Procol Harum

the Pale

PH on stage | PH on record | PH in print | BtP features | What's new | Interact with BtP | For sale | Site search | Home

Cryptonyms: A Rum Tale

A Procoholic jeu d'esprit

While the cat's away the mice will play, folklore assures us, and this seems to be as true for the brain as it is for the barnyard: when the conscious mind is dazed, distracted, drunk or dreaming, all hell breaks loose in the left cerebral hemisphere as the words come out to play on their own.

Now perhaps we were all dazed, distracted, drunk or dreaming back in those early days when we first got hooked on Procolabilia, when Keith Reid's words seemed to be having all kinds of covert fun at the expense of Mr Literal up there in the Sensible Cortex.

'Sack the town and rob the tower', for instance ...

... a typically beautiful, balanced line from Reid's glory days. Exquisite correspondence of sound between 'town' and 'tower', ironically pointing up the difference in sense: 'town', democratic, populist: 'tower', élitist and remote. Similarly the two verbs of looting correspond to their target premises: 'sack' fit for the trashing of houses, 'rob' altogether loftier, perhaps implying the hope of real gain as opposed to destruction. And if one were a robber, one would have need of a sack ... unless the stolen commodity were to be 'the alphabet'. Then we notice that one of the letters has indeed been stolen ... the 'R' of course, Reid's own initial ... and that 'Rob the Tower' is otherwise 'Rob the Trower' (I was amazed to see that a latter-day Procol actually signed his autograph as 'Graham the Broad').

If Rob Trower was indeed commemorated subliminally in that song, where might we look to find the names of the rest of the band? 'I know might read more sweet' had the sound of the poet's name in it, and the confessional, intimate nature of the song (origins here) might lend weight to such a reading: but it's a long shot, with no sound-equivalent to 'Keith' to back it up. The rampant Ks of Kaleidoscope (did you hear 'Keith's in my kaleidoscope'?) are too far away in time to lend any support. Likewise Dave Knights has an easy surname ... 'In the Darkness of the Night ...' that's him all right! ... they even used to call him 'The Undertaker' so that clinches it (or else he could be lurking in the 'the Demons of the Night' much later on ... no? Pity he wasn't called Desmond Night, isn't it). Maybe we can also find him In the Wee Small Hours as Sir Galant, the only true Knight of Procoldom, who is 'now off to the wars ... '.

Fisher, then, or Matt? Both ought to be an easy words to find: 'It doesn't matter either way' or 'what's the matter ain't you glad to see me?' might at a pinch be said to embody the organist's name hypocoristically. But we search in vain for 'Fish' in those early albums ... for all the nautical content, the very word 'fish' carries a light comic weight, ill-suited to Reid's early themes.

It's not until 1971 that we find the pianist and drummer commemorated, dramatically, together, in the title Broken Barricades. How fitting that Brooker and Barrie, by then the only fixed points left from the band that had started rehearsing even before Fisher joined, should be linked in this brilliant piece of work. Odd, perhaps, that one is a surname and one a forename, but such 'cunning irregularity' (as Thomas Hardy called it) often marks subconscious word-alchemy: and it's essential for a song title, like a person, to have both a forename and a surname ... isn't it? And Gary turns up again, some would say, in the 'Bankers and Brokers' line on Exotic Birds.

Then there's Luskus Delph. Notwithstanding the various suppositions offered over the years, how can we fail to believe that this is really a proper name, just so out-of-focus that we cannot tell whose almond eyes and steaming vat so bewitched the author ... not that it's any of our business!

But names outside the band are not my thesis: if they were, I'd be dwelling on the Dylan-like soubriquets the earliest songs (Sousa Sam, Phallus Phil, and the Sot, whatever he's really called); on Mabel (though it's said that Gary Brooker wrote the words to that chorus); and on Magdalene, Jesus and doubting Thomas who all pop up within five minutes of each other in a surprising Biblical strand (this seems to be Reid's darkest period of all, and it's not surprising that he's weighing up the rôles of teacher and fool: how daunting, in one's early twenties, to be looked up to as a spokesman, an enlightener, by a generation who (if they'd read your words more carefully) ought to realize that you were protesting that you could see no way forward, no solutions! Nowhere is this havering split clearer than in Magdalene (that's really Mellotron, of course): 'one foot on the seashore, the other in the sand' ... well the seashore is the sand, isn't it ... so where is he standing, exactly? Let's not be naughty and assume that all 'sand' references point to one-time Reid paramour Sandy Hurvitz, any more than 'My Regal Zonophone' is a defocussed acknowledgement of 'my Robert Zimmerman', the saviour to whom Reid (far more than Donovan!) stood in a Mary Magdalene-like relationship. No, no!).

