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Keith Emerson 1944-2016

The NiceKeith Emerson died the other day, aged 71, apparently by his own hand. According to Mari Kawaguchi, his partner of more than 20 years, he had been thrown into a depression by the effect of nerve damage on his ability to play his keyboard instruments, with a series of concerts in prospect. Whatever one’s opinion of Emerson’s work, it is extraordinarily sad that his career should seemingly have ended in that particular form of defeat. Of one thing there was no doubt: his love of music.

I saw him first with the Nice at the Nottingham Boat Club in 1967, when they were a four-piece, with David O’List on guitar, Lee Jackson on bass and Brian Davison on drums. This was before they had made their first record. In a small room, in front of perhaps 100 people, they were exciting and stimulating; there was already a degree of showmanship emanating from Emerson, but not so much as to get in the way of the notes.

Two years later, in October 1969, I went on the road with them, on assignment for the Melody Maker: a three-day trip taking in Newcastle City Hall, the Essen Blues Festival in Germany and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. O’List had gone by then, and the remaining three were good company. In Newcastle, greeted by an ecstatic audience, they premiered sections of Emerson’s Five Bridges Suite, written in honour of Jackson’s home town. In Essen they followed Deep Purple and Amon Duul on stage, and were met by a muted reception. In Amsterdam’s beautiful 19th century concert hall the audience was respectfully enthusiastic; I recorded in my notebook that the applause for their version of Tim Hardin’s “Hang on to a Dream” seemed to go on for about five minutes.

This was a time when young British rock musicians, some of them with a grounding in classical music, were starting to stretch themselves in bands such as King Crimson, Soft Machine, Egg, Yes, Caravan and East of Eden. Emerson’s decision to leave the band and form a new trio with Greg Lake and Carl Palmer in 1970 represented a defining moment at which all that bright-eyed enthusiasm and musical adventurousness tipped over into excess. I saw ELP at close quarters during that year’s Isle of Wight Festival, their first large-scale gig, and I thought the whole experience was dreadful. Lake’s insistence on having a Persian rug to stand on while playing was just one of the factors that put them on their way to becoming a primary template for Spinal Tap.

But wind back a little, to a couple of months after I spent that long weekend in the company of the Nice. In December 1969 they played Fillmore West in San Francisco: here’s an audio recording of how they sounded back then. Surprisingly good, I think. When Emerson takes a long Hammond solo on “For Example”, they really hit a groove. The elements of the music are kept in reasonable proportions, with ambition and execution still in balance.

But you can sense where Emerson wanted his music to go, and why he felt he needed a different set of accomplices. To be brutal, Jackson and Davison weren’t cool enough. He needed a couple of guys who could play even faster and on whom long hair and twenty-guinea Anello & Davide stack-heeled snakeskin boots looked as natural as they did on him. For better or worse, he found them.

* The photograph of the Nice shows (clockwise from top): David O’List, Lee Jackson, Binky Davison, Keith Emerson.

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14 Comments Post a comment
  1. Paul Tickell #

    I saw the Nice in Norwich at UEA in 1969 – they were great!

    March 14, 2016
  2. “To be brutal, Jackson and Davison weren’t cool enough. He needed a couple of guys who could play even faster and on whom long hair and 20-guinea Anello & Davide stack-heeled snakeskin boots looked as natural as they did on him.”

    Somehow, I doubt that it was only ‘coolness’ – Jackson looks rather ‘cool’ in the above pic, after all – but rather musical (and, equally, vocal) skill, and the willingness and ability to follow Emerson’s lead.

    March 14, 2016
  3. John Dilworth #

    Beautifully put, once again. As a passing thought, have East of Eden been undervalued in all the prog rock revision? I recall your sleeve notes on ‘SNAFU’, I think…

    March 15, 2016
  4. As a gleefully smirking conduit for the rumour that Greg Lake had his own Persian rug roadie, I was impervious to ELP’s bombast, but the dimunition of physical or mental skills to the point where playing seems impossible must be the hardest thing for any musician to face.
    Incidentally, the Nice’s drummer was Blinky, not Binky.

    March 15, 2016
    • Thanks, John. I corrected it — but then, having been reminded by Mick Watts and Chris Welch that he hated being called Bllnky, I deleted it altogether.

