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Creative Conflict

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Like a passionate but somewhat neurotic couple that keeps splitting up and then coming back together, Emerson, Lake and Palmer are back on the road.

The supergroup, which brought new meaning to the word “epic” in the field of classic rock, will be appearing Sunday at the Universal Amphitheatre. This is part of a North American summer tour that finds the trio sharing the stage with fellow veterans Deep Purple and newcomers Dream Theatre.

“Being in a band like ELP is like a family where you grow up with brothers,” singer and bassist Greg Lake said last week in a telephone conversation. “There’s an underlying love for the people involved, and that’s one aspect of it. Then you’ve got the difficulties, as it always happens in life, where you don’t see the music the same way [as the other band members do] all the time.”

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One would almost think that the band needs to be in an eternal state of conflict in order to remain creative, a notion supported by keyboardist Keith Emerson in an interview a few years ago:

“I think our music had its magic out of the fact that we were in permanent competition with one another,” he said. “There was an incredible amount of jealousy and guardedness about what each of us individually would contribute to the music, how that would come across, and what exactly was our role in the band.

“It was hard work on the studio, because there would be three pairs of hands on the faders, to push up one’s own individual part.

“It wasn’t like there was one person thinking collectively for the whole. It was three persons thinking, ‘I want my line to come up, and I don’t care about the song as long as this one thing is there,’ ” Emerson said.

Lake, though always a bit reticent to talk about the trio’s dysfunctional dealings, now admits that things weren’t always rosy during the band’s recording sessions.

“Keith and I would often see the music in different ways,” he said. “He is mainly a composer, and I’m a songwriter. Sometimes I had to bend his music a little bit, so that it became workable within the context of a song.”

But talk to both Emerson and Lake for just a little longer, and you’ll find them praising one another with sincere admiration.

“I would never see him practice them,” Emerson said of the difficult guitar and bass parts he would write for Lake. “But somehow, at the end of the day, he would always blow me away by playing them properly. And his craftsmanship with lyrics on a song like ‘Pirates’ was out of this world.”

And from Lake: “We are all linked in this brotherhood of music. The three of us play from the heart. On this tour, we are playing the old favorites, but also some fantastic new music that Keith has just written.”

The occasional internal scuffles didn’t stop Emerson, Lake and Palmer from becoming a hugely successful force in the arena of classic rock. During the early ‘70s, the band’s albums such as “Tarkus” and “Trilogy” were filled with adventurous musical explorations, majestic sonic landscapes that merged rock with the music of classical composers such as Serge Prokofiev and Modest Mussorgsky.

Although many critics panned the group’s extravagant antics, calling them hollow and bombastic, they were missing the point that the band members didn’t take themselves that seriously.

“We represented total excess,” said Emerson, who even included an original, three-movement piano concerto on one of the band’s albums. “We were up for ridicule.”

Now, at the end of the millennium, the revival and celebration of every past musical genre imaginable allows for ELP to continue its career with moderate success. The band plans to record a new, conceptual studio album, after the failure of 1994’s disastrous “In the Hot Seat” left its members with a bitter taste in their mouths.

“I think we were all disappointed with that album,” Lake said without hesitation.

Now, a new album could set the record straight.

“We are going to make at least another one, since it would be real sad to end with ‘In the Hot Seat,’ ” said Lake. “Although all the musicians of my generation are saying that times are tough and it’s all over for us, I still think that with the right attitude and the right product, the listeners are there.”

He reflected for a moment before he said, “I’ll tell you something: In the 30 years I’ve been playing music, I never heard a record I thought was fantastic that didn’t become a hit.”

BE THERE

Dream Theatre; Emerson, Lake and Palmer; Deep Purple. Universal Amphitheatre. 7:45 p.m. Sunday. Ticket prices: $48, $40.50, $30.50, $23.


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