In Memoriam Keith Emerson


(2 November 1944 – 10 March 2016)

keith emerson

keith emerson 2

Emerson, Lake and Palmer performing Blue Rondo a la Turk
at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970

Keith Emerson has always been one of my favourite rock musicians, and in his case a true musician – not to be distracted by his theatrics.

We were blown away by him at the Manor House, Lake, in 1969 and then on the Friday night of the festival that year. A year later it was the debut of ELP. Fantastic.

This is an extract from Stealing Dylan from Woodstock’:

Emerson, playing two Hammond organs, twisted and turned the heavy cabinets on their side and their backs, slamming them down and stabbing them with knives, to howls of discord amid the melodies of a classical standard. The audience was ecstatic. Although performing to a multitude of pilgrims awaiting their guru, the group was received as one of the theatrical highlights of the entire festival, and this was only the warm up day. NME declared it ‘the night of the Nice . . . and one of their best sets yet.’

‘The Last Great Event’:. ..

This marked the debut of what became, effectively, ELP’s signature track, ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’, lasting on this occasion almost 35 minutes – more than half their set time. With a virtuoso display by Emerson on the Moog synthesiser (one of the first times to be used live on stage). ‘Pictures’ was an instant success, taking Mussorgsky’s nineteenth century Russian masterpiece and radicalising it as comprehensively as Picasso’s reworking of a Parisian café in a Cubist painting, complete with staccato shards and splinters. ‘Pictures’ culminated with the firing of two 500-pound cannons, fresh from the battlefields of the Crimea War by the look of them. They were positioned on either side of the stage and aimed out over the audience with thunderous consequences. A press photographer was thrown back, though mercifully with no lasting harm. The detonation had to be executed by the musicians themselves, thereby redefining the cannon as a musical instrument, so roadies handed burning medieval torches first to Emerson and then to Lake. At the required moment, Emerson reached over with the flaming torch in his left hand and ignited the charge while still playing the Hammond with his right. When this first blast displaced the photographer, the keyboardist was fearful – not for the well-being of the innocent snapper but that Greg might be deterred from detonating his cannon! But moments later the second cannon leapt into the air, white flame shooting from its barrel. Apparently, these ancient artillery pieces had been spotted in a London antiques shop and purchased for the festival. The group and their roadies took them to an open space by Heathrow Airport to test them out, low-flying jets muffling the sound of the explosions. (Imagine trying that today.) Keith was not convinced they were loud enough and, at the last minute, just before going on stage, he instructed the roadies to pack in double the quantity of gunpowder, “just to be on the safe side!”’



Ray Foulk
one of the organisers of the Isle of Wight Festivals, 1968-1970
Photos courtesy of Ray Foulk


TLGE jacket thumbnail









This entry was posted on in homepage and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.