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Would You Like A Knife With That? Keith Emerson: The Leather-Donned Daredevil

How Emerson Changed The Role Of The Keyboardist Through Explicit Stage Presence and Performance

September 10, 2015

In the infancy of Rock and Roll in the early 1950s, the piano played a rather large role with performers such as Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. The keyboardists in these cases were the main attractions. It’s not surprising that the early rock and roll pianists attracted this attention. In the early stages, rock and roll was heavily influenced by the jump blues and boogie-woogie scenes of the 1940s. With artists like Fats Domino, Duke Ellington, and Oscar Peterson playing vital rolls in their ensembles and capturing their audience’s attention, it’s no surprise the rock pianists maintained the same following. However, during the late 1950s and 1960s this changed, with the increasing popularity of the new electric guitar. A fascination with the guitar player began to develop, and piano players found themselves no longer in the spotlight, but rather off to the side.

The Fall & Rise of The Keyboardist

There are several reasons for this change in attention and location. A guitar was a lighter instrument and allowed the player to move around and interact with the band members and audience. The piano however, was stationary, and forced the player to be confined to a specific spot on the stage. Another aspect was the lack of physical appeal of the instrument. “Keyboard players [are] probably not very sexy," notes Noddy Holder, singer of Slade. "You see, the guitar's a very sexy instrument. It's shaped like a woman. You can't be sexy playing a keyboard. It’s too heavy to lift and throw around" (I’m In A Rock N Roll Band 28:50). So how did keyboardists manage to rise to the forefront during the 1970s? Rick Wakeman, the keyboardist of Yes, believes it was due to keyboardists being able to cut through the guitar with the invention of the Moog synthesizer. Wakeman remarks:

"The poor down-trodden one, certainly in the '60s right up to the early '70s was the keyboard player. You were the laughing stock on stage because lead guitarists [were] always deafening loud, everyone playing loud. It came to your solo, and they'd all have to go really quiet, and you're desperately trying to be heard. And of course we were saved by the Moog synthesizer, which created sounds that would cut through concrete. There's nothing better a keyboard player can hear, than the guitarist turning around going 'That's ever so loud', and you go 'I know...now you know what it sounds like. Now you know what it feels like'" (I’m In A Rock N Roll Band 30:10).

Another aspect to consider is the creation of keyboard personalities and gimmicks. While Rick Wakeman’s cape materialized in 1971, Brian Eno, the keyboardist for Roxy Music, developed a fashion personality that consisted of make-up, feathers, glitter, and women’s clothing. Eno explains why he dressed in this way:

"For me there was no sexual aspect to it. I was not gay, but I wanted to look great, and looking great meant dressing as a woman! Or at least as some kind of weird new hybrid of male and female. I was living with a woman named Carole McNicol, who was a sculptor and also a very good clothes-maker. I could think up ideas for clothes, and she would improve on the ideas and then actually make the clothes. I think we were really thinking in terms of sculpture—these were clothes that you could only really wear on stage, they were impossible to do anything normal in. When I went on to the stage, the only decision I can consciously remember making was this: what I do involves standing still on stage adjusting tiny little knobs, so it would make sense to have garments that magnify my movements. Hence the feathers and so on. So I wasn’t doing very much, but it looked quite good" (Hoskyns 2011:1009-1015)

Simon Frith, author of Performing Rites: On The Value Of Popular Music, points out that clothes “offer the body its most intimate traffic with the outside world” and forms a language. “...It is the clothes themselves that do the talking; beneath them is a kind of universal body...clothes are the way the body speaks; without them it has nothing to say” (Frith 1996:218). What the musician wears also affects how a person first hears and perceives their music. Even if the clothes are perceived as casual, there is often a case of the clothing being carefully chosen (i.e., the same casual shirt could be worn every night of a tour). Ornette Coleman, an American jazz saxophonist from the 1960s explains:

"For me, clothes have always been a way of designing a setting so that by the time a person observes how you look, all of their attention is on what you’re playing. Most people that play music, whether it’s pop, rock, or classical, have a certain kind of uniform so they don’t have to tell you what you’re listening to. I always thought that if this was the case, why wouldn’t I try to design from the standpoint of the opposite of that? Have the person see what you have on and have no idea what you were going to play. I’m not playing to represent what I’m wearing, and I’m not dressing to represent what I play" (quoted in Frith 1996:219).

