The Nice/Emerson, Lake & Palmer
Reviewed on this page:
The Thoughts Of Emerlist Davjack - Ars Longa Vita Brevis - Nice - Five Bridges - Elegy - America: The BBC Sessions - Emerson, Lake & Palmer - Tarkus - Pictures At An Exhibition - Trilogy - Brain Salad Surgery - Works Volume 1 - Works Volume 2 - In Concert - Love Beach - King Biscuit Flower Hour Presents Greg Lake In Concert - Black Moon
The Nice is one seriously obscure band - in the United States. In Europe, this short-lived late 60s British prog rock ensemble was a definite success, with most of their LP's cracking the Top 10 on the UK charts. Here, they're mostly known because their leader, Keith Emerson, went on to form the hugely commercial 70s British prog rock group Emerson, Lake and Palmer. But the Nice is paid so little attention, in fact, that assorted liner notes on their first three records give no hint that the group released two live albums after their first record company - Immediate, which also handled the Small Faces - went belly-up at the end of 1969 (see below).
While I can't admit to being a big ELP fan, the Nice turns out to have been quite entertaining. The main attraction was definitely Emerson, who had far better classical training than any other 60s musician and made damn sure you knew it. It seems that their lack of popularity here had more to do with Immediate's problems then with their own shortcomings; the Small Faces suffered similarly.
Intrigued by Emerson's huge success with the less ground-breaking ELP, I've tracked down and reviewed most of their records (which incidentally can be had for cheap on used CD, thanks to a recent remastering job that encouraged many fans to sell and replace their old copies). ELP was very much just a professionalized version of the late-period Nice, with better bass, drum, and vocal performances, plus all those famous synthesizers - Emerson was among the first to make real use of the new technology (see also Abbey Road). A lot of people find ELP overbearing and the critics can't stand them.
There are reasons for this - Emerson came down with a bad case of synthesizer-itis just when the band formed; Lake sang his frequently pretentious lyrics like an overgrown choir boy; and it seemed like Palmer's only goal in life was to prove he could play really really fast without making any mistakes. Despite all this, ELP's quintessentially 70s sound often crystalizes around some good songwriting and fantastic musicianship, which explains their huge fan following. One problem, however, is that their records are relentlessly professional and mostly employ the same themes (some would say gimmicks). That makes it quite hard to rank them, but I've taken a stab at it.
As far as I can tell no one else on the Web has ever heard of the Nice, but there is an extensive ELP site.
I would like to thank Keith Emerson for offering some useful information that I have incorporated onto this page, and for challenging my anti-prog rock assumptions. I have retained some very harsh comments, particularly regarding ELP. All I can say is that you have to take my comments with a grain of salt, remembering that I started out with a bias against the band. Jeff Zahnen and others helped with the discography. (JA)
The Nice: Brian Davison (drums); Keith Emerson (organ, piano); Lee Jackson (bass, vocals); David O'List (guitar). O'List quit during the recording of Ars Longa..., late 1968.
ELP: Keith Emerson (organ, piano, synthesizers); Greg Lake (vocals, bass, guitar); Carl Palmer (drums).
The Thoughts Of Emerlist Davjack (1968)
This is one loud, crazy record. O'List went full-out to imitate Hendrix, but didn't have the chops, of course. It's still interesting to listen to him flail about and abuse his instrument ("Bonnie K"). Emerson was the most technically gifted keyboard player of the 60s, and occasionally he dishes out a warp-speed riff that makes your head spin ("Rondo"). Intent upon out-Peppering and out-Experiencing their competitors, the band comes up with one eerie-to-maniacal, effect-laden three-minute pop song after another ("Flower King Of Flies"; "Tantalising Maggie"; "Cry Of Eugene"). It's too bad their lead vocalist was so technically limited that his best performance is an ominous, over-amplified, whispered rant ("Dawn"). (JA)
Ars Longa Vita Brevis (1968)
Released at the end of 1968, this has become something of a cult classic, and the sort of record that rock historians find captivating. The first side is more of the same flakey, engaging, Hendrix-inspired psychedelic pop that dominates the first record - but this time with even funnier lyrics and crazier musical flourishes (a long, flipped-out cover of "America," with a hysterical S & M sound effect intro; the jazzy "Little Arabella"). The rest is a drawn out, occasionally pompous, occasionally fascinating effort at instrumental rock-jazz-classical fusion, with minimal vocals and a long quotation from Sibelius.
