I was still at school in 1967, but beginning to wish I wasn’t. One escape from the irregular Latin verbs, insoluble quadratic equations and all the other meaningless drudgery of academic life was to go to The Marquee Club on Monday evenings to watch The Nice.
You could see good bands at the Marquee virtually every night - Spooky Tooth, Jethro Tull, Blodwyn Pig - but The Nice were our favourite. Two of my chums and I used to rush to the club straight after school, in order to be the first in the queue for front row seats when the club’s manager (a rather strict, bespectacled man named John Gee) threw open the doors. I can’t remember how much it cost to get into that little room in Soho… ten shillings and sixpence? Four guineas? Three hundred pounds? I didn’t care, and would gladly have sold my grandmother to Portuguese slave traders to raise the cash to see The Nice.
The band members were all pretty interesting. Two of them, Brian ‘Blinky’ Davison (the drummer) and Lee Jackson (bass & vocals) seemed impossibly ancient (in fact, they were probably in their late twenties). We liked the guitarist, a beak-nosed, cadaverous individual named David O’List, who wrenched tortured notes from his Telecaster. But the focus of attention was the lean, athletic organ player with the jaw-length hair. His name, we quickly learned from the expectant buzz that ran round the Marquee whenever he walked on stage, was Keith Emerson.
Keith did things with the Hammond organ that made our jaws drop. When he wasn’t actually playing the thing, he would climb on it, leap over it, stick knives in it, whip it, lie underneath it, turn it on and off, flail his arms up and down the keys, crash the reverb spring, bash its innards with a drum stick and generally behave like a lunatic. Although at an age when such displays of mayhem were bound to make a big impression, we couldn’t help but notice that Keith’s playing was pretty special, too. His ability to compose and improvise, working jazz and classical elements into a powerful rock style, and his instinct for creating stunning original sounds set him apart from any keyboard player I had heard before. In fact, in his blending of the physical and the cerebral, he reminded me of another favourite musician, Jimi Hendrix. Keith did for rock keyboards what Jimi Hendrix did for the guitar - I don’t think you can pay someone a much higher compliment than that!
In my humble way I went on to play a bit of keyboards myself, and of course the first serious instrument I got was a Hammond L100, just like Keith’s. We’ll draw a veil over the injuries I sustained trying to emulate my hero - cuts to the hands from attempted windmill keyboard sweeps, near-concussion and severely bruised pride when a trailing leg caught on the music stand during a failed leap over the organ, the endless bashed fingers and lifelong backaches caused by lifting this heavy instrument up flights of stairs into gigs. But what the hell… it was worth it. I’m proud to have been influenced by such a great musician as Keith Emerson, the man who single-handedly (well, double-handedly actually) put keyboards in the spotlight.
I wrote the above in November 1991 as a foreword to a Japanese book on Keith Emerson whose title I have forgotten - sorry! The version here is slightly re-written.
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