The Nice only existed for three years, and in that time they went through many a false start as well as some membership and directional changes - but in the process, they helped bridge the gap between the pop-psychedelia of 1967 and the more ambitious (and, ultimately, pretentious) brand of music known variously as art rock or progressive rock. They never sold many records in their own time, until near the end of their history as a band, but they were among the 1960s groups that had some of the greatest influence on the music of the early '70s. In the beginning, they were just supposed to provide backup, a la Booker T. & the MG's, for American-born soul singer P.P. Arnold, an ex-member of the Ikettes who producer/manager/music mogul Andrew Oldham believed he could make into the next Tina Turner. Keyboard player Keith Emerson had previously played in Gary Farr & the T-Bones, and the new group's rhythm section was filled by T-Bones alumni Lee Jackson on bass and Ian Hague on drums, while former Attack guitarist Davy O'List filled the fourth spot. They got together in May of 1967 and proved so powerful an ensemble on-stage, backing Arnold, that they soon earned billing on their own at the National Jazz and Blues Festival that summer, and by that fall had a recording contract of their own with Oldham's Immediate Records. Hague, however, proved a weak link in their lineup, in part owing to his devotion to the use of various controlled substances, and by the time they were ready to formally begin recording, he was replaced by O'List's onetime Attack bandmate Brian Davison. They were an amazingly freewheeling outfit, in keeping with the times. Although Jackson handled most of the singing, O'List also took a lead vocal on occasion, and even Emerson would end up on the microphone. They played a strange mix of psychedelic blues, heavily laced with cadenza-like solos on the piano or organ, and dressed up in ornate, flashy guitar, reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix - amid the pop flourishes and heavy piano and guitar riffs, one could hear influences of classical, soul, and jazz. Their debut album was ready for release early in 1968 but was delayed getting into stores until much later in the year, at which point they had released a single to support it - their chosen track was a driving, flashy, instantly memorable instrumental rendition of the song "America" from West Side Story that got them lots of airplay and bade fair to get them on the U.K. charts, until objections to a very tasteless picture-sleeve design, coupled with the complaint of co-author Leonard Bernstein that he'd never given the group permission to revamp his piece - which led to their inability to get the single issued in America - took the wind out of their sails. Their year's worth of work had begun to build the group, and especially the extrovert personality of Emerson, a following in England. The organist player would jam knives into his keyboards, set fire to various objects on-stage (including, at least once, at Royal Albert Hall, the American flag, creating a potential diplomatic incident for the government), and simulate sex with his instrument - by 1968, he was known as the Jimi Hendrix of the keyboard. But amid the controversy over the single, the quartet's debut album, The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack - which actually sounded very different from the single, and already very dated, died a withering death on record shop shelves during the summer of 1968. In truth, the debut LP was probably held up too long and released too late anyway, its cheery psychedelia being a little old-fashioned by the summer of 1968. There was a distinctly unusual undercurrent to the music, however, beneath the trippy pop tunes and spaced-out lyrics, that could have saved the record. The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack sounded different from virtually anything else in music at the time - spook-house organ solos and slashing guitar attacks that ran together and clashed, and heavily veiled quotations from Dave Brubeck, among other sources; "Rondo" was nothing less than a large-scale psychedelic rock adaptation of "Blue Rondo a la Turk." The band soldiered on, performing constantly and preparing to record a second album, when their second personnel problem reared its head, in the growing instability of guitarist Davy O'List; to add to the problems caused by his erratic behavior, it also became clear as the work on the second album progressed that O'List and Emerson were each trying to take center stage in their sound and music - the first album had several tracks that featured their dueling, but it wasn't clear that their future lay in that direction. He left the group in the early fall of 1968, and wasn't replaced - instead, the Nice became a trio of keyboards, bass (with a guitar added occasionally as needed, by Jackson or a guest support player), and drums. Their sound tightened and also evolved in a new direction - although their second album, Ars Longa Vita Brevis, featured several striking songs and some clever lyrics, the center piece was the title suite, a rock/classical amalgam for band and orchestra that took up the whole second side - that piece, which freely quoted from the Bach Brandenburg concertos, and a band rendition of the intermezzo from the Karelia Suite by composer Jean Sibelius, seemed to dominate the record and point the way to their future. Released in November of 1968, just four months after their debut album, Ars Longa Vita Brevis garnered sterling reviews - praise that most acts only dream of receiving - but it died a death in stores, without a single to help people grab hold of the album. By this time, the bandmembers were beginning to wonder if they were star-crossed. They had a huge concert following in England and a growing reputation in continental Europe, with America just waiting for their next visit, but they'd sold very few records. Additionally, the group and their manager, Tony Stratton-Smith, were wary of the financial underpinnings of their label; Immediate Records always seemed to have someone demanding payment for some long overdue invoice or other, and lots of people hanging around trying to spend the company's money. Additionally, while a lot of recording always seemed to be going on, there wasn't a lot of chart action for the label - with the exception of the Small Faces, whose sales made them Immediate's resident cash cow, few of the acts around them, good as some of them were (and