DADDY, WHERE DID PROG COME FROM?

Released in November 1968, Ars Longa Vita Brevis was the second album by The Nice. Their first, 1967’s The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack, has some classic psychedelic songs (“Flower King of Flies” is a personal fave) and clear progressive characteristics, exemplified by Keith Emerson’s keyboard work on “Rondo”, but you could not call it a ‘progressive’ album; it’s too ’67.

In fact, even before their first recording The Nice were expanding the territory a pop band could inhabit. A marvellous archival recording for the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation from October 1967 includes the following:

A cover of Dylan’s “She belongs to me”

An extended arrangement of jazz explorer Charles Lloyd’s “Sombrero Sam” 

A pensive blues-rock cover of “You keep me hanging on” (more Vanilla Fudge than the Supremes)

A twelve minute jamming workout on “Rondo” from the first album (a piece which borrows heavily from Dave Brubeck’s Blue Rondo à la Turk). 

Pretty much covers the bases mentioned in the previous post, really. And all those elements are present on The Nice’s sophomore LP, with the progressive themes much more fully developed. 

Ars Longa Vita Brevis is an LP with grand ambitions. While the Moody Blues employed an orchestra to lush up the pop poetry of their 1967 album Days of Future Past, in the title suite of their ’68 album, The Nice gave the world the first ‘rock group and orchestra’ excursion. What is more, I’d suggest that if you sequence the album in reverse you don’t have a ‘psych into prog’ LP, but in fact a bona fide progressive album with a couple of (psychedelic) songs thrown in. Here’s how it unfolds, backwards…

The “Ars Longa Vita Brevis” suite consists of a prelude (composed by Keith Emerson) featuring organ and the full orchestral surge, four movements (the third of which, “Brandenburger” was snitched from Bach) and a brief coda. 

Each movement has a title (an affectation frequently utilised by Yes in the subsequent decade) and they segue together smoothly. 

“Awakening” is, perhaps unfortunately, primarily a percussion solo from Brian Davidson. Still, there is a lightness of touch and luckily it doesn’t stay around too long (but quite long enough). 

“Realisation” is the song-section, with the title—generally translated as ‘Art is long, Life is short’ and attributed to the Greek ‘Father of Medicine’ Hippocrates—leading off the verses penned by Lee Jackson. Guitar accompanies the beginning of this section, provided by the recently departed David O’List, before a lively (and trebly) drum-piano duel between Emerson and Davidson.

Johann Sebastian’s Brandenburg Concerto No.3 (Allegro) with orchestra (arr. The Nice) adds a rockingly Classical energy to the suite, though strictly speaking that should read Baroque. Nevertheless, although rocking up the classics had been done before and was certainly beaten to death in later years (not least by Emerson himself), here it sounds impressive. The trio playing is great and the orchestration (Robert Stewart) deft and complimentary. It’s easy to imagine JS himself might have wigged out to this, especially the bluesy bits.

The fourth movement, “Denial” is an organ driven trio section that could easily have come from the third Emerson Lake & Palmer album. Keith is in great form, the unit cooks, and a good proggy time is had by all until vocals remind us of the title and, as Emerson’s organ triplets fade, the orchestra returns for a big finale and you want to stand and applaud.

Leading off the other side of the LP (in our reverse programming) is Emerson’s arrangement of Sibelius’ “Intermezzo from the Karelia Suite”. Once again, you can hear the direction Emerson is heading and why. If you are a virtuoso keyboard player with limited compositional chops, re-inventing the works of others is one way to go. I really like this nine minute adventure: the martial drumming, the experimental organing, the pomp and strut of the whole.

That leaves three pop-psych songs to complete the album.

“Happy Freuds” is pure British psychedelia; quirky, full of cheek and dripping studio effects. The theme—self-awareness and pop psychology—amply demonstrates the desire to expand the lyrical template of popular music.

“Little Arabella” is an organ-driven barrelhouse romp about a hapless young woman about town who can’t quite get it together, possibly due to “the smoke coming out of her head”. This one is a companion piece to, say, “Jeremy Bender” (on Tarkus) or perhaps a second cousin to “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” (from the ‘White Album’ released the same month).

Rounding out Ars Longa Vita Brevis is the wonderfully potty “Daddy, Where Did I Come From?”, an amusing song about trying to explain the facts of life. The lyrics are included below, but don’t quite capture the child’s contribution nor the desperate, terrified voice of the titular Dad. No wonder he turns to drink.

So I wonder why when the pie in the sky

Gets green at the edge, jumps a senile hedge

And asks questions

So I asked my ma, and she said ask your pa

And he said ask your ma, and wonders why his kids ask questions

So you fill me up with the gooseberry bush, and tales of the stork

And you tell me to hush when I ask questions

(synthesised)

Daddy, where do I come from?

