Procol Harum

Beyond
the Pale 

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'The Procols are in town'

Michel Seymour on The Well's on Fire


Michel Seymour writes to BtP (28 April 2003) from the Department of Philosophy at the Universitť de Montrťal

More than ten years after The Prodigal Tour, Procol Harum is once again back at the Spectrum Theatre in Montrťal. Unfortunately, their album has not yet been commented in the media. Nowhere do we find mention of the record in the newspapers. Iím sad to report also that a week before the concert, the album was still not available in the two main Montreal record stores. I have been told that 'it is not yet released', even if I was in fact able like everyone else to order it two months ago from Amazon.com! The Wellís on Fire is an 'untimely' work in the sense that it tells a lot about our times, while remaining very 'untrendy'. We know in advance that some will mistakenly say it is 'outdated'. In what follows, I wish to comment on this important album.

The title of the album is quite suggestive: it vividly refers to burning Koweitian oil wells. It can also evoke the metaphor of the 'wishing well', thus suggesting that we can no longer wish for anything. It may also simultaneously be referring to the world itself, as revealed by the album cover. Indeed, the World Is On Fire. One could hardly be more relevant, since the album came out during the war against Iraq.

The first piece is a nice introduction that tells a lot about Keith Reidís new hometown. Living in New York city seems to be a constant reminder of his own 'broken and torn' England. There is indeed an old English Churchyard in the center of Manhattan. The same inequalities and the same individualistic trends can be experienced. And when an Englishman living in New York looks in the mirror, 'he can still find it there'. Reid's lyric Ė which owes a fairly comprehensive debt to WH Auden Ė is also obsessed by the dream image of soldiers marching to war in the snow: 'I saw a great plain in winter, all covered in snow. Ten thousand soldiers that marched to and fro'. He almost got it completely right. (But no premonitory vision can entirely be accurate. The soldiers didnít march in the snow: they marched in the sand.) In New York city, there are ten thousand souls and ten thousand doors, all of them closed, and none of them yours. It is each to his own. So what about the American Dream? Well, it is An Old English Dream.

Shadow Boxed is a song about the misunderstandings one can experience as a songwriter. There are clear references to the superficial perceptions entertained about the Procols. They were once perceived as mystic followers of the DalaÔ Lama for writing a song like In Held 'Twas in I ('Iíve been instant karma, DalaÔ Lama'). Their first record was also associated with Dylanís Blonde on Blonde album, and so they were 'baby blued'. But most of the time, they are just perceived as silly rock and rollers, like Johnny Thunders singing Chinese Rocks. All and all, their struggle is reduced to some kind of useless shadow boxing. So they are shadowboxed. Powerful and brilliant lyrics.

A Robe of Silk is a very nice tune coming from the good old days. As we hear it, we can easily imagine the Procols in the colourful uniforms they used to wear at the time. The robe of silk is the tail of a star. The star speaks to a solitary individual ('And on our voyage Iíd try to be the only star that you could see'). The solos are absolutely delightful.

The Blink of an Eye has easily been deciphered by everyone as a song about 9.11.2001. From the nostalgia of the previous song, we are forced back into cruel reality. It was perhaps difficult for Keith to write about such an unbelievably weird event. Pure absurd violence. So heís trying to keep it simple, describing as calmly as possible the events as they occurred. But the simplicity of the lyrics paradoxically betrays the inability to cope with the situation. ('We thought we were living on easy street. But they pulled the rug from under our feet') This is finally admitted explicitly: 'The ones who are left donít know how to cope'.

It is appropriately followed by a powerful rock song, The VIP Room. Immediately after 9.11, some greedy people used this tragedy to make a buck. They sold postcards and tee-shirts about the twin towers. Geoff Whitehornís solo begins with a long sustained note and then the band splashes in, allowing him to let it all hang out. The song reveals how tight this bandís playing has become. Those who never listen to the words of any song will not see the undeniable quality of a tune like this. It is on the surface just another standard rock song. But with lyrics such as these, the song exhibits a nice balance between two extremes: intellectual sophistication and brute force. The music gives life to the lyrics and the lyrics provide depth to the song. This happens very often with Procol Harum (Bringing Home The Bacon, Toujours LíAmour, Nothing but the Truth, etc.) My all-time favorite Procol song exhibiting this kind of contrast between the music and the lyrics is Beyond the Pale. In sounds like a 19th-century drinking song that one could have sung in a pub, but with words that could have been written by Friedrich Nietzsche!

