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Keith Emerson's Keyboard Clearout

Exploration By Gordon Reid
Published May 1995

Fancy owning an instrument which used to belong to keyboard legend Keith Emerson? Gordon Reid gets a sneak preview of part of Keith's collection, now up for sale, and chats to Keith about his spring clearout and his current projects.

It's official... after living in the UK for most of his life, Keith Emerson has finally emigrated to California. And, after a difficult couple of years during which he has had to cope with the break‑up of his marriage and a potential career‑destroying illness it is, in his own words, time for a clear‑out. Keyboards, mixers, speakers, tape machines, stage clothes, tour jackets, photos, knives... all are for sale, and all are expected to attract huge interest from his loyal fans. I tracked Keith down during one of his brief visits to these shores, and asked him how he felt about releasing so much personal and musical history.

"Following my divorce, and the selling of my house, the gear was costing me a fortune to keep in storage. I've always been a hoarder, but it was such a shame to see it all just sitting there. Instruments need to be used and played, not buried in dark warehouses."

Why did you accumulate so much equipment?

"When I had the house I built a studio in my barn. I never quite finished it, although it was used for a number of small projects. But I found that having a studio was a bit like having a swimming pool or a tennis court. People who have them never swim or play at home — they always go to clubs or to friends' houses. It was a bit like that for me — I rarely used my own facilities, and I would always end up recording elsewhere. It's much more of an event to go to a commercial studio — you meet people with different views and different methods of producing music, which means that you end up thinking more. So, despite my good intentions, I accumulated a lot of equipment that was never properly used — although, when I think about it, most of it featured somewhere on either a film soundtrack or an ELP recording."

Is everything going under the hammer?

"No. There are some instruments which are too personal to let go: the Hammonds, the Moog Modular, and the Moog Constellation being the best known of them. In addition, some of my keyboards are still, technically, owned by Korg, so they're not for sale."

Does that mean that you value older keyboards more highly than their modern equivalents?

"I'm fascinated by the resurgence of interest in vintage keyboards. My eldest son, Aaron, is in a band called Buzz Tonic, which has a CD soon to be released on Ace of Base's label, Mega Records. A while back he came to ask my help in tracking down a genuine Moog synthesiser. Maybe it's because they look good on stage. After all, showmanship is a very important part of music. Wrestling with an old synth, pulling patch leads in and out, has far more impact than simply pressing a button to select the next patch. Seeing someone leaping around is a show, and being theatrical makes playing much more enjoyable. Modern keyboards are not as impressive, and they don't involve the audience as much. Compare the wonderful Yamaha GX1 to a modern synth...

"Another reason may be more obvious. Digital synths are tamer than analogue ones and, as I know from experience, they can blow out speakers. I once discovered that the Moog lines on 'Lucky Man' were being played in hi‑fi shops to demonstrate the robustness (or not) of domestic speakers."

You recently suffered an Entrapment, a potentially crippling complaint affecting the nerves in your right forearm. Rumours persisted that you might never play again.

"It was the most traumatic event of my life, and I still need a vast amount of recuperation. As a result, I'm only slowly getting back to playing, and I'm having to learn a new approach and new techniques."

So will you become more involved with MIDI and start to use sequencers as performance tools?

"I'm happy to rely on sequencers when I'm composing, because it's like working with several musicians, and I love the freedom to experiment with parts and orchestrations to see if they work. But I won't go out and use sequencers on stage. I did it once, for charity, and I hated it. After all, if you're not actually performing, what's the point of being there? No... I won't do that again. Consequently, although the hand is improving, this may be the end of my stage career. I won't play live unless I can offer 100%."

So when and where are we going to hear Keith Emerson again?

"There are many reasons why I've moved to California. I like the weather, many friends are here, provided that you avoid Los Angeles it can be a great place to live... and there are opportunities that I want to pursue. One of these is in Hollywood, where the film budgets are so much larger than in the UK. In many ways the British film industry is better than the American, but there you are...

"I'm also negotiating with Sony Classical in France to record an orchestrated ELP CD, which would be a collection of our pieces performed by an orchestra, with me conducting. In addition, there's a chance of resurrecting some unreleased material by The Nice, and I'm even contemplating writing and recording some new material using the original members of that band. There's also the possibility of writing and recording the soundtrack for the next Brad Pitt film, and there's some music I did for an American TV series which I'm thinking about releasing on CD. I'm also in the process of completing an autobiography which will come complete with a CD of previously unreleased material. When I think about it, there's an awful lot going on at the moment."