(spoken, man)

Well son, you rather caught your old dad on the hop

I suppose the birds and the bees they won’t do, no, no they won’t do

Think of flowers, the flower carrying the seed, yeah that’s mommy

Mommy the flower, and your daddy sort of fornicates the flower

No, no, pollinates, fornicates, pollinates

No son, you didn’t just grow in the garden

No, daddy didn’t pick you

No, you stayed with the flower

And you sort of grew and grew and grew, and suddenly you’re you

That won’t do son? No, uh, well, it’s the best I can do

(spoken, boy)

No daddy, the fertilisation occurs when the male seeds reach the female egg

You’re drunk, you’re drunk

With your back teeth floating in a gallon of booze

You can’t even work out how to fasten your shoes

You get yourself into such a state

You’re found drunk in charge of a roller skate

It’s no small wonder that you can’t even answer questions

It’s a while since I’ve devoted so many lines to a single LP, but Ars Longa Vita Brevis is, I believe, a landmark album. Its interpolation of high culture into pop (Bach, Sibelius and a Latin title, thank you very much), its expanded lyrical concerns, the virtuoso (keyboard) playing; all these combine to earn this album a significant place in the story of progressive music.

The Nice are without doubt an important part of the answer to the question posed in the title.

47 comments

  1. Nice Ars Bruce! they were a band that was completely unknown to me – apart from name and Keith Emerson. They are now ‘on the list’. I love the LP cover too.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Isn’t that cover terrific, Joe! One of my faves from the decade. And may your Vita be Longo.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I think I would have gone for ‘Ars Whole’ as a post title, but you’re more refined than I am.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m speechless.
      But if you get sick of the law, there’s a job for you writing tabloid headlines, for sure.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Sadly, you may be right.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Nah, he’d just make an Ars of himself…

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Same here, I’ve heard Emerson, Lake & Palmer but never heard of this band, you’re a pretty persuasive advocate, I’ll look up these tunes for a listen, I’d like to hear what they did with “Rondo.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great! If you know the Brubeck, you may be outraged, btw.
      Can I also suggest starting with the ‘Intermezzo’ on Ars Longa Vita Brevis?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. ¡A sus órdenes jefe! (You’re the maestro, will do! thank you) 🙂 Yes, I’ve at least been exposed to piano jazz by my parents’ collection, and my sister is currently in a jazz ensemble at her college, so hearing a few new pieces lately.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. That’s terrific. I really love jazz, and listen to a lot (despite not being knowledgeable from the ‘inside’) but rarely write about it. Been promising myself a Miles Davis article on 1968 (alongside the other 50 year tributes) but haven’t quite got the momentum yet!

          Liked by 1 person

  4. How do you feel about Days of Future Passed as ground zero for prog? It’s got the concept, the orchestration, although it is pretty psychedelic/67.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ‘Days’ is important, as is its successor (due for attention very soon). But there is nothing progressive about the actual orchestration – could be Enoch Light in most places. ‘Peak hour’ is one of my favourite moments in the entire panoply of psychedelic pop and the concept is certainly the first of its kind.
      So, overall, ‘Days of future passed’ is a key staging post on the journey from psych/pop to progressive. But in a way, the whole point of this series is that there isn’t a single point of origin. ‘Prog’ emerged out of progressive music, which emerged out of psychedelic pop, which…

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yes, you’re correct about that -it is pretty syrupy orchestration. I think that To Our Children’s Children’s Children is their best and most unified concept album, but it emerged in November 1969, after In The Court of the Crimson King, which is perhaps the first fully formed prog rock album?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. That’s the general consensus, isn’t it? And a very strong argument can be mounted to defend that claim. Used to have such discussions all the time, back in the day. Now I find myself more interested in the zone rather than the point, the movement rather than the moment of arrival. This series has opened up that musical journey in a way I hadn’t expected, so I think I’ll continue to share some of my re-discoveries in the hope that others might find that the word ‘progressive’ is actually pretty cool and exciting.
          We’ll see. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Yes, it’s good to see the journey. Can put out their first album before King Crimson too – don’t know enough about some of the other big Krautrock bands.

