Odd band, Procol Harum. Here they are, no tour and no new album recently, but with a burst of interest demonstrated by this web site (which I am psyched to be part of) and the Westside re-releases. The first two reissues were a boon for fans like me. Not having Seem to Have the Blues, Monsieur Armand nor, of course, Alpha – heck, I didn't have a copy of Captain Clack – plus the very different Salad Days, – it was almost like finding 'The Great Lost Procol Harum Album.' The first three songs mentioned seem new enough to talk about. I'll throw in Long Gone Geek in deference to the later reissues. These songs are by definition NOT featured songs. They were left out in one way or another, and I don't consider all of them to be absolutely PH's best work. All the same, I think paying close attention to even a nearly random selection can show how much feeling and imagination went into Brooker / Reid pieces (or Brooker / Fisher / Reid in the case of Long Gone Geek).
Seem to Have the Blues All the Time a talky groove, could almost have been done by Mose Allison. 'The cops are using radar trying to intercept my dreams' – what a hippie. The words stay with the blues form mostly. 'I got peace of mind.' This seems to introduce a key theme of Reid's, who is almost the Hamlet of rock, voicing something similar to 'The readiness is all' in song after song, from here to Strong as Samson. But this track rocks. That organ is not resigned.
Long Gone Geek also moves and shakes, and on first listen the words seem like standard jokey rock lyrics. You're likely to hear the first couple of lines and things like 'looking like the front page of Newsweek,' 'Lou's on the floor 'cause he can't stand up' and think, yeah, wild times. Which is NOT a bad reaction. Jagger's dictum about it being good to mumble the words sometimes (he attributed it to Fats Domino) isn't just for bad lyrics. When lyrics are mysterious, they're interactive – you partly make them up yourself. Then you worry you might be missing something which makes you act – ask other people, go to web sites – or think. I love this mystery and I value Reid's reluctance to explain his words, 'to shovel each glimpse / into the ditch of what it means' in Dylan's phrase. This has all been said before but I think it applies to lovely, sad, 19th-century-obsessed Procol Harum as much as to the Stones or REM or Robert Johnson. On the original A-side of LGG, A Salty Dog, Brooker sings 'All hands on deck, we've run afloat,' which sounds like a slurred 'we'rrrrrre afloat' unless you see the lyrics, or learn that it was inspired by graffiti – 'Good Lord, Skipper, we've done run aground.' This last takes you way outside of the song, but it's still in the song's world to know someone thought it important to write this on a wall in the troubled USA in the late 1960s, and that Reid and Brooker were moved to make a great song in response. But I'm rambling on.
So consider this interpretation: Long Gone Geek begins with jailhouse events that could pass for realism. But 'Pin-striped Sweet's in cell 15 / convinced his self it's all a dream.' Immediately we get the outlandish cat who's like something in a dream. Gun, Stetson hat – sounds like the big ol' American dream, of violence bringing freedom. But this is not CSN's Long Time Gone, this still has some irony. Maybe the sheriff is tied up, maybe some crazy cat broke Geek's neck, maybe it's a big breakout. Yeah, right. Or maybe Pinstripe Sweet is back in his cell, dreaming freedom, which may be the only way it can be had. I always liked Long Gone Geek. I thought of it when the front page of Newsweek featured Bill Gates.
Monsieur Armand too, is up tempo and fairly straightforward. But what about the title of the later version, Monsieur R Monde? (I'm sure there's someone by that name somewhere in Jules Verne, where R. stands for 'Ronde,' I just haven't run it down yet.) If the figure coming in through the front door is the World, that makes a kind of sense – the World can be a horror sometimes. Was this supposed to be the title the first time around, but changed by error? The song is still mostly fanciful, but fun. R Monde is still alive?!! Zounds!
'A rat' – not bat – 'flew down.' Reid plays with our ears, as with 'we've run afloat.'
'My name is Jekyll and you're Mr. Hyde' – even in a dreamlike story, a hint that we and the scary outside World are one.
Alpha strikes me as some of the best pop of the 1960s, despite some not-ready guitar and the fact that it was forgotten for 30 years. Roland Clare says useful things about it here. It takes on lots of material with a light touch.
Right off I'm taken by a significant ambiguity. Does the protagonist have a spiritual third eye, or is the poor little guy a cyclops? Three eyes vs. one – is he complicated and messed-up or simple and messed-up? Any way you look at him he's a freak. A holy fool and a plain fool can have a lot in common. You could be one or the other and not be sure which yourself.
Hangin' with the bats: this reminds me of the phrase 'In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.' HG Wells had a story in which this wasn't so, because the blind communally adapt to their blindness and so the weirdo with an extra sense is an outcast.
'... Your clothes cover it up.' In a rhythmic song like this, such a line can't escape sexual suggestiveness. The boy has an organ people weren't expecting to see. Procol Harum has a conspicuous organ too, but, well, that's enough of that.
What about the title? Unreleased studio tracks from other bands of the time sometimes have dull working titles like 'No. 1' – is this the same thing, only in Greek? Or does it mean he is somehow primitive and / or primary?
I wonder if that's Keith playing the guitar 'solo.' ;)
There's lots more to explore about the religious / existential metaphors – is the kid a mystic? or a resentful sceptic, made strange by thinking too much? (or too clearly?) 'All men are born equal' – the 'man in charge' sounds fair at first, but he sends the boy farther away from society. It's all wonderfully plain-spoken ('my lousy luck'). You get the impression the kid would like to forget it all, get his friends together (I guess that would be the man in charge, the bats, and maybe the nun), form a strong line and do the Madison shuffle, which this music really encourages.
It occurs to me that these four songs that were all bumped from albums even though they are all interesting PLUS danceable. How come? Maybe they didn't speak to core concerns of the makers. Why didn't Dylan release the similarly up tempo Tell Me Mama, I Wanna Be Your Man or She's Your Lover Now?' I dunno. I'm just glad we've got them.
More features at BtP