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The Nice are an English progressive rock band from the 1960s, known for their unique blend of rock, jazz and classical music. Their debut album, The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack was released in 1967 to immediate acclaim; it is often considered the first progressive rock album. The Nice are also a forerunner of the much more widely known Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
The Nice consisted initially of keyboardist Keith Emerson, bassist/vocalist Lee Jackson, drummer Brian Davison, and guitarist David O'List, more commonly known as "Davy". All the members of the band are from England.
The band was formed in May 1967 by Andrew Loog Oldham to back soul singer P.P. Arnold, a performer who reached a far higher level of popularity in Britain than her native America. After performing with Arnold through the summer, The Nice soon gained a reputation of their own. In August, former Mark Leeman Five & Habits drummer Davison replaced the Arnold's original drummer, Ian Hague. The first album by The Nice was recorded throughout the autumn of 1967, and in October of that year they recorded their first session for John Peel's Top Gear. Early work tended toward the psychedelia but more ambitious elements soon came to the fore. The classical and jazz influences manifested themselves both in short quotes from C.P.E. Bach (Sinfonietta) and in more elaborate renditions of Dave Brubeck's "Blue Rondo a la Turk" which The Nice called simply "Rondo", changing the meter from the original 9/8 to 4/4 in the process.
For their second single, The Nice created an arrangement of Leonard Bernstein's "America" which Emerson described as the first ever instrumental protest song. It not only uses the Bernstein piece (from West Side Story) but also includes fragments of Dvoøák's New World Symphony. The single concludes with a child (who, according to Emerson's biography, is P. P. Arnold's three-year old son) speaking the lines "America is pregnant with promises 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 U.S. Bill of Rights provision for the bearing of arms.
O'List left the group during the recording of their second album. The Nice briefly considered looking for a replacement but, (according to sources such as Mojo magazine) they followed the example set by 1-2-3 (later Clouds), and decided to continue as a rock organ trio. With O'List gone, Emerson's control over the band's direction became greater, resulting in more complex music.
The earlier work of French pianist Jacques Loussier and the more-or-less contemporary Charles Lloyd Quartet (featuring Keith Jarrett) can be seen as influences. Loussier took classical works, notably by Bach, and arranged them for jazz piano trio. The Charles Lloyd band was bridging the jazz and rock spheres and Jarrett's performances (which included playing inside the piano) received much attention. The Nice performed two pieces from the Lloyd repertoire: "Sombrero Sam" and "Sorcery". Part of the musical approach of The Nice was transferring the innovations of these jazz artists into an electric medium, one that was influenced by The Who, Jimi Hendrix, and The Beatles. Another influence was Bob Dylan, whose songs were common currency at the time and The Nice interpreted several.
The band's second LP Ars Longa Vita Brevis featured an arrangement of the Intermezzo from the Karelia Suite by Jean Sibelius 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.
Perhaps as a foil for the highbrow aspects of their music, the stage performances were bold and violent, with Emerson incorporating feedback and distortion. He manhandled his Hammond L-100 organ, wrestling it and attacking it with daggers (which he used to hold down keys and sustain notes during these escapades). This was inspired by Jimi Hendrix and Don Shin, an obscure English organist, as well as earlier figures such as pianist Jerry Lee Lewis. 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 so many of its contemporaries.
Writing in the Los Angeles Times (January 4, 1970), Don Heckman pointed out this dichotomy.
"One might assume, in the face of such a visual display, that the Nice is a mediocre group that compensates for musical failings with a pop-rock version of the theater of violence. Far from it. The Nice is as musically proficient a group as one will hear anywhere on the pop scene. Their most attractive quality is the genuine spirit of improvisational invention and surging jazz rhythm which permeates their work "
During the long and wildly popular tour that followed the release of their second album, the group spawned controversy when Emerson burned an American flag onstage during a performance of America.
The third album, titled "Nice" in the UK, "Everything as Nice as Mother Makes It" in The US, featured one side recorded on their American tour and one side of studio material.
The pinnacle of the band's artistic success was probably the Five Bridges suite, commissioned for the Newcastle Arts Festival, which was premiered with a full orchestra conducted by Joseph Eger on October 10, 1969 (the recorded version is from October 17 in Croydon's Fairfield Hall). The title refers to the city's five bridges spanning the River Tyne (two more have since been built).
The five movements are: Fantasia (orchestra with solo piano interludes by Emerson); Second Bridge (trio without orchestra); Chorale (Jackson's vocals with orchestra, alternating with piano trio interludes); High Level Fugue (piano with accompanying cymbals); Finale (a restating of the Second Bridge with additional jazz horn players). The most elaborate orchestral writing is the Fantasia, but even this is fairly rudimentary, which is understandable as it was Emerson's first foray into this medium. In the Chorale, tripled thirds are used, giving a feeling of cloying sickliness. Emerson credits Friedrich Gulda for inspiring the High Level Fugue, which uses jazz figures in the strict classical form. Individually, the movements are not worthy of special notice, but the suite as a whole is remarkable for its successful integration of the disparate materials. The ambitious nature of the production is also laudable - the entire suite was recorded at a concert performance and meetings of pop groups and orchestras were not at all commonplace. The recording itself, whilst reflecting the atmosphere of a live performance, is marred for some by the retention of an audible audience cough at a moment of otherwise silence.
