'Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes'
Playmate of the Mouth
An out-of-tune piano, with its overtones of cheerful neglect, can be used to signify either upbeat country pastiche (the Beatles' Rocky Raccoon) or downbeat, boozy sleaze as in the present number. Procol Harum made little use of non-standard piano-sounds Brooker seems to have loved the concert Steinway aura but Playmate of the Mouth is atypical in several other ways too: the growling brass arrangement had not been tried before, no previous song not even Boredom had been built on such unrelieved repetition of a non-blues chord sequence. And no other vocal had been committed to tape with the singer apparently suffering a cold.
The piano was an upright, and one string of each trichord was detuned, as if in search of the sound of Dylan's Ballad of a Thin Man. It seems oddly gutless in the mix, lurking to one side of the stereo field as if squeezed out by the rasping New Orleans-style pickup band. Playmate of the Mouth is one of the first batch of three songs recorded in late 1970 at the brand new AIR Studios (fourth floor, 214 Oxford Street) in London, and the master-reel was compiled on 29 December. Though Playmate was played on tour, during the April 1971 dates in the USA and Canada, it did not survive promotional duties, and no concert recordings have come to our attention. Tape-operator Chris 'The Grouts' Michie describes the Barricades sessions here, and refutes BJ's claim (here) that the present track was recorded live. The band obviously didn't tour with a brass section for this one song; nor did they take a treated piano on the road; BJ's recollection may have been of a basic track being laid down by simultaneous ensemble playing, as had happened with Whisky Train on the previous album; or the journalist may have misunderstood remarks about the live applause on Power Failure.
Any drummer might well recall a session that required him to decorate the same four-chord pattern as it cycled no fewer than twenty-four times (including the comical rubato of the conclusion), offering none of the dynamic rise-and-fall for which his band was renowned. Though it is a Brooker composition, it is evidently designed as a vehicle for soulful lead guitar, and Trower fans do not complain about the length, or quality of the soloing. The imitation of voice by guitar at 3:42 is specially effective: Mick Grabham's guitar would later take up the Brooker vocal on The Unquiet Zone. Brooker's composing is almost as minimal as Trower's in the next song, though his harmonies are a good deal more engaging: using his very familiar 'collapsing' chord technique perhaps in this instance recalling Wish Me Well's opening he starts unusually on the submediant E flat, descends by a tone, then another, rounding off with a couple of plagal cadences in G flat. The key doesn't seem to have been chosen for anyone's particular convenience, not even the horns', not that they seem inhibited: their lawless riffing, in A flat, contributes a lot to the sense of louche revelry that the words seem to be peddling.
The text is rich and reads well this is one of the four songs written out on the album-sleeve, and it was selected by Keith Reid for his book, My Own Choice but it confirms the lack of musical variety by rhyming repeatedly on an '-all' sound; the setting also gives us the third verse twice, albeit with a slightly changed melody. The song's title is a pun on 'Playmate of the Month', the nude model spotlighted in each issue of Playboy Magazine. The misreading of an 'n' as a 'u' is known to handwriting scholars as 'minim error'. The term 'jazz mag' for a porno magazine apparently post-dates this song, so there is not another pun involved in the choice of 'horny' backing. The delivery of the words is oddly varying, as if Brooker is unsure quite what role he is playing: we hear gruff sounds, and then impassioned yelps, but no clear reason for this gear-shifting emerges. It doesn't seem impossible that gentlemanly Gary was mildly uneasy with the subject matter. Certainly BJ reported that the song could be regarded as obscene: 'When I sent a copy to my mother I damaged this track!'. Gary's take on the Reid text was, 'Keith writes the lyrics and whatever hes into the group just follows along
This year its sex ... sex and violence
Last year he was a bit gloomy.' It is hard to imagine that Brooker was entirely serious, if he was advancing the present lyric as evidence of a recovery from melancholia.
- 'Sceptic at the feast in ashes': Sceptics were a philosophical group whose founder is held to have been the Ancient Greek Pyrrho of Ellis. Their doctrine was to question all dogmas, and their name came to be adopted as a general term for doubters. (There are still numerous Sceptical Societies, and a magazine, particularly active in contesting such things as paranormal beliefs). The wearing of sack-cloth and ashes (the spurning of lavish attire) is attested in many places in the Bible, and is intended as a mark of piety at religious celebrations; 'feast' is not only a banquet, but applies to a Saint's name-day (cp 'on the Feast of Stephen' in the carol, Good King Wenceslas).