Macan notes that for the progressive rock genre, it “never really developed a definitive dress code in the manner of certain other styles of popular music (i.e., the leather-studded biker gear of heavy metal)”. The fashion of the counterculture i.e., bell bottoms, paisley shirts, shoulder-length hair, and hats from thrift shops, remained popular until the early 1970s. Jeans and a t-shirt also remained popular, and “mystical” clothing articles (i.e., capes and robes) and brightly-coloured shirts were still prominent after the psychedelia of the 60s. Although long hair remained with progressive rock performers, it was not essential to the progressive rock “image” (unlike heavy metal) and many musicians had cut their hair by the late 1970s (Macan 1997:64). The point Macan makes is that, although styles existed within the prog rock community, it was not essential or mandatory for the artist to maintain those styles in order to be considered authentic in their genre by their audiences.

Macan also notes the difference in movement with progressive rock musicians. Contrary to other popular music genres, prog rock musicians tend to be relatively motionless and static on stage for several reasons. Firstly, the music itself is often very complex. Although most prog guitarists stand while performing, Macan points out that two of prog rock’s most significant guitarists, Robert Fripp and Steve Hackett, perform seated. Therefore, the hyperkinetic tendencies seen in heavy metal bands consisting of guitarists running back and forth and jumping off amps, is simply not feasible with progressive rock. “Keyboardists, in particular, often had to move rapidly between several keyboards, and excess motion was a liability to successfully realizing their parts” (Macan 1997:64). In progressive rock, the musician tends to concentrate most of their effort on the sounds being produced from their instrument, rather than the visual antics that entertain audiences.

Similarly, Frith notes how the musician’s body is also an instrument:

"The material we work on determines our movements – in musical terms the instrument we play thus determines the instrument our body must be (standing up, sitting down, bowing or blowing, hitting or pulling). On the other hand, our movements are also determined by our purpose...to describe body movement then, is to describe both what is being done and why it is; to read body movements, to interpret them, is always to put them in a story" (emphasis in original Frith 1996:219).

So what does it mean when a progressive rock keyboardist bashes his organ, lights his ribbon controller on fire, whips his organ with a whip, jumps over his organ only to collapse under it, and does a complete 360 degree spin on a grand piano in the air all while wearing impeccably tight leather pants?

Enter Keith Emerson: a keyboardist who gained popularity with the Nice in 1967 and later with Emerson, Lake, and Palmer (ELP) in 1970. In order to define what these movements mean as a performance, perhaps it is best to understand the inspiration behind the music he played and the movements he made. Only then can we perceive all the possible meanings behind these anomalous movements.

From The Beginning

Contrary to popular belief, Emerson never received proper piano lessons, and considers himself to be self taught. Emerson did have three teachers as a child, but were really local “little old ladies” (Milano 1977:22). As Emerson stated in 1974, “I read music but only because my music teacher at the time taught me to” (Bowman 1974:25). Emerson’s father, Noel Emerson, was an amateur pianist, and believed that the best thing for Emerson to have as a player was versatility and the ability to read music. This lead to Emerson being fluent in many different styles of music including classical, jazz, dance, pop, rock, and big band. Emerson didn’t own a record player, and used the radio for inspiration. He was moved in particular by Floyd Cramer’s “On The Rebound” from 1961 and the work of Dudley Moore. He also heavily relied on jazz sheet music from David Brubeck and George Shearing and jazz books for understanding jazz piano. What worked best for Emerson was working with jazz orchestras as it exposed him to a lot of jazz improvisation and arrangements for small combos or ensembles that contained improvised solos in them (Milano 1977:32). He also listened to boogie-woogie, country-style pianists including Joe Henderson, Russ Conway, and Winifred Atwell. Jack McDuff also played a crucial role in the later development of Emerson’s organ sound and playing: “It was the Jack McDuff organ sound that really turned me on. I didn't really like the Jimmy Smith organ sound, though I liked what he did. But I worked for ages trying to get the sound that Jack McDuff got on the Rock Candy Live in the Front Room album” (Milano 1977:25) Emerson also tried learning the guitar after discovering skiffle, but was unsuccessful (Kawamoto 2005:227). Emerson notes: “I was a very serious child. I used to walk around with Beethoven sonatas under my arm. However, I was very good at avoiding being beaten up by the bullies. That was because I could also play Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard songs. So, they thought I was kind of cool and left me alone” (Dome 2015).

