'Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes'
Nothing But The Truth
The mighty Nothing But the Truth, Procol hit single that never was:
its commercial failure more than anything must have been a turning point for the
morale of the band. Fluently inventive, all its musical elements
well-integrated, catchy, intriguing, played with real power, and endorsed by a
top DJ and by Elton John, it must have seemed to have every reason to be
successful. Backed with Drunk Again it was released as a single (CHS
2032) on 6 April 1974 in the UK, and was favourably reviewed (John Peel in Sounds:
'Often the impression of restrained power is more exciting than vulgar
demonstration of that power. Such is the case here'; Rosemary Nobide in Disc:
'Now here is a nice classy piece of music – instantly recognisable as Procol
Harum'; Melody Maker: 'The organ, piano and guitar chords hint at some
hymn or carol recalled from schooldays. It’s a beautiful concept brilliantly
performed and recorded'; New Musical Express: 'Now you’re talking. One
of the great misunderstood bands of our time press on expertly …'). Sadly it
It is often remarked that the production of Exotic Birds and Fruit is
muddy – tape-operator Chris 'the Grouts' Michie describes (here)
the laborious multi-tracking and studio shenanigans that underlay its
reverberant sound – but this single came over beautifully on the radio, just
like a Phil Spector production does. However the Paper Lace-buying public must
have wanted more of an old grey whistle-tune, which of course they got when
Procol fought back with a change of producer and Pandora's Box. No wonder
NME (here) found Gary Brooker like
'a frosty and cagey wolverine' at the time. The paper's Andrew Tyler asked why
'a band that produced one of the most mesmeric 45s in rock'n'roll history now
edge[s] away from the noble task of turning out hit 45s?' and quoted Mick
Grabham's shrugging conclusion, 'If it happens, it happens. I mean Keith and
Gary don't write specifically to come up with a single if the record company
want to release one.' Tyler credited the band with 'a sense of strategic
intelligence that is barely more than cretinous'.
However there's every sign that Nothing But the Truth was crafted for
hit-hood. Cash Box (June 1974) revealed that 'Gary’s and Keith’s
choice for the initial LP single is Nothing But the Truth. Both believe
the singles market is very important for the future of the group.' Like
subsequent album-openers Pandora's Box and Something Magic, it is
packed with sonic detail. It has light and shade, and strong harmonic
architecture (though some would argue that it lacks in the melodic department).
Its title is a common-parlance, easy to remember. Unusually for Brooker, it
features a middle-section (sixteen bars). Its string overdub is highly-condensed
in sound, not so much symphonic as poppy; its beat is Tamla-like. Interesting
percussion effects, including the ass's jawbone, add appeal to the texture.
Brooker contributes his appetising 'oohs' amid a startling quantity of vocal
overdubs – his slowed-down bass voice (first heard on Skip Softly My
Moonbeams)) alongside more 'normal' mid range harmony, even a 'stage
whisper', on top of the main vocal line (and an inexplicable bassy grunt at
2:30!). But it all counted for nothing.
Nothingness: maybe this was the problem … were Reid's words too downbeat
for the era? Or maybe they were simply too difficult to hear? Fine as this song
is, it does highlight the occasional difficulties inherent in the Procol writing
method, which brings together finished words and finished music. 'Nothing',
'common' and 'harder' are stretched to four syllables, making the sense hard to
grasp, and tune too abstruse for milkman to sing on his morning round.
Nothing(ness) as a concept has a strong literary pedigree: it's arguably a major
theme of Shakespeare's King Lear; 'emptiness' is a staple of Beckett;
Jean Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness had come out in 1943. Reid's
usage, however, is probably more down-to-earth, being a piece of rhetorical
hyperbole about how very bad a bad situation has become: 'this is nothing
but the truth, and that's the way it is'. But perhaps this misery is not the
stuff of a hit single, any more than the indeterminate Kafkaesque punitive
'they' is, which was later to appear in downbeat pieces such as The Piper's
Tune. Furthermore the song is shot through with archaic wording, though this
does not conceal the fact that, just as much as Butterfly Boys, it could
be construed as emblematic of the band's discontent with Chrysalis, and also
possibly each other: it was probably just too uneasy for the charts.
The song bristles with chord-changes. The opening is reminiscent of the
falling figure which starts Robert's Box (the band's previous track, in
chronological terms), but this time the changes ride over an intriguing boogie
left-hand. Its sequence contains four similar phrases, of which only two are
actually identical: the first runs from E minor to C, the second and fourth from
D minor to A minor, the third E minor to B minor; this music is also the
accompaniment for the chorus, so we hear it a good many times: its falling
contour may be intended to signify the plummeting of Icarus. Under each of the
falling melodic phrases, the scalar bassline rises, and it is the power
of this opposition that gives the song much of its punch, especially at its
abrupt beginning and end. The A minor, on which this sequence ends, serves as a
double jumping-off point: on to a G minor for the verses, on to a D major for
the middle section; neither is predictable and the effect throughout is of
concentrated harmonic brightness. The busy harmonic rhythm stands still for the
start of each verse, and for the irregular six-beat pause in the middle of each.
The verses are in C minor, but the G minor start, effectively a minor dominant,
runs parallel to the sound-world of Beyond the Pale, with which song
there are many lyrical parallels as well.