- 'Huntsmen at the voyeurs' ball': in the UK 'huntsman' means one who rides in pursuit of foxes, clad in 'pink' jacket, white breeches and a black cap. He blows a horn to alert fellow huntsmen when the quarry is in view: perhaps this suggested the brass arrangement of the song, though we do not hear the characteristic sound, or call, of the hunting-horn. Huntsmen (the term includes women) are well known for lavish balls, held to celebrate the 'blooding' of the fox. A voyeur is a covert onlooker, usually one who derives a private thrill from watching events, generally sexual practices. A voyeurs' ball is an unusual idea the phrase may be an inversion of 'voyeur at the Huntsmen's ball' but it would presumably be a party at which guests dressed provocatively or fetishistically, to promote open sexual dalliance which other guests would enjoy watching. (Playboy 'bunnies' were women dressed as animals, but it should be noted that the 'Playmate of the Month' was not a bunny-girl feature). It's possible that Savage Rose and Passionata are characters (played by women?) in such a charade. The garb of mourning in the first verse seems to be worn for the death of the old words of passion at the start of the second, which seems to coincide with the arrival of this duo, whose lubricious attentions inflate the previously sceptical member (a doubting John Thomas?) to proportions suitable for an oral encounter.
- 'Funeral parlour guests invited': 'Funeral parlour guests' is a portmanteau phrase, conflating 'Funeral Parlour (the 'shop-window' part of an Undertaker's premises) and 'Parlour Guests' (polite company in a middle-class home). Guests would not be invited to a Funeral Parlour, but the phrase might 'come into focus' if we imagined a fancy-dress ball at which guests were invited to wear mourning as if for a funeral. The capitalisation of 'Funeral Parlour-Guests' is not repeated in Reid's book.
- 'Mourning poorly worn by all': a huntsman's ball does in a sense involve the funeral of the fox, and could arguably involve poor mourning since the hunters are not remotely saddened by the creature's death. The adverb 'poorly' means 'in a manner suggesting poverty', or 'in an incompetent fashion'; but 'poorly' can also be used adjectivally, as a slightly babyish word for 'unwell', which chimes with the song's atmosphere of unnaturalness and decay. As an aside, since Reid has been described as 'the Hamlet of rock', we may note that Shakespeare's prince bewails the 'maimed rites' accorded to Ophelia at her funeral, which is perfunctorily discharged, since she is a suicide (interestingly, both Hamlet and Ophelia are referred to as 'roses' in the course of that play
Hamlet is the savage one).
- 'Old and mouldy words of passion': we encounter 'mouldy' in Nothing But the Truth, where 'heaped up leaves of bitterness turn mouldy down the years'. Reid uses the word in connection with the passage of time. 'Passion' has not occurred before in the songs, but it will be important in Perpetual Motion. 'Mouldy words of passion' could refer to love-declarations in popular songs, grown mouldy with banal repetition; or they could be vows of marital faithfulness, now corroded in the presence of the newer excitements presented by Savage Rose.
- 'Savage Rose destroyed them all': Rose is a woman's name (originally derived from Old German 'hros' rather than from the plant); the flower is common in religious iconography (which is the source of the phrase 'gild the rose' in Without A Doubt). Despite the flower's having thorns, it is usually regarded the red blooms especially as a symbol of love. 'An English Rose' is a bonny, nice-mannered girl. 'Savage Rose' thus contradicts typical rose symbolism in songs, which is sentimental [few songs mention thorns: even Nick Drake's Time Has Told Me, which has 'a rose with no thorns', is still slushy]. 'Savage Rose', capitalised thus on album-sleeve and in book, appears to be a personal name with its epithet attached. The same name occurs in the obscure liner notes to Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited, a record of whose influence on Keith Reid there is no doubt. Though by now he seems to have passed out of his most obvious Dylan phase, it's interesting that he is still presented, isolated on the back of the Broken Barricades sleeve, in a manner somewhat similar to an iconic Dylan portrait. We guess that Highway 61 Revisited is where this Savage Rose came from though her mysterious partner 'Fixable' (the normal name is Trixie-Belle) has not migrated into Procoldom with her. Savage Rose is also the name of a highly-regarded twin-keyboard Danish prog-rock band, established in 1968, and billed to play the Langeland Festival with Procol Harum in May 1996 [this did not happen!]; they were anthologised, alongside Procol, on the Supernatural Fairy Tales CD box set. It seems that Savage Rose has destroyed words, a difficult feat, but a logical one in a world where one could steal the alphabet, swallow secrets, and take someone's name. 'Destroy' is not a word much associated with roses, but it is the haunting last word of Blake's poem, The Sick Rose, whose penetrative worm we have invoked in connection with The Worm and the Tree. It has been noted that 'Rose' and 'Eros' are spelt with the same letters, and 'rose' is of course also the past tense of 'rise': there are indications that the song is concerned with states of male arousal. Finally 'rose' is the sprinkling-head of a watering-can, and, in commenting on possible phallic implications of Reid's use of this device in A Christmas Camel, we cannot overlook its near-rhyming equivalent in the previous verse, 'hot-dog stand'.
