N I C K N I C E L Y
From Record Collector 210 (1997) 138-139 reproduced with permission.
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NICK NICELY - Jeff Ross finally reveals the true identity of the mysterious 80s psychedelicist.
A couple of years ago a friend of mine played me a tape of a Radio Caroline show hosted by Nick Saloman, frontman of psychedelic mischief-makers the Bevis Frond. It included a song called Hilly Fields issued on EMI in 1982 and credited to a certain Nick Nicely. The single was apparently one of only two records ever released by this artist.
To say that Hilly Fields blew me away was an understatement - and the more I heard it, the more enchanted I became.
Unlike the output of psychedelic revivalists like the Dukes of Stratosphear (XTC's alter ego) and The Bevis Frond, this single is, I believe, the most important piece of psychedelia since the Beatles' Strawberry Fields Forever.
There were, however, a few things that puzzled me. Why would a major record company like EMI release just this one Nick Nicely single? There was no follow-up, no album, no publicity, and the single sank without a trace. And who was this Nick Nicely anyway? Could it be a pseudonym for someone mega famous? I decided to try to track down this mysterious character and get a few answers.
Because ''Hilly Fields has been issued by EMI, I assumed it had been recorded at Abbey Road. A letter from that studio proved me wrong, but it did suggest that I contact the EMI music archives in Hayes. This I did, and a man called Paul Coldwell wrote back several weeks later giving me Nick's address. After what seemed like an eternity, Nicely eventually contacted me, and on a bright autumnal afternoon we finally met up at his home in South London. This is his story . . .
After an exotic entrance into the world - he was born Nickolas Laurien, in Greenland during a stopover on a transatlantic flight - Nicely was raised in the rather more prosaic environs of Hitchin, Hertfordshire. Later, he moved to London and he currently lives in Catford just a stone's throw away from Hilly Fields Park in Lewisham. Yes, just like ''Itchycoo Park", it really does exist.
As a child, Nick used to tune into the 60s radio favorites of the day - the Beatles, the Hollies, the Searchers - but he suddenly turned his back on mainstream pop after hearing the Cuff-Links' 1969 single, "Tracy" (MCA MU 1101). This led him to explore the underground sounds of the time like Deep Purple, Jethro Tull, King Crimson, and Spooky Tooth.
Aged 10, Nick began playing harmonica before progressing to guitar six years later. Together with several close fiends he then formed the Nick Nicely Band, a knockabout combo which mainly played college gigs. When the other members lost interest, Nick was left alone with the recording equipment they clubbed together to buy.
By 1978 Nick was working on his own demos and soon had around 60 songs, with titles like "Woolwich" and Lazy Days. Hawking them around London he found some success with the West End publishing firm Heath Levy, who also handled Steve Miller and the Eagles. They thought Nick's songs could be covered by other artists.
Upon signing a deal, Nick received a small advance and some free studio time which he used to record his first single "DCT Dreams"/"Treeline". A friend called Jeff Leach joined him on keyboards. "He was a key part of that single", says Nick. "He was a classically-trained keyboardist and it was with him that I started to do this abstract stuff when I returned from a visit to America in early 1980. It was a very liberating period".
Nick started to shop around for a label to release DCT Dreams, with Charisma at one point showing a keen interest. In the event, he opted to release it himself establishing his own imprint Voxette, funded by the swift sale of his recording equipment.
Nick plugged the record from Heath Levy's office: I went to Radio 1 again and again he recalls, "then after a while the bastards started playing it"
With support from DJs like Peter Powell and Mike Read, the single began to take off and Nick negotiated a distribution deal with Ariola who demanded that the 900 Voxette copies be returned to them. However, by the time the fresh pressing reached the shops in January 1980, Radio 1 had removed the record from its playlist and it faded without a trace.
Meanwhile, Ariola licensed DCT Dreams across Europe, gifting Nick with a hit in two overseas territories [the Netherlands & France - WS]. Around this time the track was also penciled in for inclusion on the Some Bizarre compilation (SBL 1) -now famous for its early Soft Cell and The The recordings. However, the label's boss Stevo left the track off at the last minute when he realized the song was still readily available on the continent.
Spurred on by the single's success as a Euro pop record, Nick then began work on his next project. "I don't know where Hilly fields came from" he admits. "I've got some of the very early demos which all have that hook, but originally it was more 'Euro'. The cello appeared because in Christmas 1980, I was sitting by the fire and asked my mum if she'd seen that cello player I'd known as a kid . . . his name was Rickman Godlee, and he never did another session after mine. Later on, Trevor Horn told me it was some of the best cello playing, pitch-wise, he'd ever heard."
