Carl Palmer is a drummer’s drummer. A consummate professional, a brilliant technician and a dynamic showman, he has thrilled listeners and audiences alike for nearly four decades with some of music’s most memorable bands including Atomic Rooster, The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown, Asia and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Along the way his dazzling speed and mastery of the drums, combined with his infectious stage personality, have secured for him a respected place in history as one of Rock and Roll’s greatest drummers.
Carl Frederick Kendall Palmer was born in Birmingham, England, on March 20th, 1950. From the beginning it was clear that music was in the stars for the young Carl Palmer. His grandfather played the drums, his grandmother was a symphony violinist, his mother played an assortment of instruments, and his father sang, danced and played the guitar and drums as a semi-professional entertainer. In a musical family where even his brothers picked up the guitar and drums, Carl’s fascination with music began early and classical violin studies followed.
As he grew older, his tastes began to broaden and on ABC’s “In Concert” Palmer recalled how he was influenced by a film he saw during these formative years. The 1959 film “Drum Crazy” (aka “The Gene Krupa Story”), starring American film icon Sal Mineo (“Rebel Without A Cause”, “Exodus”), captured Carl’s imagination and set him on his way – he was hooked. His biggest influences from that point forward were Krupa and drum legend Buddy Rich who would later become a close personal friend of Carl’s. For his eleventh birthday he received a new drum set and immediately began to study the instrument. Over the next three years he studied with local instructor Tommy Cunliffe, played in a radio orchestra (the Midland Light Orchestra) and performed with his father’s dance band.
At age 14 Carl Palmer joined his first professional band, a six-month stint with The Mecca Dance Band, for which he was paid a whopping 23 pounds a week. At 15, Palmer enlisted in the Motown influenced King Bees along with Richard King on guitar, Len Cox on bass and Geoff Brown on lead vocals. The band would later be known as The Craig.
Already a respected working drummer by 16, Palmer moved on to join Chris Farlowe and the Thunderbirds which also featured guitar great Albert Lee (later with Eric Clapton, Albert Lee & Hogan’s Heroes, Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, Bill Wyman & the Rhythm Kings) and keyboardist Dave Greenslade (later in Colosseum). Pete Solley would eventually replace Greenslade in the band. Recalls Palmer, “yeah that was a blues band, a soul band with saxophones and everything. At the time, we were produced by none other than Mick Jagger.” It was Jagger who had originally discovered Farlowe. With Palmer in the band the Thunderbirds enjoyed moderate success with the single “My Way of Giving” but it was the Rolling Stones cover “Out Of Time” which propelled Farlowe to the top of the UK charts.
At the age of 18, replacing drummer Drachen Theaker, Carl Palmer joined up with The Crazy World of Arthur Brown at the absolute peak of their success following the smash single “Fire” (“I am the God of Hellfire…”). Top 10 around the world and feeling the weight of success, cracks had begun to form in the band, there were personnel changes and Palmer arrived at a time when the band were touring with some of the biggest names in music. After brief rehearsals the lineup set out on an arduous U.S. tour alongside the cream of the rock world including the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Premier Cast of Hair, Iron Butterfly and others.
The concerts were bombastic, pyrotechnic spectacles bordering on insanity, including the eccentric Brown setting himself on fire in asbestos suit, and the tour was a blur for the band. Speaking to Janis Schacht of Circus Magazine Palmer recalled, “I don’t know how the audiences were. I couldn’t see them with Arthur Brown. I was wearing too many masks, there were too many strobe lights, it was very hard to tell. The audiences were nothing like what we have today and with Arthur being so visual you never got a chance in the band.” He added, “The audience anticipation was all Arthur’s. So, musically, I was left behind. They would clap when he lit his fire helmet up. If I did something good, they wouldn’t clap. Mind you, it might not have been good. I have no impressions from the last time.”
Continuing pressures, management problems, health issues and personality conflicts eventually took their toll. The disillusioned Brown became increasingly difficult and the band splintered. Speaking about Brown, Palmer recalled, “It was no use talking to him so I just left him in the middle of the night.” Carl, along with ailing keyboardist Vincent Crane, returned to the UK to form Atomic Rooster.
It was with Atomic Rooster that Carl Palmer enjoyed his first real success as a founding member of a band. Media and fans alike immediately embraced Crane, Palmer and bassist/vocalist Nick Graham as the late 60’s progressive rock scene was thriving. Their debut album, Atomic Rooster, hit number 49 in the U.K. All the while, fueled by his brilliant drum solos, Palmer’s reputation grew as a drummer with phenomenal skill and dizzying speed.