Pictures At An Exhibition

Emerson’s musical virtuosity continued to flourish during his time with the Nice through covers and riffs from other musicians. But it was Emerson’s early love for classical music that seems to have become a trademark in his work with the Nice and ELP. The Nice, covered Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo A La Turk” by converting it into 4/4 time (instead of keeping the original 9/8 time signature), incorporated Bach’s Italian Concerto third movement (4:33), and called the piece “Rondo”. The Nice’s “America: 2nd Amendment” is an adaptation of Leonard Bernstein’s “America” from the musical West Side Story, and borrows from Antonin Dvořák's Symphony No. 9: From The New World at the beginning of the piece. “Azrael Revisited” features Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C# Minor (0:51). The “Ars Longa Vita Brevis” Third Movement “Acceptance Brandenburger” features Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto #3, “Allegro” (0:30). In “Diary of an Empty Day”, the entire melody is derived from Édouard Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole Fifth Movement. Emerson discusses the inspiration behind the song: “John [Mayer, conductor] and I had rehearsed Lalo’s ‘Symphonie Espagnole, Fifth Movement’, and we performed it, John on violin, myself on piano. I liked the piece so much that I worked on an arrangement for the band and, through Lee’s lyricism, it became ‘Diary of an Empty Day’” (Emerson 2003:146). The Nice’s “Hang On To A Dream” is a cover of Tim Hardin’s “How Can We Hang On To A Dream?” featuring a jazz interlude in the middle. They also covered Tchaikovsky’s “Symphonie Pathetique” including the “First Movement”, and Jean Sibelius’ “The Karelia Suite” live (Emerson, 2003:156). Both “She Belongs To Me” and “Country Pie” are covers of Bob Dylan’s tunes. “She Belongs To Me” was featured on the album Live At Fillmore East from December 1969 and contains fragments of the theme from The Magnificent Seven (2:35, 8:28) by Elmer Bernstein. In “Country Pie”, the Nice also use Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 (1:20) in the background of the piece.

During the breakup of the Nice and the recruitment of Greg Lake and Carl Palmer, Emerson was exposed to Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition during a London Philharmonic concert in 1970 (Emerson 2003:173-174). ELP later adapted the piece to their own musical style, and it became a staple in their live rotation. Other classical elements in ELP include Béla Bartók’s “Allegro Barbaro” making up the majority of “The Barbarian” (0:13), Leoš Janáček's “Sinfonietta” makes up the entirety of “Knife Edge”, which also contains an interlude of Bach’s first French Suite in D Minor in the middle section (3:20). ELP continued to do classical covers including “Nutrocker”, which was adapted by Kim Fowley and based on Tchaikovsky’s “March of the Toy Soldiers”, “Hoedown” and “Fanfare for the Common Man” both by Aaron Copland, “Jerusalem” by Hubert Parry, “Maple Leaf Rag” by Scott Jopin, “Romeo & Juliet” by Sergei Prokofiev, and the “First Piano Concerto Fourth Movement” by Alberto Ginastera, which became “Toccata” on Brain Salad Surgery.

