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In the short existence of the Nice (first as a quartet, later on as a trio) they released just 3 albums, of which the third, simply called “The Nice”, already consisted of a concert recording at the Fillmore East in 1968 on the second half. Furthermore they recorded a wealth of other material, like the non album “America” and the “Five Bridges Suite”-album, which was released after the band has disbanded, plus a numerous quantity of compilations.

The Nice were an English progressive rock band active in the late 1960s. They blended rock, jazz and classical music and were keyboardist Keith Emerson’s first commercially successful band. The band played its first gig in May 1967, and had its first major break at the 7th National Jazz and Blues Festival in Windsor on 13th August. Now a band in their own right, the Nice expanded their gear, recruiting roadies Bazz Ward and Lemmy, the latter of whom provided Emerson with a Hitler Youth ceremonial dagger to stick into the keys on his Hammond organ.

The group was formed in 1967 by Emerson, Lee Jackson, David O’List and Ian Hague to back soul singer P. P. Arnold. After replacing Hague with Brian Davison, the group set out on their own, quickly developing a strong live following.

The group’s early sound was geared more towards psychedelic rock with only occasional classical influences. Following O’List’s departure, Emerson’s control over the band’s direction became greater, resulting in more complex music. The absence of a guitar in the band and Emerson’s redefining of the role of keyboard instruments in rock set the Nice apart from many of its contemporaries. He used a combination of Marshall Amplification and Leslie speakers in order to project a full sound to compensate for the lack of a guitarist.

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The band released 3 studio albums (i.e. “The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack”, “Ars Longa Vita Brevis” and the aforementioned “The Nice”) plus a version of “The Five Bridges Suite” . The Nice was one of the forerunners of playing together with an orchestra . Keith Emerson with a more prominent feature of the Hammond organ.

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The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack

The name of Keith Emerson has forever been sullied by the activities of behemoth classical-rock monsters ELP, but as with so many artists of his generation, if you scratch the surface and do a little delving, you come across a very different beast indeed. No one who buys this album will be unaware of Mr Moog-mauler’s pedigree, but for those unschooled in prog history it may come as some surprise to hear that this, his sophomore outfit, started as a support band for sixties soul diva PP Arnold. While performing warm-up sets prior to her arrival onstage, the band discovered a talent for stage craft and theatre which, when married to Emerson’s Jimmy Smith licks and Davy O’List’s psychedelic guitar strangling, resulted in a sound that was very much flavour du jour in early 1967.

The title track and their freaked-out mangling of Dave Brubeck’s “Rondo” (12 minutes plus!) are present and correct as is “Flower King Of Flies”, the psychedelic stomper which demonstrates that The Nice could easily match contemporaries such as the Pink Floyd and Soft Machine for lysergic weirdness.

The group’s first album was recorded throughout the autumn of 1967, and in October of that year they recorded their first session for John Peel’s radio show Top Gear. The album included classical and jazz influences including extracts from Leoš Janáček’s Sinfonietta and a rearrangement of Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo a la Turk” renamed as “Rondo”, changing the time signature from the original 9/8 to 4/4 in the process. The group clashed with producer Oldham in the studio over the length of the track, but eventually won the argument; the full eight-minute piece was included on the album. After the album was released, the group realised that Oldham had a conflict of interest as manager and record company owner, so they recruited sports journalist Tony Stratton-Smith to take over management duties.

For their second single, the Nice created an arrangement of Leonard Bernstein’s “America” which Emerson described as the first ever instrumental protest song. The track used the main theme of the Bernstein piece (from West Side Story) but also included fragments of Dvořák’s New World Symphony. The single concludes with Arnold’s three-year-old son speaking the lines “America is pregnant with promise and anticipation, but is murdered by the hand of the inevitable.” The new arrangement was released under the title “America (Second Amendment)” as a pointed reference to the US Bill of Rights provision for the right to bear arms. In July 1968, Immediate Records publicised the single with a controversial poster picturing the group members with small boys on their knees, with superimposed images of the faces of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. on the children’s heads. A spokesman for the band said: “Several record stores have refused to stock our current single …. the Nice feel if the posters are issued in United States they will do considerable harm”. During the tour that followed the release of their second album in July, the group spawned controversy when Emerson burned an American flag onstage during a performance of “America” at a charity event, Come Back Africa in London’s Royal Albert Hall. The group were subsequently banned from ever playing the venue again.

