When I was 12 years old, I wrote my very first song, called "Rye Bread World." (If that sounds familiar, I previously referred to the tune in TMFW 40.) When I put it to music, I used the four chords that I could reliably play on guitar: E minor, G, D, and A. The song repeats those chords over and over and over and over as it makes its way through three verses about how everything in the world is like rye bread. (Remember that I was TWELVE.)
With that story in mind, it was with some delight that I discovered a couple of years ago that Greg Lake - he of the famous prog rock trio Emerson Lake & Palmer - wrote his first song the same way. He too was twelve, and but for an additional minor chord (his is an Em and an Am vs. my Em and A) the idea was the same. Verse-Chorus-Verse, with a never-changing chord progression.
Whereas "Rye Bread World" is all about how the world is like rye bread, Lake's song was an adolescent fantasy about a dude who lives a super-sweet (but seemingly short) life. The first verse notes that the guy had "ladies by the score, all dressed in satin and waiting by the door." The second talked about his Donald-Trump-worthy bedroom furniture, which was a gold-covered mattress adorned with lace and feathers. In the third, we hear of the man's military prowess: he was so good at "fight[ing] wars" that all of his countrymen sang songs of his honor and his glory. Finally, in the fourth, tragedy strikes and he dies in battle.
If you read today's title or you know Emerson Lake & Palmer, you have likely figured out by now that the 12-year-old Greg Lake wrote "Lucky Man," which appeared on ELP's first record and went on to be the band's signature track. As Lake explained in a 2012 interview, the song was not intended for production: "[There was] no intellectual thought involved in it…it was pure innocence. I mean, there was no thought of it becoming a record. There was no thought of me even becoming a professional musician. It was just for my own personal pleasure.”
In fact, the song only appeared on ELP's record because the group needed some album filler. From the same interview, Lake noted "[n]ine years later, when it came to making the first ELP album, nobody wanted to [record "Lucky Man."]; it was only because we were short of one track on the record that it ever got made. Keith didn’t even want to play on it. I actually made it on my own, that record is all me except for Carl Palmer doing the drums and the solo right at the end with Keith. I’m all the voices, all the guitars; we just thought it was filler. We never had the faintest idea that it would become a hit record.”
Though "Lucky Man" reached only #48 on the charts, it has become a classic rock radio mainstay and its success helped launch ELP's string of seven gold records and a decade of famously self-indulgent performances in the 1970s. Not bad for a four-chord, album-filler tune written by a 12-year-old.
BONUS FACT: Today's entry was inspired by Keith Emerson, whose brilliant one-take Moog solo at the end of "Lucky Man" is that song's pièce de résistance. I love it so much. Emerson died last week of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was 71. RIP, Keith.
BONUS FACT 2: ELP's fourth record was called Brain Salad Surgery, which was borrowed from a lyric in a Dr. John song and which apparently was a slang term for oral sex.
BONUS FACT 2.5: The album artwork for Brain Salad Surgery was done by the Swiss fantasy artist H.R. Giger. Giger is most famous for designing the Alien from the movie of the same name, which earned him an Oscar.
At the artist's website, there is the terrific story of how he made the album art. Apparently, the record was initially to be called Whip Some Skull on Ya, which (theme alert!) was a slang term for oral sex. When Giger learned this, he came up with a concept evocative of that theme. But when he met the band and showed his work, Keith Emerson told him for the first time that the record's name would be changed to Brain Salad Surgery. As Giger recounts, "I was dismayed until he explained to me that this expression, likewise, connoted fellatio." What a moment of occupational relief that must have been.
BONUS FACT 3: ELP were a shining example of true '70s stage excess: at its height, their rock spectacle of a tour required 10+ trailers of gear, with 60+ roadies to lug it around.
BONUS CONTENT 4: Here's solo acoustic Greg Lake, chewing gum and performing the hell out of "Lucky Man" in 1974.