The Question is a rhythm and blues tune in which we are told that we should not point our fingers unless we are also able to question ourselves. For us North Americans who have been in the last forty years great fans of British pop, it may not be very easy to appreciate the music on a first listening. It is so close to the music we have been accustomed to in North America. So on the surface, there is no charm to it. It is a plain and simple rhythm and blues song. But Iím growing accustomed to its sound. It is another piece that seems to be coming from the sixties. It is very American and its charm is increasing as I listen to it over and over again.

If you live in New York, you cannot fail to notice the huge presence of Black African Americans. This is a 'constant reminder of the plight of our brothers'. It may partly explain why Reid was led to write This World is Rich, apart from reading an interview with Stephen Maboe in The Guardian. It is yet another example of a Procol song influenced by the grassroots of American popular music. The Procols are more and more returning back to these roots : rhythm and blues and gospel music. (The best new piece to date exhibiting that style is of course the wonderful Holding On) In the present case, the melody sung by the choir seems to make a direct reference to African music.

Halfway through the album, we arrive at a majestic piece, a pure gem. Fellow Travellers is based on a Handelian musical melody. Absolutely no rock band in the world could ever succeed to play this kind of music without sounding pretentious and grandiloquent, but the Procols miraculously pulled it off. I can very well imagine how glad Keith must have been to hear his own words sung like this by such a magnificent voice on such a magnificent melody. The song is like a prayer. Keith Reid is a master poet. Thank you Matthew !

Another instance of Keithís experience as a New Yorker is provided by Wall Street Blues. The song seems to be inspired by the Enron scandal. ('They said the market could never go down. They took your savings. And then left town') But the greediness is not only present in the businessmen that we are so eager to denounce. It is also present in the hearts of all those who try to follow their path and are eager to make a buck. ('They couldnít have done it without your greed ')

While listening to The Emperor's New Clothes, I canít help thinking about George W. Bush. It is obvious to me that this was Keithís intention. Here, the melody and especially the solo played simultaneously by the piano and guitar remind us of A Salty Dog. Gary Brookerís musicianship and talent are there for all to see. I donít know of any other composer in contemporary rock who is able exploit minor chords like this to create such poignantly beautiful melodies. (My favorite Gary Brooker melody to date : Fires (Which Burnt Brightly), with Christiane Legrand of the Swingle Singers for background vocals. Oh la la !)

So Far Behind was written a long time ago. It is about the unequal relationship between two persons. One is an idealist ('An Ali Baba you would be in search of treasure endlessly') and the other one is a less ambitious solitary kind of person that cannot get out of the mystery of being so far behind ('And I am cold and cannot see a way out of this mystery'). The same theme recurs in Skating on Thin Ice from the album Something Magic ('You were the searcher out for the sky. I was the traveller just passing by. You were the taker and you gave the call, I was the faker and I dropped the ball').

And then we move to a song about dogs. We are told that dogs 'just want to play'. But if they are badly treated, they will sooner or later get their revenge. Sooner or later, Every Dog Will Have His Day. Rover no longer waves his tail with glee, as he used to for fresh fruits (vz. Exotic Birds and Fruit). He now howls like a wolf waiting for his time to come.

The concluding piece, Weisselklenzenacht, contains a melodic line suggesting that, in spite of all your failures, mistakes, cruelties and inequalities, we canít help falling in love with you, America. It is a nice concluding piece. At this point, there is nothing left to say. The music must speak for itself.

The Wellís on Fire is Procol Harumís most 'American' album. It makes me sad to think that it will be perceived by many as completely outdated. Such a judgement is based on superficial considerations. Procol Harum is one of the best rock band to ever walk on this planet. They are outrageously underrated. I am confident that in fifty years from now, popular music will no longer be perceived as a minor art, and it will be ranked equally alongside with jazz and classical music as part of our cultural heritage. Procol Harum will be remembered along with The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Peter Gabriel, BjŲrk, and few others, as the best artists that rock music had to offer. There will even be people who will spend their career interpreting Keith Reidís poetry. The war that the Procols are waging may already be lost... at least for the time being. But sooner or later, they will have their day.

Thanks, Michel!

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