In the spring of 1970, Carl Palmer received a phone call that changed his life forever. Keyboard virtuoso Keith Emerson, himself enjoying Top 10 U.K. success with The Nice, was forming a new band with King Crimson founder Greg Lake who had also just experienced real success with his band’s legendary “In The Court Of The Crimson King”. After trying out several drummers, including Mitch Mitchell, the two wanted Palmer to audition for a spot in the new trio but Palmer was uncertain if he wanted to leave the growing success of Atomic Rooster behind. Reluctantly, he agreed to meet and rehearse with the band and thank God he did.
The trio’s first rehearsal mostly featured Nice and King Crimson standards, including “Rondo” and “21st Century Schizoid Man”, and all three musicians describe it as a “magical feeling” when they first played together. The session blew everyone away and Palmer was offered the job right there on the spot. Still not convinced however, he told Emerson and Lake that he would need to think it over. Returning the next day to another brilliant rehearsal, Carl Palmer accepted the invitation and joined the band.
Immediately dubbed a “supergroup” by the media, Emerson, Lake and Palmer (ELP) entered the musical arena with great expectations.
In August of 1970, while they were still working on the tracks that would eventually form their first album, ELP played its first show at Plymouth, and moved on immediately to the legendary Isle of Wight Festival. Following their set, which included an explosive version of “Pictures At An Exhibition” (complete with cannons), the fallout was massive. Said Palmer of the festival, “I don’t recall how well we played. All I know is that we went down incredibly well.” Even that may have been an understatement. Perhaps signaling the path of the band itself, critical acclaim was monumental and overnight the band was thrust down the path to superstardom.
The following month the group finished its self-titled debut album, which was released in November. Instantly successful, it climbed to the Top 5 in England and the Top 20 in America. The classic single “Lucky Man” became a hit, and their stage show quickly became the stuff of legend.
The 1971 follow-up album, Tarkus, propelled the ELP’s sound in new directions and was the first real test for the band’s cohesiveness. Emerson, wanting to further experiment with the range of the Moog synthesizer, had composed a musically unorthodox, extended piece and Palmer had come up with an unusual drum pattern he wanted to incorporate. Arguments ensued and when Greg Lake, who was producing the album said he wouldn’t be involved it looked like that might be it for ELP. In the end there was agreement (or agreement to disagree) and the album, which for many came to define ELP’s sound, was released.
On the heels of Tarkus’ rise to #1 on the UK charts and Top 10 in the America, ELP arrived at Newcastle City Hall on March 21, 1971, to perform and record live their signature adaptation of Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures At An Exhibition. When released, that album too became a great success. [Both Pictures at an Exhibition and Tarkus feature original artwork by artist, William Neal.]
Following a blistering schedule which saw the band touring furiously, the world over, ELP returned to the studio and released another impressive effort in “Trilogy” which saw the band’s partnership fully back in balance.
1973 saw ELP returning to touring and Carl traveling to the Guildhall School of Music in London where he studied classical timpani. That year also saw ELP return to the studio to record the album Brain Salad Surgery, perhaps the band’s definitive work. Bearing such memorable work as “Karn Evil 9”, “Still You Turn Me On” and “Jerusalem”, the album is highlighted by “Toccata”, a reworking of Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera’s Piano Concerto No. 1, and some of Carl Palmer’s most amazing drumming and synthesized percussion work, including the world’s first electric drum solo. So incredible and original was the performance in fact that Ginastera himself endorsed the recording. “Everyone thought it was Emerson on a keyboard but it was infact, my custom made electric drums, which were built in London,” says Palmer.
An insane touring schedule followed and the legendary scale and musicianship of ELP’s live show continued to grow as evidenced by the release of the epic triple live album Welcome Back My Friends To The Show That Never Ends, released in August 1974. Tired from a grueling four year run which had seen the release of 5 albums as well as untold hundreds of tour dates, the band decided to take a hiatus to explore other projects and to recharge their creative juices.
In reality, much of the material created during this period later went on the form the ELP albums Works, Volume I and Works, Volume II and when the band reunited for the former, a double album, it was decided that each would have a solo side followed by a forth side featuring the band as a unit. For his part, Carl Palmer’s contribution featured big band recordings recorded with 60’s and 70’s pianist & big band leader Harry South, as well as some individual tracks, including “LA ’74” with guitarist Joe Walsh of the Eagles. The real gem from this period however was Palmer’s own epic “Concerto for Percussion” which, sadly, would wait nearly twenty years before finally being released.
Following the Works albums and a grandiose, bank breaking orchestral tour the band returned to the studio one last time for the album “Love Beach”. “In Concert”, a testament, to the Works orchestral tour followed and in 1979 ELP quietly disbanded and exited the musical arena.
