A few months ago I published a 15,000 word look at the progressive rock era, edited by the irreplaceable Dan Kois. From time to time, readers are nice enough to correspond with more thoughts about the misunderstood music, and to ask whether I'm going to write any more about it. The answer is "yes," and molasses-slow news cycles like these make it easier to fulfill the pledge.
One of the great, neglected
musicians I talked to for the prog stories was Davy O'List, the original guitarist for The Nice. Since the pieces came out, we've talked more about the creation of the first hyper-ambitious prog rock symphony, "Ars Longa Vita Brevis." Here's how he remembers it, lightly edited from an email.
Larger scale songs Rondo and America 2nd Amendment became the most popular in The Nice live set so the natural progression was to write another large-scale musical composition which was an advancement from the present synthesis, merging new kinds of music, creating a more sophisticated mass effect. The arrangement concentrating on several self-contained pieces in the large-scale will be filmatic, thematic, and incredible.
Imagining this new journey should take us from west to east began listening to Indian classical music, in particular Ravi Shankar the sitar player and Ali Akbar Khan the sarod player. Finding two amazing albums by them in the Kings Road, thinking I was really on to something, listening to them for hours playing along with their rhythms and melodies on my acoustic, realizing I discovered something new and amazing while composing at the flat I shared with Keith in Chelsea.
Visualizing there must be pieces surrounding the new concept so the original classical, jazz, rock model could unify suited a contrasting musical overture, an original modern western classical piece with an abstract sting, resembling dramatic film material. Following the overture the new song synthesis reaches a climax, then a fast long instrumental takes over, a combination of organ and guitar solos interlaced with wild drums, accumulating in large sound explosions, which could describe incredibly dramatic film sequences.
The flat was close to my best friend’s place, James “Jimi” Hendrix, and near Blaises club, where Jimi and I used to meet up for jams. My son is called James after Hendrix. James takes up some wild stances on guitar like Jimi, over his head, through his legs, upside down, things I have never seen before. James naturally performs like this without any demonstration or seeing Jimi, it is amazing. It could be inborn and produced by nature.
The Indian classical instrument the sarod was fascinating, never heard one before. It is plucked by a kind of plectrum sometimes made out of shell. Finding playing sarod phrases on the acoustic was like playing a guitar with a plectrum was cool. It was possible to hear something in common with Akbar and Ravi, adding assimilation of sitar drones and sarod themes sounded well.
Imagining the best way to produce this for the electric band was to transfer the acoustic composition to a Rickenbacker twelve string. But that became a problem as the road manager hired failed to find a Rickenbacker by the time of the first live performance and/or later performances, so it did not transmit as well as anticipated. Yours truly was hoping to rectify this at the album recording session. (Unfortunately, the exact production of the piece was never recorded as intended; the guitar parts if any were never recorded as they were supposed to be.) This became the overture of a final piece I brought to the band, which would continue as a symphonic track to fit one side of an album, First movement, Second Movement etc., which I explained to the band would be the entire piece. This was not Emerson’s idea as you printed.
The quartet could assimilate an electric rock orchestra. However, should this track take off live The Nice could afford to hire a full symphony orchestra to boost and enhance, play additional parts and the composition would be more appropriate for film tracks. The next step in mind was to score it for orchestra in keeping with yours truly original plan from the Royal College of Music. Wanting to write the longest piece, enough to fill one side of an album and long enough to use as a film track, film music was the next episode and to write the development of the present fusion by merging new kinds of music to create a more advanced synthesis.
Successful performances of these large-scale compositions set the pattern of success for many other groups, King Crimson, Yes, Jethro Tull, ELP, and others. They were inspired to pick up ideas and structure from it. Establishing this sound as commercial was a big break through, so I am thinking I must have invented Progressive Rock based on analysis, reading, and listening. I am this musical visionary.
O'List is done with a new album, to be released later in the year. He envisions a tour that would, to resort to a cliche, get the band back together. "The Keith Emerson Group with special guest star Davy O’List and Second Thoughts, touring USA Europe and Far East," he says. "Far out!"