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A Tribute to Brian Davison

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Brian Davison, a drummer of no small stature, passed away April 15, 2008.

Why should you care?

Because Davison was one of the most criminally underestimated and unfairly unrecognized musicians to emerge from the UK in the late 1960's.

Davison was best known as the drummer with the Nice, Keith Emerson's group before Emerson formed the super group Emerson, Lake and Palmer. As may be expected, the fact that Davison was replaced by another drummer did little for his reputation, and I can recall seeing many articles circulating immediately after ELP formed, and for many years later, about Emerson dumping his erstwhile colleagues in the Nice for better players.

Well, first of all, it would have been an example of the untrue becoming true by repetition—a common trait in 20th and 21st century journalism. Secondly, it was an unfair evaluation of two fine players whose main fault was that they were not as commercially palatable as their replacements. Although I feel that Jackson was unfairly maligned as well, I will focus on Davison as his recent death highlights the problem of events being reported by musically illiterate journalists.

Davison started his professional career with a group called the Mark Leeman Five. When Leeman died in an unfortunate car accident, Davison held a variety of temporary jobs until he was hired by the Attack, the original group of future Nice guitarist Davy O'List. The Nice was formed as a backing band for soul singer, P.P. Arnold ("The First Cut is the Deepest") when she relocated to the UK. Initially, the Nice backed Arnold, but also did their own set. Shortly after, the Nice separated from Ms. Arnold and were slated to record independently—but the drummer in the group, Ian Hague, was alleged to be a bit moody (and was reputed to have a drug problem) and was let go. Davison auditioned and got the job. As a matter of fact, Davison himself had reportedly seen the group a few months before and sensed that the group needed him then (see Martyn Hanson's Hanging on to a Dream).

After the group was asked to appear on P.P. Arnold's Immediate album, which did not go well according to Hanson's book, they were able to start touring independently. The Nice garnered praise in the UK. They were ranked as being comparable to Cream and Hendrix, broke club records, appeared on continental and English television, and were critically praised. Indeed, the only obstacle to their success was an unsupportive record label—Immediate Records, run by former Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham, was notorious for allegedly failing to pay its artists—and this necessitated endless touring on the part of the band, meaning they could not do film soundtracks or other special projects. This put a strain on the band. Sadly, as they were on the brink of a commercial breakthrough in the U.S., Emerson announced he was disbanding the group.

The major reason for dissolving the group was the lack of commercial success of the group, especially in the U.S.

Now, back to Davison's role in the group... Davison himself was a master drummer, one of the three or four best rock drummers I ever saw live. Stylistically, he drew inspiration from jazz drummers (Art Blakey and Jack DeJohnette in particular) and was the first link between rock drummers like Keith Moon and more sophisticated intellectual drummers in the progressive rock vein like Bill Bruford.

Davison's style could be eruptive, as in pieces like "Daddy, Where Did I Come From?" in which he sounds like Keith Moon, with a little more polish, to "America," in which he does a polished roll followed by a fast as lightning snare break, to the 1969 Fillmore recording of "Country Pie" in which, to quote a late drummer friend of mine, "He sounds like he has three hands!" Other examples of the talent that he brought to the Nice were, his speed and flexibility in the 2nd and 5th movements of the Five Bridges Suite, in which he provided a darting hi—hat introduction, followed by polyrhythmic support that I have never heard any other rock drummer attempt, his light and jazzy touch on pieces like "Little Arabella" on Ars Longa Vita Brevis and the Nice's cover of Sonny Rollins' "St. Thomas". He was also one of the first rock drummers to attempt 5/4 time ("Azrael, Angel of Death" the b—side of the Nice's first single, and "Azrael Revisited"), and handled tricky rhythmic changes easily ("One of Those People"). He could also change styles easily, and often did so. All of side two of Ars Longa Vita Brevis is a panorama of styles, and "For Example" on Everything as Nice as Mother Makes It goes from style to style in a great display of versatility. Also, the drumming on the sole Refugee solo album is extraordinary—Davison is tight, speedy, and fully up—to—date with the increasing trends in music at the time for more disciplined rhythms that occurred in the mid—1970's.

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