But how did the audience of ELP – an audience primarily consisting of white young males whose interests lie in rock music – react to these classical interludes? Keister points out that with the change in musical and instrumental styles of the pieces (i.e., extremes of volume, distortion, amplified feedback, rapid tempo, etc.) a collision of high and low cultures began to form and cause critics to question what the populist aesthetics of rock were (Keister 2008: 437). In the early stages of ELP, English fans continued to view ELP as the “New” Nice due to the continuation of classical influences. For this reason, the release of Pictures At An Exhibition was delayed, despite being a widely-sought after album. In 1974, Emerson explained:

"We had our first album out. When we first went out on the road we were doing “Pictures at an Exhibition.” When we first started playing new audiences there was that similarity between ELP and the Nice: “Oh. Its just the “New” Nice.” We got very dejected by this, and we thought that possibly the reason people were thinking this was because we were doing adaptations of classical music and people really got carried away by this. They thought that was all we were doing, that was our only output. We were the band that did classical music: we knew they had got it wrong because we were writing our own pieces of music. We didn’t want to release “Pictures At An Exhibition” mainly because we knew what people were going to say about it. (“It looks like it’s the old Nice, they’re doing classical music.”) Also, it would have taken up a whole album and left us no room to do anything of our own, so we purposely delayed it. We purposely put “Tarkus” out as a second album to show that we could write our own things, and to try to let the whole classical thing die away. When we did release it, we released it at a reduced price, as if to say ‘get rid of it’. There was a big demand for it, so we brought it out. We recorded it live, somewhere in Newcastle and we just sort of got it out of the way. Sure enough, they did the bit there" (Emerson quoted in Bowman 1974:25).

With such an early stigma in English fans relating classical aspects in ELP to the Nice, why did the ELP catalogue continue to borrow from the classics if it delayed ELP’s acceptance with the fans as a new band? Why did they not solely produce original material? In 1977, Emerson explains why he continued to incorporate classical music into his music, and what the mixing of genres meant to him:

"Simple reason – I like the tunes. I want to play these tunes, but I want to play them in a way that’s acceptable to our audience. And stimulate new interest in the original. You know I started doing this back in the Sixties, and that was my intention. But obviously since that time, audiences have become far more perspective – intelligent. One doesn’t really have to do that now. ...I don’t mean to be insulting the public’s intelligence by saying the reason I’m playing “Fanfare for the Common Man” is because I want them to listen to the original. That may have been the case six years ago, but since then it’s become part of what people expect of me. ...My music has been tagged with the label “classical rock”, which I guess is okay. ... I call it playing classical music with the focus on the meter, a straight, rigid meter – one that’s different from what the composer originally intended" (Milano 1977:25).

The Show That Never Ends

In 1962 at the age of 18, Emerson bought his first organ: The Hammond L-100, after saving up for two years. He was originally after a Bird organ, a new portable organ gaining popularity in England that allowed for easy dismantling and travel. Emerson was getting annoyed with piano hammers breaking off, and felt the organ had more stability. However, after he and his father heard the L-100, there was no turning back to the Bird and its portability (Emerson 2003:35).

Emerson's style of playing on the L-100 changed dramatically after he saw the virtually unknown organ player and entertainer, Don Shinn at the Marquee Club in August of 1966 (Emerson 2003:54). Shin would dress like a schoolboy and drink whisky from a teaspoon. During a performance, the back of his Hammond fell off and caused Shin to break out a screwdriver in an attempt to fix it. While the crowd was busy laughing, Emerson thought, “There’s something there” (Prasad 2015). Emerson notes:

"I realized from watching Don that you could sustain notes on the Hammond by sticking things in the keyboard. At first, I started doing it with a screwdriver when I was with The Nice. Then I thought, rather than stick a screwdriver in it, I’ll get a knife. We had a roadie, who was none other than Lemmy from Motorhead. He said “If you’re going to use a knife, use a proper one.” He then gave me two Hitler Youth daggers. That was the start of that" (Prasad 2015).

