This very influential drummer has played for The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, Atomic Rooster, Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Asia, and has really made his mark as one of the most influential drummers in the world. Reading this article you can understand why when you take into account his serious approach to his profession. This is not someone in it just for the fame, fortune and easy access to girls. A good read.
Carl: Doing it first
Exclusive by Pete Erskine
Cracking the Manticore complex is something like breaking and entering Fort Knox with a butter knife and a pair of plastic specs. Manticore is E.L.P.`s record company. It performs the usual record company functions but with an air of dense but organised chaos and a careful screening process – on all levels – maintains a frustratingly efficient protective role.
It is, of course, only another extension of the band`s “positive” philosophy – of permitting only the good, constructive things to actually break through and reach them. It is also a part of their policy of total co-ordination and, apparently, total control – a theme that passes through almost everything they seem to be involved with from press relations to promotion to marketing to management and so on right through to the music and all the facets of touring and stage production. They are undeniably slick and undeniably it works and that`s probably what puts people off; it intimidates them, it makes them suspicious, it makes them jealous.
People I know are resentful that an operation of these proportions always wins through in terms of constant sales and popularity above lesser known, looser, but maybe just as talented outfits. The music may not be to everyone`s taste but the band`s attitude and commitment to the same is surely worthy of respect. You can write it off as ego and a lust for supremacy but there is a genuine desire to experiment and, individually, for the musicians to further their personal musical boundaries.
All of which sounds like preaching and the usual press cant, but talking to Carl Palmer earlier in the week one begins to realise the validity of the band`s approach to their work and their heavy investment in the musical ideal; being bigger and better than the competition may be good for one`s self, but it also means that the public is getting a better deal too.
“I think we got a little more showy on the American tour,” says Palmer, inspecting a tube of ointment. He has a growth on the palm of his right hand. “But it added rather than detracted from what we were doing. I mean I think visuals are really effective if they relate to what you`re doing… and not just there for their own sake, like with some of the things Alice Cooper uses.”
Contemporary ELP visuals, aside from overall group lighting and individual footlights, comprise a white baby grand, upon which Emerson rises and revolves whilst playing Chopin`s “Revolutionary”, a computer, programmed to repeat a section of “Karn Evil 9” with increasing rapidity until it dissolves with a thundercrack and belch of smoke, a revolving drum rostrum and… in a way, Carl`s custom-built stainless steel drum set. The piano is merely a humorous device, to provide contrast and to poke fun at the whole concept of gimmickry, the computer, according to Emerson, is a counter to those accusations of ELP as a “mechanical band”, in that it becomes obvious that Emerson`s rendition of the particular phrase and the computer`s are separated totally by the factor of human touch and feeling and human expression. It also is relevant to the theme, both directly lyrical, and indirectly musical, of “Karn Evil 9”. The revolving rostrum is almost purely visual, but has its practical side too – in that Carl is elevated to eye level with the other two, and, in circular stadiums, where part of the audience might be looking down on the band from the back, they, too, get a chance to see what`s going on.
“The drums were made in London,” explains Palmer, “and no drum companies were involved – mostly because they`d look at it from a commercial mass-production point of view, whereas I`m looking at it from a purely personal view, almost eliminating most of the practical aspects.
“A metalworking firm made the stainless steel shell, which is about quarter of an inch thick and this means that the total weight approaches something like two and a half tons. The thing is that it`s such a true sound, unlike a wooden shell.
“I`ve been experimenting for quite a while and I`ve found that most wooden drums were okay a few years ago but they just didn`t give that constant sound. With stainless steel, for me personally, the drums project a lot more. They have more top frequencies. I have them tuned quite tightly, unlike the heavy rock and roll drummers who go for the fat flabby sound.
“The idea for the engravings came from a hunting rifle I saw one day with a couple of foxes jumping over a fence and I thought it would make it more personalised. I left most of the actual drawings to an engraver. He drew them first and we went over them together. It adds a touch of quality. It`s very bizarre and it`s very extravagant but it is something that I`ve always wanted.
“I`ve been playing 13 years this coming March and I`ve always wanted to build my own kit. I know exactly what I want and I have the money now to afford it, so I figure why not have the Rolls-Royce drum kit?
“The biggest innovation with this kit, though is that it`s part-electric. I`ve been working on that for such a long time and was sort of let down so many times – well, not so much let down, more that the people helping me didn`t have time to take it any further. Bob Moog was very busy at the time. He gave me a prototype drum. On the floor it had five buttons which you pushed to change the sound. That was okay, but say you wanted to play all those sounds really quickly in succession you`d have to be a tap dancer.
“What I did was to transfer all the sounds I wanted to each individual drum. I`ve therefore managed to get five electronic drum sounds that are pure electronic rhythmic impulses… another drum plays a sequence, a series of 14 notes that repeat on the 14th and I managed to produce two counters. One counter plays a long bass note when you strike it while the other plays a pattern that`s a little more complicated. The whole thing operates through a simple on-off button.