But what about ELP?

"I'm not sure when the next ELP project will begin. I was disappointed with the reception given to In the Hot Seat, but the whole industry is in disarray at the moment. There isn't a lot of money around, and there's a lot of despondency about. A lot of the blame can be attributed to the radio stations, most of which are extremely reluctant, or even refuse, to play anything longer than three minutes. In the '70s stations would play entire sides of LPs, but now all they want to know is 'where's the single?' It's all going to backfire on them soon. Bands like Dream Theatre, returning to longer pieces and more complex arrangements, are the start of a revolution. And New Age music will continue to grow, although it's being marketed all wrong at the moment. After all, how many people want to buy their CDs from shops selling crystal pendants and joss sticks?"

So what instruments will you be playing when all of these have been sold?

"If you're a musician you should be able to perform on almost anything. Nevertheless, I expect that Korgs will remain very much top of my list, because the company is producing some very good keyboards at the moment. I'm also starting to become involved with Ensoniq, and I might try some of their newer instruments. And, of course, I'll still have my Moogs and Hammonds. But fundamentally, it's out with the old and in with the new. I may well curse myself in the future, but whatever Chris [Newman, who is co‑ordinating the sale of the instruments] has is for sale. It's time for a new life."

Intermanual Rescue

Intermanual Rescue are Chris Newman, John Brown and Tony Nocito. I met them in the back room of a house tucked away in a small village in Suffolk. A strange place to find a workshop and storage area full of keyboards and modules, this is where Keith's keys are being refurbished prior to being sold. I asked Chris and John how they became involved in selling the collection.

"It all came about because of a personal recommendation by one of Keith's associates. We had a meeting with Keith at a storage warehouse, and just looked at what was there. It was clear that the first thing we had to do was find out how much equipment there was, and how much it was worth. It was incredible — synths, amps, mixers, pianos, monitors, modules, memorabilia, stage clothes and all sorts of knick‑knacks. We started compiling a list of what was there. Some things were 240v, some 110v, some in good nick, some crap... the roof had leaked, and some of the cases looked completely oxidised. We uncovered things and Keith said 'I forgot that I had that.'

"We agreed to sell the equipment, but it was clear that much of it needed repairing, so we arranged for it to be taken out of storage and transferred here. We brought back what we could, but there's no room at Intermanual Rescue for the really big synths like the GX1s and we have a barn in the village for those. God only knows the condition the GXs are in, but we know that they don't work, so we'll have to have them here at some point. The black one is still in its Led Zeppelin flightcase and we're pretty sure that we can get that one up and running. The white one is also flightcased, but it's been shipped all over the world, and there's lots of work to be done there. Apparently, a gardener drove a tractor straight through the wall of Keith's home studio, running over the the white one. Amazingly, it was rebuilt and worked again. Some Korg Poly800s and a Polysix on the keyboard stand next to it weren't as lucky, and had to be written off. Still, we've got all the Yamaha's spares and accessories — programmers, cartridges, speakers and seat (although maybe not the pedal board) and fully‑functional both synths are going to be worth a lot of money. Even in their current conditions we've already had offers approaching £5,000 for each, but we would rather sell them as working units.

"Unfortunately, everything in the collection needs some degree of refurbishment or service, so every piece will need to be fully checked before we sell it. But we're already faxing potential buyers in Norway, Switzerland, Japan... all over the world, although we're happy to sell the equipment to anybody who wants it. We've also put the list onto the Internet, and that's generating a lot of enquiries. When we accept an offer, the buyer will pay us, we'll take our agreed percentage, and pass the balance onto Keith. We'll certainly earn our pennies — can you imagine how much work will go into all of these?"

So how do they feel about having rooms full of Keith's gear?

"It's absolutely fascinating" offered John. "Having been a fan since the early '70s, I find it quite incredible to have his Hammonds in my dining room. There are four of those, but they aren't for sale, so we'll just refurbish them and ship them on to Keith in the States. Chris doesn't feel the same way because he was only in primary school when the '70s were happening." "It doesn't grab me by the guts", is Chris's view, "although some of this equipment is quite rare and some people would kill to have it. In fact, a couple of synthesizer museums have already made serious enquiries, perhaps because these were Keith's keyboards. But, then again, they also buy and sell keyboards for profit, so they may be interested in dealing in them. I don't really understand why, because the only genuine one‑off is the Moog Constellation, which was used on the 1973 Brain Salad Surgery tour. But that isn't for sale. Keith wants us to refurbish it and ship it back to the States."

