LUCKY MAN

From the woozy fanfare opening ‘The Barbarian’ to the final swooping moog solo panning between the speakers at the end of ‘Lucky Man’, via the stroked grand piano strings of ‘Take a Pebble’ and the dystopian drama of ‘Knife Edge’, I know the first Emerson Lake and Palmer album very well indeed. But it wasn’t always so. My first experience of the 1970 album that introduced the famous prog rock trio came one sweltering 1973 summer afternoon in Neil Brewer’s back yard when he said, ‘Stick your head between the speakers and listen to this drum solo, it’ll blow your mind.’

Regular pal Rod Amberton and I had ridden our bikes round to Neil’s parent’s house not to listen to records, but to see Neil’s new car. His new van, to be precise. It was the first vehicle anyone in our year at school had owned and we were ready to be impressed. Sure, Neil did not have his licence yet and had only managed a couple of driving lessons with his Dad so far, but it was still a deeply impressive acquisition and one easily justifying a fluid-sapping ride through the shimmering furnace of Melbourne’s south-eastern suburbs. As I rode I remember thinking that this was a change. Bikes to cars. Back yards, up until now the scene for most of our social engagements, were instantly supplanted by visions of beaches, trips, adventures to distant places… maybe even —by some automotive magic— romance. All made accessible by the maturity-badge represented by a motor vehicle. I recall glancing down at the t-bar gear shift on my bike, at the glowing orange frame and GT speedometer/headlight unit on the handlebars and thinking that this was no longer impressive or cool. In fact it wasn’t even in the game any more.

Holden panel van

Still, Neil was a mate and we were excited for him. Maybe he’d even take us places beyond the range of pedal-power. Certainly we knew that one reason Neil was busting to get his own transport was so that he could go surfing more often, probably instead of attending school. Knowing this we had canvassed the possibilities of what he might get. A second-hand panel van seemed most likely, the ‘sin bin’ being the favoured vehicle for surfer types. If that was not in reach, probably a 60s station wagon like the trusty Holden EH. They could be picked up pretty cheaply and though nowhere near  as cool as a panel van, still had plenty of roof for board racks and a rear section for gear or a kip. Some station wagons even had little curtains added for, er, privacy. I wonder if those were made by the surfers’ mums.

Holden_EHSo after Rod got the call and rang me, we pedalled and sweated and ultimately arrived, panting a bit, at the modest white weatherboard with its parched brown lawn. Leaning the bikes against the house-front, we went through to the linoleum floored kitchen and gratefully accepted glasses of cordial from our host. ‘Come on,’ said Neil, ‘It’s in the drive round the back.’

Out the wooden fly-screen door we trooped, across the unadorned concrete patio, to the apron in front of a decrepit cement-sheeting garage where, sparkling in the brilliant southern sun, stood Neil’s new vehicle. ‘Look at that!’ he said.

We did, and tried not to giggle. Something further from the sexy masculinity of a seventies panel van you could not imagine. Looking more like the motorised transport of Inspector Clouseau than the wicked wagon of a randy young surfer, Neil’s new wheels were the cutest little Fiat van you have ever seen. It was a miniature, a Matchbox toy, the baker’s van from a cheeky Italian comedy. It was, in sum, hilarious. Yet we realised almost immediately that although its four wheels did not exceed the combined total of our two bicycles out the front, it nevertheless had one clear winning feature: an internal combustion engine. So we did not snigger. Not then, anyway, with Neil standing happily by, gazing fondly at his ticket to freedom.

Yet our restraint was severely tested when we saw the registration plate, bolted proudly to the shiny chrome bumper-bar. The Fiat’s plate was HEY 007. I kid you not.

Fiat-600-Multipla

This is the exact vehicle I remember, other than Neil’s having  light blue body duco

‘Let’s go for a drive,’ said Rod, momentarily forgetting that we actually couldn’t because Neil did not have his licence. ‘Nah,’ said Neil, ‘It gets a bit hot.’

Indeed, when I opened the passenger door to check out the AM radio, the blast of super-heated air that burst forth almost knocked me over.

‘It’s OK when you wind down the windows.’

‘What about another cordial,’ Rod suggested.

While our host mixed the drinks, he instructed Rod and I to lug his speakers out onto the patio. They sat on the edge of the concrete slab, wire umbilical cords snaking back inside the house, and dutifully pumped Cosmo’s Factory into the back yard while we sat in the shade of the garage. And I wonder, still I wonder, who’ll stop the rain. It was impossible to even imagine rain that afternoon, though a little breeze arrived to take the edge off the heat as we yarned about this-and-that, as teenagers do. Though I don’t recall cars being a particular focus.

