Famous bands’ first guitarists: there’s possibly a book to be written there. You know: the ones that either left, lost their marbles or turned up at the studio to find that their gear was in a skip outside with no explanation (only to get a phone call from a roadie two months later) etc. etc.
From The Yardbirds onwards (Eric Clapton making way for the superior Jeff Beck) the ‘60s and ‘70s are littered with examples of groups who lost founding axe men only to finally make it big. Pink Floyd, of course, had Syd Barrett who, at least, had a few months working WITH his replacement, David (don’t call me ‘Dave’) Gilmour before he was ousted; The Moody Blues lost future Wings member, Denny Laine, but ended up with Justin Hayward (un)luckily for them; Thin Lizzy’s Eric Bell drank himself out of a job, only to find that his replacement of TWO guitarists would lead the Irish rockers to world domination; Jethro Tull replaced Mick Abrahams with Martin Barre; Genesis parted ways with Anthony Phillips due to his stage fright (which almost split the band up) before they opted for Steve Hackett; and Yes ejected Pete Banks after a brief power struggle (and a disagreement about the use of an orchestra on their second album, Time and a Word), meaning that they could employ boring old perfectionist, Steve Howe.
Which brings me to the subject of this episode of Lousy Song, Great Solo: David ‘Davy’ O’List, who had the honour of being in TWO bands who went on to greater things after he left them: The Nice and Roxy Music. The poor guy must have felt cursed.
Born in Barnet, and rising to prominence in London’s swinging sixties scene in a third rate bunch of psychedelic chancers known as The Attack (whose biggest claim to fame was that they recorded ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’ a few days before Jeff Beck), he was nonetheless a gritty, suitably far-out guitarist who (not unlike Pete Banks in Yes) actually managed that most difficult of tricks: having a truly distinctive sound. Unfortunately (again, as with Banks) the ability to play is rarely enough when you’re in a band with some other erm… strong personalities. Fate was ultimately not kind to these men.
O’List was recruited to join the ensemble that had initially been put together as P.P. Arnold’s backing band by Immediate label boss, and industry manager/provocateur, Andrew Loog Oldham, The Nice. Of course the band already had one show-off in their ranks in the shape of organ-mutilator, Keith Emerson. However at this stage Emerson’s legendary stage high-jinks were tempered by a deft touch on the B3 which owed a lot to his jazz heroes (Jimmy Smith etc.). He had yet to meet Bob Moog and unleash the full force of progressive rock on an unsuspecting public. But along with the powerful and sprightly rhythm section of Brian Davison (drums) and Lee Jackson (bass and gruff vocalisation) The Nice were, in truth, true pioneers. Their sound was both muscular and psychedelic, matching sonic experimentation with classical chops and the ability to stretch out arrangements live. Add to this Emerson’s exhibitionism, such as his tendency to stab his Hammond organ with a Hitler Youth dagger (given to him by their roadie at the time, Lemmy Kilminster), and the band were all set to become one of THE bands to watch in the Summer of Love.
Equally adept at mauling respectable stuff by Bernstein (‘America’) or Bach (ahem… ‘Brandenburger’) as well as writing their own freak-friendly numbers, The Nice looked set for big things. But this was 1967 and show business had yet to understand how to handle or present such wild stuff. It’s here that O’List’s story not only crosses paths with Syd Barrett, but even comes to mirror it. The band were booked on a ‘package’ tour with what now seems like a dream ticket for anyone interested in the period. Stuffed low down on a bill that included The Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Move, Pink Floyd and Amen Corner, time constraints meant that each act played short sets which veered wildly in content and barely allowed for the full force of their stage craft. Remember, this was famously the period of misguided ‘commercialisation’ which was leading Syd Barrett to rapidly unravel. With a hit (‘See Emily Play’) on their hands and faced with screaming teenagers, such a tour didn’t sit well with the Floyd (or indeed many of these acts who were trying to break free of their ‘pop’ shackles in search of something loftier and more exploratory). Syd became more and more unreliable as the tour trundled on.
It’s interesting to note that Syd’s legendary instability actually led to O’List being drafted in at the last minute to sit in for the missing Madcap at a few shows. By all accounts he was more than up to the task. And yet, less than a year later, the strains of competing with an ego as large as Emerson’s had begun to take a similar toll on the guitarist. Well, either that or some kind of chemicals… Scant footage of the band (see below) shows O’List cowering in the background, unable to compete with the organist’s flailing acrobatics. The camera barely registers his presence.
What’s more, some accounts paint O’List as suffering similar mental troubles to Barrett, but whatever the truth, he, himself, became unreliable, arriving late for gigs etc. and following a fateful gig at Croydon’s Fairfield Hall the axe fell.
It’s here that O’List’s destiny almost crosses paths with another of the guitarists mentioned above – Steve Howe – as it was he who was initially auditioned as a replacement. When he eventually turned down the job the band continued as a trendy power trio (in the mould of long-forgotten pioneers, Clouds), upped the classical pretensions and eventually imploded due to lack of success and Emerson’s longings to find a better vocalist (more of which later) and be taken seriously as a composer (stop sniggering at the back).
