Education Director Jason Hanley interviews Carl Palmer at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

“There’s lots of things you play when you’ve got an instrument – whether it be a guitar or piano, or whatever – that you kind of play for yourself; you don’t really think of playing it in concert because it’s not that type of piece of music,” explained Carl Palmer at Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum last Saturday afternoon. “Usually drum solos need to be exciting, very direct. In a festival environment, you know, in a concert environment, you can’t be too arty about it, you’ve got to get to the point. And I like to entertain people as well, and I like to make sure if there’s any drummers in the room, they know I can play.”

Explosive laughter resounded throughout the intimate Foster Theater at that last remark. Fewer than 200 lucky fans had just enjoyed the U.S. premiere of The Solo, a 35-minute art film featuring the legendary drummer doing what he does best. If his accomplished career with Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Asia were not sufficient evidence of his extraordinary talent, The Solo showcases Carl Palmer’s abilities as never before.

“This is considered an art film, because of basically what it is: you hardly see my face, and it’s all stuff that you’d never see me play at any other time.”

The very idea of a half-hour film about drum soloing is enough to send all but the most fervent percussion aficionados streaming for the exits. Yet The Solo bears little resemblance to the self-indulgence of lengthy arena rock drum exhibitions, which too often are employed mainly as a means of giving the rest of the band a breather. No, this project is far more subtle, and the results are riveting. Over the course of five vignettes, The Solo not only proves that Palmer “can play,” it also exposes the drum kit as an infinite canvas for the creative artist.

The opening sequence of the film features Palmer seated before a snare drum under a single spotlight. With the lone drum angled toward the camera, viewers can catch every nuance of his technique, including a nifty trick of playing eighth notes with an unheld stick by balancing it on the rim and striking it with the other stick.

A second solo is presented as an overhead shot, the snare at the center of the frame and the toms arcing along the bottom. Palmer’s arms extend from the top of the screen, manipulating brushes, and his feet are visible on the bass and hi-hat pedals.

Next is a cymbal solo that is shot from low angles on either side of the drum set, permitting the audience to observe how Palmer achieves unique sounds by playing both the tops and the undersides of his cymbals. He coaxes rhythms out of the hardware and draws the blunt end of a stick along the ridges of a cymbal, creating a sound akin to scratching vinyl. At one point, his hands move so quickly across the kit that they nearly dissolve into a blur, a phenomenon that prompted a woman sitting near me to whisper, “He’s a hummingbird!”

The fourth segment returns to an overhead shot, this time for a solo played with hand cymbals and mallets accompanied by double bass and hi-hat pedalwork. Palmer uses a depressed elbow to dynamically change the pitch of his toms, then he abandons the mallets to play a mounted hand drum. Eschewing sticks altogether, he concludes the solo by striking the toms and mounted cymbals with hand cymbals.

All the while, director Andrew Cross keeps the focus solely on artistry. The background is black, the functional lighting is consistent, and neither microphone nor stand nor cable can be seen. Nothing more than a drummer and his hardware.

Rounding out the film is an 11-minute, full kit solo shot at three-quarter angles that builds to the sort of thunderous conclusion for which Palmer is better known. A close-up profile shot of the bass pedal highlights its quivering mallet head as the reverberation of the last notes echoes and dies. A long shot shows Palmer silent and motionless behind his drums, at last taking a few labored breaths. Then, employing his playful sense of humor, he reaches forward and executes a single tap on a crash cymbal for the finale.

“When that [film] was playing,” Education Director Jason Hanley pointed out to Palmer afterward, “and you and I were sitting up in the back there, I think the audience was holding their breath. I was actually getting concerned for them.” Indeed, apart from scattered gasps of wonderment and outbursts of applause, only the sounds of The Solo were heard during its premiere in the Foster Theater.

Although the general public still associates Carl Palmer with ELP and Asia, the man himself seems to view his career as an evolving continuum, one that extends to a present that acknowledges yet transcends his past. To that end, he preceded his entrance with a brief documentary that gave nearly as much coverage to his early years with The Crazy World of Arthur Brown and Atomic Rooster as it did to his famous tenure with successful supergroups. It also rather pointedly celebrated the tenth anniversary of his current endeavor, the Carl Palmer Band. That’s two years longer than the first incarnation of ELP, for those of you keeping score at home.

