Interviews

Keith Emerson - Croydon Guardian interview - 12th September 2003

Picture of an Exhibitionist

I'm talking to a man on the other side of the Atlantic who spent his early years burning the Stars and Stripes on stage, wildly stabbing at his keyboards with knives and continuing to play the piano while suspended in mid-air - and what does he tell me? 'I don¹t consider myself to be an exhibitionist!'

This man is Keith Emerson, one of the most exciting live performers and certainly one of the most experimental keyboard players to come out of Britain in the sixties. His classical training, combined with a love of rhythm and blues and jazz, made his work with The Nice and subsequently his greater success with seventies supergroup Emerson, Lake and Palmer, such an intriguing and heady mixture of styles.

Back in October 1969, Croydon's Fairfield Hall was the chosen venue for The Nice to record material for their 'Five Bridges' album, one of the earliest combinations of rock musicians and full symphony orchestra; Keith takes up the story - 'It was indeed, it was quite an occasion! It was also quite risky, because the jazz members of the orchestra, Joe Harry and the rest, were all getting stoned in the dressing room beforehand! We only had one chance for a short rehearsal with the orchestra and there was no room for all of my equipment on the stage - some of it was down on the floor - but it¹s amazing how one can deal with these problems when the time comes! In fact, I was very pleased with the end result.'

Thirty four years almost to the day, Keith Emerson and the Nice return to the Fairfield on Wednesday 22nd October as part of a 12 date nation-wide tour. The three original members will be augmented by Dave Kilminster on guitar, Phil Williams on bass and Pete Riley on drums. The tour will promote a new 3 CD set recorded live at Glasgow towards the end of last year. Keith - 'We recorded the concerts at Newcastle and Glasgow and of the two shows I happen to think that Glasgow was the better performance. That¹s the one which has been used in its entirety; it has been edited, but only because we do tend to go on a bit - a bit like the Grateful Dead!'

Emerson, Brian Davison and Lee Jackson reunited on stage at the 100 Club last year, although as Keith told me, 'The reunion with The Nice goes back a little further than that. I had an album out with EMI Classics called 'Emerson Plays Emerson' which was a solo piano album, and the record company wanted me to do a presentation for the press. I told them I thought that just me playing the piano for 45 minutes would be very boring and could I not have a band join me onstage. They considered it, then came back to me and said OK, what band would you like to have? I said, well how about The Nice? And I guess some of the people at the label didn¹t even know who they were! but EMI phoned me the next day and said they thought it was a very good idea, so long as I did actually play a little bit of solo piano!
I had kept in touch with Brian and Lee throughout the seventies, when Emerson, Lake and Palmer were at their height; when we got back together to rehearse for the showcase it worked out very well and I could see great possibilities again - a, we remained good friends and b, I admired their musicianship and professionalism. I could see any future concerts as a condensed history of progressive music and how we¹ve come to know it today.'

Keith has also written his autobiography 'Pictures of an Exhibitionist', which is published on 22nd September. The title makes reference to the successful ELP album 'Pictures at an Exhibition' based on the classical work by Mussorgsky, although Keith hastened to add -
'I didn¹t actually choose the title and I hardly regard myself to be an exhibitionist. In the mid-seventies, I was water-skiing on Lake Geneva with the vice president of Atlantic Records, and there was a whole load of paparazzi in the boat towing us. So as a bit of a joke, I decided to drop my shorts and the vice president did the same. The photographers happily snapped away and the results were published in the NME the following week, under the caption 'here are pictures of some exhibitionists'. The vice president of Atlantic was very disappointed to see that the printed black stripe covering his modesty was smaller than mine!'

Back in the mists of time, Keith and the Nice went on the road as backing group for visiting American soul vocalist P.P. Arnold. As a parting shot, I mentioned to Keith that Pat will be performing (with The Manfreds) at the Fairfield the following night. Quite a coincidence. 'You¹re kidding' he replied, 'is she really? I must try and get in touch with her to see if she can come down a day early!'

Chris Groom

An edited version appeared in the Croydon Guardian ­ September 2003

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