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(Credit: Mari Kawaguchi)

Music

How Keith Emerson nearly lost his life through explosive stage stunt

Rock had become progressively more flamboyant as the decades wore on, but the 1970s proved to be an endless display of eccentrics, extravagance and eerily well-put-together interpolations of decadent shows. Keyboardist Keith Emerson seemed happy to deliver a show based on bravado and guts, offering to put his hands through a ring of torturous motions to achieve that perfect set-piece. 

Genesis mainstay Tony Banks once recalled with some horror the knives that went into Emerson’s instrument, explaining: “But, he stuck the knife in the keyboard so that the note was sustained, and I did similar things with weights sometimes,” Banks noted. “Back in the days when all you had on stage was a Hammond organ, you had to find ways to get different sounds out of it. I used to do some of the switching it on and off stuff and all the rest of it, which was always quite fun to do. That was part of the thing that Keith did.” In contrast to the more boisterous Emerson, Banks seemed content to sit in the shadows and to let Peter Gabriel do the heavy-lifting. 

Some of Emerson’s theatrics were so deadly that they nearly cost him his life. On February 2nd, 1973, an audience who attended the show San Francisco came close to witnessing the end of the keyboard player’s life. 

He was touring with Greg Lake and Carl Palmer, a trio who performed under the strikingly original banner name, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, when he decided to load his instrument up with explosives as part of a visual gag. Unfortunately, he mistimed the explosion, injuring his hands in the process. 

If he was the singer, he might just have gotten away with it, but given that his hands proved the tools of his particular trade, he needed to make sure they weren’t hurt in the future. So, he stuck to the tried and tested tradition of knifing the Hammond to the ground.

In many ways, the live spectacle detracted from the stellar music. Tarkus uses not a single explosive nor a knife, yet is carried by the infectious melodies that drive the album onward. With Lake, the power trio had a vocalist that could match the best of progressive rock, and with Carl Palmer, the band had a drum that could match Phil Collins as a percussionist and could easily have taken him on in a scrap. If Genesis are regarded in a better light than Emerson, Lake & Palmer, it is because the Charterhouse band prided themselves as a songwriting vehicle, who reluctantly took to the stage. 

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Emerson, Lake & Palmer were a different beast, for better or worse, but their uncompromising nature meant that it was harder for them to sail into the 1980s as Genesis did with ease. Naturally, this is all conjecture, but there is a reason why John Lydon decided to call out the progressive rock bands that made him feel sick (though as to why he chose Pink Floyd as his vessel is odd, considering how much he admired Syd Barrett’s work).

Emerson died in 2015, as did Lake, which leaves the drummer as the sole bearer of the prog flag. Palmer is still touring, and will likely continue to do so until he can’t. With any luck, he has learned from his colleague’s example, and not relied on explosives to generate a cheap shock for the sake of its audience.

Whatever drove Emerson to put himself through such peril stayed with him, and although it must have made for delicious viewing experience, it nearly cost him his life. And why would he do that, when it was his playing, not his stunt-work, that people paid their hard-earned shillings for? 

What’s clear from Banks interview is that he rates Emerson more as a musician than a performer, which might explain why the Genesis songwriter was glad to keep in his corner. Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Genesis and Wings couldn’t be less different, but they were all brilliant in their own way, each of them contributing to the lexicon of rock. And when it’s their time to go, it’s the music that will ultimately stand the test of time. 

Stream Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s ‘Lucky Man’ below.