The Nice are one of those bands that I really like, even if I don’t listen to them much anymore. The band was formed at the beginning of the psychedelic movement in 1967, and were quite famous even if nobody knows who they are today. There are two good reasons for this – one, they didn’t really produce a classic LP, or even really a classic song (at least nothing you’d ever hear on the radio), and two, the band’s most important member was in Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, which means that their contributions tend to get overshadowed. That member of course was Keith Emerson, who was all of 23 years old when The Nice formed.
Their debut album was The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack, released only seven months after the band had first formed (remember when bands could crank out material with that sort of turnaround time? Me neither). For the most part it is not much more than a curiosity, but it does garner some interest because it may in fact be the first ever prog rock LP. I know a lot of people point to Days of Future Passed or Sgt. Pepper for that, but to me The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack is the first album that has clear elements of progressive rock in it. This is mostly thanks to the rather large amounts of classical quoting that goes on, which benefits the band in a couple of ways; for one, they couldn’t really write many actual songs (a problem that also plagued ELP), but more importantly it allowed them to do long instrumental sections, which is nice since their singer Lee Jackson has one seriously horrible voice. He’s not distracting, just plain bad, like King Crimson’s Gordon Haskell but even more frog-throated.
Still, the band’s shortcomings aside, it’s hard not to be fascinated by Keith Emerson. It’s good to know that the guy was humping and stabbing his keyboards as early as ’67, and it turns out that the young Emerson was dumb enough to burn a U.S. flag on stage, which earned him a supposed lifetime ban from the Royal Albert Hall (he was back “only” 25 years later). Still, the man clearly knew what he was doing; at the very least you have to wonder how he learned to play like that at the age of 23. The rest of the band tries to follow suit, but they don’t quite have the chops, of course. Still, it’s fun to hear guitarist Davy O’List flail around and abuse his guitar, while drummer Brian Davison is one of those dudes who loves to hit the crash cymbals over and over again. So the band’s overall sound is rather chaotic, especially when you add Lee Jackson’s voice (which clashes with everything else) over the top. Even though they had a reputation for being somewhat pompous (quoting Janacek on your first LP will do that), they were even more whacked out than your typical mid-60’s band of freaks, and probably had more fun too.
The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack is not a great record, but it’s certainly a very interesting one. The band has three modes – goofball pop (“Flower King of Flies”, the title track), nonsensical psychedelia (“The Cry of Eugene”, the entirely whispered “Dawn”), and wild jam sessions that Jackson basically stays out of (“Rondo”, “War and Peace”). It’s “Rondo” that is the most exciting track – an adaptation of Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo a la Turk” done in 4/4 that’s essentially the blueprint for ELP. It’s not much more than a loosely structured eight-minute jam session – Jackson plays the same two note bass line throughout – but it’s a chance for Emerson to do his best approximation of Hendrix on the organ. Otherwise it’s your somewhat typical mid-60’s acid freakout record – the title track even sounds like something you’d find in the Nuggets boxset. If you do happen to get this album, you definitely want the one with bonus tracks, which include the non-album singles “Azrael” and “America”, a raucous take on the Bernstein/Sondheim composition for West Side Story. Again, it’s mostly Emerson tooling around with his organ, but nobody was doing such wild interpretations of classical works back then.
But it’s the band’s second record, titled Ars Longa Vita Brevis, that is really the most fascinating. The band sacked O’List, who was starting to lose touch with reality and was missing gigs in a similar manner as Syd Barrett (who O’List ironically had to fill in for Barrett when he started missing shows with Floyd). The band was starting to tighten up a bit, doubling down on a lot of the goofiness and writing more intricate compositions. Without another lead instrument to compete with, Emerson opened things up for himself, and wound up with an nine-minute tribute to Sibelius (“Intermezzo from the Karelia Suite”) and the sidelong title track, broken up into four movements. It is interesting that despite the title (Latin for “art is long, life is short”), nobody really remembers this album, even if it was at least a couple years ahead of its time. The first side of this continues where the debut left off, with a handful of freakier, catchier numbers like the breezy “Little Arabella” and the hilarious “Daddy, Where Did I Come From?”. But the big one is the “Intermezzo”, which is a lot more straight-faced and workmanlike than “Rondo” was, and shows where Emerson developed most of his ideas for the ELP live album Pictures at an Exhibition (including a middle section full of bizarre organ noise that grinds it to a halt).
The suite is really something else, and might be one of the most ambitious works a rock band ever produced at that point. This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s great, but anyone who thinks that ’69 was the Year Zero of prog will probably want to hear this. It’s mostly a mismash of disparate parts (same as almost any progressive rock sidelong, really), somewhat centering around a seven-note riff (written by O’List, but actually played by a session guitarist). The highlight is an excellent take on Bach’s “Brandenburger” with an orchestra (who notably complained behind Emerson’s back about the brisk tempo of the piece). On the other hand the thing does stumble out of the gate with a nearly 4-minute drum solo (“Acceptance”). Since nobody else had tried anything like this I guess you have to expect missteps here and there. They do wisely keep Jackson mostly out of the picture, outside of a vocal chant that shows up here and there. Also, you have to give them credit for keeping it mostly riff-based; most of the filler bits sound like Emerson trying out things he would later do in ELP.
Despite some rather formidable success in the UK, The Nice suffered from the same thing a lot of innovators (musical or otherwise) do – you really want to be second, not first. In the Court of the Crimson King would come a year later, with Yes and Genesis to follow. The Nice continued until about 1970, though there were diminishing returns. Their next album, simply titled Nice, showed all the hallmarks of a band running out of ideas – they covered Hardin, Dylan, and two songs from the Emerlist Davjack sessions. One of the album’s two originals, “Diary of an Empty Day”, is about not being able to come up with any ideas. Also, from then on the line between their studio work and live work was blurred, and all three post-Ars Longa albums intersperse live material with the studio stuff. By 1970, Emerson had enough, and formed a new band with King Crimson’s Greg Lake and Atomic Rooster’s Carl Palmer. The general public sure enough forgot about The Nice soon after, but not before at least one attempt at a cash-in (1971’s Elegy). The other two members of the band mostly disappeared – Lee Jackson floated around for a while, and Davison formed his own short-lived band. But by that time The Nice were just a footnote. Maybe that’s deserved – as I mentioned earlier, they didn’t really make the sort of albums like Close to the Edge or even Brain Salad Surgery that would hold up 40 years later. But if nothing else, they certainly opened the floodgates, and for that they deserve another look.
Happy new year, everybody!