Greg Lake started writing this song when he was just 12 years old. "I was round my friend's house and he had a broken down old guitar," Lake explained on his Songs of a Lifetime tour. "In fact, it only had one string on it. Luckily, it was the bottom string. With a matchstick, I picked out this tune.
It made me think, you know, perhaps I could play guitar. So it came to Christmas and I said to my mom, 'Do you think there's any chance of me having a guitar for Christmas?' And she said, 'No.' You know, we were pretty poor. So that was it. I just accepted it.
But anyway, Christmas came, and there it was, the guitar. And of course I was thrilled. The first four chords I learned were D, A minor, E minor, and G. With these chords I wrote this little song. It's a kids' song, really. And it was a medieval fantasy, really. And I never wrote it on a piece of paper. I just remembered the words."
Arguably Emerson, Lake & Palmer's best known song, this almost did not happen. On the last day of recording their first album, ELP did not have enough material to fulfill their contract requirements of 21 minutes per album side. Greg Lake explained: "Everybody looked round the studio, you know, 'Has anybody got any more material?' And there was deadly silence. So I said, 'Well, look, you know, I've got this little thing I wrote when I was a kid. And if there's nothing else, maybe that would do.' You know.
So Keith said, 'Well, you play it, then, let's have a listen.' So I played it, and nobody liked it. So I said, 'Yeah, but you know, the thing is we've got nothing else.' Keith said, 'Well, you record it on your own and I'm going to go down the pub.' So off he went down the pub.
So Carl Palmer and I, we recorded the first part together, just drums and acoustic guitar. And it sounded pretty dreadful. But then I put a bass on it and it sounded a bit better. And then I went and put some more guitars on it, and an electric guitar solo. Then I put these harmonies on, these block harmonies. And in the end it sounded pretty good, it sounded like a record."
The guitar chords on the chorus: A minor, E minor, D, then Dsus - just play a regular D chord and add a G played on the first string, according to Greg.
The end of this song contains one of the most famous Moog synthesizer solos in rock history. Keith Emerson had just recently gotten the device, and only decided to play on this song after hearing the track Lake and Palmer came up with and realizing it was a legitimate song. "Keith came back from the pub and he heard it and was shocked," said Lake. You know, it had gone from this silly little folk song to this quite big production. And so he said, 'Wow, I suppose I'd better play on that.' And so I said, 'The thing is, I've already put the guitar solo on.' He said, 'Look, I could play something at the end.' He said, 'I've just had this gadget delivered next door. It's called a Moog synthesizer. I haven't tried it before, but maybe there's a sound on there that would work on this.' So I said, 'Okay. Why don't we give it a try.'
And so Keith went out into the next room. And he said, 'Run the track, then, for an experiment.' So I flipped it in record and pressed play. And because he was experimenting, we didn't really listen. In fact, we put the speakers on dim. The track went through and Keith experimented, and when it got to the end I turned to the engineer, Eddie Offord. I said, 'Was that me or did that sound good?' And Eddie said, 'I think it did sound good.' And we played it back. And that is the solo that's on the record."
This song does not have a happy ending. The "lucky man" has riches and acclaim, but he decides to fight for his country, gets shot, and dies. Greg Lake says that even though he wrote the song when he was very young, the story was always the same. "The lyrics never changed," he said. "But strangely enough, over time the way that people perceived the song changed. Perhaps it was vaguely something to do with the Vietnam War, that period, just at the end of the Vietnam War. Some people associated it with the John F. Kennedy assassination. It had those sort of overtones. So it was connected in a way to an era when there was a lot of war and drama like that. But the lyrics really got interpreted in a way in which I'd never intended them to be, of course, when I wrote it as a young kid." (Here's our full Greg Lake interview.)
By Emerson, Lake & Palmer standards, this is a very simple song; they got far more complex on their next albums. "Most tracks recorded by ELP, we would say that the backing track would have to be a killer instrumental before we added any voice, so the music had to stand up on its own without the lyrics," Carl Palmer said in his Songfacts interview. "A very simple lyric like 'Lucky Man' is fine - you can take that, too. But the lyrics did mature as time went by, and I think Sinfield and Lake did a great job."
Lake was part of the Mandoki Soulmates, a supergroup assembled by the drummer Leslie Mandoki. Of the many famous songs they played, Leslie says this one was the most challenging to interpret.
Barry from Sauquoit, NyPer: http://www.oldiesmusic.com/news.htm Greg Lake, guitarist with King Crimson and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, died Wednesday (December 7th, 2016) of cancer at the age of 69... Born in Poole, Dorset, England, he learned to play guitar at age 12 and, in 1969, formed King Crimson with his friend Roger Fripp. The group shot to fame with their classic album, "In The Court Of The Crimson King", but Greg was gone after their second album ("In The Wake Of Poseidon") a year later, having been approached by Keith Emerson to form ELP with Carl Palmer. Though primarily an album-oriented band (including the classics "Pictures At An Exhibition" and "Brain Salad Surgery"), they charted four times on the singles charts, as well, with staples like "Lucky Man" (#48-1971 and #51-1972), "Nut Rocker" (#70 in 1972), and "From The Beginning" (#39-1972)— with Greg producing most of their material. The group broke up in 1979 (having sold a reported 49 million records and earning 7 gold records) though Greg and Keith re-formed ELP with Cozy Powell in 2010. Greg is also remembered for his anti-Christmas tune "I Believe In Father Christmas" (#95) in 1975, he also made the Top 100 with "C'est La Vie" (#91 in 1977) and "Let Me Love You Once" (#48 in 1981)... May he R.I.P.
