It says much about Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and the wider Progressive Rock genre of which they formed an integral part, that their arguably best-known piece (1971's Lucky Man), was in fact an on-the-spot 1st take improvisation based on a song Greg Lake had written at the age of twelve. That, for all the high-art neo-baroque pretensions of Keith Emerson & Procol Harum, and the hyper-precise, anti-drug technicality of Jethro Tull, the signature song of that band and that genre should be a sloppily-improvised acoustic ballad featuring gut-retching lyrics like

He had white horses,
And ladies by the score.
All dressed in satin,
And waiting by the door.

OOOH what a Lucky Man He was.


And-

He went to fight wars
For his country & his king
Of his honour, and his glory
The people would sing

OOOH what a Lucky Man He was.


Reminds me of the band Greenland. Even a pubescent Wheel of Time devotee would be hard pressed to come up with such trite, cliched, Mediaevalophilic lyrics as these, and to be fair, Greg Lake was twelve when he wrote this. Most of my twelve-year old-musings, when available, deal with my own budding sexuality re: Jenna Labrosse. But the fact that, for a recording that was obstensibly improvised and off-the-cuff, he was able to sing the lyrics perfectly, in perfect pitch, with perfect timing, implies he'd spent a lot of adult hours quietly strumming this in the bathroom whilst E&P studied the spurious J.S. Bach scores for historical inaccuracies.

But wait! The eponymous protagonist of Lucky Man is really a complex character. As it so happens, Mr. Lucky goes to war for his King, all gallant and flowing with brightly coloured banners, only to be shot (somewhat anachronistically, I might add, as the crudest arquebuses weren't developed until the dying days of Medieval chivalry) and there being no immediate help available, lays down and dies. Ah I get it now. With this cunning twist in plot, Mr. Lucky is actually a victim of the very excesses which simultaneously provided him long queues of nubile virgins, and ideologically shielded him from the grit and gory of war. Brilliant. Turns out Mister Lucky is not so fortunate after all.

(If you wish, you can pursue this level of reasoning one level deeper, and infer that far from being a victim, Mr. Lucky, being at the business end of feudal lordship, in fact was well aware that the death and mutilation of others actually enabled his Epicurean delights, and that his personally riding out to war was a de facto endorsement of the asymmetrical power structure that defined his era. Just saying)

But I digress. The signature appeal of this piece is the fact that it was improvised, or in other words played for the first time ever. I can buy that. ELP never went into a concert with any less than site-memorized notation, and it shows. Carl Palmer, from the outset, seems unsure what exactly is taking place. He seems to think that anything other than an acoustic ballad is going to happen here, and peppers the in-verse sections with off-beat, syncopatic use of snare and cymbals, a little bit jarring for a song like this. During the instrumental between-refrain sections, he seems almost paralyzed, beating desperately on his snare to produce some kind of anticipatory beat leading to the next verse. Fair enough. ELP were contractually obligated to provide 21 minutes of songsmithy per vinyl side, and needed that one last boost towards the finish line. Beating on a tensed animal skin for four minutes thrity-eight seconds was the least he could do for a generous paycheque.

Less vindicating is the performance of the aforementioned Keith Emerson, keyboardist. One imagines that from the outset, he was a little bit sour about his lack of Moog keyboard opportunities, but that's ok. ELP was not LEP for a reason. And he shows it; at 3:15, the true colours come out, and he unleashed a Moog solo with generous amounts of pitch blend that endures for the rest of the track. His time to shine has arrived, and he doodles around the keyboard for a bit until finally arriving on a foreboding D minor that seems to embody the theme of the song, namely patrician privilege gone wrong, until it fades to black, thereby reinforcing the triumphant/moribund nature of the piece. Keith Emerson, for his part, apparently didn't know they were recording and was reportedly horrified that this one-off doodling session wound up being the album's most popular piece (as there were no more tracks left to record over), and I can't really blame him for that. Unfortunately, life sometimes sucks when you're a contractually-obliged rock musician. You know he berates himself in the bathroom knowing he could have done better, every day.

But what does it Mean?

Well, regrettably, this song is notable for a couple reasons. First, it predates the Tolkien-Rock of which hazelnut nodes so prodigiously by at least a decade, and even the early attempts of Led Zeppelin (ie. The Battle of Evermore) can be post-dated to this moving missive. Indeed, this provides nearly the first, clean-cut appearance of Tolkien-Rock in modern, British alternative and shows a nearly delirious, child-like reveling in the genre's basic elements - comely maidens, honourable warriors, and blood-strewn battles. Second, despite Keith Emerson's fucking about, it also provides nearly the first glimpse of a Moog synthesizer-driven solo, which showed that a keyboardist, if wild and ambitious enough, could upstage the electric guitarist any time (alas, most keyboardists were content to fuck the groupie dregs). Unfortunately this is frequently not the case, and dicks like Yngwie Malmsteen wound up taking advantage of it by claiming neo-baroque precision, melded with D&D-style themes, as the realm of behaired guitarists.

Peaking at 48th on the US Billboard top 100 in 1971, Lucky Man provides us with, if anything, a glittering, abject rejection of the mores and styles of progressive rock. They, by which I mean ELP, failed to understand that by that point, serious musicians peopled the staff of the London Symphonic and Herbert von Karajan's Berlin Philharmonic. There was no middle ground by then. Give a fuck about Bach, and play his heart out, or talk about sexually ambiguous, frustrated relationships, but you had to choose a side and stick with it. So it makes a certain twisted sense that their most popular song should be so shabbily arranged, and lyricized by a horny, pubescent middle-schooler. ELP, and other Prog Rock bands like them, seemed to have a hard time realizing that in the pop-rock millieu, no-one wanted to listen to something they didn't want to hear. And here, in the most throwaway of disposable tracks, they unwittingly if regrettably produced something that the tacky, unwashed masses liked. Maybe this is tragic. Maybe this is tragically ironic. Who knows. I'm pretty sure Mr. Lucky wouldn't give a shit as long as he still got long lineups of nubile virgins outside his bedchambers.

Bottom line: "Lucky Man" is enjoyable if you expect a Terry Goodkind-led musical trio to regale you at your local publican establishment. And the simple chord structure appeals to just about every sentient human being. But being the signature piece of a band which is publically committed to being so much more, it falls flat and for obvious reasons. Even The Gold It's In the, though committing to a similar chord structure, provides richness of lyrics and verse that "Lucky Man" can only aspire towards. The irony can't be lost on them, that their most notable song is a throwaway B-Side. And for the pretentious mores of prog rock, that is simply beautful.

I know you want to hear it now. You can listen to the entire track here. Enjoy.

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