many would say the Nice were the best of them), were earning money with their records, for themselves or the label.Still, they went ahead with plans for a third LP, which initially was to have been a live album recorded at the Fillmore East during their spring 1969 tour of the United States. The Nice had dazzled audiences along that tour (even managing to make an appearance with the Los Angeles Philharmonic), especially at those Fillmore shows, not just with Emerson's flashy stage presence but their ability to deconstruct songs by Bob Dylan and Tim Hardin and rebuild them completely in the group's image, yet leave enough that was familiar so that people could follow; and their accompanying ability to deconstruct familiar classical pieces in the same manner, and to meld rock, pop, jazz, and even soundtrack material coherently, and keep a crowd riveted by their work. In the end, the group's third album, variously titled Nice or Everything as Nice as Mother Makes It (or, later, Nice #3), was a mix of live and studio performances that showcased the group working from strength to strength, and evolving even on the record itself. Gone were the psychedelic flourishes of the first two albums - instead, they were intense and concentrated in their focus on jazz and classical elements, a lean music machine that surged and pounded away at their material, yet who were subtle enough to work in delightful little embellishments, and playful and clever as well. The record peaked at number three on the British charts, and suddenly the Nice were ranked among the top bands in the country.It was just then that Immediate finally declared bankruptcy, owing a massive amount of royalties to the Nice (and a lot of other bands, including the Small Faces). Having a major hit record and no money to show for it, the group was forced to maintain a ferocious touring schedule to keep itself solvent - Nice had been the LP they'd been looking for, but it had come to nothing, in terms of moving the group to the next level, where they could tour less and write and record more.The band might have gotten past this debacle. Tony Stratton-Smith, in his wisdom, had held onto the live tapes from the Fillmore East that hadn't gone onto the third album, as well as the live recording of the group's most ambitious orchestral work yet, "The Five Bridges Suite," and enough shorter studio sides that were close enough to being finished that there were at least two whole LPs that could be released - that body of music represented not only breathing room and revenue, but also some of the Nice's best work. "The Five Bridges Suite," despite some flaws in its recording, would only enhance their image, and once people heard Emerson's performance on the live version of "Hang On to a Dream," his reputation from touring would be documented. As it was, the group had already provided the inspiration for one very important Dutch band, Ekseption, formed by Rick Van Der Linden out of admiration for the Nice - what Stratton-Smith had in his possession would allow the Nice themselves to benefit from their work.It was not to be, mostly because Emerson had other plans. He'd always felt that the group's weak link was its vocals. Jackson was a limited singer and Emerson scarcely one at all (that's him singing lead on "Happy Freuds" from their second album) - Emerson had even approached Duncan Browne, Immediate's resident singer/songwriter, who had worked with the band, about joining as a singer, but before that could happen one way or the other, he'd crossed paths with another, newer band called King Crimson and had been impressed by their lead vocalist/bassist, Greg Lake. Lake had grown increasingly unhappy as a member of the group since early 1969, and felt creatively constrained by guitar/co-founder Robert Fripp. Following the group's American tour in late 1969, he contacted Emerson and agreed to join up with him - thus, Emerson was already set to leave the band by the end of that winter, though the decision wasn't announced publicly until the spring. Emerson, Lake & Palmer debuted that summer and went onto the kind of press coverage and record sales that the Nice never got anywhere near. Meanwhile, Stratton-Smith released the album Five Bridges on his own, newly founded Charisma Records label, and it sold well enough to justify a follow-up, Elegy, which showed audiences just how much the music community had lost when the Nice split up. Ironically, in order to market those records more effectively in America, where the Nice had never enjoyed more than a cult following, U.S. licensee Mercury Records was compelled to repackage them into a double-LP set called Keith Emerson With the Nice, using an ELP-era photo of Emerson at his keyboard on-stage on its jacket. Emerson objected to the release of these albums, on artistic grounds, but a lawsuit failed to keep them off the market. In 1973, Stratton-Smith issued as third LP, known variously as Autumn to Spring or Autumn 1967 - Spring 1968, consisting of alternate takes and mixes of material from the group's first two LPs. In the decades since, thanks to Emerson's fame as a member of ELP and the Immediate bankruptcy, which placed its library in the hands of a succession of receivers who knew or cared little about music - and the intentions of well-meaning producers who did care about the music - the music on the Nice's three Immediate LPs turned up in various forms on vinyl, beginning with a fine series of albums from the Canadian Daffodil label and declining from there, and later on CD, some of the early examples of the latter horrendous sounding. In the 1990s, starting with Sony Music's reissue of their material, the quality of the group's masters has consistently been upgraded and enhanced, so that the current reissues, since the late '90s, are the best representation the group has ever had on record. Jackson and Davison went on to various projects that never succeeded, and in 1973 tried to get a second bite of the apple by forming Refugee with keyboard player Patrick Moraz, but there was little interest in their sound or records. By the end of the 1970s, with a change in public taste, even ELP had overstayed their welcome, amid their bombast and pretentiousness, and came to a halt. In 1999, as a one-off event on a personal occasion, Emerson, Jackson, and Davison played together for the first time in 29 years, at a party. Their work from decades earlier continues to dazzle new listeners in the 21st century, with each new reissue.
-Bruce Eder (All Music Guide)