and veteran engineer Tony Taverner co-producing, the trio tracked their self-titled set at a pair of U.K. studios throughout 1985 and 1986.
To their credit, Emerson, Lake & Powell resisted any temptation to follow the radio-friendly trail blazed by Asia and Yes earlier in the decade. Rather than streamline the ELP sound into easily digestible chunks, they laid out on the new material: The record's opening song, "The Score," was a nine-minute piece that included a callback to their Brain Salad Surgery track "Karn Evil 9: First Impression," and a pair of other songs on the eight-track LP topped the seven-minute mark. Carrying on their tradition of recording rock with classical ambitions, they even closed out the album with an adaptation of the Holst piece "Mars, the Bringer of War."
But no amount of prog cred could make up for the bad timing that plagued Emerson, Lake & Powell. As evidenced by Yes and Asia's turn toward the mainstream earlier in the decade, there was no longer a huge market for this type of music — and prog rock had lost further commercial traction due to a seemingly endless series of lineup changes that made it easy to dismiss the constantly reshuffling bands as an assortment of interchangeable parts.
As Emerson, Lake & Powell worked on their album, the prog-rock carousel spun yet again as Asia splintered, with Howe drifting off into yet another prog supergroup, GTR, with former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett. Lake, ironically, had borne witness to Asia's volatility when he subbed in for a briefly fired John Wetton just a few years before — and even contemplated fronting the group full-time.
Listen to Emerson, Lake & Powell's 'Touch & Go'
"Basically, we didn't see eye to eye, me and Asia. They wanted to go in an overtly, corporate rock-type commercial direction, when I could see that that was really a fast way to the end," Lake told Creem. "And I said, 'No, really, if this band's gonna have me in it, at least it would have to have some commercial and musical foundation.' And that was where we parted company."
Concerned as Lake was with avoiding corporate rock, Emerson, Lake & Powell still left room for a few radio-ready cuts, chief among them a derivation of the traditional folk song "Lovely Joan" that they topped with a sleek synth riff and titled "Touch and Go." A natural first single for the album, it came within a stone's throw of the U.S. Top 40 — a rarity for Emerson, Lake & Palmer even at their peak — while hitting No. 2 at rock radio. Released in May 1986, the album broke the Top 40 on both sides of the Atlantic, suggesting a bright future for the reconstituted ELP.
Sadly for fans of the new trio, they were destined to remain a one-off affair. Following a tour, Powell and Lake split, leaving Emerson to reunite with Palmer and enlist multi-instrumentalist/singer Robert Berry for another short-lived trio, 3, later in the decade.
"Cozy was great. When he joined the band, it was very, very nice," Lake told Something Else!. "He’s a great player, and a lovely guy. But the strange thing was, it wasn’t ELP anymore. The chemistry was different. Not necessarily bad, but just different. There’s something that Carl brought to the band which made ELP."
Emerson, for his part, offered a different take on the demise of his and Lake's creative partnership with Powell. As he saw it, the band fell apart on tour thanks to fighting between the other two. "It was the usual stuff," he told Innerviews. "I remember waking up in my hotel room one morning and all I could hear was all this yelling going on. I thought 'What the hell is that?' So, I stuck my head around the door and there’s Cozy. I hear 'Where the f--- is he? I’m going to kill him!' And I thought 'Uh oh.'"
Whatever the reasons for their split, Emerson, Lake & Powell's dissolution ultimately paved the way for a full-fledged ELP reunion — although it wouldn't happen until after 3 ran their course and Palmer finished another brief tour of duty with Asia. Emerson, Lake & Palmer finally reunited in 1991, beginning a second act that started in earnest with their first album in 14 years, 1992's Black Moon.
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