Graded on a Curve:
The Nice,
Five Bridges

I keep having the same nightmare. In it, Keith Emerson is hitting me over the head with dead classical composers. First he hits me over the head with Johannes Sebastian Bach, then he hits me over the head with Modest Mussorgsky, then he hits me over the head with Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, then he hits me over the head with Béla Bartók, then Jerry Lee Lewis bursts into the room and hits Keith Emerson over the head with a piano. Thank God for Jerry Lee Lewis.

Keith Emerson didn’t start bashing me over the head with dead composers when he joined the Evil Triumvirate Emerson, Lake & Palmer. No, it started back in 1968, when the classical blowhard formed the Nice with singer/bass player Lee Jackson and drummer Brian Davison. The trio quickly set about mixing classical music with rock, creating a tidal wave of bands set upon putting a conductor’s baton in the hand of a popular music form guilty only of minding its own business.

Emerson showed early promise as a live performer, taking a whip to his piano, riding it across the stage like the Lone Ranger, and stabbing it to death with knives. Unfortunately he grew up, quit the shenanigans and went full SymphProg, sealing the fates of those of us who believe that once you’ve buried a classical composer you should have the common decency not to dig him back up again.

On 1970’s live Five Bridges The Nice, aided and abetted by a horn section and the Sinfonia of London, play a classical hash that incorporates the music of Bach, Tchaikovsky, and Jean Sibelius, with a dash of jazz schmaltz tossed in for flavoring. The entire album’s a horror show, but The Nice reach a world historic nadir with “Country Pie”/“Brandenburg Concerto,” which they presumably created by cramming Bob Dylan and J.S. Bach into a prototype of Seth Brundle’s telepod.

But on to the gory details. The five part, 18-minute Emerson/Jackson collaboration “The Five Bridges Suite” that takes up side one can only be described as a Weapon of Mass Annoying. “Fantasia 1st Bridge” and “2nd Bride” are sweeping orchestral bores, their sole redeeming feature being their combined running time is less than three minutes.

“Choral 3rd Bridge” has a rock edge, but Jackson’s vocals and Emerson’s organ fail to draw one’s attention from the ghastly going-ons in the orchestra pit. “High Level Fugue 4th Bridge” sounds like mature ELP, which comes as bad news to those of us who wish ELP had died young. On the jazz-influenced “Finale 5th Bridge” Emerson plays cheesy cocktail lounge piano man, while Paul the real estate novelist and Davy who’s still in the Navy fall asleep at the bar.

On the first track on side two The Nice fold, spindle and mutilate Sibelius’ “Intermezzo ‘Karelia Suite’.” The song opens with some cliched regal fanfare before erupting like a volcano of pomposity, with Emerson deviating from the score to play variations on his own “Concerto in Bullshit Minor.” But at the 6:14 mark Emerson does something remarkable. He commences to play distorted radio transmission noise rock on his Moog synthesizer, providing the sole happy moment on an otherwise tragic waste of vinyl. Had Emerson said to hell with the classical shtick and gone noise native instead, he might have put Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music to shame.

The Nice and orchestra then proceed to do a grave disservice to Tchaikovsky with their bombastic take on his symphony No. 6, “Pathetique.” I can literally see poor Pyotr bursting through the doors of the concert venue shouting, “Nyet! Nyet! You make stink of my masterpiece!” As for “Country Pie/Brandenburg Concerto No. 6” it’s a little bit country, a little bit classical, and a whole lotta suck. Upon hearing it Bach and Dylan secretly met at the bar in Berlin’s Hotel Adlon Kempinski to talk strategy:

Bach: The situation’s dire, I admit. But we have to think in terms of damage control.

Dylan (head in hands, sobbing): It’s too late.

Bach: Don’t be such a baby.

Dylan (Petulantly): Why are they being so mean? They call themselves the Nice, BUT THEY’RE NOT!

Keith Emerson’s passing in 2016 means classical composers no longer need go into hiding, and I can stop worrying about being hit over the head with, say, Sergei Rachmaninov. The most pretentious figure in rock history–with the possible exception of Rick Wakeman–once said, “I can consider everything I compose a gift.” To which I only say I’m glad I wasn’t on his Christmas list. Emerson wasn’t the only musician of his time to think inflating rock music with classical gas was a good idea. But he was the biggest gas bag of them all.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
F+ 

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