Saturday, April 18, 2009

"O Lucky Man!" / Alan Price

When I went to this movie's premiere run in the summer of 1973 in London -- the Leicester Square Cinema, I remember it well -- I was all hepped up about seeing Malcolm McDowell, who'd mesmerized me so in his previous film, A Clockwork Orange. But about four minutes into the film, Anderson cuts from a close-up of McDowell's face -- oh, those huge, sinister blue eyes -- to an image of hands crashing onto a electric piano keyboard. Commanding chords ring out, and the camera pans up to the finely-planed face of Alan Price, who begins to sing, in his smoky tenor voice, "If you have a friend / On whom you think you can rely / You are a lucky man." He rolls his eyes, grins, and goes on, "If you've found a reason /To live on and not to die / You are a lucky man."

Honestly, my heart leaped in my chest. It's one of the few moments in my life when I was aware of a life-changing event, of planets abruptly slewing around and re-aligning themselves. I walked out of that movie two-and-a-half hours later trembling, truly trembling. Yes, the story and the acting and the cinematography were fantastic -- I mean,
it is Lindsay Anderson's masterpiece, a sweeping indictment of pre-Thatcherite England, and besides McDowell it stars brilliant actors like Helen Mirren and Ralph Richardson and Rachel Roberts. But to be honest, the only thing on my mind as I left the cinema was I must find out who this Alan Price is.

You think my current Nick Lowe obssesion consumes me? That's nothing compared to how I was obsessed by Alan Price throughout the late 1970s. And
I still feel attached to him, like you might to your college boyfriend who never really dumped you, just eventually drifted out of your life. Even though he rarely records anymore, and hasn't toured the States in decades (I've only been able to see him live twice), Alan Price still is, and always will be, an immutable part of the soundtrack of my life.

The brilliant thing about the songs Alan Price wrote for this film (get this soundtrack album NOW) is how he marries jaunty pop music -- jazz, a samba, a cha-cha-cha, music-hall soft shoe, even a recycled hymn thrown in for good measure -- with bleak, disillusioned lyrics about the vanity of human endeavor. I'm talking lyrics like "Sell, sell, sell, sell everything you stand for" and "We all want justice but you've got to have the money to buy it" and

Hope springs eternal in a young man's breast
And he dreams of a better life ahead
Without that dream you are nothing, nothing, nothing
You've got to find out for yourself that dream is dead.

I don't think of myself as a cynical person -- though, okay, my lifelong Kinks fanship suggests a certain jaundiced outlook -- but I sure bought into the deliciously dark world view of this movie. And this title track raises it to the level of an anthem, with unspooling arpeggios, spiraling melodic phrases, and mounting chord changes, as he declares the snarky truth: "Takers and fakers and talkers won't tell you / Teachers and preachers will just buy and sell you /When no one can tempt you with heaven or hell / You'll be a lucky man!"

Perhaps my favorite line in this whole song, the one that became my de facto motto, is "If knowledge hangs around your neck / Like pearls instead of chains / You are a lucky man." I wore a strand of fake pearls every day, my junior year of college -- fashionably pairing it with blue denim overalls -- as my trademark look, just because of this song. People who knew me in college still ask about the pearls.

I've seen O Lucky Man! at least a dozen times since then, and I still get all jangled by it. I'm sure I could attribute my love of the film to the cynical temper of the mid-70s, or about the fact that I was still in college, when you're supposed to question the values of society. But in my heart I know it has more to do with Alan Price's cheekbones, the brooding gaze in his gray eyes, the thick Geordie rasp in his voice. (Later he bursts into the movie as a character as well -- imagine how that rattled my popcorn -- and though I could barely understand a word he said, I knew I was a goner.) I laugh now, but really, it was glorious to be overwhelmed by this, purely out of the blue. Ah, we should all be so lucky.

O Lucky Man sample
O Lucky Man clip


Mark said...

This is one of my all-time favorite songs. And when I get around to writing about the 15 ablums that changed my life, this will be one of them! When I finally got into the Kinks after 10 years of absorbing Alan Price's funny/cynical world view, I was like, "Ray Davies is just like Alan Price!" The whole soundtrack is filled with great lines, like "We all want justice, but you got to have the money to buy it." How I wish that Alan would tour in the US!

And Malcolm McDowell is an extremely underrated actor who doesn't get to use the full range of his gifts very often, but in O Lucky Man he sure does.

Michael Schurter said...

Beautiful piece. I still remember the first time I saw the film - it was on City TV out of Toronto in the mid 80s. You're right about the life changing part. I've got the vinyl and listen to it frequently. Pastoral is a beautiful song.