The Nice formed in the 60s and originally consisted of Keith Emerson on keyboards, Lee Jackson on bass, Brian Davison on drums, and David O'List on guitar. The name was allegedly taken from contemporary slang for getting high. In his autobiography, Keith Emerson had a different explanation for the name which involved an English comic.
While their initial work was aimed at the psychedelic set, they were still obviously influenced by classical and jazz elements. The band's early works included covers of several classical compositions, pieces by Dave Brubeck, and quotes from Leonard Bernstein's 'West Side Story'. In some ways, this was the height of musical pretention, though there is no question the members of the band had the musical skill to pull it off. The list of classical and jazz composers they covered is long and extensive. While the originality and skill of their arrangements is unquestionable, they actually played more compositions by others than by their own members.
Main Creative Force
Inevitably, despite the incredible skills of the rest of the band, attention seemed to end up on keyboardist, Keith Emerson. As if his skill on piano, organ, and synthesizer was not enough, Emerson would literally wrestle and struggle with the instruments, including a Hammond L-100 organ he would tip over and attack with daggers. The organ had to be repaired after every show and the daggers were provided by a young Lemmy Kilmister, future leader of Motorhead, who was a roadie for The Nice. Emerson and the rest of The Nice often shocked and amazed audiences with their performance antics, even though their musical skill alone was plenty to win most audiences over. Emerson infamously burned an American flag on the stage of the Royal Albert Hall, an act that got them banned from ever performing there again. (Though Emerson later DID perform at Albert Hall with his next band, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer).
Most Likely To Be A Mainstream Rocker
The Nice was one band that really didn't have anyone who ever seemed likely to go mainstream, or even want to. In fact, the eventual demise of the band came about because they weren't able to get mainstream success on their own terms. The reality for The Nice was that they were too tightly connected to their classical and modern jazz influences. It was as if they really couldn't break away and do anything simple. Consequently, it is impossible to point to any member of the band that might ever have shown up in a successful pop band.
First Hint of Prog Brilliance
Their first album, The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack, was a clear indicator of what this band was about. The album included the Brubeck piece, 'Blue Rondo a la Turk', quotes from the composer Janacek, and an arrangement of Bernstein's 'America'. With those pieces featured on the album, there could be no doubt this band was diving into the deep end of the prog pool.
The band continued to crank out complex and demanding arrangements of classical and jazz music. Their second album was called Ars Longa Vita Brevis and was as impressively eclectic and demanding as their first, with little better popular reception. The band's incredible live shows continued to amaze, but subsequent albums tended to have less original material and consisted of some live tracks and compilations of earlier works.
Influenced By Them
It is difficult to say how much cross-influence was shared by early prog artists like The Nice, King Crimson, Arthur Brown and others. Without question, much of what The Nice did was carried over by Keith Emerson as he formed Emerson, Lake, & Palmer. ELP was known to do the occasional Nice piece and many of Emerson's onstage tricks were revived from The Nice's stage shows. Of the three groups that produced the members of ELP, The Nice is probably the one that was most similar to the super group in terms of musical output.
The band came to an end in frustration in 1970. Their lack of commercial success led to the breakup. Keith Emerson famously went on to join with Greg Lake and Carl Palmer to firm the first true prog super-group; Emerson, Lake, & Palmer. The Nice is still highly regarded by prog aficianados and as recently as 2002, they re-united for a few shows. They are remembered as much for their insane live shows as for their incredible instrumental skills.
My Personal Take
The Nice is a band that actually pre-dated my record-buying days. But as I became familiar with the history of ELP, it was inevitable that I would get my hands on some Nice music. What I ended up with was numerous live tracks which had a raw and unrefined sound, yet clearly showed incredible musical skill. Over the years, I managed to catch some video of Emerson in action in The Nice's live shows and it was clearly a predecessor to some of the more bombastic stage shows for ELP in the days of the California Jam and the Brain Salad Surgery tours to come.
One final prog anecdote related to this band: I once won a DJ trivia contest in a night club because I could name the three bands from which Keith Emerson, Greg Lake, and Carl Palmer came to form ELP. The Nice was obviously one-third of the answer.