Wednesday, April 18, 2007

“Poor People” / Alan Price


In the summer of 1973, I finally visited England. A film fanatic, in the grip of a Malcolm McDowell obsession (I’d loved him in A Clockwork Orange and If…), I noticed his new movie O Lucky Man! was playing at the Leicester Square Cinema; I went the day it opened. I didn’t note beforehand who wrote the songs for the movie, but sitting there in the dark, watching him perform on-screen -- camera circling around him, close-ups of his hands hammering the keyboard at lightning speed -- I was simply mesmerized. My heart leaped halfway through the film when he and the band actually enter the film and become characters, Alan speaking in that thick Geordie accent. As my friend and I walked out, while she babbled about Malcolm McDowell, I jerked to a stop next to the poster and scoured it for the name I wanted. Alan Price.

O Lucky Man!
is a cynical film, and so are the songs Alan wrote for it – deeply cynical songs in a deceptively upbeat style. “Poor People” is a lilting samba, full of maracas and a bossa nova guitar, but while that title sounds sympathetic, its view of life is unrelentingly bleak. “Poor people / Are poor people / And they don’t understand / A man’s got to make whatever he wants / And take it with his own hands,” Alan sings in a relaxed, confiding voice, much different from that howl of rage in “I Put A Spell On You.” He sneaks a sideways glance at the camera, grins, rolls his eyes. Maybe it’s just me, but this seems a quintessentially British attitude, that fatalistic shrug – where an American artist gets pissed off at injustice, an Englishman takes it for granted. “Someone’s got to win in the human race / If it isn’t you, then it has to be me.” Cheers, mate. It’s a manual for the ruthless go-getter, with a sneer of despair: “So smile while you’re making it / Laugh while you’re taking it / Even though you’re faking it / Nobody’s gonna know.”

Those royalty checks from “House of the Rising Sun” made an impression on Alan Price, because in the Alan Price Set days he began composing his own songs, inspired in part by the many Randy Newman covers he recorded in the 60s. A Newman-esque whip-smart irony informs these songs, from the snarky “Sell Sell Sell” (“Sell sell sell sell everything you stand for”) to the paranoid music-hall soft-shoe “Look Over Your Shoulder” (“Don’t forget boy / look over your shoulder / ‘Cos there’s always someone coming after you-OO / La la la la”) to the bitter cha-cha-cha “Justice” (“We all want justice / But you’ve got to have the money to buy ii-IT”). There’s small comfort to be wrung out of life, but if you keep your goals VERY LOW and your wits about you, you just might survive – or as the anthemic title track puts it, “When no one can tempt you with heaven or hell / You’ll be a lucky man.” I was a college student, it was the early 70s -- this philosophy spoke to me.

I bought that soundtrack album and played it nonstop. I hung an O Lucky Man! poster over my bed. I saw the movie again five or six times. And I haunted record stores, looking for Alan Price albums. By the end of the year I had amassed quite a collection, all those Alan Price Set LPs, his collaborations with Georgie Fame, and old Animals albums snitched from my older brother. Each record was another revelation to me. Where had this artist been all my life?

Poor People sample

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