Completists will love the inclusion of three non-originals including the almost mandatory (for the time) Dylan number and a lumpen version of “You Keep Me Hanging On” which may even pre-date Vanilla Fudge’s useless rendition.

The version of “Sombrero Sam”, however, really allows Emerson’s funky keyboard chops to come to the fore. He truly was a precocious master of the Hammond and in a light jazz setting such nimble-fingered wizardry shines out. Overall you sense a band stretching each other to the limit, reaching out to invent a new format which would eventually become their downfall. At this point, however, the quartet was wandering in a perfumed garden of psychedelic modishness,

Ars Longa Vita Brevis

The band’s second LP “Ars Longa Vita Brevis” featured an arrangement of the Intermezzo from the Karelia Suite by Jean Sibelius, which the band’s friend Roy Harper had recommended they cover, and the album’s second side was a suite which included an arrangement of a movement from J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. The group used an orchestra for the first time on some parts of the suite. The band were on the bill at the 1969 Isle of Wight Festival

A transition from the flower power and revolution themes of Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack. This marks the end of one cycle and the start of another, in that Davey O’List makes his last contribution to the band, which becomes a trio plus guests in the studio. This is a very sophisticated, inventive and influential first stab at what would eventually become an important part of the progressive rock genre … the first steps to concept/symphonic rock.

The Nice

The third album, titled “Nice” in the UK and “Everything As Nice As Mother Makes It” in the US, featured one side recorded live on their American tour and one side of studio material. As with previous albums, it included arrangements of classical material, in this case the Third Movement of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony (Pathetique), and rearrangements of Bob Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me” and Tim Hardin’s “Hang on to a Dream”.

This was one of the first ‘progressive rock’ LPs, Those that remember these things will know you had to turn the things over to play the other side.
BUT we never bothered with the first 4 tracks of side 1. The killer and standout track here is the live side 2. The stand out track being “Rondo 69″.

Now I’m not saying the first four tracks are bad it was just that side two was so dam good. We played that side to death. The Nice were like that the single ‘America’ was always an anthem for them. Now some people will read this review thinking that I am saying the first 4 tracks from the original LP are bad- they are not. They are studio tracks which to my ear always sound better played live and as extended live track sets.

The live side of the LP has always contained my favourite Nice track “Rondo ’69” and captures what the Nice were, a really fabulous Live band. That organ sound that Emerson produces drives the trio along. No lead guitars see. ‘She belongs to me,’ a Bob Dylan song, has Lee Jackson barking out the vocals, his bass guitar being the powerhouse backing with able support by Brian ‘Blinky’ Davison on the drums.

Five Bridges

In 1969, the band found time to contribute to other projects. Emerson performed as a session player for Rod Stewart and the Faces, while the whole group provided instrumental backing for the track “Hell’s Angels” on Harper’s 1970 album “Flat Baroque and Berserk”.  Mid-year, tour promoter Michael Emmerson asked the Nice to write some music for the Newcastle upon Tyne Arts Festival. The result was the “Five Bridges” suite. The group premièred the piece on 10th October 1969 at Newcastle City Hall.

A complete version with an orchestra was performed at the Fairfield Hall, Croydon on 17th October, which was recorded for the album of the same name. The title refers to the city’s five bridges spanning the River Tyne, and Jackson’s lyrics refer to his Newcastle childhood and the St James’ Park football ground.

