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Protest Song Of The Week: ‘America’ by The Nice

Keith Emerson, a progressive rock pioneer most famous for his work with Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, committed suicide at the age of 71. He had muscular pain and nerve issues in his right hand that were getting worse, and it is believed he could not handle the fact that he could no longer play the keyboard as well as fans expected.

The music of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer is not music one associates with protest music. But Emerson was in a band called The Nice before Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. In 1968, they recorded a version of Leonard Bernstein’s “America,” which was an instrumental protest song.

The song, and how Emerson used knives to hold down keys during the song, was symbolic of the murders and violence happening in the United States in the 1960s. It was heavily influenced by the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy.

At the Royal Albert Hall in the late 1960s, The Nice performed. Emerson burned the American flag or a photo that appeared to be the American flag. He was banned from the venue for life. Lee Jackson, who was the bassist and singer for The Nice, later burned his draft card at the Marquee Club. Both instances were motivated by opposition to the Vietnam War.

The cover for this single was controversial. Photographer Gered Mankowitz had the band members wear masks of famous Americans. They were Americans shot and killed by assassins.

Mankowitz said, “We were looking for a controversial concept that hopefully said something about the immaturity of America as a nation and the shocking assassination of three great men [JFK, RFK, and Martin Luther King Jr.]. The band painted the U.S. flag background, which was supposed to resemble blood.”

The song is a kind of frenetic masterpiece, with Emerson making the keyboards wail. At the end, he utters the words, “America is pregnant with promise and anticipation but is murdered by the hand of the inevitable.”

In today’s world, one would not be surprised to hear such a line in a song by artist Kendrick Lamar. It represents the potential of the country, as it appears to nod at the existence of the so-called American Dream. But yet the “hand of the inevitable” is that the very people, who society perceives as pushing the envelope of social progress ever so slightly, face the real prospect of losing their lives. And, of course, this madness was escalating as the government killed many, many Vietnamese people abroad.

Altogether, this song exemplifies the feeling that a nation is coming apart at the seems. While Bernstein’s version is charming, uplifting, and filled with hope, the sardonic twist by Emerson and other members of The Nice made the song a whirlwind of mania.


Are you an independent artist who has written and/or produced a protest song that you would like featured? Or do you have a favorite protest song? Submit a song to protestmusic@Shadowproof.com

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."