Keith 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.