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Wednesday, July 23, 2003
No, Price was not an influential innovator. He's just responsible for some GREAT records. Price is mainly remembered as a founding member of the Animals (originally the Alan Price Set), one of the grittiest British Invasion acts. He left the band mainly out of reluctance to tour (to fly), embarking instead on a fairly MOR career restricted to Britain. (bandmate Chas Chandler later managed Slade - another band I adore - who likewise went mostly unheard over here) An early supporter of Randy Newman's songs, Price did well for himself in Blighty through and well beyond the sixties, but I'm pretty much only interested (here) in the stage of his career spanning 1973-75. When I was working at Sam Goody records as a teen, I met a guy named Charlie who loved the three albums Price cut in that period. Charlie and I became good friends… camping trips and concerts, me turning him on to Waits and him turning me on to Price. Those of you familiar with my older songs may recognize a few tunes written in tribute to him: "The Mighty Sun," "Wildflowers" and other references here and there. A warmer, kinder guy never lived, and we shared many happy times together before a tragic affection for the needle and the bottle did him in at the age of 33.
Three albums, the first of which is a film soundtrack: "O Lucky Man." Director Lindsey Anderson was making a sequel to his surrealist/absurdist film "If," and asked Price to serve as Greek Chorus… not only singing his own commentary on Malcolm McDowell's antics but appearing ONSCREEN singing them. The action would pause for sequences of Price and band doing a song in a completely neutral setting unconnected to the story. Later in the film Price and band temporarily figure into the story, and the effect is like Serling suddenly turning up as a character in a TZ episode. Odd, but it works. The movie is a picaresque about a young opportunist trying his hand at traveling salesmanship. It's got a very English combination of eggs-n-sausage drab realism and Swift allegory, which works better than it should over most of the long film. But it's the songs I mean to discuss.
The soundtrack album to this film is as unusually short as the movie is unusually long. Several pieces of incidental music further decrease the song-song payload. But the handful of songs is concentrated like sen-sen and just as bracing. Instrumentation is ordinary rock combo w/piano stuff, right in line with the band as seen in the film: proletarian players surrounding a stogie-chomping Price at the keys, looking, in his cap and leather jacket, more like a news vendor than a rock star. Price has a sort of "thick" voice, like John Cale, Gary Brooker or Warren Zevon, and this quality lends a further sense of grown-up-ed-ness to these cynical tunes. The melodies are sturdy, the words direct. He uses a device of opening the album with the title cut and closing it with a different version of same, which may be seen as a byproduct of the music's assigned purpose except that he does the same thing on the next, non-soundtrack album, "Between Today and Yesterday." However he arrived at this technique (used also by Neil Young on "Tonight's the Night" and "Rust Never Sleeps," the Beatles on "Sgt. Pepper" etc.), it works.
"If you have a friend on whom you think you can rely, you are a lucky man" it begins. An electric piano vamps under the close-miked vocal. It's a no-frills arrival of a no-nonsense voice. I take the implication as: If you have yourself convinced that someone else give's a rat's ass about you, then buddy, here's to you and your enviable pipe dream. Brilliant one-liners are casually flung: "If knowledge hangs around you neck like pearls instead of chains…" This very English songwright (credit for that very useful word goes to David Garland) is up-ending that most English of gasbag poets, Kipling. The fatherly advice of "If" is now the wizened warning of your barstool neighbor, who kept his head while all about him lost theirs, saw the universe in a grain of his tequila salt and it still meant bugger-all.
The song's reprise adds a new section about the round-and-round routine of living. It's not nihilistic, just world-wary and deeply skeptical, contrasted against intensified music. Between the fatalist shrug of the words and the propulsion of the music is where the magic occurs. There's hope in it, somehow, without any promises or fancies or fake rock-n-roll toughness. These versions sandwich a series of lean slices o' life.
"Look Over Your Shoulder" - an assurance, set to a jaunty melody, that happiness is always short-lived. It recommends that you enjoy it all despite wariness, and remain suspicious despite happiness. It ends on an observation regarding a young man's dream of a better life: "without that dream, you are nothin' nothin' nothin' …you'll have to find out for yourself that dream is dead." As if this isn't dire enough, he winds up the track warbling: "Deee-aaaad! lalalala! Deeeeaaaad! Lalalala!" He makes a joke of cynicism itself.
"Justice" ("next to Health is Wealth, and only Wealth will buy you Justice") - obvious enough, with a comment on folks who "trust and rely on the goodness of human nature." They are fools, but whereas the Judge views that foolishness with contempt (see Judith Sheindlin), Price views it as an aspect - winning, if not admirable - of doomed sweetness in the ordinary people to whom he feels kindred.