No, No? Some would say yes, yes, the titles of the songs are evident verbal playgrounds. The word-reversal in A Whiter Shade of Pale (a phrase now so familiar that we don't notice how odd it is) proclaims as much. Salad Days (Are Here Again) wittily conflates two other titles, the musical Salad Days and the song Happy Days are Here Again, to make a nonsense whole; Keith gives us 'Camel' where we're expecting Christmas Carol; 'Fence' is entirely unexpected in She Wandered Through the Garden ...; Wish me Well is a craftily ironic sound-pun on the 'wishing well' the narrator plans to drown in; Juicy John Pink is a cocky phallic retake, with all sorts of resonances, on Jumping Jack Flash; the word 'fiction' has slipped into Crucifixion Lane (whose narrator seemingly longs to sink instead of walking, Christlike, on the water) ... and that title presents a revealing parallel to Dylan's Desolation Row, as does its partner Memorial Drive.

So no prima facie case needs to be made for the creative word-play in these songs titles. Whaling Stories ... shouldn't that be 'Wailing' (I don't myself see how one critic sensed 'the pain of the whales being hunted' in that song)? Playmate of the Mouth steals the alphabet again ... most readers expected 'Playmate of the Month'; I've written elsewhere about the sound pun that equates 'Fall Icarus John' and For Liquorice John; Sam Cameron has wondered if the 'Robert' in Robert's Box is the Bob in 'Bob Hope', Brooker's rhyming-slang (see here) for 'dope'; Beyond the Pale 'ought to be' Beyond the Veil and everyone has seen Monsieur Armand (Essex Music) mutating (for whatever reason!) into Monsieur R Monde (Bluebeard Music!).

But back to the idea of band-members' names, subconsciously squirreled into the fabric of the songs. Maybe I'm milking a dead horse here? Where's Chris Copping (or, to put it another way, why do we have to wait so long before he crops up in GB's solo 'Chasing for the Chop'? Why does Bobby Harrison not feature until that outrageously improbable verb, 'typewriter fever, it harries me still'? Why does 'Fisher' seem to appear (anagrammatically, and alphabetically robbed of an 'h', of course) as late as 'Fires ...', the song that (like The Idol) some choose to read biographically, choosing 'brightly' as their key-word. ['Say you're sorry, and I'll be your fool again: bring your light home and brightly will I shine: it don't matter what you're putting me through, say you're sorry and I'll forgive you' ... anyone recognise that, by the way … read all about it here].

No, it won't wash. Some artists, yes: Kate Bush invites us to 'come up and be a kite'; she's 'all yours, Babooshka' and she's in no doubt about the 'pull of the Bush'; Lennon repeatedly hollers 'Oh No' ... but these self-trumpetings are altogether different: they're self-conscious, whereas the present enquiry concerns a writer's undeliberate name-checks for his fellow band-members: '(H)aRum Tale' indeed. I cannot pretend there's any logical link between the overt wordplay noted in the song-titles above, and the dreamlike cryptonyms this article postulates. Furthermore the Bush / Lennon examples are less far-fetched, and require less distortion than is needed to make 'Mick of the Claw' stand up in court, or to persuade 'Back Gammon' to sound like 'Mick Grabham'. Some say the title was shouted out during the song in its early studio days, but we don't even hear that word in the final cut: a complete treatment of this topos would need to distinguish between vocal puns (the ones musicians pick up) and visual puns (the ones noticed by literary blokes, or just by people who've grown up with bad eyesight). Some Procol fans, of course, score in all three categories.

While we're there, in the final 70s session, spare a thought for those songs that didn't make it on to Something Magic. 'I'm a reader and a writer' would seem, like much from that era, to be a lot more straightforward. Suddenly at this time we have a clear reference to 'Musical Fish' ... ('top of the class ... making it pay') at a time when the songs, as well as being a lot more comical, are also explicitly self-referential: 'we know we're out of favour, we can't expect no saviour' ... 'we'll raise a glass to absent friends ... to those we've wronged we'll make amends ...'. Any other absent friends that might have been referred to in One Eye on the Future? Oh yes ... the previous bass-player, of course: and Alan Cartwright crops up plum in the title of the jazziest Procol song of them all, the mysterious food-litany that is entitled A La Carte. Clear enough ... though some might not agree.

But did the poet realize what he'd done, someone will ask. Had he done it at all, I say! And given that I'm proposing this as an irrational process at best, is there any point in attempting to sustain a rational enquiry into it? Procol words mean what they mean in-a-particular-mind on-a-particular-hearing, and our only duty to them – not to under-estimate them – is really only a duty to ourselves. Did Keith write these things on purpose ... how could we tell? Are we barking mad to imagine such things are really there ... how would we know?

And, so long as the enquiry conduces to the gaiety of nations, how much does it matter?

Written by RC in response to a challenge from RB
re. the ultimate Procol non-sequitur

More dependable features at 'Beyond the Pale'

More stuff like the above

PH on stage | PH on record | PH in print | BtP features | What's new | Interact with BtP | For sale | Site search | Home