This is frequently cited as the first authentic prog rock masterpiece. Although there were earlier, better, and less long-winded like efforts by the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Love, and especially Frank Zappa, it's fair to say that no other 60s rock band tried this hard to sound like it was really an electrified classical orchestra. (JA)
With O'List out of the picture, the Nice focused on Emerson's keyboard wizardry and the long, improvisational jazz-classical influenced song format they had explored on the previous record. This is true even when they're indulging Jackson's interest in Bob Dylan (a live take of "She Belongs To Me"). The effort is entertaining, but doesn't bear up to careful scrutiny. The lyrics are intentional nonsense ("Diary Of An Empty Day"; "For Example"), the rhythm section has little to contribute, and the backing orchestration is mostly superfluous. The only things holding it together are Emerson's sense of theatre and occasional flashes of brilliance. (JA)
Five Bridges (1970)
The title track was recorded live in England with a full orchestra - you've got to grant that nobody else tried to get away with anything like this back then. And you can see why, because the rock rhythm section often has to sit out the bland, Disneyesque classical sections (the horn section does jam with the band in places, something you won't find on other Nice records). In the course of its 18 minutes, "Five Bridges" also features some jazzy jamming a la Nice, and a couple of brief pseudo-pop interludes.
It's followed by a live re-recording of an Ars Longa Vita Brevis track (Sibelius' "Karelia Suite," complete with incoherent organ-feedback interlude), plus a new, lengthy studio version of Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique." All of this is harmless but of interest mostly to committed fans; with the band edging ever closer to classical music, the average rock listener will find it hard to digest. This and the following disc have been released together on a single CD under the title Keith Emerson With The Nice. (JA)
No orchestra this time, which makes this merely obscure instead of obscure and bizarre. Two of three tracks are taken from what is implied on the jacket to be the same Fillmore East concert that is featured on Nice, but according to Keith Emerson was actually a later concert at the Fillmore West ("Hang On To A Dream," done better in the studio on Nice; "America," the A-side that leads off Ars Longa). Without a second lead instrument to entertain the audience, the focus is on Emerson's famous feedback-drenched organ-busting antics and endless, jazzy soloing. Again, it's of interest only to fans who want to know what the band sounded like live - pretty much the same way they sounded in the studio, only more long-winded. The rest of the record comprises a long, energetic studio cut of Dylan's "My Back Pages," marred by Jackson's screechy scat singing. (JA)
America: The BBC Sessions (rec. 1967 - 1970, rel. 1996)
This 14-track compilation isn't available in the US, which is a shame. It's a mixed bag, of course, with absolutely abysmal sound quality on several cuts ("America"), shoddy packaging, and several of those noxiously smug and insulting BBC voiceovers that mar similar releases by other 60s British rock bands. On the other hand, there are a half-dozen tunes you won't find anywhere else, several of them quite good ("One Of Those People"; "Better And Better"; the primitive, MG's-like "Sombrero King").
Unlike most bands the Nice dared to defy the BBC by playing long-format pieces. But the BBC versions of "For Example," "Ars Longa Vita Brevis," and three-fifths of the "Five Bridges Suite" all are focused and entertaining, and there are plenty of humorous, crafted pop songs like "Happy Freuds" to balance things out.
Apart from 1970s "Five Bridges" and a 1967 instrumental ("Sombrero King") everything here dates from 1968-69; O'List appears only on the early cuts and has little impact. (JA)
Emerson, Lake & Palmer
Emerson, Lake & Palmer (1971)
ELP got out of the starting gate with a memorable hit: Lake's "Lucky Man," with lots of acoustic guitar, echoey harmonies, and a famous synth solo on the fade. But don't be misled by this into thinking ELP is just another pop record - there aren't enough lyrics here to fill a 45.
