By Richie Unterberger

O Lucky Man! holds a prestigious and almost unique place of pride among the many attempts over the last half-century to marry rock music with film. Though Alan Price's album can in one sense be regarded as a soundtrack, the music, and Price's role in the film itself, went far beyond the usual function of movie scores. Rather than merely being sound or songs to accompany images, Price's tunes were deeply integrated into the Lindsay Anderson-directed 1973 movie, wryly commenting upon and complementing the action and nominal storyline. More unusually, Price and his band often appeared on screen themselves, playing the songs of the "soundtrack" in the studio and rehearsal, also taking small dramatic roles when crossing paths with the tale of O Lucky Man!'s protagonist. It was almost as if Price was the musical narrator of the film, he and his band acting as a Greek chorus of sorts echoing star Malcolm McDowell's wild swings of fortune.

    Price and Anderson had taken very different paths in different mediums before coming together to collaborate on O Lucky Man! Price first rose to prominence almost a decade before the film's release as the keyboard player in the Animals, his penetrating organ work being crucial to the magnificence of their first series of hits, most famously "The House of the Rising Sun." He left the Animals in May 1965 to form his own group, the Alan Price Set, and while their records went virtually unheard in the United States, they had quite a bit of success in their native UK in the mid-to-late 1960s. Their five Top Twenty British hits included a thrilling jazz-classical-slanted cover of "I Put a Spell on You" and a version of "Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear" by a then-little-known Randy Newman. After the Alan Price Set broke up, Alan hooked up with fellow British keyboard great Georgie Fame for a substantial 1971 UK hit, "Rosetta."

    Though less prolific than Price, Lindsay Anderson had established himself as one of the finest and most innovative directors in British cinema by the end of the 1960s. Starting out as a documentary filmmaker in the late 1940s, in 1963 he successfully moved into the world of fictional feature films with the realistic drama This Sporting Life, starring Richard Harris and Rachel Roberts (the latter of whom also appears in O Lucky Man!). Yet it was his second feature, 1968's magnificent If..., that gave Anderson international acclaim and endures as his finest achievement. Set in a forbiddingly harsh, disciplinary British boarding school, it starred Malcolm McDowell as a student who with help from friends sparks a violent rebellion against the institution's authorities—which, in the climate of the late 1960s, was often interpreted as an allegory of what was happening in society itself.

    Just as it had been five years between This Sporting Life and If..., so was it another five years before the appearance of O Lucky Man!, again starring McDowell (whose character, Mick Travis, in fact bore the same name as the student he'd portrayed in If..., though otherwise the similarities were only casual). If... had mixed brutal realism with almost poetic surrealism, and O Lucky Man! was yet more whimsically surreal, charting McDowell's bumpy odyssey from up-and-coming coffee salesman to torture at a military facility, medical experiments at a clinic, near-success as an assistant to a powerful millionaire, prison, and homeless vagrant. Along the way, McDowell meets up with Alan Price's group for a journey to London in the band van, though Price and his musicians are featured performing in interludes spaced throughout the three-hour movie. Price also fires off one of the best lines in the picture when McDowell asks him, after getting introduced to the touring group in the back of the van, "Are you rich?" "No, but me manager is," Price replies.

    Asked about his creative relationship with Anderson in the composition of the soundtrack by Dawn Eden in a 1996 Goldmine article, Price explained, "It took nearly two years of preparation, discussion and argument, exchanging experiences relevant to the subjects we were trying to tackle. So it was a basically intellectual exercise. When the script was written, it was sent to me with asterisks marking where he felt a song would be appropriate. Before the film was shot, the score was written. I made a demo of it, so they lived with the music as they were making the film. There were only two songs, 'Look Over Your Shoulder' and 'My Hometown,' which were written afterwards."

    Price later said (on the commentary track to a DVD release of the movie) that Anderson had in fact wanted to make a documentary about Alan's band touring through England, and that most of the songs were written before filming actually started. Price also composed the music for a 1972 made-for-television Anderson film, Home, though O Lucky Man! would be seen by far more international viewers upon its release.

    Accompanying Price both on the O Lucky Man! soundtrack recordings and in the film itself were guitarist Colin Green, bassist Dave Markee, and drummer Clive Thacker. Green had played with Georgie Fame, as well as on Elton John's self-titled 1970 album. Markee would later play on several LPs by Joan Armatrading and Eric Clapton, as well as on the Pete Townshend-Ronnie Lane collaboration Rough Mix. Thacker had done time in Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger, & the Trinity, who like the Alan Price Set were far more popular in their native UK than they were in the US.

    The dryly humorous title track of O Lucky Man! is heard in two entirely different versions that open and close the soundtrack LP, the second of them bearing a slightly slower and heavier arrangement, as well as substantially different lyrics. Another highlight was the wistful "Poor People," which is both heard within the film itself and over the closing credits. Other tunes specifically reflected the story's improbable twists and turns, the ominous "Look Over Your Shoulder" sounding a warning shortly before the scene that finds McDowell reduced from tycoon's assistant to prisoner, and "Sell Sell" mirroring both the pressure on McDowell to sell coffee and his own ruthlessly naive ambitions to get ahead in the world. "Changes," he revealed to Melody Maker, was set to the tune of the hymn" What a Friend We Have in Jesus," one of the first songs done by his first group, the skiffle band the Black Diamonds. The mood-setting instrumental passages "Pastoral" and "Arrival" spotlighted Price's knack for classical-flavored keyboard work, and the record as a whole deftly blended rock, pop, and British music hall influences.

    Janet Maslin, later a longtime film critic (and currently a book reviewer) for the New York Times, gave the O Lucky Man! album a rave review in Rolling Stone. "This is the best rock soundtrack since Superfly, and in some ways it's better," she enthused. "Alan Price's songs successfully aspire to a complete and carefully defined philosophical stance, but they're performed with such utter charm that their essential seriousness remains remarkably unobtrusive. And while Lindsay Anderson's film, which Price's appearances so delightfully punctuate, uses a series of bizarre but concrete episodes to suggest allegorical generalities, Price reverses that method—with sterling results. He may sing and write about the big issues, but his easygoing method reduces them to ironic everyday terms, making them all the more potent for their illusion of familiarity."

    Added Maslin, "Price's score, which was completed well before the film went into production, indirectly mirrors the film's structure as the singer, like the leading man, passes through varying milieus in search of serenity. But at each stage of his progression Price's comments are as wry and direct as they are witty...Price and his score are accessible on all levels. As seriously intended as it may be, the album has enough merriment and tongue-in-cheek homilies to give it all the trappings of a pop hit; certainly 'Look Over Your Shoulder' should be more than a match for anything currently available on AM. And so Alan Price, after all these years on the wane and on the periphery, may have finally struck it lucky—but here's one progressive pilgrim who's got more than mere good fortune on his side."

    Despite that hopeful assessment of Price's prospects, the album rose to only #117 in the American charts—which was still the highest position he ever managed in the US as a solo artist, only one of his other LPs even making the Top 200. The score did win a New York Critics' award, as well as one from the Society of Film and Television in Britain. Price himself was happy with the result, telling Melody Maker, "I've always felt my forte was on stage, until this last album, the songs from the film. I'm pleased with that." Riding the wave of acclaim, his next album, 1974's Between Today and Yesterday, would become a British Top Ten hit, and has also been reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music. -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger, 2000-2010
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