When Neil span the debut Emerson Lake and Palmer album next, I’m not sure I noticed very much. Perhaps I logged the keyboard virtuosity of Keith Emerson, but it was really just background noise that day. Until, that is, Neil got excited about the second last track, ‘Tank’.

‘Have you heard this?’

I heard Emerson’s funky clavinet and liked it; heard Greg Lake’s sinuous bass runs and Carl Palmer’s energetic percussion accompaniment too, but that is not what Neil meant. He jumped up and beckoned me over to the patio. ‘You’ve got to hear this!’

Twisting the speakers towards each other, he issued his instruction. ‘Put your head in there’.

I knelt down as Palmer’s snare rhythm began, wondering what I was supposed to be listening for. The cymbal bit gave way to an insistent pummelling of tom-toms. Splashes of gong punctuated the drums as tension built, not least in my knees. I must have twitched slightly, because Neil said encouragingly, ‘It’s coming!’

As indeed it was, a whooshing phaser blast of space-sound dancing rapidly between left and right speakers, swirling through a head placed conveniently close to both boxes and soaring to a brilliant off-kilter drum-beat coda where Keith’s synth returned for a fine squelchy solo before the fade. In my memory it was a whole lot longer than the ten seconds it actually takes, but today I wasn’t kneeling on concrete in thirty-eight degree heat with my head between two cheap loudspeakers.

IMG_6050

I won’t bang on about the ELP album much. It has too much personal resonance for me to hope for any sort of objectivity. Suffice to say the ensemble playing is excellent, the compositions where Emerson borrows bits of other works (Bartok for ‘The Barbarian’ and Janacek for ‘Knife Edge’) are the strongest, Greg Lake’s voice is at its (melo)dramatic peak, all three musicians get to show off in their own individual ways and ‘Lucky Man’ is the song everyone remembers even though it sticks out like a sore thumb as the straight ballad at the end of the prog adventure. But the final, elegiac moog solo is super.

I’ll always have a soft spot for one of the first progressive albums I got to know; early loves can be like that. Sometimes I imagine the music flowing out the back of a panel van parked by the ocean, embracing a chap and his loved one as they drink in the sunset and each other. Now that would be one lucky man.

Just take a pebble and cast it to the sea

Then watch the ripples that unfold into me

IMG_0434

 

25 comments

  1. douglasharr · · Reply

    awesome evocative article…isn’t life grand!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Douglas. Very glad you enjoyed it. Yeah, life is grand. Or at least better than the alternative!

      Like

  2. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful Bruce!

    Were good times had at the beach by you all in the van?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. D’you know, I don’t remember doing more than one or two local trips in the little Fiat. I think this was the summer preceding the final year of high school, meaning that there was little room for fun, socialising (if that’s what it’s called) or generally enjoying life in any manner what-so-ever. Which is probably why I remembered this story! Glad you enjoyed it Joe. It was really fun to write.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Sadly my friend with the worst taste in music (Status Quo, not the heavy 70s version, the 80’s one!) was the one to get a car first – his car, his music, that was the law.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I smell a mass post… the worst thing I’ve ever been compelled to listen to ad nauseum.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Mine was a Christmas compilation LP on a repeat loop for 9 hours a day for 3 months solid, when I was working in a warehouse in Leeds … in July. True story

          Liked by 2 people

        3. That explains a lot.

          Like

  3. I remember hearing this back in 71 I think just when I got a stereo player and was knocked out by the sounds you could hear in Take A Pebble. I’ve not heard the album in around 40 years but will buy a copy if I see one.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was very nicely produced for 1970, so I imagine you would not be disappointed. Good hunting!

      Like

  4. A very entertaining piece and reminder of the awe inspired by ELP when first heard in the 70’s.

    Re worst music compelled to listen to … I think it is an experience yet to come to me because I was promised a selection of Aussie Country favourites by a grateful client today.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yikes! Head for the shearing shed cobber!

      Like

  5. Ah, yes, a spectacular debut album. Can’t understand why it isn’t in my collection….

    I’m not from a posh family but I went to a posh school. Many of the boys there had rich parents. One or two of the lads were given a car for their seventeenth birthday when they were legally allowed to drive with a provisional licence. One boy in particular (I think his name was Murphy) turned up one morning in a motorised vehicle. Now Murphy was a big bloke and his size made him slightly ungainly. We were both envious and highly amused when we saw him squeezed into a tiny single-seater, three-wheeler Reliant Robin.