"Changes" - in which lyrics like "Love must always change to sorrow, and everyone must play the game" are set to the melody of "What a Friend We Have in Jesus." This is both sardonic in the obvious sense and genuinely pious: a prayer of broken faith, replaced by clarity. You lose your happy ending myth; you gain humor. For Price it's a raw deal but the only deal there is. The alternative is taking the gas pipe. It's "Is That All There Is" without the cabaret pretense and ennui.
"Poor People" - A fairly shocking dismissal of the lot of the common man. The stance is that of a Sammy Glick or a Gordon Gekko: tsk tsk… poor people are screwed by their own reluctance to go and get theirs. It's the film character's hustler viewpoint, but it's also a daring stance for Price, where he acknowledges the kernel of truth within an odious point of view. This is evidence, perhaps, of what he learned from his affection for Bob Dylan (we can watch Price hanging around Bob, absorbing all he can in "Don't Look Back") and especially Randy Newman. He takes on a role we'd rather not admit to empathizing with, and tries to turn it back around into advice for the same poor losers it dismisses. To me this aspect of the song trumps Newman, transcending mere sharp satire to include possible redemption within the small, shitty, limited world depicted. None of this nonsense really matters, he says; pretend everything's fine and it might as well be true. This IS the secret to life, I suspect.
Back when I really did have spiritual faith, I arrived at it, from absolute faithlessness, via sheer desire: I prayed consciously to nothing, begging it to convince me it was something. It worked very usefully until September 11, 2001. My blasphemies in the blog are not aimed at the faithful of any stripe, but against groupthink and the collapse of my own little credo. Humor is a countermeasure to all the not-god that comprises most of every religion; it cannot diminish faith. In a song of mine entitled "Rise" I made reference to Price's lyric here. He sings: "Smile while you're makin' it. Laugh while you're takin' it. Even though you're fakin' it, nobody's gonna know." I believe in the idea, and I believe in and admire the ingenious play of opposites Price engages in all over these tunes. He doesn't solve confusion; he just uses it. In the usually one-dimensional form of pop music, which usually sells bummers or bromides, this is a coup. The horse sense wisdom of: "A man's got to make whatever he wants and take it with his own hands" doesn't sit too well with youngsters eager for epiphanies in their tunes, but skin me if it isn't true… and, at this late date, inspiring.
So this album doesn't astound like Pet Sounds or Innervisions; it SATISFIES. It satisfies so fully yet so modestly that the art is easy to miss. Through the years it has remained a favorite, and I don't have to make allowances for it (like a fair amount of the other stuff I enjoyed at the same time) as I get older and more dark-spirited. It reveals more, in fact. It was a good-sized success for Price, and he was emboldened to tackle the more autobiographical "Between Today and Yesterday." This time he didn't have the handy device of serving as commentator within a fictional framework. Now he had to account for his words as directly confessional. Much of it isn't too far a cry from the previous album's "My Home Town," with music hall Britishness backgrounding glimpses of nostalgia and regret, but without the filmic context it all feels closer to the bone.
"Jarrow Song" was a radio hit. This was probably the peak of Price's career in pop terms. In it, Price refers to a march on London undertaken by poor North Englishmen looking for work in the '30s. This was his father's generation, and Alan eventually places himself in the tale, imparting the broad sense of lives turning over into generations without sacrificing intimacy: "My name is little Alan Price; I tried to be nice all of my life. But I'm afraid that up to date it doesn't work." It's the nugget of the "Yesterday" side of the album, which also includes a piano/vocal take on the title cut. I'll get to that masterpiece later, but presenting the song as a plain acoustic ballad here and a huge orchestral showpiece at the end of the "Today" side works masterfully, even if it sounds like a pat framing device as I describe it.
Throughout Price's music there's the same sense (to Americans) of England one gets from much of Ray Davies' work: the black and white drear of Tom Courtenay's "Billy Liar" as viewed by a modern Dickens, along with that "son of a blue collar man" thing that Springsteen used to mine. To this Price adds an especially wary version of the confessional. The heart on his sleeve is just inches above an unmistakably clenched fist, which is another thing he's honest about. He's damaged, and not at all coy about saying so, nor vain about it like some preening Trent Reznor who acts like a messiah for discovering squalor and hatred. He is lost, but he's shit-sure that you ain't any more found. He bears witness only to what he's truly KNOWN, and he speaks his hopeless wishes out loud to the rain and the brick walls. As with most survivors of poverty who've found some success, he romanticizes the bad old days even while recognizing that they were impossibly harsh. Side one is full of this yin-yang.