Hilly Fields was recorded at Heath Levy and Alvic Studios in Barons Court, West London. Aiding Nick were Ian Pierce on drums, Jeff Leach on keyboards, and the mysterious 'Kate'. A few years ago, it was rumoured that this enigmatic figure was none other than Kate Bush (a familiar-sounding female voice sings the line ''pimply little postboy"), but Nick will neither confirm nor deny this. So at least one Nick Nicely mystery remains . . .
With Nick yet again selling everything he owned in order to pay for studio time, Hlilly Fields took six months to record. At times, Nick worried that he was throwing away good money after bad. "The first Hilly Fields session was in December 1980," he recalls, and I was still tidying up in May 1981. Then we did some post-production work and it still sounded shit. I was in a terrible mess, because I had invested so much money in it".
But after a month of EQ-ing, and generally cleaning up the recording, the final mix of the song eventually emerged from the speakers. "It was a real moment", says Nick. "I knew I had improved it massively, and from then onwards, people sat up when they heard it".
Because of the success of DCT Dreams, Nicely was courted by several management companies, but initially declined their services. "I got the EMI contract myself, but then I thought, well look, I can't deal with EMI directly, so I went through the phone book and ended up with this disastrous manager. It turned out he'd had some dealings with EMI in the past, and they totally blanked him. Basically, it ended up with just me talking to the label"
Originally, a track called '6 B. Obergene' was scheduled for the flip, but just three days before the record was due to be cut, Nicely replaced it with a brand new song, "49 Cigars", on which he played everything except drums. It was mixed in one day, and the first time EMI heard it was in the cutting room. "It was a wondrous track" smiles Nick. "I feel very warm towards it because it was so easy to do".
Over a year after it was first conceived, Hilly Fields (1892) was finally issued in January 1982. However, Nick believes that, because of the bad feeling between his label and management, little effort was put into promoting it. He claims that Radio 1 weren't even given a copy, and the record sold largely by word-of-mouth.
"I took a couple into Broadcasting House myself, but they seemed a bit embarrassed, remembers Nick. "I think they wanted me to make a Kajagoogoo-type record".
Today, Nick thinks that going with EMI was possibly his biggest mistake: The process at the time was to get a lot of mud, chuck it at the wall and see how much sticks. But it was difficult for me at the time - I was seeing other major labels, but it obviously seemed to fit EMI and Abbey Road and the little psychedelic revival that was going on at the time".
Following the Hilly Fields debacle, Nick started work on a follow- up, On The Coast. Like its predecessor, it was recorded at Alvic and Heath Levy, but Nicely wasn't happy with the results, and the tapes were shelved - despite EMI's interest in releasing the song.
It was around this time that Trevor Horn got in touch, with a view to producing Nick's next project. "It would have been really interesting", says Nicely, "but he wanted to be in total control and I wasn't convinced that he was a really tripped out kind of guy. His stuff sounded very clear, and clarity wasn't what Nick Nicely was about. Shortly after Hilly Fields came out, Nick fell ill, and for the rest of the 80s, his musical projects were put on the back burner.
Meanwhile, his psychedelic masterpiece quietly grew into a cult classic and, today, copies change hands for around GBP 8. (DCT Dreams is worth the same.)
With influential fans like XTC'S Andy Partridge, and, of course, Trevor Horn, it's a wonder that Nick's work has never been anthologized. However, the artist is currently talking to one of the majors about releasing a compilation CD, featuring the material on his two singles, plus some new songs - so there's hope for a Nick Nicely album yet.
Fifteen years on, it seems incredible that a record as astonishing as "Hilly Fields'' should have flopped, but without any radio play, it stood little chance of charting. Nevertheless, the continuing interest in Nick Nicely will no doubt ensure that this wonderful psychedelic jewel remains a sought-after item well into the next century. And you never know, Nick's new material may even gift his Nicely alter ego with a surprise hit . . .
Thanks to Nick for his time, and allowing us access to his collection of acetates and photos.
Webmaster note: also many thanks to Record Collector and Jeff Ross for letting me put this up here....
http://www.recordcollectormag.com - copyright Record Collector Magazine and/or Jeff Ross
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