Howard from Levittown, PaRecently, I wasn't sure if. "Lucky Man" was intended as a dry satire, especially from the mind of the man who would write "I Believe in Father Christmas. " Nothing about that here, but from me.
Pavel from Mikulov, Czech RepublicSuper song/ return to my youth...
Josh from Champaign, IlI don't believe Lucky Man was written about JFK. The historical record seems pretty clear that Lake wrote the song when he was twelve years old. Lake was born in 1947, making him 12 years old in 1959, JFK was killed four years later.
Greg from New Windsor, NyI once heard on a classic rock station in NYC that this song was about Kennedy (I believe Robert).
Lance from Wilkes Barre, PaA lot is written about Emerson's Moog solo which is outstanding...but how about Palmer's drumming at the end of the song...listen carefully and you will hear the drumming mimic the fallen soldier's fluttering heart as it fibrillates while he dies...is this creative or what???
Chris from Alhambra, CaI was ditching high school in 1971 and I was in in my friends car,,, (getting baked),,, and I heard the moog solo at end,,,, Being a piano player I jumped out of my seat and said "WHAT THE HELL IS THAT?" Keith Emerson is one of the greatest rock keyboardists of our day!!!! I still play his music to this day.
John from Nashua, NhI played this song extremely loud in a stereo store on AR-90 speakers and at the end of the song where the moog dips into some seriously low db tones I CLIPPED BOTH SPEAKERS! HAHAHA!!! I'll never forget that. I got kicked out of the store. Oh yeah...umm...I was pretty baked at the time.
Thegripester from Wellington, New ZealandOne of the urban legends floating around in the 70's was that this song was about JFK.
Jesse from Madison, WiI do like this song alot, namely the Moog solo at the end, but I find it rather unfortunate that it somewhat "defined" ELP. It shouldn't have branded the band as just another "rock band". Thank GOD really Emerson added that Moog at the end to help define the deeper meaning behind the band. That helped people realize that this band was truly progressive and their album cuts BLOW AWAY Lucky Man. Their albums were all strong until Love Beach, and Emerson feels people undercut that album too much. He really did like some of the material on it. But the press wins in the end and stupid American audiences never will fully appreciate what ELP really was - the ultimate over-the-top progressive band!
Jay from Sunset, UtIn High School (back in 1974) in one of my classes they showed the movie "El Cid". I still, to this day, every time I hear the song think of Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar (El Cid). I always change two words in my mind. Change "a bullet" to "an arrow" and "no money" to "no body".
The Moog ending made me want a synthesizer so bad that I took electronics classes and built my own! I owe my interest to electronics to this song! Love it!!
Ekristheh from Halath, United StatesThis was played near-incessantly in 1970 by the same station I was listening to that wore out the grooves on Neil's "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere" and CSNY's "Deja Vu". It was contextualized not just as an anti-war song, but anti-Vietnam in particular, as so many songs were at that time.
Tony from Stavanger, NorwayHave to admit I was never a big fan of ELP preferring Emerson's previous band The Nice and Lake's previous album 'In The Court Of The Crimson King'. That said I've always liked this song despite the fact that Lake thought it pretty basic since he wrote it in his teens. Must mention one of the best quotes I've ever read, by UK Radio legend, the late, great John Peel who once described ELP as, "A tragic waste of talent and electricity". Superb!
Roger from Rochester, NyThis is one of the all time classics and ELP is the all-time greatest prog rock band and the most under-rated band overall. Long Live ELP!!!
Luigino from Miami, FlYou are right Stephen, the whole song is written in "Past Sentence" and in "3rd Person". Definitely somebody is telling the story of this rich man, and probably from his funeral. This song has something magic that reaches inside your soul. Those guys take 3 simple chords and make art of it. Amazing! - Luigi, Miami, FL.
Allie from Pine Knob, MiThe song is pretty sad if you listen to it. But i love the acoustic guitar. Sounds like a ballad to me
Wes from Sherwood, Arstephen claymont,unless its urban legend i always thought the song was about jfk--john kennedy
Wes from Sherwood, Argreat song and easy to play for beginning guitarists! g d, chorus am em d---thats it!
Barry from New York, NcAlthough the story behind the recording of LUCKY MAN is that the song was recorded at the end of the ELP debut album sessions, this might not be true. According to the liner notes in the ELP box set "Return To Manticore," the album was recorded from July to September 1970 (on either side of their appearance at the Isle of Wight Festival). The liner notes states that LUCKY MAN being recorded at the July session (wheras "Knife Edge" and "Three Fates" from the album were recorded in September). Either the liner notes are incorrect, or the truth is that LUCKY MAN was not a last-minute leftover for the album after all!!
Chris from New York, NyEmerson Lake and Palmer is so underrated it boggles my mind. i have three of their albums and their are all great and one of them includes this great song. also includes on of the most famous synth solos at the end.
Stephen from Claymont , DeIf you listen to the song, you can hear that it is about a funeral. In the funeral they are talking about the lost life of a rich guy who had a great life and then that changed when he was drafted to go to the war. During the war he was shot now they are talking in the funeral...
Ethan from Franklin, TnI recently read "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and this song reminds me of Jay Gatsby.
David from Pitsburgh, PaI grew up in the Rockies in the 1970s, learning Waylon and Willie songs on my acoustic. But long before that I was singing Lucky Man between classes in Blacksburg VA. One of the greatest ballads by a rock band, to be sure, whether one likes ELP or the rock genre at all or not.
Jim from Oxnard, CaAnother one of those "throwaways becoming classics" stories.