      March 15, 2016
      • I think I read somewhere that he was called Blinky in response to his enthusiasm for Art Blakey… Thank you Richard, balanced piece, I still think there is some ELP which stands up even now (Tarkus, Karn Evil 9 second impression..).

        March 15, 2016
  5. Peter Luxton #

    Strangely, I was lucky enough to be at the premiere of the ‘Five Bridges Suite’ at Newcastle City Hall on October 10 1969….this was an amazing performance by Keith – exhilarating, exciting , with all sorts of references – jazz, classical, rock, avant garde. Seem to remember him tipping the Hammond on its side in mid song producing amazing feedback …A real eye opener for a naive young undergraduate !! Wonderful !! . RIP

    March 15, 2016
  6. Jon Ramsey #

    I think you are right Richard. But I always thought that there are plenty of musical rewards in prog, and not least some of the musicianship, if you don’t quite take it as seriously as they did. When I revisit my now very elderly prog albums, which I do once in a blue moon, I find something really satisfying in the combination of mild absurdity through to absolute nonsense but done with exuberance. And there is always plenty of entertainment value to be had in lyrics like ‘lighthouses might house the key/But can I find the door?’ or ‘Sad preacher nailed upon the coloured door of time’. And I’ve seen more Persian rugs on stage than I can count down the years. Perhaps someone can tell me if Greg Lake was the first. I doubt it.

    March 15, 2016
  7. Maurizio #

    I have the same feelings about the transition form Nice to ELP.

    March 15, 2016
  8. HIs histrionics aside, is it possible that some of the derision directed at him by rock musicians emanated from faux hipsters who really couldn’t play their instruments very well? There’s an awful lot of philistines out there.

    March 15, 2016
  9. I always liked The Nice but hated ELP (apart from the debut album). I now appreciate ELP especially for their healthy vulgarity. David O’List always struck me as one of the great lost guitar heroes (didn’t he play that wondrous solo – usually faded when broadcast- at the end of Ferry’s “The In Crowd”) ?
    East Of Eden were indeed undervalued but not helped by continual personnel changes so that by the time I first saw them (mid 71 after their unrepresentative hit single “Jig A Jig”) there was only one founder member left (although the great Don Weller and Jim Roche were in the ranks).
    When I saw them 2 years later there wasn’t an original member left ! “SNAFU” is still an interesting listen.

    March 15, 2016
  10. Balanced and fair-minded, Richard. And as you write, a sad way for it to end.

    March 15, 2016
  11. Colin Harper #

    There’s a well-known saying (I forget who coined it) that ‘all political careers end in failure’. I’ve been wondering if one could apply that to musical careers – ‘failure’, of course, being hugely subjective and interpretable in many ways. Maybe poor Keith thought that he was on the brink of ‘failure’, in his own eyes, because of the medical issues that were impairing his ability to play. Maybe that was the yardstick by which he measured his contentment with life, or his success in life. And if that was the case, I can understand (that’s ‘understand’ – not condone or advocate) why he weighed things up and decided to call it quits.

    An interview today with Greg Lake suggested that Keith was totally driven by (his involvement with) music, and also that his issues with depression stretched back to the end of the 70s. ELP seemed to rule the world for much of the 70s. As someone who wasn’t there, as such (b.1968), I hear ELP in retrospect and genuinely can’t understand how this can have been the case – I just don’t get it, it feels emotionless and cold (and I speak as someone who is drawn to musicianship). But that’s not my point: for a few years millions DID love ELP’s music and live shows, and when that level of adulation and popularity stopped it must have taken a lot of re-acclimatising for the members.

    If Keith had found a way to accept that his ‘moment’ had come and gone, and that he and Carl and Greg had had an amazing run, and that it was maybe time to do something else and bow out gracefully, maybe his life would have progressed differently, more happily. I don’t know – just thoughts. I admire the likes of Bill Bruford for accepting three or four years back that, in the balance of economics, family life, age, etc., the time had come to hang up his sticks totally, with no part-time playing down the pub etc. I believe Phil Collins was supposed to have done something similar, but I see he just can’t stick to it.

    As time goes on, many other musicians of the rock era will have to face similar choices. You don’t have to burn our OR fade away. You can simply accept retirement and build another life.

    March 16, 2016

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