Best known for the 1982 cult hit "Hilly Fields (1892)," Nick Nicely's unique mix of psychedelic rock and electronic pop influenced contemporaries such as Robyn Hitchcock and XTC's Andy Partridge and informed the work of later talents like Bevis Frond, John Maus, Ariel Pink, and Temples. Despite his potential, Nicely disappeared during the mid-'80s and much of the '90s, resurfacing later that decade and gaining acclaim during the 2000s and 2010s thanks to reissues of his old work and the release of new music.
Born Nikolas Laurien in Greenland while his parents were on a stopover during a transatlantic flight, Nicely grew up in Hitchin and Deptford, England and became fascinated with music thanks to his brother's fondness for British radio. Even at an early age, Nicely had an affinity for eerie, intricate, and psychedelic music, ranging from Joe Meek to the Beatles to Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd to King Crimson. By the time he was 17, he was singing at a local folk club; as the '70s went on, he found inspiration in Euro-disco, Kraftwerk, Can and Neu!, as well as LSD, which he claimed rewired his brain.
After moving to London to play with different bands and record on his own, Nicely began working with music publisher Heath Levy. Though they intended him to work as in-house songwriter, they gave him an advance to record his songs "DCT Dreams" and Treeline" in a proper studio based on the strength of his demos. Half angular synth pop in the vein of Tubeway Army and half the kind of trippy atmosphere that hadn't been heard since the '60s, Nicely's debut single "DCT Dreams" was issued on his own Voxette imprint (even though labels such as 4AD and Charisma offered to release it) in 1980 in a pressing of 900. The single gained distribution in Europe and South America and reached number 32 on Holland's charts, but did little in the U.K. even when it was reissued by the German label Ariola-Hansa in early 1981.
Nicely threw everything he had into his next single, "Hilly Fields (1892)," selling his home studio and his other possessions to finance the six-month recording process at Alvic Studio. The results were worth it: from its "Strawberry Fields"-like titular reference to a London park to its melancholy melody and mysterious washes of sound -- which included tape manipulation that sounded like turntable scratching -- it updated British psychedelia so brilliantly that NME called it "the best psychedelic record made since the '60s." Released by EMI, "Hilly Fields" also failed to get much commercial traction, but it inspired Andy Partridge to form the Dukes of Stratosphear and predicted the psychedelic revival that the Three O'Clock, Robyn Hitchcock, and others expanded on later in the '80s.
Despite having other tracks ready to release as singles and an offer to collaborate from Trevor Horn, the increasingly perfectionistic Nicely left music for a few years; along with a creative block, funding "Hilly Fields (1892)" and the lack of any royalties from "DCT Dreams'" left him financially unable to make music the way he wanted. Other than appearing as a backing vocalist on Paul Roland's 1987 album A Cabinet of Curiosities, by the mid-'80s Nicely was largely silent. However, a few years later he embraced the rave/acid house scene and found commercial success by collaborating with his friend Gavin Mills as the dance music duos Psychotropic, Freefall, and Airtight.
He began recording as Nick Nicely again in 1997, with songs such as "On the Beach" reflecting his stint as a dance producer as well as the more traditional Nicely sound. In 2004, the collection Psychotropia gathered these new recordings as well as his demos from the late '70s, making it much easier to hear a remarkably consistent body of work. Acclaim from artists like Ariel Pink and John Maus poured in, leading to live dates with them in 2008. Around this time, Nicely began working on a new album and collaborated with UNKLE in 2010; meanwhile, the Nicely reissue campaign was still going strong, with Grapefruit reissuing Psychotropia and Captured Tracks releasing the vinyl collection Elegant Daze: Songs from 1979-1986. In 2011, Nicely's album of new material Lysergia arrived on Burger Records as a limited-edition cassette. The following year, he released a new version of "Hilly Fields (1892)" as a single backed with the original version on Fruits de Mer, while Emotional Response issued the Wrottersley Road EP, which remixed one of Lysergia's trippiest tracks, in 2013. The full-length Space of a Second, which reworked many of Lysergia's songs, arrived on Lo Records in October 2014. ~ Heather Phares, Rovi