    After a week or two young Murphy arrived at school without his wheels. Apparently he had gone round a bend too fast and rolled the car. Daddy was annoyed but paid for the repairs. After a few more weeks he rolled it again. Daddy was furious. The boy said it wasn’t his fault, the thing was just unstable. Daddy refused to accept this excuse, hopped into the car to prove it and promptly rolled it himself! Soon afterwards Murphy was coming to school in a little four-wheeler car.

    True story. At least, true as my memory permits.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great tale. Thanks for sharing it.
      There is a Mr Bean episode that further demonstrates the Reliant Robin design flaws your story highlights, as I recall. I imagine Neil would have been very happy with his Fiat, by comparison!

      Like

  6. A great read, Bruce. Not an album I’m at all familiar with, but I’ve seen it often and cheap enough to investigate further.

    As for the wheels, I think I had the same reaction as you when I saw the Fiat … especially after thinking about the Holden!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cheers James.
      I’d certainly support grabbing a clean copy at the right price. It’s an inventive and entertaining debut. Perhaps -after Cream- the most significant super-group trio and an important early progressive album (‘Prog’ didn’t exist in 1970!).
      My first car was the model Holden before that one in the pic – though not a station-wagon!

      Like

  7. My first prog experience was ELP’s take on Pictures at an Exhibition back around 1972. I was at my mates house where his older brother (we were around 12 years old) was spinning this record. I distinctly remember the craziness of Emersons ribbon moog at the beginning of The Old Castle, I had never heard anything like that before. That coupled with the mysterious sleeve design and I was hooked.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Nice story Barrie. Did you ever see the film of ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ live in concert? I recall having my mind expanded by it around 1974.

      Like

      1. I have never seen the movie, though do know about it. I want to keep the memory of that first listening experience intact as it is. I have heard earlier versions of the piece which were on Universals deluxe edition, but they got it perfect in Newcastle!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Never tamper with a perfect memory!

          Like

  8. Thanks for the memories, Bruce.
    Greg Lake and Keith Emerson were touring together in small venues across the US a few years back and sharing stories between songs. Lake told the story of making the first album and how the band was wrapping recording, but the LP was under 40 minutes in length (the label wanted a minimum if 21 minutes per side).

    Lake suggested adding a ballad he had written when he was 12 (“Lucky Man”). Emerson admitted he thought it was tripe/filler (Lake had recorded a version of it earlier in the session), but agreed to allow it on the album.

    The original track was simply Lake on guitar, but Lake added bass and overdubs to give the song a richer sound. So Carl Palmer came in and added an accompanying drum track. Then Lake and Palmer asked (begged? coerced?) Emerson to add something to the track, and Emerson said he couldn’t hear any place within the song’s structure for a significant contribution. But he offered to add a coda and, in one take, he played the memorable Moog solo.

    Emerson added he did the performance in a flurry of emotion, and that it it took time to decipher what he had done so he could replicate it later on tour.

    (I love stories of inspired musical performances like this — e.g., Mike Garson’s one-take piano cacophony on “Aladdin Sane”)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Terrific story! Thanks very much for bringing it along from the concert.

      Like

  9. Man, how long has it been since I have coerced someone — (I remember it often being my mom) — to place their head between rearranged speakers to ‘experience’ some mind-expanding tune that had me enthralled at the particular point in time? I believe I can still get just as moved by a piece of music as I could back then, but at this stage it seems a much more solitary, less social phenomenon. I miss that phase of yore. This blogging world recaptures some of it, although a self-inflicted sense of requirement to provide somehow ‘considered’ opinion over the “man, you’ve got to hear this!” reviews of my youth ensures separation of past from present.

    I love this post, VC. It probably won’t surprise you that such tying together of storytelling with moments of music discovery/enjoyment appeal to me greatly. You’ve done it exceptionally well (again) here. If I may, I’d like to take the opportunity to DEMAND more such.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much sir. Both for the encouragement and the apposite reflection on how we go about sharing our enthusiasms for music that connects. The connection modes are, as you say, somewhat less direct than ‘stick your head here’ but remain alive and pleasantly mysterious.

      Like

  10. CB’s first record purchase will his own money. I would have made myself like it since I bucked up with my own squirreled away stash. It’s a fave and one of the first pieces CB wrote about. Enjoyed your piece, could relate to it from a different continent. A buddy had an Econline van , he had great taste in music this album being some of it. He was a drummer and Palmer was his hero. Lots of similarities with your piece. Cool.

    Liked by 1 person

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