What about the other keyboards?

"In addition to the Korg PS3200 there should also be a PS3100 and a couple of PS3300s, but they're not here, simply because we don't know where they've been stored. If we can find them, they'll also be for sale. The Kurzweils aren't working, but the PPG is up and running and, even though we had to bring it into the house to get it back to normal temperature and humidity, the Matrix 12 seems fine now that we've replaced a few components. There's lots more Korg equipment, including a battered BX3 with missing keys. Keith is a very heavy player, so maybe he just whacked the Korg and they fell out...? The Minimoog and ribbon controller have seen better days, but they can be restored and sold. The Clavinets are in pretty bad shape after storage, but Tony reckons that they too can be restored.

"What you can see is a tiny fraction of the gear, and the rest is still in various ELP warehouses up and down the country. These include Greg Lake's and Carl Palmer's redundant gear, some of which may be for sale in the future. The one in Brighton includes two Steinway pianos including a 1905 7ft grand with a Forté MIDI kit installed. There's also Keith's 9ft grand. These are also for sale, but first they'll be restored and renovated by qualified piano technicians. One of the warehouses has lots of equipment from the 1992 tour — more Korgs, more Hammonds, lots of modern gear. It's all for sale. There's also some music, plus manuscripts for both published and unpublished pieces. There are also loads of ELP flightcases — some over 20 years old.

"We've got stage clothes, lots of interesting photos, T‑shirts, leather jackets, tour jackets, waistcoats, daggers, swords, music books, user manuals and service manuals, spare parts, books full of ELP's autographs, videos with clips I've never seen before..."

And what happens if any of the gear remains unsold?

"It will probably go back into storage, although it's possible that some pieces will go to auction. But it's very early days yet."

Keith's Keys

Intermanual Rescue have already mailed the following list to a number of potential purchasers. But don't worry if you've got your eye on a particular piece — you haven't missed out. Everything is being offered on a 'best offer secures' basis, rather than 'first come first served'. Every item listed will, apparently, be supplied with a signed certificate of authenticity.

  • Ensoniq KS32 Digital workstation
  • Hammond XB2 MIDI Organ
  • Hohner Clavinet D6 Classic keyboard with real strings
  • Hohner Clavinet L 1968 vintage
  • JBL Cabarets Stage monitors and bass units
  • Korg 01/W Pro X Digital workstation
  • Korg BX3 Twin manual orga
  • Korg DSM1 Rackmount sampler (x2)
  • Korg EX8000 Rackmount analogue/digital hybrid synth (x4)
  • Korg KMX32 Rackmount mixer
  • Korg MonoPoly Analogue polysynth
  • Korg MS50 Monophonic analogue expander
  • Korg PS3200 Analogue polysynth
  • Korg RK100 Sling‑on remote keyboard
  • Korg SQ10 Analogue sequencer
  • Korg SQD1 Digital sequencer
  • Korg T1 Digital workstation
  • Korg VC10 Vocoder with integral microphone
  • Kurzweil 250 Expander Digital workstation (x2)
  • Kurzweil MIDIboard MIDI controller keyboard
  • Oberheim DPX1 Rackmount sample replayer
  • Oberheim Matrix 12 Hybrid polysynth
  • Otari MX5050 8‑track analogue recorder
  • PPG Wave2.2 Hybrid polysynth
  • Revox A78 Amplifier
  • Roland A80 MIDI controller keyboard (x2)
  • Roland SVC350 Rackmount vocoder
  • Shure SM90 PZM microphone (x2)
  • Simmons SPM82 Rackmount audio mixer (x2)
  • Soundtracs M‑series 16‑track mixer
  • Steinway Grand piano 7ft MIDI grand piano
  • Tannoy Super Reds Pair of studio monitors
  • TEAC A3340S 4‑track analogue recorder (x2)
  • Yamaha GX1 3‑manual analogue polysynth
  • Yamaha GX1 For spares only?
  • Yamaha KX88 MIDI controller keyboard
  • Yamaha MCS2 MIDI control station
  • Yamaha TX816 Digital rackmount polysynth

The real prizes may well be the memorabilia: acetates, white label pressings and direct cuts from Trident Studios; test pressings from Sterling Audio in New York; test pressings of Keith's solo album, Honky; The Nice recordings and acetates of the first ELP album on the Beatles' Apple label; plus a number of signed LPs and gifts from Keith's personal record collection. Unfortunately, the ravages of time and mould have damaged many of these. Maybe collectors will be safer buying the music books, T‑shirts and photos, many of which are now in the possession of Intermanual Rescue.