Looking for new horizons beyond ELP Carl Palmer formed his own band, PM, for which he recruited vocalist Todd Cochran from the band Automatic Man and blues guitarist John Nitzinger, along with Erik Scott and Barry Finnerty. The band, an attempt at Top 40-style rock, released one album, entitled 1:PM, which was released in 1980 in Europe only. Success eluded the album and the band, which broke up shortly thereafter.
Opportunity knocked again for Carl Palmer when manager Brian Lane approached him in 1981. Lane was trying to put together a supergroup concept for Geffen records and, reportedly, one of his first attempts brought together Palmer along with bassist/vocalist John Wetton (U.K., King Crimson), Rick Wakeman (Yes) and guitar ace Trevor Rabin (Rabbit, Manfred Mann and later Yes). A deal with Geffen is said to have fallen through when Wakeman bailed. Still intent on his idea of a supergroup, Lane introduced John Wetton to Yes axeman Steve Howe. When that musical fit seemed right Lane brought in Palmer and keyboardist Geoff Downes (The Buggles, Yes) filled out the lineup. The group Asia was born.
Recording with Asia, and the concept of performing as a band rather than a fusing of solo artists, was something of a new experience for Carl Palmer who said, “We have tried to create a sound collectively rather than a project as individuals.” The band’s self-titled debut album “Asia” was released in 1982 and a small tour began. Palmer and Wetton have said that they had a feeling in the studio they were doing something special but no one could have been prepared for what happened next. Asia exploded on the charts, right to number one, and over 7 million copies of the album were sold worldwide. Along the way singles such as “Heat Of The Moment”, “Only Time Will Tell”, “Wildest Dreams” and “Sole Survivor” dominated the charts for months. Asia was a perfect fit for the musical climate of the time.
“We were unique,” said Palmer. “Asia was English rock with a technical side. It’s sophisticated rock mixed in with melodies and singles. It was taboo in those days. And you very rarely hear that today, either.”
After an exhausting 18-month tour, Asia followed up with their second album, Alpha, which spawned two charting hits, “Don’t Cry” and “The Smile Has Left Your Eyes”. With the inevitable pressures that accompany such phenomenal success came signs that Asia was beginning to come apart.
Pressures from management and personality clashes in the band finally came to head with the sudden departure of John Wetton late in 1983. Committed to a live MTV broadcast, “Asia in Asia”, Asia brought in Palmer’s old ELP mate Greg Lake to fill Wetton’s shoes. Shortly thereafter Lake went his own way, the band brought Wetton back in and Steve Howe departed the band for good. Astra, the band’s third album, followed in 1985 with Mandy Meyer taking Steve Howe’s spot but the album failed to match the success of the earlier albums. A planned tour was abandoned and Asia went their separate ways.
In 1988 the chance came for Carl Palmer to team up once again with Keith Emerson in a new group with California-based singer/bassist Robert Berry. 3, as they were called, released their only album, To The Power Of Three, on Geffen records. Though the group received respectable FM airplay and followed with a successful club tour, their release generated little interest and they disbanded early in 1989.
Later in 1989 the Asia banner was raised once again when an invitation play a series of stadium dates with the Beach Boys brought Carl Palmer and John Wetton back into the Asia fold along with hired guns John Young and Alan Darby. Encouraged by the reception they received, Asia arranged another tour for the fall and convinced Geoff Downes to return.
Hoping to generate interest in another Asia album the group set out on a feverish touring schedule accompanied by guitarist Pat Thrall. For the well traveled Carl Palmer it meant a return to the road and successful tours ensued in Germany, the U.K., Japan, Brazil and Russian. The Russian shows in particular represented another high in the Asia saga and were captured for posterity in the CD and video releases of Asia Live in Moscow. As Asia prepared to write a new album in 1991 John Wetton decided to leave and Carl Palmer jumped at the chance to reunite with his old mates Keith Emerson and Greg Lake in ELP.
Originally the band had only intended on writing and recording music for a planned film score but the chemistry was clearly still there and eventually it was decided that they should record an album. Signed to the newly founded Victory Records, ELP returned in 1992 with Black Moon, a strong effort produced by Mark Mancina. A video was released and an ambitious tour followed. To the surprise of many the tour was quite successful and saw ELP circle the globe on a tour that lasted from the summer of 1992 well into 1993. Recalled Palmer, “I knew we’d be OK but I never dreamed it would be to this magnitude.”
ELP headed back into the studio but problems with Keith Emerson’s right arm and production that didn’t really gel with the sound of ELP plagued the effort. In The Hot Seat was released in 1994 but failed to attract any real attention. ELP headed their own ways to concentrate on medical and personal issues but returned to touring in 1996 and over the next three years they were accompanied on the road by such notable acts as Deep Purple, Dream Theatre, Kansas and Jethro Tull. In the winter of 1998, and in the midst of great anticipation about a much hyped, forthcoming concept album Greg Lake left ELP which left Carl open to another reunion that was in the works.