Side two is, of course, the same grim view, uncushioned by the comforts of memory. Songs like "City Lights" are desolate vignettes of loneliness and despair coexisting with compassion and hope. This is, of course, how many real people live their real lives. The wolf sits, big and mean at the door, but the bluebird still sits on the windowsill. It's TRUTH in song: as rare a thing as can exist. His voice cracks as he tries to convince himself to believe, and tries to suppress that same belief lest it blind him to the ever-present dangers of life. There are no dim recipes for living (ya gotta be strong, you gotta be this, ya gotta be that) or platitudes of any pop-music sort (don't stop believin'!). You go on trudging from can to can't. That's all. Setting this view to music is victory enough in my view; setting it to music that makes the spirit soar and smile is art. In "City Lights" Price delivers lines like: "The city eats the children up and spits them out before they're almost grown." This reads as an unremarkable near-cliché, akin to lines in "Poor People" like "No use mumbling… no use grumbling… life just isn't fair." It's how (and when) he sings these lines that lifts them into poetry. I think of those basic bits of parental "you'll understand when you're older" wisdom that sound hoary, and too obvious to kids. Stuff you roll your eyes over for years and years until one day in the middle of life (or later) you go "Aha!" Price delivers many "aha!" moments. I also note that the "before they're almost grown" line sounds like some strange-ass syntax, but I hear it as a reference to Chuck Berry's "Almost Grown." In other words, the teenage angst rock music is itself built on can not apply to kids who never really get to be kids or teenagers.
Nobody knows the infinite variety of deviations, derailments, booby traps, temptations, lies, crimes and shocks to the system that an old lady knows. She's seen how truly similar they all are. The "fragile" granny has raised many boys and girls, and attended the raising of many more; nothing is novel to her eyes. She's weathered storms that would wreck many a hardy young narcissus, but comes on as meek as a kitten, wise enough to protect your vanity by never letting on how fucking naïve you really are. The poses of rockdom are all ridiculous, once seen in this light. More than anyone I've heard, Price has the granny overview and the smart youngster's respect for the cost and value of that wisdom.
I embrace this album for the beauty of the music and performances, but also because I know something about a soul stuck between today and yesterday; it's a feeling of being perpetually on the brink of your own life, even as it slides on by. The cover art depicts a weeping teddy boy, grappling with all this as his dreams shrink away across a sky glimpsed through a window.
Since I can't examine every song now, I'll skip right to the title track. It is one of my all-time, motherlode, killer-diller, Katy-bar-the-door super mindfucks. The first time I played it for my brother Brian, he wept cascades and demanded I turn it off, only to demand its reprise immediately and repeatedly. We sobbed, just like Charlie did when he'd play it. Sometimes Price seems like a compelling drinking buddy, drawing you in with vivid tales and rowdy asides. In this song he climbs into your fucking soul and rips up every scab there.
Unlike "O Lucky Man!" - in which the title song's two versions featured different sections and "feels," the two versions of "Between Today and Yesterday" are the same musically, lyrically and "feel"-wise. The first is stark and the second is orchestrated, but apart from the sophistication (and the baggage) suggested by the orchestra, the main difference is implied by the song's placement on the album's two sides. This is one illustration of what made lps such a different experience than cds; the work is in two "acts," and some artists consciously used this in the construction of the work. Here, Price brings it in as the third song. This makes the first two songs a sort of prologue, holding back this powerful tune until we're situated in the world of Price's father (and his own childhood… of course, childhood begins several decades before our birth, in the form of the circumstances and family lore into which we arrive. Parents and other significant adults surround our early experience with vivid discussions of their earlier lives, and it's easy to underestimate the ways in which that shared world shaped the environment we're in and our view of it. A 20 year-old is facing tomorrow with about 40 years of experience, helpfu and otherwise).
"You'll never see his mother's face or feel his father's hand…" Price begins. This is a valuable device when used in confessional songs: the blockade. First off, Price creates a third person distance ("his" mother) even while creating personal intimacy by addressing "you" directly. The result is a powerful emotional tension unachievable with a straight "me, I" perspective. Still, there's never a doubt that Price is talking about himself. The evasions of art. Then, in this lyric, he starts by telling you what you missed out on. It's a ploy like "I never believed these Penthouse letters until it happened to me…" but it disarms our complacent expectations and promises something bona fide. By telling us we'll never see his mother's face, etc., he's reminding us of how unique each person's memory of home is: we all know that it s impossible to convey the exact flavor of our deepest loves and cherished memories. (This inability to communicate is precisely the human tragedy, just as "Poor People" was the secret of life, and ain't you glad you read this now?) In this way, Price makes omitted specifics communicate the universal: we have to fill in the details, so we fill them in with those we know. That's where the hook sinks into your heart.
