Procol Harum

the Pale

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Nothing Called Not Name Or Number

Sam Cameron

Recurrent and absent symbols in the works of Procol Harum

The symbolism of popular song, when not overtly sexual, tends to be limited to the use of colours, numbers and botanical imagery. Fundamentally this is linked to the expression of love, and the fledgling songwriter is faced with the problem of avoiding an inevitable cul-de-sac of hyperbolic emotional inflation.

If you look for these archetypal symbol types, in the ten studio albums, 'B' sides and the available text of unreleased songs, it soon becomes clear how the distinctive nature of the work is reflected in the balance of these elements. The choice of images seems to mirror the decision, conscious or otherwise, not to engage in the direct expression of feelings of love.

The most direct outpouring of emotion, in any of the work, is in In Held 'Twas in I which concerns reconciliation to the self and the inevitability of death. Far from celebrating emotional attachment to others, as the road to redemption, this piece invokes the notion of strangling one's friends with words. The first Procol Harum song which could be said to be an overt treatment of love [A Dream in Ev'ry Home] is not a positive affirmation of its qualities but rather a melancholic reflection on the inevitability of becoming disillusioned with romance. In an earlier Robin Trower Reid-worded track [Fall in Love] the explicit engagement with love is of a jaded and aggressive character.

Specific colours, and colour in the abstract, such as in Bob Dylan's Lay Lady Lay or Love's She Comes in Colors, are a stock-in-trade of the songwriter. In the Procol canon, colour is by and large an absent symbol despite the oft-remarked visual or cinematic aspects of the words.

There are no allusions to colour, in the abstract, in any of the words (unless you count Kaleidoscope!). Following the whiteness of figures in A Whiter Shade of Pale and Pandora's Box plus the green in the latter, the green objects in Mabel and Long Gone Geek, the Prussian blue electric clock of Shine on Brightly and the red room of Juicy John Pink, specific colours are never mentioned again until the commonplace black / white antagonism occurs in The Truth Won't Fade Away. I am discounting the use of the term 'blues' in two songs as it seems merely a passing reference to the musical genre.

It is notable that this small group of colour allusions occurs predominantly in the first batch of songs written by Brooker and Reid. The appearance of colours here may well be emanations of other thoughts rather than traditional archetypal song symbols. Perhaps the clock in Shine on Brightly is really a reference to an exotic breed of cat which has taken the 'P', as we are still mightily unclear on the feline associations of the band name? Alternately, Prussian blue is a colour in painting and was formerly used in laundry marking which may have some obscure resonance with early Reid biography. Studies of depression often refer to a lack of colour in the person's life and depression-fuelled writings are partial to treating life / days / my world as black or grey. Despite the widely-held belief that many Procol words are of a depressive nature, negative colouration is never used to vent this, apart from the throwaway reference to the blues in two minor songs. It is interesting nonetheless that Gary Brooker often refers to Whaling Stories as 'the Procol blues' in his concert introductions.

Likewise specific flowers, and flowers in general, are not greatly present. Flowers in general are mentioned only in Fires (Which Burnt Brightly). After the carnations of Cerdes and the daisies of Magdalene, specific flowers bloom only in the tulips of Luskus Delph where they are simply figurative emblems of the construction and purpose of female sex organs. Unlike the implied roses of Quite Rightly So, giving carnations does not have any specific traditional meaning. It is possible, although a long shot, that the carnations in Cerdes are a subconscious allusion to classical mythology, as are many other things in the words of this song. Carnations are in the Dianthus family (commonly known as Pinks) referred to as Jove's flower. Jove is another name for the Roman God Jupiter.

The use of numbers, in songs, is widespread as a number can form a useful peg to hang a lyric on, and sometimes fill in the spot for a difficult rhyme, usually so long as it is less than three digits with the exception of the hyperbolic use of powers of ten which Reid only later resorted to in the Trower solo track One in a Million.

