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Monday, April 11, 2016

Alan Price: O Lucky Man!


1) O Lucky Man!; 2) Poor People; 3) Sell Sell; 4) Pastoral; 5) Arrival; 6) Look Over Your Shoulder; 7) Justice; 8) My Home Town; 9) Changes; 10) O Lucky Man! (reprise).

I am not a big fan of Malcolm McDowell movies, regardless of whether it's Kubrick, Lindsay Anderson, or, God help us, Tinto Brass at the steering wheel — there's just something about the guy and the kinds of scripts he is involved in, some sort of off-putting mix of hipness, ugliness, pretentious­ness, and shock value that I just cannot bring myself to enjoy. So it is hardly a surprise that as of now, I have not even seen O Lucky Man! (I have seen If..., and have no big wish to spend three more hours of my life on an Anderson/McDowell collaboration) — however, I am happy to say that you do not at all need to see the movie in order to be delighted by the sound­track, which constitutes a perfectly autonomous and self-sufficient Alan Price album on its own (actually, mini-album: the whole thing, unlike the movie, is over in a measly 25 minutes, because Alan, unlike most soundtrack composers, seems to have written precisely as much music as he knew could make it onto the final cut. Ever thought about how it must feel to write a 9-minute instrumental with only thirty seconds of it making it to the actual movie? Well, apparently Price managed to circumvent that problem).

Anyway, the reason why this thing works is because Alan wrote it as a sort of abstract conceptual suite on matters of everyday existence in contemporary England — ideologically, it reads like a Ray Davies album in the tradition of Arthur and Lola, and, for that matter, is far more impres­sive, musically and lyrically, than Davies' own rock opera Preservation from that same year. Most importantly, it is the album that truly announced the arrival of Alan Price, intelligent and talented songwriter with his own tale to tell. It did not sell much and yielded no hit singles (at least, not until 1987, when ʻChangesʼ was used to advertise Volkswagen Golf), but it nicely set the stage for his biggest commercial success with Between Today And Yesterday, and it still sounds fresh and exciting after all these years.

The music, as usual, is a somewhat conservative mix of British music hall and American R&B (more of the former than of the latter), almost completely ignoring the hottest trends of 1973: the only number here that does not sound like it could have been recorded in 1968 is the funk rocker ʻSell Sellʼ, which cleverly takes the aggression and frustration inherent in funk rhythms and wah-wah solos and channels it into a spiked-tongue condemnation of commercialism. At four minutes, it is the longest song on the album, as Price allows himself to stretch out a bit on an extended organ solo, but the groove is sharp and quite involving, even if the vocal hook owes quite a bit to ʻHarlem Shuffleʼ — then again, Price's composing skills should probably be described, in general, as «an ability to create interesting variations on other people's melodies», be it in the rhythm & blues paradigm or in the traditional pop one.

At least on ʻSell Sellʼ cynical words are matched by cynical-sounding music; on the whole, though, the album makes its living by contrasting bitter lyrics with pretty melodies — ʻLook Over Your Shoulderʼ, for instance, is a catchy vaudeville tune, replete with falsetto la-la's and stuff, whose ultimate message is "without that dream you are nothing... you have to find out for yourself that dream is dead". (La la la la and all that). ʻJusticeʼ, floating on a raft of quasi-Mexi­can acoustic guitar, states that "we all want justice but you got to have money to buy it" in the slyest possible tone and with the friendliest of atmospheres. ʻPoor Peopleʼ sounds a little like Billy Joel, but the good sort of Billy Joel when he is not being too full of himself and banality, but actually manages to combine humility with catchiness. And ʻChangesʼ, which is, in fact, based on ʻWhat A Friend We Have In Jesusʼ, states that "love must always change to sorrow, and everyone must play the game", declared with as much enthusiasm as a proclamation of faith in salvation and life everlasting.

And it all works fine, including a bunch of pretty instrumentals (the lyrical piano bit on ʻPastoralʼ; the quasi-progressive piano/organ interplay on ʻArrivalʼ) and two versions of the title track that rock harder than everything else and are a little reminiscent of poppier material by The Who like ʻLong Live Rockʼ. And best of all, you really do not need any movies to enjoy it — although, admittedly, it may be worth seeing the movie if only because Price is featured in it himself, playing the role of a Greek chorus providing commentary on the action. I'm happy enough to just have the commentary without the action, and give it a self-standing thumbs up.


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  2. In addition to coming in and out of "O Lucky Man" as a Greek Chorus, Price and his band actually shows up in the movie narrative, too, after Malcolm McDowell's character gets a lift in their van. I think they then are seen playing another song from the score while McDowell's character wakes up at their flat.

    Price's musical interludes are the best part of the film for me. They are shot with warmth and without irony, an approach Lindsay Anderson didn't take with the rest of the production.

  3., how do you feel about "Star Trek: First Contact"?

  4. "there's just something about the guy and the kinds of scripts he is involved in, some sort of off-putting mix of hipness, ugliness, pretentious­ness, and shock value that I just cannot bring myself to enjoy." Probably so earlier in his career, but in the stuff he's been in the last decade or so, he seems to be making fun of the whole "pompous Englishman" trope, I find his impishness charming. But then I never saw Clockwork Orange, et al. He does seem to have been a bit of a stooge in the clips I've seen.