The Nice - Biography
By J Poet
The Nice only existed for five brief years, making an album each year until they imploded in 1970, but in their brief run they laid the foundation for British progressive rock, and gave birth to Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Britain’s prog-rock gods. Their British label, Immediate, didn’t have a US distribution deal, so many Americans didn’t know The Nice in their prime, but today their albums are seen as harbingers of the 1970s rock/jazz/classical fusion.
Keith Emerson was born in 1944 in Lancashire and was a child prodigy on the piano. He moved to London in the mid ‘60s and became a well know session musician and sideman. In 1967 Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham signed soul singer P.P. Arnold, a former Ikette, and put together a band to back her up on tours of Europe and in the studio. The group included Keith Emerson on organ and piano, Brian Davison on drums, Lee Jackson on bass and rhythm guitarist David O’List. After touring with Arnold throughout the summer, the band started playing gigs as The Nice, and gained a following for their freewheeling psychedelic music and the over the top on stage antics of Emerson. At the National Jazz and Blues Festival in 1967 they blew the crowd away with a psychedelic blues sound featuring Emerson’s extended classically influenced solos on the piano and O’List’s Hendrix inspired guitar attack. They were quickly signed and cut The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack (1967 Immediate, UK). A wild free flowing album that included extended versions of Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo a la Turk” renamed “Rondo” and played in 4/4 instead of 9/8 and the Bernstein/Sondheim tune “America” from West Side Story. Bernstein sued to get the single of “America” squashed, disliking the band’s arrangement of the tune and the album didn’t fare well.
During the recording of Ars Longa Vita Brevis (1968 Immediate, UK) David O’List left the band, and they decided to continue on as a keyboard trio, giving Emerson full reign to indulge his creative fancy. The title track which took up the whole second side of the original LP is cited as the first prog-rock masterpiece, a showcase for Emerson’s demented and far ranging keyboard work. He managed to make his keyboards sound like an electrified classical orchestra. They also included an actual orchestra on parts of the suite.
Emerson’s out of control stage persona gain the band a large following. He’d jam knives into the keys to provide sustained chords and generally behave like a madman. The toured the US to rave reviews and appeared with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl. They recorded many shows in hopes of making their third album a live set. Nice (1969 Immediate, UK), released in the US as Everything As Nice As Mother Makes It (1969 Columbia US, 1991 Columbia), was a mix of live and studio performances. Emerson now dominated the band, and his classical meets jazz flourishes were the main attraction. The album shot up the British charts to #3. Its success should have given the band some breathing room, and time to work on new material, but Immediate was on the verge of bankruptcy, so they had to maintain a punishing touring schedule to remain solvent.
The band recorded a semi-classical piece called “Five Bridges” in 1969, backed by full symphony orchestra. The band’s manager, Tony Stratton-Smith, recorded several live version of the piece, but when Immediate went under, there was no label to put out the recording. Meanwhile, Emerson has been talking to Greg Lake, who was the vocalist and bass player for Robert Fripp’s King Crimson, about starting a new band. They started looking for a drummer.
As The Nice were about to part ways, Tony Stratton-Smith sold the live recordings of “Five Bridges” to a new label, Charisma records who put it out as Five Bridges (1970 Charisma, Mercury US). The album also includes Emerson’s Dylan/Back hybrid “CountryPie/Brandenberg Concerto #6” one of his finest achievements with The Nice.
By 1970 Emerson, Lake and Palmer were already famous after a stunning debut at the Isle Of Wight Festival. Emerson had purchased one of the first Moog Synthesizers and its sound gave ELP their own unique sound. Stratton-Smith put together more live tapes and out-takes for Elegy (1070 Charisma). Emerson sued to have it taken off the market to no avail. Since their breakup, Nice recordings have been scrambled and reissued in various packages, so check track lists before you buy. Live at the BBC (2002 Castle) included portions of live gigs played at BBC studios between 1967 and 1969.