The appearance of a number may be used as a device to lend an air of mystery to a song otherwise lacking this dimension. This may well owe something to Bob Dylan, who often employed them in the title of songs in a way which bore no direct connection to the words. Numbers are also used in mysticism and esotericism but I can find no clear evidence that this is part of Reid's usage [the Appendix is, I hope, useful to anybody who does think so]. There could of course be some Gematria-type phenomenon that I am not clever enough to spot: but that is always possible.

Frequent number-references may indicate a religious undercurrent as the Bible generally attaches quantification to accounts of woe and pending doom. The number four occurs twice with a religious connotation. The four angels of Juicy John Pink appear in the Bible in Revelations 9:14/15, bound at the Euphrates, and they are also found holding the four winds of Wizard Man in Revelations 7:1.

Elsewhere, numbers figure in an interesting way. What stands out is that the 'wrong' number' is used eg sixteen is not the correct number of vestal virgins and six bells is probably not the appropriate nautical message for the state of alarm depicted in Whaling Stories. Six bells denotes reveille, at 7 am during the second watch, when all hands were to be on deck to swab and clean it. Six bells was used explicitly as an alarm on British railways to alert an oncoming train to danger on the line. In this connection, it is amusing to recall the performance of Whisky Train in the Copping video companion to the Home album although this did not feature any trace of Whaling Stories.

Perhaps the most tangible symbol in Reid's words, to the well-versed Procoler, is the flying motif. One even finds a rhetorical reference to the sailors, of A Salty Dog, flying which clearly does not make literal sense. The 'departing birds' of In The Autumn Of My Madness also seems to lack literal sense but can be construed as the final loss of possible escape from trauma. There are various connotations that can be attached to attributions of flying such as suicide wishes, practices of witchcraft, the desire to escape worldly traumas and / or an interest in out-of-body experiences of 'flying' dreams. Although dream allusions abound in the work, they are not united with flying in any text with the exception of Nothing but the Truth, and there only indirectly.

I think that the recurrence of flight motifs and the absence of love imagery are related phenomena. The missing love is not merely a matter of there being only four (or so it seems ... maybe five including l'Amour) usages of the word. This could after all be indicative solely of a desire to escape cliché and carve out an original path. However, it is clear that the flower and colour symbolism used by other songwriters to evade this dilemma is not resorted to in the work considered here. Reid uses very few flowers and colours after his first flush and where he does use them they are more inclined to be echoes of something else, in his subconscious, other than love.

The imagery which he does draw on would be rather difficult to construe as an alternative landscape for the depiction of the ups and downs of love and relationships in the conventional sense. Without going too near the psychiatrist's couch it might be suggested that the ultimate root of the love-flying antithesis is apprehension about death which represents the ultimate restriction on a person unless they hold strong religious beliefs from a suitable faith.

Earthly love can not be a panacea for someone with a strong fear of death who lacks enduring formal religious reassurance. Such a person might well be prone to use flying symbols arising out of an alternating yearning for transcendence and willingness to contemplate suicide as a means of ending the trauma. Following the latter remark, the long soliloquy which Shakespeare gives to Hamlet ['To be or not to be'] springs to mind and of course the last line of Barnyard Story.

Appendix: Appearance of Specific Numbers

The following numbers occur. I have used a liberal interpretation viz. letting 'second' count as 'two':


Lime Street Blues / Salad Days (Are Here Again)


Last Train to Niagara


In Held 'Twas In I / One More Time / A Dream In Ev'ry Home / The Pursuit Of Happiness / Last Train to Niagara (prologue)


(Outside the Gates of) Cerdes / The Milk of Human Kindness / The Piper's Tune / The Pursuit of Happiness / Last Train to Niagara


Shine on Brightly / The Pursuit of Happiness


Juicy John Pink / Wizard Man


Too Much Between Us / Whaling Stories


A Salty Dog / Butterfly Boys


Rambling On / Eight Days a Week [not an original composition]


The King of Hearts


Long Gone Geek / Last Train to Niagara (prologue)


A Whiter Shade of Pale / Whaling Stories


The Piper's Tune

Twenty Six

Nothing That I Didn't Know



Forty Two

Something Following Me

Many thanks to Dr Cameron for this enthralling piece of writing.
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