The knives were first used around November of 1967 while the Nice were opening up for Jimi Hendrix (Emerson 2003:79-80). The next task Emerson was faced with, was what to do with the knives after he finished using them. At first he would just drop them on the floor, but “that was a bit dangerous for the keyboardist” (Prasad 2015), so the inevitable thing to do was to learn knife throwing. Emerson wasn’t very good at first, as he ended up hitting the drummer, but eventually worked out the kinks. Both Emerson and Hendrix learned a lot from each other, and even considered working together when the Nice disbanded in 1970 (Milano 1977:24).

"He [Don Shinn] and Hendrix were controlling influences over the way I developed the stage act side of things. Nobody really went for the organ in those days. The L-100 looked like a piece of furniture. I think Georgie Fame was the first to use it in England, and Graham Bond came along doing a heavier sort of thing. But most people's reaction to seeing an organ in the band was, "Yuk." I mean, people hated the sound of it. What I wanted to do was change people's image of that, make the organ sound more attractive. It didn't look that good, and the player usually sat at the instrument, so it didn't have any visual appeal at all. I guess seeing Don Shin made me realize that I'd like to compile an act from what he did. A lot of people hated it, said it was totally unnecessary. They thought that was all I could do. Some people still think that" (Milano 1977:24).

In 1968, Emerson added the Hammond C-3 organ to his setup. He liked the C-3 sound as the sound was far superior to that of the L-100 and the octave range was greater (Milano 1977:24). Around 1970, Emerson acquired his iconic Moog synthesizer. He had first heard the moog with the release of Switched on Bach from a local record store. Although Emerson didn’t like the sound (“It was too boggy, too laid down” [Milano 1977:32]), he bought the album to further investigate the massive instrument on the cover. He later found out that a fellow named Mike Vickers had one in England, and was able to go over and try it out. He later borrowed Vickers’ moog for a concert with the Nice.

"I used it for the first time with an orchestra; that was with the Nice and the London Philharmonic. That was one of the first ones that arrived in England and I had a guy [Vickers] sit down behind it, tuning the damn thing up as I was playing it. At the start of ELP I got a hold of Bob (Moog) and told him what I wanted to do. He made up a model, the first of its kind. I don’t think they ever made anymore" (Emerson quoted in Bowman 1974:24).

When the Moog arrived in a box, it came with no instructions and was disassembled. Although Vickers came over to try to get the Moog running, it was different from the one he had and he couldn’t figure out the presets. It took three days before Vickers and Emerson figured out the Moog. From that point on, the Moog was used on the road for the first time ever with Emerson. It still had its frustrations, particularly with tuning issues, but that was eventually solved with a frequency counter (Milano 1977:36).

"There were lots of teething problems to start with but there were great possibilities. For me, it enabled me to expand my musical ideas and make far more things possible for me to do musically, live and in the studio. Another thing that made me happy about it was that you could imitate, to a certain extent standard instruments and, apart from that you could create new and fresh sounds. I had already been trying to get different sounds out of the Hammond organ, I had exhausted all those possibilities. Not only do I view music from a harmonic sense, I view it as a noise source as well and at that particular point it was all welded into one thing. There was an instrument which could do all of that and more; it had endless possibilities. As I said, there were lots of problems taking it around on tour. The first oscillators were a little weird. The problem in tuning is not so great now. The instrument I have is not designed to take on the road. It was originally designed for studio use. It’s been toughened up and it’s been customized and dealt with; huge power supplies and things have all been changed to cope with whatever problems we’ve come up with" (Emerson quoted in Bowman 1974:24).

Around 1971, another stage antic was brought to the table – this time by accident. Emerson writes:

"The extension of the Moog modular system (the ribbon controller) when becoming worn down made machine-gun noises. Rather than getting it repaired, I used it to effect, mock machine-gunning the audience. Later, Rocky [roadie] would visually enhance the audio with the use of balls of flame bursting from the barrels beneath the controller" (Emerson 2003:220).

Although the sounds of Emerson’s Moog cut through the home speakers as early as 1970 with the unforgettable “oo-ee oo-ee” from “Lucky Man” or the remarkable “ooo-eeeee” from “Hoedown” in 1972, the music was only the tip of the iceberg of the Keith Emerson experience. What fans experienced during his live stage performances are what really set him apart from his contemporaries.