Instead, most of the running time is devoted to Emerson's soothing, solo jazz-classical piano trip (Lake's multi-part "Take A Pebble," which at first recalls his better King Crimson ballads; the pseudo-classical "Lachesis" piano solo; the 7/4 jazz number "Atropos"). All of this is intelligent and entertaining, and even though it ain't rock 'n' roll, other tracks like the heavy instrumental "The Barbarian" and the creepy, riffy "Knife-Edge" are plenty loud.
Inevitably, the sound is closer to the Nice than on the later records - mostly because synthesizers are used lightly. They're replaced with church organ on the doom-laden solo "Clotho," and charmingly tuned to sound like a harpsichord at the beginning of "Tank," which then devolves into a pointless drum solo and a long, grating synth-fest.
An uneven and quirky effort, the album still has enough musical integrity to make it one of the group's high points. (JA)
The band pulls out all of its tricks here, and they end up with a record that's more structured than anything else they did. The tracks never run long enough to lose the listener; there are noticeably more vocal sections than usual; and the instrumental and pop song segments are interspersed, avoiding any of the long-winded jam/solo arrangements that make so many of the other records hard to assimilate. On top of that, the record features plenty of catchy riffs; pretty Emerson piano parts ("Jeremy Bender"); fine Lake guitar solos ("Battlefield"); and interesting gimmicks, including ominous synthesizers, backwards guitars, repeated melodic themes, weird time signatures, and quotes from Bach. It's commercial and crafted right up to the hysterically funny Little Richard parody that ends it ("Are You Ready Eddy?"). The only downer is "The Only Way," with Lake's truly obnoxious lyrics ruining Emerson's clever church organ and piano parts. (JA)
Pictures At An Exhibition (1972)
Technically speaking this is a live record, but the material doesn't appear on the group's other discs, so it's a must for fans (at least). It's largely based on the "title track," a classical piece by Mussorgsky. His "Promenade" theme is catchy, but you've heard the original already and it gets tedious the third time around. Without electric guitar overdubs or multiple Emerson keyboard tracks, the band's sound is thin. But some of this is attention-grabbing anyway - for example, Lake showing off his classical guitar skills on "The Sage." (JA)
Anyone who likes the band will want to hear this; it's a fine batch of commercial pop songs and prog-rock experiments, with just a little of ELP's characteristic self-indulgence. The high point is "From The Beginning," a nice Lake ballad with a surprisingly prominent acoustic guitar; it ended up being the group's only American Top 40 hit.
The bouncy, waltzing title track features some forgettable jamming, but it's completely harmless compared to the other records; and even Aaron Copland's "Hoedown," the obligatory classical quote here, is brief, energetic, and entertaining. The soothing "Abaddon's Bolero" is a bit long at eight minutes, but amusing anyway, and there's plenty of other good stuff like Emerson and Lake's light-hearted and catchy "The Sheriff," with Keith zipping off into warp-speed rag-time mode at the end. (JA)
Brain Salad Surgery (1973)
A big hit like the other records, but it's tedious. A good example is the exhausting, thirteen minute "Karn Evil 9 - 1st Impression" (a.k.a. "See The Show"). Admittedly, it does still get plenty of radio play and is full of virtuoso performances, and the equally successful "Still... You Turn Me On" is charming and mercifully brief.
