Top Fifty 15: The Nice – Ars Longa Vita Brevis, 1968

[Originally posted January 2013]

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Lucky Latin

This is one of the earliest albums I owned, and one of the earliest truly psychedelic ones. Released in 1968, I will have certainly had a copy in 1969 for reasons I will explain shortly.

Its psychedelia is a perfect mirror of the genre at this time: there are childlike, playful songs mixed with progressive interpretations of classical music. Indeed, that latter penchant for such acts pilfering from the classical catalogue was the catalyst for me and many others my age to take a serious interest in classical music at a time when we had little reason to do so otherwise, and I certainly had no nurturing from family for this.

A typical playful song is second track Little Arabella with its lounge-organ sound, Beatlesesque horn arrangement, and silly lyrics to a bubbly silly tune. But what wonderful fun. Even opening track Daddy, Where Did I Come From taps into a youthful sense of rebellion [though hardly revolutionary: instead, a conventional birds and bees query] but the question asked is mocked by its melodramatic tone and the naff parental response to which the asker seems to be dying in agonised rejection of that naffness. There is the requisite use of the child’s voice too; with more to come. Third track Happy Feuds is equally pop-central with Keith Emerson’s Hammond organ as the pervading hint that something musically more dynamic is about to happen. Again, childlike vocals sing the essential nonsense of the lyrics, but within that nonsense about ‘knowing themselves’, it actually hooks into the adolescent questioning of personal identity, so I think it really did appeal at the time more deeply than it can – platitude alert – listening now.

It’s fourth track Intermezzo from the Karelia Suite, from Sibelius, where the ‘seriousness’ kicks in. It is a rousing tune in its own right, but the organ with pounding drums and bass of respectively Brian Davison and Ian Hague leading into the jazz organ solo announces its prog credentials with virtuoso skill and volume. It ends too on a psychedelic noise-jam leading back to the romp of its main melody which was genuinely adventurous for its time. Emerson’s L-100 huffs and puffs and swirls are stonking.

That’s side 1 on the LP, and side 2 is the prog rock suite Ars Longa Vita Brevis which translates to ‘Art is long, life is short’, a suitably grand maxim for a band of the time and inclination, and again adolescent aspirations to being creative. Its five movements contain another requisite of the time – the drum solo – and there is also a full orchestra used for some parts. Emerson indulges himself in some piano virtuosity as well in 2nd Movement – Realisation before returning to full orchestra and Hammond for the 3rd Movement – Acceptance ‘Brandenburger’ where the jazzy appropriation of J S Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No 3 is brilliant, and quite beautiful. The classics made cool for this 15/16 year old at least.

The Latin maxim of the album’s title and the side 2 suite formed the basis for my English ‘O’ Level creative writing exam in 1969. I don’t now recall how I was able to use this and its named movements – Awakening, Realisation, Acceptance, Denial – but I did, relishing the conscious manipulation to sound knowledgeable and informed. I do vaguely remember really enjoying what I wrote and how I incorporated the gist of the aphorism in some youthful declaration of creative intent. Pretentious? Hell yes. And of course I did well, but as an eventual English teacher I never lost sight of the fortuity of the examination process this had presented me and thus its many flaws, though in this case I was able to make positive use of the opportunity.

So for many reasons this album is important both musically and as significant memory and deserves its place in my Top Fifty.

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