A couple of years drifting in rock limbo for O’List ended briefly when he placed an ad in the music press looking for a band to fill the void in his professional life. As it happened the person to answer was none other than Bryan Ferry who’d seen O’List in concert at Newcastle City hall in 1968 and had been impressed. And for half a year O’List helped Roxy Music gain shape, even up to the point of recording five numbers for John Peel’s Top Gear show, all of which would eventually turn up on the band’s debut album a year later. By all accounts (barring O’List’s – his own account makes for some mighty peculiar reading) the guitarist’s eccentricities quickly wore on the other members and with a young PhilipTargett-Adams (later to be renamed Manzanera) in the wings as their road manager, the writing was on the wall. Once more fame and fortune had eluded O’List.
This isn’t the end of his story, however. As the above linked interview recounts, O’List’s hasty ejection from Roxy seemed to have left Ferry feeling uncharacteristically guilty, and he was invited back to provide some guitar on Ferry’s second solo album, Another Time, Another Place. O’List’s claims to have played on the later hit, ‘Let’s Stick Together’ seem somewhat far-fetched, yet his contribution to Ferry’s ‘74 hit: a version of Dobie Grey’s mod classic, ‘The ‘In’ Crowd’, is an undeniable fact. I’d even considered picking this number as the subject for this LSGS. The wigged-out solo at the close of the track is just about the only thing that redeems its rather plodding approach. Attacking a soul classic with a rhythm section made up of not only Roxy’s Paul Thompson (never a subtle drummer) but also John Wetton on bass was never really going to suit the number, and Ferry’s delivery can only be described as dull.
But to return to the subject of this article: back in 1967 The Nice were signed to Immediate records and recording their debut album which went under the amusingly cod-serious title of The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack (see what they did there?). This was to be The Nice at their most concise and approachable as well as their most psychedelic. The album, coupled with the single version of ‘America’ (which features a great solo by O’List at its core), would turn out to be one of the great defining documents of English psych. From the revved up re-tooling of Dave Brubeck’s ‘Blue Rondo A La Turk’ (here renamed ‘Rondo’) via the full-on baroque pop explosions of the title track and outtake (included on reissue), ‘Diamond Hard Blue Apples Of The Moon’ to the creepy experimentalism of tracks like ‘Dawn’; the album is actually a delightful product of its time. O’List is on fire throughout: just check out his explosive intro to ‘Bonny K’. However, also very much a product of its time are Lee Jackson’s hokey, jokey, florid lyrics.
While I can understand why Emerson would eventually tire of Jackson’s rasping, oft-shouted vocals, preferring the angelic pipes of Greg Lake as an accompaniment to his mock-symphonies, I have a bit of a soft spot for his voice. On later work, such as their take on Dylan’s ‘Country Pie’, I think his Geordie bluster fits the bill nicely. But there are times when it can grate terribly. One such moment is on the song chosen for this series: ‘The Cry Of Eugene’.
Closing the album, this track sums up just about everything both right and wrong with The Nice. Emerson’s delicate organ intro displays a sensitivity that runs counter to his usual, more outré approach (as on the bombastic piano ending to ‘Tantalizing Maggie’ which Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman used as a comedy jingle for years on his Radio 1 rock show) and promises far more than is delivered. O’List at this stage limits himself to a weird, overdriven viola-like accompaniment. Enter Jackson, burbling what can be only described as psychedelic drivel. The song’s dreamy atmosphere is completely broken by his barking delivery of lines like ‘’The cry of three plus two times nothing at all, splits all time’s mind asunder.’’ Please, if anyone has the foggiest idea what the song’s about, let me know. Here, the internet has failed me…*
Building in intensity the song reaches a histrionic zenith at the exact mid-point where a frankly wobbly cornet adds a touch of typical English baroque-ness accompanied by Emerson’s thumping Rachmaninov impersonations and all hope seems lost. But out of nowhere at 2’ 45’’ comes O’List playing an arpeggiated, fuzz-drenched six-note motif that rips open the feyness and forcefully shoves the song into its tortured climax. Six notes, played over and over but they all matter. It’s as if someone left the studio door open and the zombie ghost of Jeff Beck walked right in. From this point on all hell breaks loose. Beneath Jackson’s laboured delivery O’List goes positively APESHIT. I can still remember the first time I heard this as a teenager, and even then I recognised the greatness. And, if that weren’t enough, as a masterstroke, 20 seconds before the end of the track the motif reappears, devouring all before it until the song does the only thing it can: stop dead.
Nearly 50 years on, the track (and the album) remain favourites of mine, mainly for O’List’s manic attack. Jackson obviously felt offended by his bandmates’ treatment of the song as he re-recorded an insipid version on the debut album by his follow-up band, Jackson Heights. This version just emphasised how lousy the song was, and yet O’List’s solo remains a highlight of British ‘60s rock.
*Also, I have no idea if the use of the name Eugene had any influence whatsoever on The Pink Floyd’s later ‘Careful With That Axe Eugene’.