But the other selections are either characteristically pompous ("Jerusalem"); intentionally trite ("Benny the Bouncer," with a fun piano part); or tasteful but endless (jazzy jams like "2nd Impression"). Emerson had found some new customized Moog synth toys to play with, but in his hands the effects just sound cheesy - in utter contrast to his contemporary Stevie Wonder. Interestingly, Pete Sinfield of early King Crimson fame was brought in to handle the lyrics on a few tunes. He continued to work with Lake throughout the 70s. (JA)
Welcome Back, My Friends... (1974)
I'm told this is a 3 LP/2 CD live set drawing heavily on the preceding studio album. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find a reasonably priced copy yet. (JA)
Works Volume 1 (1977)
This double LP/CD consists of one side each produced separately by the three members - Lake had usually produced alone before - plus a joint effort on the last side. The result is utter chaos. Emerson weighs in with a full-blown classical piano concerto ("No. 1"), and the band delivers a similar 13-minute piece ("Pirates"); like Five Bridges, it's professional but of no interest to pop music listeners despite Emerson's frenzied rotation of John Williams-like flourishes.
Palmer debuts his intriguing Zappa-like experimental big-band formula (a rearranged "Tank"), but his songwriting is uneven: he covers some classical pieces (a dull Prokofieff, a sparkling "tuned percussion" Bach), and when Joe Walsh crops up on "L.A. Nights" it devolves into a good-timey jam.
Only Lake attempts to use ELP's standard pop formula, making his side the most listenable but least experimental. His sentimentality has gotten saccharine at this point ("Closer To Believing"), and Sinfield generates some annoyingly trite strings of rhymes. At least some of the tunes are memorable, especially the acoustic ballad "C'Est La Vie." And the group's version of Copland's "Fanfare For The Common Man" is dramatic and tasteful, despite a nine-minute running time. (JA)
Works Volume 2 (1977)
This strikes me as a heck of a lot more interesting than some of the earlier LP's, including the last one. Once again each band member produced a separate batch of the songs and brought in orchestral arrangers, horn sections, and sidemen. But the selections are interspersed instead of segregated, and all but one of the dozen tracks finish under four minutes.
Plus the musical experiments are even wilder: Emerson's increasingly sophisticated synth parts; his tributes to rag-time on Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" (with the London Philharmonic Orchestra!) and his own "Barrel-House Shakedown," and to the early blues on "Honky Tonk Train Blues"; a prominent flute on Palmer's Zappa-inspired, jazz-fusion "Bullfrog," and Lake's Hendrix imitation on Palmer's equally weird "Close But Not Touching."
Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas" was a hit, albeit in the form of a Greg Lake solo version, and he contributes other solid, acoustic-guitar driven pop songs like "Watching Over You" and the amusing title track of Brain Salad Surgery, which appears here and not on that record. In sum, this is an unpredictable grab-bag that runs in all directions away from the band's signature sound - for better (mostly) or worse. And who can resist a record with a lyric like "She did a thing to my thing/Like it's never been done before" (Lake's "So Far To Fall")? (JA)
In Concert (rec. 1977, rel. 1979)
This album documents a 1977 concert at the Montreal Olympic Stadium. A new version with twice as many tracks was released in 1993 under the title Works Live, but I've got the original, shorter one. The focus here is on selections from first Works album, with a decent take of "C'Est La Vie" being the high point - you won't find any of their earlier big-deal hits, but there is a performance of "Knife Edge," and a 15-minute version of "Pictures At An Exhibition" that fills the second side. Also of note is a brief, crowd-pleasing version of Henry Mancini's 60s garage rocker "Peter Gunn."
A full-blown classical orchestra shows up for a six minute excerpt of Emerson's straight-laced "Piano Concerto No. 1" and the super-pompous "Pictures," and although it's interesting to hear the band and orchestra play off each other, the effect is mostly uninspiring. The biggest selling point, then, is the lack of overlap with Welcome Back, My Friends. The new version is almost certainly better, and I'll try to track it down at some point. (JA)
Love Beach (1978)
What an odd title. Their weakest chart-performer, this is a harmless collection of engaging, classically influenced three-minute pop songs that ditches both the pretentious bombast of the early albums, and the bizarre, scatter-shot experimentation of the Works discs. And it seems to be very unpopular with the fans.