          Liked by 1 person

        3. From late ’69 it all gets very complicated!

          Liked by 1 person

        4. And it’s when Bryan Adams got his first six string…,.

          Liked by 1 person

        5. I wonder what his girlfrien at the time thought of him telling everyone he found her at the five and dime…

          Liked by 2 people

        6. I always thought that bit was about self-stimulation.

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  5. Though picturing the family tree itself (reminding myself that a second cousin is the child of your parent’s first cousin) is complex, learning that Arabella & Bill are somewhat connected helps give a reference point for me!
    I like that reverse proposal – should I encounter this one, that’s how I plan on listening

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Arabella and Bill are a match made in heaven, Geoff. I imagine you’ll add them to your rock genealogy forthwith.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow. Just… wow, this sounds amazing. They even went for Baroque, there…

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Very good. The cover version of Bernstein’s “America” was well known. The cover of the single was a compilation of different images with the heads of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. At a concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London, they also burned a US flag. This resulted in a lifelong banning in the Royal Albert Hall.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Being a big ELP fan, I really wanted to get into this band but I only ever enjoyed some of their tunes. Maybe too 1967 for me!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. A thoroughly good read, Bruce. I feel it would be rude of me not to at least give it a listen!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thus proving what a thoroughly decent chap you are, J.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Persausive. May become the background to the Demons Vs Hawks elimination game tonight. Will have to be YouTube tho (as >$40 and a long wait for delivery from UK for a CD).
    Game has started; got to go.
    Thanks Bruce.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No worries (he says, answering at half time). I paid but 5 quid for the vinyl at Fopp in Covent Garden three years ago. How could a CD be that pricey? Outrageous. Write to the Prime Minister (if you can remember who it is).
      (Thanks DD).

      Like

      1. The Ars… soundscape has possibly added a comic feel to the game, due, I think, to the mix of long kicking, harsh stops and explosive speed of running from both sides.
        Your review had me wondering whether the album would have an arc or sense of integrity but it seems to -or maybe that’s coming from the game. Some parts made me think about the excess of seriousness of Jacques Loussier V’s The Nice.
        Thanks.

        Liked by 1 person

  11. A great review, Bruce. I think the Nice sometimes get lost in rock history and not just prog. – Marty

    Liked by 1 person

    1. True, Marty. Thanks for reading. Probably a few more of these to come!
      -Bruce

      Like

  12. I’ve never really felt the need to listen to the Nice but now I have, quite a surprise, it’s starts off like Ben folds. Never realized they actually did songs !

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad to have prompted an enjoyable listening experience Mr Moulty!

      Liked by 1 person

  13. You know your “Prog” (is there another word for Prog?) Bruce. After living with ELP I went on to find where they came from. Like I said i was a big Emerson guy but found a lot more with The Nice music.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We’re in agreement (again) CB. The Nice are definitely under appreciated.

      (I tend to use “progressive” unless I’m referring exclusively to the mid-70s behemoths (Y, G, ELP), but there’s no completely satisfactory term, is there?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Bruce, the first Nice album I picked up is just tilted ‘The Nice’. It is a different cover (same music) than the one you see around. It’s silver metallic with a drawing of a women disrobing on a love seat. Art work by a Paul Weldon. If that means anything to you.
        Since I’ve tuned into this blog thing, folks like you have me revisiting some of my original music. Most of it still sounds pretty damn good to me. I have been listening to a lot of the “unsatisfactory termed music”. Not so great term but really good sounds. I forget how much I was into it. I also find that it really has some similarities to the jazz I listen to..

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Absolutely. That was part of what I was trying to convey in the first part: that progressive music incorporated and/or adapted different styles. The “jazz” component is really significant and, as you rightly point out, a vital part of the Nice sound.
          I think you’re going to enjoy the next post too, mate.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. I enjoy all your posts some a little bit more than others. Funny when i was reading your take i was listening to Dave Brubeck. Now if we can just come up with a better term. I do like “Unsatisfactory Termed Music” I won’t be able to sleep anticipating the “next post”. Later Gator.

          Liked by 1 person

  14. My big brother had that album. I remember staring at that cover for a long time wondering what could possibly be inside. So odd to see it here, now, so many years later. Really takes me back. This is why digital music sucks. No covers.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There are many reasons why dig files suck, but you’ve sure named one of the key ones. Love that air of mystery you evoked/remembered.
      Thanks for visiting, E on PS.
      – Bruce

      Like

  15. As a physician, I feel compelled to point out that “Ars Longa Vita Brevis” are two lines from the writings of Hippocrates, he of the Hippocratic Oath. As of now, they’ve taken on additional significance!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Not ‘a‘ physician, JDB; rather ‘The Esteemed Physician by Appointment to Vinyl Connection’ a post whose honour almost equals the most minimal honorarium.

      And yes, I did manage to work Hippocrates into the text (the para beginning “Realisation”) but should have given his contribution much greater prominence. Abject apologies.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I hearby humbly accept my VC appointment and accompanying title. Very honored. And bad on me for somehow missing your mention of Hippocrates. The full quote is worth citing, as the words apply to so much in life: “Life is short, art long, opportunity fleeting, experience treacherous, judgment difficult.”

        Liked by 1 person

        1. It is often omitted from text books, but I think it was Socrates who said of Hippocrates, ‘That cat knows his shit’.

          Liked by 1 person

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