Speaking of his formative professional experiences, Palmer emphasized his lucky circumstances. After he  agreed to tour the United States with Arthur Brown, the band struck gold. “Here I am, I’m on the plane, I’m eighteen, never been to America before, and I’m in a band that’s got a number one album and single. Am I a happy boy? Is the Pope religious?”

Later, as Brown proved to be an unreliable frontman, Palmer sought success by cofounding the prog trio Atomic Rooster, which recorded an album under the management of Robert Stigwood. It was around this time that Keith Emerson and Greg Lake began to pressure Palmer to join their new endeavor. When he finally relented and left Atomic Rooster, fate dealt a cruel hand, at least temporarily. “Just as I was meeting Greg and Keith, I recorded a track called Tomorrow Night, and this was a good track. And I thought, ‘This has got something, this one. This does something.’ Anyway, Greg and Keith are knocking at the door, ‘Will you, will you, will you?’ and I’m saying ‘Give me time, give me time, give me time.’ I’d already bought a Mercedes Sprinter-type van, you know, the whole thing, and I was in debt, as the whole band were. Anyway, they kept on, Greg and Keith. I said, ‘Okay, yeah, I’ll try this,’ and I met Ahmet Ertegun. So I moved over, and two months down the line, I am still in rehearsals with Greg and Keith. The track Tomorrow Night is number one in England. And I’m going, ‘Jesus Christ. What the hell have I done here?’ I’m sitting there with Greg and Keith, looking at the two of them and thinking, ‘I’ve made a horrible mistake. This is absolutely dreadful.’

Of course, as horrible mistakes go, it turned out to be a fairly lucrative misstep. ELP would go on to achieve enormous commercial success, reaching an artistic peak with the release of Brain Salad Surgery in 1973. Yet the rocky interpersonal dynamics of the band became nearly as legendary as their music. Often, Palmer found himself in the role of peacekeeper. Although he did not speak ill of his former bandmates, his remarks did carry that flavor with which an exasperated parent speaks of wayward teenage progeny. Relating the time when the late Cozy Powell asked him what to watch out for when working with Emerson and Lake, Palmer recalled replying, “How much time do you have?”  Later, after revealing that he has been working on an autobiography for the last seven years, he joked that the story behind last summer’s final ELP performance at the High Voltage Festival could take up a few chapters by itself.

Joking, as it happens, seems to come as naturally to Palmer as drumming. He is a great raconteur, as charming in conversation as he is thunderous on the double bass pedals. Though he has no plans of slowing down his drumming career, he might easily find a second vocation on the lecture circuit. His sense of humor was evident in his response to an inevitable question from the audience regarding the afternoon’s greatest irony: here was Carl Palmer at, and yet not in, if you will, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

“I’ll tell you how I view this institute. Why shouldn’t everyone be in it? Everyone should be in it that’s donated to music. That’s what this is all about, really. I mean, when I see people like Marc Bolan, that’s the one that gets me. Great songwriter, died really young. He didn’t hit the twenty-five years or whatever he had to be going to get in, I don’t know what you have to do to get in. I think people like that are omitted as well. For me, it’s a little strange. The fact that Emerson, Lake and Palmer is not in, yeah, I would love to be. You know, I’ve got a lot of awards, to be honest with you, not being blase, but I have, and you can imagine – I’ve been going since I was fifteen. So, every award is equally as important, and to have an award from here, for us as individuals or collectively – obviously it would be collectively – would be fantastic. It is a strange phenomenon that it’s being missed. I don’t kind of lay awake thinking about it. I don’t know what to think about it really. I just think it’s kind of very, very odd, and I think that maybe, maybe it’s something that will be rectified in the future. I don’t know how much will actually be done about it. I think the fact that Ahmet Ertegun is a big part of this and we were on Atlantic Records, is an incredible situation to have taken place. I mean, at the end of the day, I think it’s just a matter of time, but if you could do it quick, time’s running out for me, please.”

As the laughter subsided, he added, “I’m big friends with Run-DMC, and they’re in, so I’m fine with that.”