The Knife Edge

The stage antics started as early as August 1966 when Emerson was with the VIPs. They were playing in Hamburg at the Star Club when the roadie misplaced Emerson’s organ bench. At the time, Emerson was rather bothered by this. “To make matters worse, the roadie had lost my organ stool so now I had to stand and play. It wasn’t cool to stand and play! Jerry Lee Lewis could, but organists didn’t. My contemporaries at that time were Brian Auger – in my opinion the best British jazz organist – George Fame and Alan Price, who both sang whilst seated at their instrument, and also Don Shinn” (Emerson 2003:54). What Emerson realized later on was that this seemingly simple mistake gave him versatility and the freedom to move around and create the physical movements that fuelled his explicit stage presence when other keyboardists remained trapped behind the large “piece of furniture”.

Within the same month, the band travelled back to London momentarily before heading to France to continue the tour. Emerson was depressed and was given a pill from Bloody Mary, a friend on the road, which he now believes was Preludin. He decided to let the roadie have the night off, and agreed to drive the tour van to the next gig. However, Emerson crashed the van into the ditch due to tiredness. With him running on a natural high now, the band persevered to the club, which Emerson recalls being “somewhere in the outback of rural France” (Emerson 2003:57). The audience were largely French farmers that were mainly interested in getting drunk. A Western-style brawl began to happen within the crowd, which really inspired Emerson and forever changed his performance style:

"I preferred to stand at my instrument now; at least it gave me a better vantage point over an audience that was definitely worth getting a view of. …I got more into the spirit of things, tilting the organ and allowing it to crash down, sending its in-house reverberation unit into a frenzy of explosiveness. As the Frogs shook the living daylights out of each other, I mimicked them by shaking and climbing atop the organ, switching it off and on, letting it wail as if with a mind of its own, both instrument and player lost in reckless abandonment. The notes were no longer important. I wanted to go beyond those boundaries and limitations by playing outside the instrument; let the accidents happen and let them happen with total abandon, to hell with the consequences. Seized with more energy than my 9st [stone weight, English unit of weight] frame had ever realized, I threw 350lb of instrument across the stage in one final explosive display as the audience gazed spellbound in disbelief" (emphasis in original Emerson 2003:57-58).

By 1968, Emerson’s stage performance had grown immensely with the Nice. On June 26th 1968, the Nice performed their rendition of Leonard Bernstein’s “America” at the Royal Albert Hall. There was already a lot of tension and meaning behind the instrumental song, as it was their way of protesting the shootings of both John F. Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy. Emerson notes, “If Bob Dylan, and English counterpart Donovan, could make protest songs, why shouldn’t we? It could be the first protest instrumental! Scattering the arrangement with Dvorák’s purer imagery from ‘The New World Symphony’ would top it off” (Emerson 2003:100). Frustration grew when the band learned that their unfinished single of “America” had been quickly mixed by the record company and distributed without their permission while they were on the road. Emerson believed that the show at the Royal Albert hall gave them an opportunity to express their frustration and discontent over the record company and American politics.

When the time came to play at the Royal Albert Hall, the band had left “America” for the very end. After Emerson played Dvorák’s intro on the pipe organ, he spray painted the American flag on a piece of white canvas while Lee Jackson produced a guitar solo. Afterwards, Emerson stuck two knives into the Hammond organ causing it to wail, as he walked up to the canvas with a lighter. To the audience’s horror, he lit the canvas on fire (which was highly flammable due to the paint), and then threw the two knives into the canvas for good measure (Emerson 2003:102-103).

Along with the development of the knife throwing and organ tossing routines, Emerson also introduced a whip. During performances of “Rondo” (i.e., Rome Pop Festival May 6, 1968), he would perch atop the keyboard, rock it back and forth, and whip the sides of the organ. Unlike the knife throwing and organ tossing, the whip did not remain in ELP. Emerson would also leap over the organ and pull it down with him. He would hold the weight of the organ on his back and pull on the bass strings on the inside of the organ to give a