ELP And Mellotrons

Contrary to common belief, Keith once owned a Mellotron. But it was never used conventionally. Keith picks up the story... "After we recorded Trilogy (1972) we wanted to perform the album on stage. But 'Abaddon's Bolero' was a hugely complex track with loads of Moog synthesizer overdubs, and it was quite impossible to play it live. So we sampled complete phrases off the 16‑track onto a Mellotron, which Greg could play using bass pedals. This still wasn't enough, so we also hooked up a Revox tape recorder and arranged the track around that. Unfortunately, the second time we tried it in front of an audience, the Revox ground to a halt, and so did Carl, Greg and myself. We ended up have a huge argument backstage, the result of which was that we never attempted the Bolero again. I would have trashed the Mellotron, but I gave it to Greg instead. I've no idea where it is now.

The Knives

Many people have speculated about the nature and origin of the knives with which Keith so famously tortured his Hammond L100. They are, in fact, genuine Third Reich daggers, still complete with inset Nazi crests. Why such macabre items?

"It was actually Lemmy's idea. He was a roadie for The Nice and he said to me, 'if you're going to use knives, at least use real ones'. He's a serious collector of Third Reich memorabilia, and even has some of Hitler's personal effects in his collection. Anyway, he produced these Hitler Youth daggers, and I've been using them ever since."

You learned it here.

A Personal Perspective

I asked Keith if he had any special memories or views about the keyboards he's selling.

"It's going to make me really sad letting these instruments go. If I had room to keep and store them all I would hang on to them."

    The poor old Clavinet sat in my keyboard rig all night, but was only used on 'Nutrocker' from Pictures at an Exhibition. Otherwise it was untouched. Funnily enough, Nutrocker became a No.1 hit in Holland. I had two Clavis: a D6 and the earlier Clavinet L, which I bought around 1968."
  • MINIMOOG (1970)
    "I had one of my Minimoogs split because it was the only way to make certain musical arrangements possible. The keyboard could be divorced from the more bulky electronics by several metres, so I could mount it in places the complete synth simply wouldn't go. On the other hand, the use of the ribbon controller was far less pragmatic — it was pure showmanship."
  • POLYMOOG (1975)
    "The Polymoog design was partly the result of the very good relationship I had had with Bob Moog. Unfortunately, the production version came out at the time that Bob was becoming interested in digital synthesis and was considering leaving the company. Ultimately the Polymoog was unsuccessful, largely because Norlin Music were interested in 'quick sales' and didn't take the time to market it correctly. Nevertheless, it was a hugely important keyboard. The one for sale is the original prototype."
  • YAMAHA GX1 (1975)
    "Bob decided to leave Moog Music, and I felt that, if I couldn't deal with him, it was hardly worth continuing with the company. It was around this time that I heard of the GX1. It was the first true polyphonic, but even today it's a glorious synthesizer! There's still only one instrument that makes that sound. My first GX was a turning point for ELP. It looked great, and I always felt a certain confidence standing behind it. But it took eight roadies to move it, and it was such a burden on tour. Later on I had it MIDI'd, but one day I went for a cup of tea and came back to find a thick cloud of smoke hovering above it. Purely by chance, John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin) called a while later and offered me his GX, and that's the black one that I'm also selling. That one should still be functional, whereas my white one has remained dead. I wonder what they're worth now? Even if it's a lot I'm very reluctant to let them go."
  • KORG PS3200 (1979)
    "I first started endorsing Korg products in 1978, and I've been doing so ever since. This relationship came about largely because of the friendliness and responsiveness of the company. The 3200 was one of the first synths that they supplied to me, and I used it on my first solo album, Honky.
  • YAMAHA TX816 (1984)
    The TX816 is an incredible machine, a very creative tool, and the sound it can make is amazing. I had one particular sound which was great for writing ballads. You couldn't play it without coming out with strong melodies and emotional arrangements. Inspirational."
  • OBERHEIM MATRIX 12 (1986)
    "The Matrix 12 was also brilliant! I used it on the 1986 Emerson, Lake & Powell tour. In fact, I had it connected to the MIDI'd GX1 to augment the tracks 'Fanfare for the Common Man' and 'Pirates'."