The wheels had begun to turn again and excitement grew for another reunion of the Asia originals. Negotiations continued and the band began to rehearse together in February 1999, joined by guitarist Dave Kilminster. The feeling among the principals was that the magic was still there and a world tour was announced, set to begin in June. Following a world tour, Asia had hoped to record a new album and Geoff Downes and John Wetton had already begun writing songs again. Said Carl Palmer at the time: “There’s some new material that is being rehearsed and recorded which will be played on the upcoming tour. I would say that there would be a new Asia album in the works for the year 2000. That’s where we are at the moment.”
Unfortunately that is as far as it went. Almost as quickly as the whole project had begun it came crashing down with the announcement by Geoff Downes that he was abandoning the reunion. The event, which so many had hoped for, would have to wait. It did lead however to the brief reunion of Wetton and Palmer, along with guitarist Dave Kilminster and keyboardist John Young in the band Qango. Sporting a set list consisting of classic ELP, Asia, and King Crimson material, along with some new songs, Qango played a well-received series of dates. “It was a wonderful feeling to be back on stage playing this material with our new band,” said Palmer. “The shows went down very well and have made us excited about continuing with more tours and the recording of new material.” One memorable night even saw the band joined onstage by none other than Keith Emerson. Once again though, hope was short-lived and John Wetton departed the project leaving Palmer to ponder his next move.
Not one to sit around, Palmer set out on a schedule that included instructing drum clinics & master classes and once again set out to create his own new band and along with bassist SIMON FITZPATRICK and guitarist extraordinare PAUL BIELATOWICZ he formed the progressive trio “Palmer”. The thought of Carl Palmer assembling a progressive trio might seem like he was relying on formula, especially since the band’s material consisted mainly of ELP classics, but this was indeed a new direction. Purely guitar driven, this band put a new face on such tracks as “Toccata”, “Hoedown” and Fanfare For The Common Man” and performed them with dizzying complexity and an energy perhaps not heard since the earliest days of ELP.
Fans fortunate enough to see the group live immediately embraced their raw power and virtuosity and critics were quick to agree. Malcolm Dome of Classic Rock Magazine wrote, “The venerable Palmer, who is still great Drummer, leads his current line up though impressive reworkings of ELP music” and added, “There’s an energy and edge here that belongs to (today) 2003. The music might go way back, but the musicianship is most certainly from here and now.” Tim Jones of Record Collector magazine observed, “If you like instrumental virtuosity this should sit well with you.” Palmer, the band, began touring at will.
In 1991, Carl Palmer released his much-anticipated two-disk anthology Do Ya Wanna Play, Carl. The collection showcased Palmer’s greatest recordings with ELP, Asia, Atomic Rooster plus and several rare and never-before-released tracks from every professional group had ever been in. Highlights included cuts from sessions with British rock artist Mike Oldfield, and a live track featuring Carl with his childhood idol, drum jazz icon Buddy Rich and his Orchestra. Perhaps the biggest gem for fans was the inclusion of the piece fans had been asking for since the seventies.
“Concerto for Percussion” made its debut fifteen years after it had been recorded. In a 1991 interview he said, “The album has been in the works since 1976, when ELP took its hiatus to do solo projects. What came of it was the WORKS double LP, with one band side and three solo sides. It was then that I did the “Percussion Concerto.” It didn’t make it to Works, Vol. 1 or Works Vol. 2. I have always wanted to release it and now it has finally come out.”
The Carl Palmer Band lineup did a highly successful US tour in 2006 and continues to tour throughout the world. Featuring Paul Bielatowicz on guitars; Simon Fitzpatrick on bass and Palmer on drums, the band will also embark on a 29 date tour of Canada, The US, and South America. The band has released a concert DVD and three acclaimed live CDs, Working Live Vol 1. Vol 2, and Vol. 3.
In 2006, Carl also regrouped for the long awaited reunion of the original ASIA, with Steve Howe, Geoff Downes and John Wetton. The band has done five world tours and recorded two new studio albums PHOENIX, released on Frontiers and EMI Records in 2008, and Omega, released in the Spring of 2010.
In July 2010, Palmer also participated in a one-time reunion of ELP, staged before 30,000 at the High Voltage Festival in London.
Says Palmer: “I have the best of both worlds now. I have an active schedule with The Carl Palmer Band, and I continue to tour and record the original line up of ASIA. It is very satisfying and gratifying to know the fans are still out there and willing to support and enjoy the music I create. I hope to keep doing this for many more years to come.”