“It has to be done doesn`t it? I mean, people have left drums alone for so long. My main thing has always been to be a musical drummer; I`ve always preferred a musical approach to the basic heavy rock rhythmic playing. I can`t slate those kind of players because they`re good for what they do but I`ve always thought maybe I should use gongs and tubular bells and timps onstage… and I thought to myself that if I was going to take that approach I should have a very futuristic approach as well as developing the instrument I play.
“It just seems like a logical progression. My reason for doing it also lies with the fact that I wanted to be the first to record something on an electric drum set – which I did on `Brain Salad Surgery`.
“I don`t believe in it totally because I believe more in symphonic drumming – tuned percussion. I just have this thing in me that I like to do things first whether I believe in them 100 per cent or not. I believe in the product, but as far as drumming becoming electronic in the future, well I don`t believe that will happen; I believe it`ll be used only as an effect.
“The main thing about English drummers – they`re changing now, and I hope it`s through something I might`ve done – up to about two years ago the fact was that they`d be using, perhaps, two bass drums and a couple of small tomtoms or maybe one bass drum and a tomtom in front and one on the floor and I always thought this had to be wrong in today`s music; there can`t be enough colour there. When you think of how many notes the piano`s got and how many notes you can reproduce on the guitar yet the drummer`s got next to nothing, it doesn`t add up.
“That`s when I decided to introduce these concert tomtoms which range from a drum that`s six inches in diameter to a drum that`s 18 inches. It goes 6, 8, 10, 12 inches, 13, 14, 15, 16, 18 inches. They provide an awful lot of scope which is something that was missed over here.
“The idea originated after hearing Elvis, who I really dig. He`s got an amazing rock and roll band – true rock and roll musicians you know, with that guitarist James…”
“Yes, James Burton, and an amazing drummer and I heard these, these concert tomtoms, being played on a record of his and it just freaked me out… and `Hawaii Five-O`, that series, that`s got them too. Lots of people are using them now and it`s a good thing because as a drummer I`m into being an instrument rather than a rhythmic device… hence you have to develop your instrument further and have more of it around you; my attitude to playing in this band is as a percussionist in an orchestra; that`s how I think of myself. I try and do the job of four percussionists. I`m not just into the funky stuff and I`m not just into the technical thing that I`ve always been labelled with – I`m really into the whole spectrum.
“So many drummers are into the funky thing and the technical thing but they don`t quite make the musical approach which is warranted these days…”
In fact, having seen Palmer in action at Madison Square Garden one of the first things that seemed obvious was his seeming ability to tackle an enormous range of styles and feels with equal ease. There were sections, apart from the previously recorded material – In “Tarkus” and “Take A Pebble” where the band hit into piano-orientated sections touching on old George Shearing material and Carl would tap out that fast swing… and there`s the barrelhousing “Benny The Bouncer” where he`d employ fast brushwork… and there were even odd little blues/jazz sections reminiscent of the Nice where he`d strike up a harder more funky approach. His timing and edge are both immaculate, and effortless.
“That technical thing kills me, though,” he continues, “okay it`s partly true you know. If people want to say am I a fast drummer, have I got a great technique, then, yes, it is true, right, and I don`t mind saying it, but some people have said that I`m not funky and that`s unbelievably wrong. What I`ve done, and what people haven`t seen, is to try and open up more than just being a funky drummer or just being a technical drummer. I`ve tried to push it forward and especially on this album – percussion as more of an intricate instrument rather than the knocking nails in routine.
“Like Jimi Hendrix – the reason why he made the guitar so famous was that he wasn`t simply putting it through a straight stack, he was putting it through a fuzz box and wah-wah and he`d got certain things specially made up and so on. He was trying to better the instrument and so am I – technically and in terms of playing.
“Tuition,” he adds, “has been incredibly beneficial”. I had wondered whether on the contrary, it could lead a person into thinking only along set lines, rather than broadening his experience. Palmer has two a week one at the Guild Hall and one privately round at his tutor`s house.
“It`s given me more scope musically and furthered my musical ability,” he adds. “It hasn`t inhibited me at all in anything I`ve done. Personally I think it`s a very valid thing for people not just to have classical tuition, because there are so many things you can learn that you couldn`t possibly pick up yourself, and I`ve reached the point now where I can switch on and play something musical… or anything really. I never close myself off; I try to get the most out of the things I learn and apply them at the right time. It depends on what I`m playing, but the way I`m playing at any given moment is the way I`m thinking. The minute you close yourself off to anything, you`re burning your bridges.
“The nature of my instrument tells me that to be a percussionist I need to be able to play all forms of music – to know I can back anybody at a minute`s notice… unlike people who play pianos and other kinds of instrument who probably tend to lean more on one particular line.
“Quite honestly, too, I want to be greedy about it. I want to be the best jazz drummer, the best technician, the best rock drummer and the best musical drummer.”
I have personally transcribed this from the original paper. Any errors in the text from the original magazine may not have been corrected for the sake of accuracy. If you have a music-related web-page where this fits – please make a link to the article. With credits to the original writer of the article from all of us music fans!
This number of Sounds also contains articles/interviews with these people: Bob Dylan, Status Quo, Ralph McTell, Incredible String Band, Kiki Dee, Marc Bolan, Jethro Tull, Pointer Sisters.
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