Emerson played the piano on several other tracks, solely and/or in combination with the organ. The band made clear where they stood an amalgam of pop, jazz, blues, rock and classical music. With only three people aboard they could produce a lot of noise. Emerson tried everything to make the organ sound more abrassive, agressive and louder. He played it like an lead guitarist with use of feedback, overdrive and distortion, in an unusual way, by mistreating the hapless instrument and even with the help of army of knives, thus creating before unheard sounds and effects. Lee Jackson added an earthly sounding bass guitar and his gruff vocals, whilst Brian Davidson used everything he could fit to bash on. All in all they were an unique group an could not be easily compared with other contempories. The Nice were one of the best progressive rock groups that ever existed. Some of it was prolonged in ELP but that is another story.

John Peel, was an early champion of the Nice, called ELP “a waste of talent and electricity”

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Elegy

In 1971, the posthumous Nice album “Elegy” was released. It included different versions of previously released tracks, two being studio versions and two live from the 1969 US tour. Emerson had no involvement with compiling the album, which was done by Jackson, Davison and Charisma Records

As the name suggests “Elegy” ,a song after mourning, was released after the band had broken up.
Immediate their label had been slaughtered causing all sorts of reissue hell for the collectors to fathom.

This was the last official Nice album. released after they split up, it shows a band at the peak of their live performance. the original album consisted of four lengthy tracks which were nice interpretations of other people’s music. “Hang On to a Dream” features some great piano work from Keith and an extended jazz work out in the middle where, at times, he plucks at and hits the strings – a style used to great effect on “Take A Pebble” from the 1st ELP album. some great bass playing throughout this track.
this is followed by a radical interpretation of Dylan’s “My Back Pages” with some excellent hammond work. next up is a romp through “Pathetique” with Lee Jackson showing just how good he was at his best. give it a try yourself and you’ll sees what I mean
Finally, there’s “America”. the best recorded version. The last 5 mins are amazing. don’t forget, this is all pre synth days and the sounds generated from Keith’s trusty hammond are stunning and well complimented by the bass and drum work from Lee and Brian (who plays well and unobtrusively throughout.

Bonus tracks not really needed. the live version of country pie is much better than this one and the “Pathetique” is very similar to the album version although the BBC sound is better.
As a Keith Emerson, ELP and Nice fan (the group not an adjective) I still believe that the Nice never realised their full potential as a group. This CD confirms it.
The original 4 tracks have been enhanced with further tracks. BUT beware there are now two different reissue versions of this CD. At the time of writing in Feb 2012 the one with 2 is the cheaper.
To the actual tracks with bonus later.
Track one is a live version of the Tim Hardin penned `Hang on to a Dream’. Here as with all tracks Lee Jackson’s vocals were not top division.
Track 2 is My Back Pages a Bob Dylan song with which the Byrds found success with. The Nice really seemed to go for Bob Dylan at that time but then everyone seemed to be releasing Dylan Tracks at that time from Manfred Mann’s Mighty Quinn to Hendrix’ All Along the Watchtower.

The final and the Stand out track of the original LP and of course the Nice’s only single success is “America”. This is a really stomping version and is worth the price of the CD alone. (But then most Nice fans would say this so I’m not alone.)

On the 2009 reissue. The first enhanced edition includes 2 bonus tracks which I believe have been previously released on a 1968 LP on Charisma called Charisma Perspective. They are much earlier tracks than the one included on the original “Elegy” but really make this a worthwhile investment. (see what I mean about recycling and completists’ hell?) many tracks by the Nice appear and reappear on countless editions in different but all too often the same forms on many not only best of type but as extra tracks on the original LPs.
These two additional tracks are another Bob Dylan written Country Pie and another Pathetique! Both from the BBC live.

This includes two tracks from the final recording session by The Nice for a BBC Radio One Sounds of the ’70s session. The Nice would go down in history as one of the most exciting live acts of their age and as the creators of a series of excellent albums that would fuse the worlds of Rock and classical music, taking in elements of Jazz, Psychedelia and Rhythm & Blues on the way, effectively spawning the genre of Progressive Rock in their wake.

Studio albums

  • The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack (Immediate, 1968)
  • Ars Longa Vita Brevis (Immediate, 1968)
  • Nice (aka Everything As Nice As Mother Makes It) (Immediate, 1969)
  • Five Bridges (Charisma, 1970)

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