"Who can you show when you succeed in never-never land?" is the second line. I'm not gonna get into line-by-line analysis, but this one should be noted. Since Price clearly considers the pop music world "never-never land, " in the reprise he seems to be making that reference to his own (dubious, in his eyes) success. But this first version is - we can assume by virtue of placement - his father's song, not his own. In England in those days, poor people lived "on the never-never," a slang term that refers to what are now called "rent-to-buy" stores. You take home a piece of furniture or an appliance that you'd never be able to afford on your pitiful wage, and "pay it off" in weekly installments plus interest. Plus INTEREST. This usurious arrangement usually results in repossession or, at best, eventual ownership of a now-devalued object for which you wound up paying ten times normal retail ("Poor people stay poor people…" "…only wealth will buy you justice").
By making the exact same song serve as his signature as well as his father's, Price is asserting both pride and humility. Pride that he is like his father and the other people of his hometown. Humility that for all his efforts to succeed and to grow, he sees himself as nothing more than a working-class Geordie tricked up in fancier garb (the orchestra/fame). Maybe even a little bit fake. I could belabor points like this for paragraph after paragraph, but I'm only trying to suggest the richness and craft of Price's work. The real impact of this song has nothing to do with such subtextual, "maybe-so" stuff; it's the raw emotion. In the piano version it's the nakedness that hits you, and in the orchestral version it's the desperation Price projects from the gorgeous colors of his symphonic backdrop. I can't choose between them.
Each begins with that sense of sorrowful reminiscence over the beautiful melody: a straight up ballad with little Ray Charles blue tinges in the piano part. The chorus gives us the simple, agonizing fact that "between today and yesterday is like a million years…" and once he's said this aloud, he grows increasingly pained. Eventually he gets to a frantic, screamed "Beware! The mirror on the wall gets less friendly with passing time!" It's blood-curdling.
"Enough! I said Enough! Just draw the shade!"
Maybe it reads as melodrama, but it sounds as frank as any performance I've ever heard. In fact, it is palpably NOT a performance. It is a human being in absolute agony, somehow turning that agony ecstatic through the temporary power of the artistic act. (His temporary release is made permanent and sacramental by giving us the song on a recording through which we can repeatedly relive this moment. It's why I love artists even though so many seem like nothing but pose or product. There's no doubt that a lot of music …even great stuff… is just sales fodder, but some isn't, and when that happens, wheee!)
The music reaches its climax on the closing lines:
"Please! Let me drink black wine!
Yes, I know it's the ending."
He ends it all with a cracked whimper, a ninth that just hangs there in the air a moment, then floats to the ground like a dead leaf. For me it is so exhausting that the only cure is to hear it again. It lifts me up and slams me to the ground. Through it all, the orchestra plays much the same role as it would in a film, adding layers of shading behind the foreground action. It ain't just fancy dress or showy dressage; in the final emotional surrender of the second version, it sounds triumphant. That this collapse should sound like a triumph is nothing unique, of course. That's the kind of legerdemain that keeps us thrilled about music. But Price pulled off a good one, I'll tell ya. The implosion we're witnessing is producing the glory of that orchestra: it's the massed might of one weak human soul, revealed at a catastophic moment when modesty, self-protection and etiquette no longer matter.
Now, "Metropolitan Man" is new to me as an album. Charlie hepped me to the galloping "Papers" years ago: a great driving rock tune about what a total bunch of nonsense comprises the daily journals. After much entertaining sarcasm, Price confesses that he does love the naked ladies on Page 3 of the British rags. "Fools' Gold" is a tender post mortem on the career and friendships of the Animals, kicked off by some quietly stunning solo organ work (not the kind of "solo organ work" I'm usually on about, nyuck nyuck). The final tune, "Drinker's Curse" is a deliberately whiny barroom ballad with enough wee bits o' discord to please any fans of early "Piano Has Been Drinking" Waits. Naturally, Charlie and I often played both tunes during our frequent 12-rounders with Bacchus, but I gotta say; all these years later, Alan's merciless take on the narcissism of the alcoholic (not that I'd know) holds up truer than Tom's romanticism and high low-theater. As for the rest of "Metropolitan Man," time will tell which other tunes stand out, but I'm grateful for my rejuvenated interest in Price's work, and all the pleasure this fresh listen has yielded.
It all makes me want to revisit Alan Price albums to which I gave short shrift in my callow youth. All these words are just recognition that there is work that you have to grow into. As much as I dug Price in my 20s, the years have deepened my appreciation of his legitimately adult rock music. It's a scarce commodity, especially welcomed by an aging music fan, not to mention its Arne Saknussemm utility to an aging songwright. In the astoundingly insipid musical landscape these days (and I'm not just talking about shit like Christgau's pick Justin Timberlake or Fifty fuckin Cent), anyone hungry for SONGS might want to look into Alan Price. If I had a pint of Newcastle Brown right now, I'd toast him. And Charlie O, too …you are missed, amigo.
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