Also included on the Five Bridges album were live performances from the same Fairfield Hall concert of the Sibelius Intermezzo and a movement from Tchaikovsky's Pathetique Symphony. Both involved the orchestra playing the 'straight' music juxtaposed with the trio's interpretations. Newly discovered material from this concert was later issued as part of a 3-CD set entitled Here Come The Nice. The Five Bridges album also included a blending of Bob Dylan's "Country Pie" with Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 (with a quote of Coleman Hawkins' jazz line "Rifftide" to boot!) and a studio recording of the original "One of Those People".
One of the final appearances by the group was in collaboration with the Los Angeles Philharmonic led by Zubin Mehta. This was broadcast in March 1970 on American television as part of the "Switched-On Symphony" program. Following standard television procedure of the day, The Nice's contribution (a version of "America") was recorded ahead of time and the band mimed for the cameras.
By 1970, Emerson and the other band members were frustrated with their lack of mainstream success and they soon broke up. They played their last concert on March 30, 1970 in Berlin, Germany (Sportpalast). Emerson formed a band with Greg Lake (of King Crimson) and Carl Palmer (of Atomic Rooster) — Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Superstardom followed.
A posthumous Nice release Elegy included different versions of already familiar tracks, two being studio versions amd two live from the 1969 U.S. tour.
Lee Jackson formed Jackson Heights which released five albums between 1970 and 1973. Brian Davison formed "Every Which Way" which released an album in 1970. Both Jackson and Davison formed Refugee with Patrick Moraz in 1974, but were bitterly disappointed when for a second time a keyboard phenomenon left them for greener pastures - Moraz joined Yes to replace Rick Wakeman.
After over three decades, The Nice reformed in 2002 for a series of live concerts. By this time Jackson's voice (which, while always distinctive, was never his forte) had deteriorated and his part on "Hang on to a Dream" was dropped by a full octave, resulting in a near-croak. A 3-CD set "Vivacitas" was released from the shows, with the third CD being an interview with Keith Emerson. A review of it can be read here. The act featured Dave Kilminster on guitar.
Guitarist Davy O'List has recently re-emerged to play again in England, and a substantial amount of information can be found on his Web site. He has re-embraced the Nice's musical heritage, with a new group of musicians and recordings.
The band's influence was felt most during its short lifetime, particularly in England. The Nice received excellent publicity in the music press and on BBC radio. Decades later, some of the band's output can be seen as dated, particularly some of Jackson's original lyrics and some of the earlier psychedelic music. However, the ambitious fusions that The Nice developed maintain their impact. While a series of progressive rock bands built on the technical virtuosity and musical complexity that The Nice pioneered in the field, very few have ever approached the loose jazz-based feel that was a great part of the group's appeal. Had The Nice persevered for a bit longer, it is possible that they could have had greater fame and fortune on an international level as one of the best known bands of the time. But as rock entered the 1970s, such subtlety could not have survived for long in the huge venues. It is almost certain that the massive success of Emerson, Lake & Palmer was made possible by the pioneering work done by The Nice, and it was only the sacrificing of that group that made ELP viable.
The book "Hang On To A Dream - The Story Of The Nice" By Martyn Hanson, was published in 2002.
Everything As Nice As Mother Makes It is the U.S. version of Nice after Immediate's distribution changed from Columbia to Capitol. Nice had been initially released in the U.S. with a slightly longer version of Rondo 69 not available on the UK or on the Capitol distributed U.S. versions. The first U.S. version of Nice was briefly reissued in 1973 by Columbia Special Products. Both Five Bridges and Elegy were released in the U.S. by Mercury and in Germany by Phillips. Both albums were reissued as a two record set in both the U.S. and Germany in 1972 as Keith Emerson and The Nice (see compilations). On the U.S. reissues of Five Bridges from the 1980s, One Of Those People features a noticeably different mono mix in place of the stereo mix on the original issue.
The singles listed here are the original releases. Many of the singles were re-released throughout the 1970s with different B-sides.
Keith Emerson and The Nice was reissued on CD in 1990 as a single disc, eliminating "Country Pie/Brandenburg Conc.#6" and "One Of Those People" from Five Bridges and "Pathetique" from Elegy. The Immediate Collection contains all three albums and all the singles originally released by Immediate records along with several unreleased recordings. Some of the compilations listed (namely Autumn '67 to Spring '68, Hang On To A Dream and In Memoriam) feature slightly different mixes than originally released on the albums. Due to Immediate Records dissolution in 1970, the recordings of the Nice (along with other artists on the Immediate label) were leased out to many record companies, resulting in a high number of compilation albums (many of which are not listed here) with different packaging, but similar track listings.