Already 2016 seems to have been blighted by more high-profile musician deaths than previous years. I was still reading articles about Sir George Martin’s legacy as late as Friday last week when news began to filter through about Keith Emerson. Is the death of a septuagenarian rock musician especially surprising? Even as I type the single rumour that his death might have been suicide has gained more credence, increasing the sense of tragedy for family and friends who might think they could have done something to prevent such a horrendous outcome. It certainly comes across to this fan in the UK as shocking; the world of prog has lost a genuine pioneer.
After Yes, The Nice was the next band I became familiar with and though this was in late 1972, two years after their demise, it was before I discovered Emerson, Lake and Palmer. The Page family Nice collection was acquired in roughly reverse chronological order, beginning with either Elegy (1971) or Five Bridges (1970.) My older brother was responsible for these purchases and it was only when I was a student in London that I bought my own copies. I remember that Nice (1969) was relatively difficult to come by; we called this album ‘red cover’ to distinguish it from the other releases as well as the group itself even though it had an ‘official’ alternative title, Everything as Nice as Mother Makes It. My copy of The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack (1968) was a 1976 reissue on the Charly label with Patrice Larue’s Magritte-like cover illustration of a grand piano breaking through ice.
The Nice - Brian Davison, Keith Emerson, Lee Jackson (painting by the author)
I’d class most Nice material as proto-prog but the first two albums, The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack and Ars Longa Vita Brevis (1968) are psychedelic with a link to another early British psychedelic act, Pink Floyd, through guitarist Davy O’List who stood in for an incapacitated Syd Barrett. The short songs are largely throw-away, not as original or as good as the early Floyd efforts, but Rondo, War and Peace and Dawn hinted at the greatness to come. Keith Emerson’s ability to blend jazz, rock and blues with classical music was the basis of the success of the Nice and subsequently, ELP. Whereas Pink Floyd developed space rock and dallied with the Avant Garde, Emerson took another route: rocking the classics. Equal parts virtuoso and showman, Emerson stood out as the first important keyboard player in rock; having ousted guitarist O’List as unreliable he showed that a keyboard trio was equal to any guitar-based band and influencing a number of other fledgling progressive acts. Bassist Lee Jackson and drummer Brian Davison were solid enough and would later show they were more than capable in Refugee with Patrick Moraz but the Nice were really all about Emerson. The Dylan adaptations were barely recognisable as songs by Bob Dylan, who I didn’t like but She Belongs to Me was something of an epic in the hands of Emerson, Jackson and Davison; Country Pie on the other hand was only acceptable because of the insertion of some Bach. The classical excerpts morphed into rock interpretations of lengthier pieces, so that the intermezzo from The Karelia Suite by Jean Sibelius, the tune used for the current affairs TV programme This Week became a staple live number and forms the track of main interest on side one of Ars Longa Vita Brevis, acting as a neat prelude to Emerson’s first recorded orchestral piece, the title track taking up the entirety of side two; there’s a naivety about this composition and it’s not really helped by poor production but I really like it.
If the Nice helped Emerson cut his arranging skills they were perfected early on, with more challenging compositions, in ELP. Their eponymous debut album remains high up in my personal prog top 10 and though I do like Take a Pebble and Lucky Man, it’s for the beautiful, flowing piano and the marvellous Moog respectively. Emerson may have dabbled with the modular Moog while still with the Nice and played the instrument from the beginning with his new trio but it’s on Emerson, Lake & Palmer (1970) where it makes its stunning first recorded appearance. Emerson’s ‘sound’ was defined as much by his synthesizer work as his organ or piano and the use of the ribbon controller allowed him to incorporate showmanship into his Moog playing, in the same way that attacking his L100 with knives and wrestling it to the floor or playing it from behind demonstrated his incredible ability on organ or sitting at a piano that revolved around in the air enhanced the live performances. I converted a good school friend into a big ELP fan and it was probably at his house that I first heard Pictures at an Exhibition (1971), a brilliant example of both the excitement that the band could generate live and of the interpretative skills of Emerson.
In 1973 or ’74, when I started to become interested in ELP, I became aware how ELP divided opinion, such that my original vinyl collection included second-hand copies of Tarkus (1971), Pictures, Brain Salad Surgery (1973) and Works Volume 1 (1977) as disgruntled friends decided they’d outgrown the bombast and turned to either punk or smooth jazz. It could not be disputed that the 1974 tour promoting Brain Salad Surgery was something of a monster because it was turned into a road documentary and a triple live album. The version of Aquatarkus on Welcome Back My Friends to the Show That Never Ends (1974) remains one of my favourite ELP tracks; the solid rhythm of Palmer and Lake allows Emerson to really shine on organ and Moog, reminiscent of the backing provided by Jackson and Davison in the Nice.
The subsequent studio hiatus signalled the beginning of the end for ELP; while they toured and rested punk was hoiking over music fans. ELP came back strongly with a pretty good effort but the decision to allow one side of the double LP Works Volume 1 to each of the members and only one side of real group collaboration may, on reflection, have been the wrong approach. Emerson’s Piano Concerto No.1 is very enjoyable, building on his previous orchestrated pieces with the Nice and reflecting his admiration for Aaron Copland but the ELP side has an updated sound, coming from the Yamaha GX1. Emerson is reported to have been quite smitten with this keyboard, eschewing Moog and organ on side 4 in favour of the new piece of technology. I find the sound thin, like so many late 70s and early 80s synthesizers, and would have preferred it if he’d stuck to his analogue instruments.
Having been unaware of the Royal Albert Hall gig in October 1992 that resulted in the excellent Live at the Royal Albert Hall (1993) – my old school friend was in attendance - I thought that I’d never get to see them play live. I did manage to get to see the reformed Nice during a period of ELP disbandment in 2003 at Croydon’s Fairfield Halls, the venue for the recording of much of Five Bridges, where the band were augmented by guitarist Dave Kilminster. Though at times the sound was quite poor and there were problems with Emerson’s Moog, it was a fantastic occasion, acknowledged by the musicians for the link back to Five Bridges. The performance was divided into two segments, the first for music by The Nice and the second for ELP music, where Jackson and Davison stepped aside to allow Phil Williams (bass) and Pete Riley (drums) to take over.
I finally got to see ELP at the High Voltage festival in 2010, the 40th anniversary of the debut album and though I’d have preferred a more intimate venue than London’s Victoria Park, it was an occasion not to be missed. The music was incredible and the atmosphere was rather special, though no one could possibly know it would be the last time that the three would play together.
I also went to see the Keith Emerson Band with the BBC Concert Orchestra at the Barbican last year, the highlight of which was an orchestrated Tarkus, but it was good to see Emerson taking the conductor’s baton for the encore Glorieta Pass. I believe this was Emerson’s last ever concert performance and though he seemed to relish his raconteur role as much as his musical contribution, he did appear somewhat unsteady. If it’s true that there were no more live concert appearances, I feel quite privileged to have attended two significant events, even though I missed out on classic ELP back in 1974 and only discovered the Nice two years after they’d broken up.
Emerson was a virtuoso and a pioneer. He will be sadly missed.
Keith Noel Emerson: 2 November 1944 – 11 March 2016