Classic Rock Review

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The Nice The Thoughts Of Emerlist Davjack (1968)


Ooh yeah. As obscure as the Nice really are, they were a first-rate band – the best, actually, in that short-lived glorious epoch when progressive tendencies were not yet seen as a self-aim, but rather tried to be painlessly incorporated into the usual pop/rock trends.

Thus, this record tries to (and ultimately succeeds in) marrying Beatles-inspired pop to classical music, heavily borrowing from Jimi Hendrix on the way. I must confess that it took me a really long time to get into it, but it was worth the while – now I can’t seem to get the line ‘flower king of flies’ out of my head…

If you don’t know it (or, better still, if you haven’t yet read the intro paragraph), the Nice in 1968 consisted of Keith Emerson on keyboards, David O’List on guitar, Brian Davison on lead guitar and Lee Jackson on bass (if you’re puzzled about the italicized segments, you’d better check out your IQ). Like I said, these guys were keen on revolutionizing rock music, and in a certain way they did so, but you wouldn’t have guessed it from this album, of course, if you were to omit the best song… but let’s deal with this in a correct manner.

If you hate ELP more than income tax and have made a solemn vow not to touch anything that bears the name of Emerson on it, you’re making a big mistake: this album sounds nothing like ELP. As I said, their biggest influence were still the Beatles, plus their guitarist was really a big fan of Jimi, adding ‘psychedelic’ and heavily distorted, rip-roaring leads everywhere. He hasn’t got the needed skill, of course, but there’s no way you could deny the professionalism, and the main riff of ‘Bonnie K’ is as good as anything Jimi ever penned in person (except for ‘Purple Haze’, of course, which is often correctly denoted as a song with one of the best riffs in rock).

Emerson himself hadn’t yet discovered his synths, chiefly because they still weren’t invented (or at least, went subject to mass production), and mostly sticks to piano and Hammond organ, and his mastery of everything that has got keys on top is already unsurpassed. The only big problem with the band is that they lacked a vocalist – bassist Lee Jackson was probably the closest to a ‘singing talent’ they could get, but he still couldn’t sing worth a damn.

The band, apparently, realized that as well, which is the reason for which his vocals are either drenched in harmonies and drowned in choruses (‘Flower King Of Flies’), or masked by some furious shouting and screaming (‘Bonnie K’), or distorted to the point of total neutralization (‘Tantalising Maggie’), or almost non-existent, being replaced by a chilly, creepy whisper (‘Dawn’), or, well, totally non-existent, like on the lengthy instrumentals ‘Rondo’ and ‘War And Peace’. The only tune, in fact, where he boldly steps up to the microphone, is the pompous title track, and while it’s not bad per se (actually, it’s a first-rate pop anthem), you sure wish they’d bothered to recruit a professional singer. They probably didn’t want to share the royalties that were rather scarce anyway. That’s the way it goes.

Still, this is not ELP, this is the Nice, and you shouldn’t go for vocals when you’re about this band. Instead, concentrate on the impressive songwriting – most of the songs are co-written by two or more members of the band, and they’re usually splendid. ‘Flower King Of Flies’ and the title track deceive you into thinking this is going to be a super-duper soft-pop record with elements of orchestration along the lines of Sgt Pepper, but as the crunchy riffwork of ‘Bonnie K’ steps in you’re left with a strong conviction that the guys can really rock. ‘Dawn’ shows the band as a spooky dark-psycho unit – there’s not much of a melody on here, but the atmosphere is really shuddering, if you only can get adjusted to that ominous, murky whispering.

‘Tantalising Maggie’ is a silly electrified country throwaway, and ‘The Cry Of Eugene’, a song that supposedly inspired Pink Floyd for their most famous song title, is a nice, although pointless and probably meaningless, ballad. That said, the record’s centerpiece is undoubtedly the nine-minute ‘Rondo’: this pseudo-classical piece that was later reworked on their third album under the title ‘Rondo ’69’ (also known as ‘Blue Rondo A La Turk’) and stil later became a regular ELP live favourite, is simply breathtaking.

The big superstar of the composition is Keith, of course, who milks his Hammond to the extreme, culminating in a series of flashy riffs that are among his well-known (you know them too, don’t you? That ‘wheeeez – wheeeez – ta-ta-ta-ta-ta – wheeeez – wheeez…’, sorry, I’d give the chords if I knew them. However, O’List also shines here, adding some crisp, tasty leads, and asserting that this track, the longest on the album, never gets boring. Unfortunately, the other instrumental, ‘War And Peace’, is not that good, even if it has some more cool guitarwork, but it’s just not as memorable and next to ‘Rondo’ pales in its shadow.

My edition of the CD adds three bonus tracks culled from contemporary singles, one of which is rather throwaway (‘The Diamond Hard Blue Apples Of The Moon’), but the other two are essential: ‘Azrael (Angel Of Death)’ is a gloomy, repetitive and slightly pompous march that foreshadows the later Nice, and their version of ‘America’ (nay, not the Simon song, but the adaptation from West Side Story) was also a landmark in prog history, although I confess that I find it more important from this historical point of view than from any other.

Still, it’s just me. I honestly recommend the album in its whole – the American bastard recording companies seem intent on never letting Nice material see the light of day, but search for it in the import bins if you’re rich or in the used bins if you’re poor. That way or the other, you might get lucky someday and have a chance to appreciate the band as well as me.

June 3, 2013 Posted by | The Nice The Thoughts Of Emerlist Davjack | | Leave a comment