Maybe their gripe is with Peter Sinfield's lyrics, which are often really lightweight here; he collaborated on almost everything, including Emerson and Lake's laid-back, slightly silly blues number "The Gambler." Mostly Sinfield goes with unremarkable love themes, but at least they're good for a few laughs - especially on the Latin lounge lizard number "For You."
The only variety is a classical piece by Rodrigo ("The Canary") and a mellow, frequently very pretty Emerson-Sinfield mini-concept album that fills out the second side, which is certainly one of their most enjoyable long-format pieces ("Memoirs Of An Officer And A Gentleman"). Maybe variety is over-rated; I get more out of this than most of the group's other records, even though it's often derided and frankly just isn't the right place to start with them. (JA)
ELP went on a long break at this point, not fully reuniting until the 90s despite a couple of two-thirds efforts in the 80s. Emerson and Lake each went solo, while Palmer joined Asia. (JA)
Greg Lake (Lake: 1981)
With ELP on the backburner, Lake had formed a guitar-centered band featuring metal phenom Gary Moore. Several band members contributed to the songwriting, and there's also a collaboration with Bob Dylan, of all people ("Love You Too Much"). (JA)
King Biscuit Flower Hour Presents Greg Lake In Concert (rec. 1981, rel. 1995)
King Biscuit is currently flooding the market with live albums drawn from its tape archive, and personally I don't mind. Where else are you going to find an oddity like this one? Unfortunately, Lake's short-lived early 80s backing band is just running through the motions here.
Lead guitarist Gary Moore (Thin Lizzy, Bruce/Baker/Moore, etc.) doles out one generic heavy metal riff after another, trying to make up for a lack of artistry with a surfeit of speedy notes. There's barely a nod to ELP ("Fanfare For The Common Man/Karn Evil 9" and a decent but formulaic "Lucky Man"), and the new material from the preceding studio album is almost uniformly weak - even their version of "You Really Got A Hold On Me" is as lifeless as sheet music.
Only the note-for-note replications of King Crimson's "21st Century Schizoid Man" and "In The Court Of The Crimson King" really take off; it's impressive to hear anyone play with such precision in a live concert. And although Lake's performance is solid, his voice already had started to deteriorate by this time. Fans looking for a dose of ELP will be severely disappointed by the track selection and minimal keyboards, but Moore groupies might enjoy it. (JA)
Manoeuvres (Lake: 1983)
Same band as on Greg Lake. (JA)
Emerson, Lake & Powell (1986)
Features ex-Jeff Beck Group/Rainbow drummer Cozy Powell sitting in for Palmer - Powell was a powerhouse on everything else I've heard him do, so ELP fans shouldn't be put off by this. Powell never worked with Emerson or Lake again, dying in a car crash in April, 1998. (JA)
To The Power Of 3 (3: 1988)
Yet another ELP permutation, this time with Emerson, Palmer, and Robert Berry filling in for Lake. (JA)
Black Moon (1992)
ELP's first new studio album in well over a decade. It seems like an extraordinarily deliberate attempt to recapture the group's old audience, with plenty of Emerson's unmistakable synth stylings and Lake's high-sounding collage-of-cliches lyrics, and an obligatory classical selection that could hardly be more obvious and heavy-handed (Prokofiev's "Romeo And Juliet"). But there are some major breaks with the past. Most obviously, Palmer goes with an echoey, computerized four-four beat that costs the group most of its usual class in the name of keeping them up to date.
And instead of producing themselves as they always did before, they give outsider Mark Mancina the reigns. He's faceless, though, and all he contributes is one pompous Lake-esque pop song ("Burning Bridges") and some "ideas" for trendifying the group's sound. Worse still, Lake's voice has lost most of its smoothness, projection, and upper range. The end result is a record that's consistently grating except when it goes with basics - Emerson's gorgeous classical piano solo "Close To Home," and Lake's gentle, 70s-style acoustic guitar ballad "Footprints In The Snow." (JA)
Live At The Royal Albert Hall (1992)
In The Hot Seat (1994)
Daddy, where did I come from?