- 'Wrote her fate in neon captions': 'neon' is the inert gas that iridesces in illuminated advertisements; Reid's use of it here recalls the 'print[ing] on the sky' with which he hopes to draw attention to a proposed memoir in A Rum Tale. This emphatic declaration of the written Fate, as if it were a text, is underlined by 'captions', a word commonly used for headlines in newspapers. Neon signs advertise glitzy names outside theatres and cinemas, but also confer a tawdry glamour on striptease bars and the like, which is more the realm of the present lyric.
- 'Slender sender made me crawl': 'slender sender' is a hitherto unattested 'ricochet phrase' (cp tittle tattle, harum scarum) of doubtful meaning. 'Slender' is an alternative for 'thin', used in approval of attractive females; 'schlenter' on the other hand is Australian or South African mining slang for 'fake'. 'Sender' might imply a person who 'sends me' to a place or state of mind perhaps previously unvisited. We speak of flesh 'crawling' with disgust, but in Salad Days (Are Here Again) Reid presents 'skin crawl[ing] up an octave' (in the presence of teeth losing their gleam, and peaches snuggling into cream) so it may be associated here with male arousal. The combination 'slender sender made me crawl' could sustain a Sado-Masochistic interpretation, as a sexual submissive likes to abase himself on all fours for his dominatrix.
- 'Playmate of the Mouth expected': the fans who think the word 'semen' has been suppressed in A Rum Tale ('she swallowed my secrets') will conceive that 'erected' is similarly shied away from in this line.
- 'Passionata bless the small': there seems to be no noted person of this name, though it may be a component in certain nuns' cognomens the word 'bless' adds to the notion that this may be a ball-guest whose costume is based on a religious habit. 'Passionata' has been encountered as the name of an ice-cream pudding another possible oral connection. 'La Passionaria' ('Passion Flower') was the nickname of Spanish writer, communist, and politician Dolores Ibarurri, who formed the Spanish communist party and is known for the saying, 'it is better to die on your feet than live on your knees': it could almost justify the suggestion that 'Passionata' is a dominatrix name. Passionata is currently in use for a range of lingerie, and the word has entitled a recent(ish) jazz album. Beethoven's Piano Sonata No 23 in F minor is known as 'Appassionata' (impassioned) since that is how it is marked for performance, but it has no link to the sluggish currents of the present piece. 'Small' at the end of the line is problematic; in Reid's book there is a full-stop after the word. However the sense seems to demand that we read 'bless' as an exhortation (perhaps involving a kiss or laying-on of hands) with 'small' as the first adjective referring to the noun 'sandwich' in the following line.
- 'Baby sandwich soaped for comfort': the unusual 'baby sandwich' could mean 'penis', since that organ's filling is, in a sense, babies; or perhaps the penis is simply 'small' before it is sandwiched between lathery hands: the reference would seem to be to soap as a lubricant.
- 'Slippery sliding ten feet tall': 'slip and slide' is a sexual euphemism common in blues songs, and Reid uses the combination in Grand Hotel ('we'll Continental slip and slide') and in Perpetual Motion ('slip and sliding across the floor'). 'Ten feet tall' is a common and mellifluous hyperbole for well-being, along the lines of 'on cloud nine'; it also has overtones of feeling important as in the song Ten Feet Tall by XTC. We are reminded of the rhyme 'rather small for one so tall' ('it's hard at times, it's awful raw') in Glimpses of Nirvana, and must conclude that the soapy ministrations of Passionata have brought the baby sandwich to its full expansion, making it ready for some oral slipping and sliding. This baby sandwich is the subject of the title, itself proving to be the Playmate of the Mouth.
Paul Newbold adds (22 February 2013) 'I
was reading through the entry for Playmate of the Mouth. I must
admit that I have a different understanding of the term "sandwich" in
the third verse.
'The song was written in 1970/71. At that time I was a schoolboy of nine
years old and the term 'sandwich' was used by my schoolfriends as a
euphemism for the labia majora and pudendal cleft of our female
schoolmate peers. I can distinctly recall a schoolmate, Norman Golding,
coming into the classroom once and announcing that he had just "... seen
Marilyn Greig's sandwich".
'My take on the phrase "Baby sandwich" therefore refers to a
pre-pubescent, and possibly very young, girl's vagina; the following
phrase "soaped for comfort" also becomes obvious in its connotations. It
also dovetails with the previous line, "Passionata bless the small". It
might also explain why BJ Wilson felt inclined to scratch the track
before presenting the album to his mother and why Gary seems to be
markedly reluctant to enunciate the lyrics!'
Thanks to Frans Steensma for additional information about this song