Making progress with prog-rock drummer Carl Palmer

Carl Palmer drumming
Lucky man: Good things come in threes for Carl Palmer.

Three is Carl Palmer’s lucky number.

“I feel more at home playing in a trio,” the British drummer said.

During the 1960s psychedelic boom, Palmer was one third of the Crazy World of Arthur Brown. He would later join Atomic Rooster, a trio, before co-founding progressive-rock’s three-way powerhouse, Emerson, Lake and Palmer. He later kept the beat for a triad called the Carl Palmer Band.

“The only time I ever stepped out of a trio format and had any success at all was with Asia,” he said, referring to the early 1980s band, not the Far East continent.

For four decades, Palmer has worked in a genre as known for its detractors as its fans. Progressive rock–or prog-rock to latter-day insiders–was a child of psychedelia. Borrowing more from Miles Davis and Johann Bach than, say, Chuck Berry, the 1970s movement was marked by recurring musical themes, lots of keyboards and 20-minute-plus indulgences. The accompanying lyrics ranged from sly observations to those born of late-night poetry smoking.

For every prog-rock devotee, three will counter that its entire catalogue, genre and etymology are the pits of pretense, but like the nonconformist legions who advance Dungeons and Dragons and the Star Trek lifestyle, prog-rockers are a loyal lot who could not care less.

“It’s basically experimental music that has a sense of organization and involves itself with an element of technology,” Palmer said of his work. “It’s the modern-day jazz, really.”

The musician is not talking out of his bass drum. While his teenage peers were in the throes of Beatlemania, Palmer was an adolescent jazz buff. He was also a frequent truant, but his parents still supported his musical distractions, even paying for topnotch music lessons.

Setting the music world on ‘Fire’

At 18, Palmer entered and survived the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, a band, not a co-dependent relationship. Brown’s encore was setting himself on fire as a way to market “Fire,” his only big hit.

Psychedelia’s burnout was just the beginning for Palmer.

“It was a natural progression, from the theatrical to the technical,” he said. “You had Pink Floyd, and though they didn’t play incredibly well, they developed great light shows.”

After leaving Atomic Rooster, a cult favorite among prog-rock afficionados, Palmer linked his name to ex-Nice keyboardist Keith Emerson and guitarist Greg Lake of King Crimson. Emerson, Lake and Palmer–ELP for short–debuted at 1970’s Isle of Wight festival, showcasing Emerson’s transcription of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

ELP in heyday
Emerson, Lake and Palmer progressed until they didn’t.

ELP’s spark and excess became exceptionally popular among art-rock fans–and especially among free-form disc-jockeys, whose appreciation for 12-minute symphonies was matched by the bathroom and lifestyle choices allowed by the lengthy tracks. ELP’s flamboyance was tempered, though, by such accessible hits as “Lucky Man.”

“We tried to get away from three and four-minute pieces,” Palmer said.

Shorter songs, shorter band name

If video killed the radio star, then corporate radio killed prog-rock’s golden era.

With no place on the play list  for symphony transcriptions, Palmer resourcefully co-founded Asia, prog-rock’s answer to new wave, with Steve Howe and Geoffrey Downes of Yes and John Wetton of King Crimson. Oddly, Downes had also been responsible for the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star,” the aforementioned hit that was the first video played on MTV.

Asia publicity shot
Next wave: Asia fused prog-rock attitude with the ’80s zeitgeist.

“We had tracks like ‘Time Again’ and ‘Wildest Dreams,’ which were prog tracks, but they were only six minutes long,” Palmer said of Asia’s commercial progression.

“It’s basically experimental music that has a sense of organization and involves itself with an element of technology. It’s the modern-day jazz, really.”

-Carl Palmer on ‘prog rock’

Songs became longer again for the Carl Palmer Band, a guitar-bass-drums outfit that played classics from Palmer’s history, transposed for guitar.

“It was a function of being completely honest,” he said of the format. “There was no reason to try and duplicate what Keith Emerson played. There was no reason to have a vocalist.”

Asia eventually embarked on a 25th anniversary reunion tour. Besides playing the first album in its entirety, the band played a cross-section of music from ELP, Yes and King Crimson.

“It’s not a supermarket,” Palmer said of the “Asian” variety show.  “It’s more of a delicatessen.”

Talk about progress.