A glance at Brooker's studio 'lead sheet' for this 'Nothin' But da Truth'
(click here for larger version) shows
how the bassline is an integral part of the composition for the start, and also
for the end of the middle-section (where we clearly see a very characteristic
piano 'cell' of Gary's writing notated). Elsewhere, chord symbols suffice, as
the bassline follows the roots of the chords (the second chord in bar 20 is not
heard on the record) It is interesting that the cycle of fourths, a well-trodden
Brooker route, is followed downwards in this song, from B flat to G minor
(exactly the same four chords are heard, cycling upwards, under 'he could
see no point in diving in' on The Idol): the effect of this leftward
cycle is often deadening and passive, as suits the words 'So sad to hear …',
though the frantic pace somewhat offsets that emotion. The middle section
juxtaposes some unrelated major chords, and makes dramatic uses of silence (in
which we hear exotic percussion, and something very close to the piano
introduction of Monsieur R Monde and of Butterfly Boys).
The overall pitching of the lines of the verse, especially their last notes,
gradually edges upward as the song progresses towards the chorus, and Brooker's
voice flies clear over the whole ensemble. The only instrument that is not
playing flat-out on the record is the guitar, though Grabham – a very skilful
ensemble player – found much to do in live versions of the song: his
contributions often enhanced the impression that this was nothing but a Tamla
steal. The drums, though not specially clearly recorded, give a good
impression of the latter-day BJ, and the goofy bass voice is another trick
repeated from Robert's Box, but this time more integral to the
The song was first played live during the eight-date UK university tour that
started on 28 February 1974 at Exeter, and has been in and out of the band's
repertoire ever since. Though very chord-intensive, it is great fun to play; it
is certainly one of the most-performed numbers from this album. By 1975 the band
had begun to preface it with snatches (various length, sometimes as much as a
minute: mp3 here) of I Can't Help Myself, so as
to establish the Motown groove before crunching, synchronised, into the Brooker
introduction. The arrangement otherwise has evolved little, except on the 1991
tour where the whole of the middle section was played as a shuffle on
alternating chords of D and G, starting with an instrumental break (mp3 here)
– a backward move as far as fans of Brooker drama are concerned. It was a
definite plus for 1993 Whitehorn fans, however, when the instrumental insert
grew to almost two minutes of two-chord guitar work-out before the middle
section resumed, sung over its original chords. The 1991 incarnation, on the
other hand, featured an attractive six-beat respite after the middle section
(mp3 here), which contributed a lot to its light and
shade, and this was retained in the 1995 touring version, which was otherwise
structurally back to normal, though it enjoyed a slight harmonic spring-cleaning
involving some descending bass notes (mp3 here) where
there were formerly clean rhythmical breaks on the G minor chord.
This feature was retained when the song entered the repertoire of the Gary
Brooker Ensemble (it features on their 1996 record),
and the post-Icarus hiatus was increased to a more predictable sixteen beats
(mp3 here). With its nihilistic theme it was perhaps a
curious choice for these church concerts, but it came equipped with a new string
prelude, rhythmically free and varied, concluding very attractively in waltz
time (mp3 here). The fact that Gary has been able to
edit this cleanly out of the official CD, however, emphasises that it's merely
grafted on to the song, whereas his Bernard Herman Psycho string-writing
in the middle section seemed thoroughly integral. The choir was given some
shrilling descending lines to sing as Icarus falls.
- 'Is it on Tommy?': as Chris 'The Grouts' Michie explains (here),
'That's Mick's voice at the beginning of the
record, a tribute to the technically-challenged MCs who would introduce
dance bands in the Northern clubs where he first started playing
professionally.' The 'it' could be simply the microphone (though he does not
need one) or it could be the generator hired to overcome the power-supply
problems that, incidentally, are at the core of Butterfly Boys.
- 'It seems as clear as yesterday': this is a common-parlance in its own
right. The song doesn't explicitly state what 'it' was, though Procoholics
assume that it was the dreamlike unfolding of fame and fortune as the band's
very first single took over the world. Keith Reid may have intended the
opening to offer something to everyone, since dream experiences are
universal. Several Reid songs begin with the word 'it' (Broken Barricades,
Something Magic …); here the 'it' seems to be rather global,
alluding to all the rest of the song, a collocation of images repeating the
idea that things are bad: there is little narrative development, which is
mildly ironic for a writer so fond of the word 'story'.
- 'We saw it in a dream': a variant line, 'I held it in my arms', is
probably an on-the-spot aberration caused by the pressures of a stage
performance, rather than something from the pen of Reid.
- 'but dream became insanity': already in its third line the imagery starts
to be less appetising to the mid-70s punter. The Procol dream of course did
assume delusional proportions, but this will not hold for the 'dream' that
ordinary radio listeners bring to the interpretation of the lyric.
- 'an awful gaping scream': the allusion here is to the wide mouth of a very
worried screamer, since 'gaping' means 'wide-open'; a scream is heard in The
Thin End of the Wedge on this album, and most notably elsewhere on Whaling
Stories and The Mark of the Claw. We hear the word scream
in Lime Street Blues, Something Following Me, Cerdes
(Outside The Gates Of), Dead Man's Dream, Whaling Stories,
Alpha, The Thin End of the Wedge, The Mark of The Claw,
The Worm and The Tree. The word 'awful' is much used too:
"I've got an awful pain!"' (Something Following Me); 'it's
hard at times, it's awful raw' (Glimpses of Nirvana); 'I'm awful
sick?' (Robert's Box); 'An awful waste of guts and gore' and
'An awful waste of human life' (The Unquiet Zone); 'your awful
crime' (The Piper's Tune); 'a God-awful mess' (The Mark of The
Claw); 'The smell was so awful' (The Worm and The Tree).
- 'So sad to see such emptiness / So sad to see such tears': this unifying
repetition of 'so sad' is not the only rhetorical flourish on the record:
see the 'dankest gloom / quietest quiet' sequence in Beyond the Pale.
'Sad' is perhaps more openly emotional than we are accustomed to hearing in
Procol songs; the emptiness and tears presumably relate to the screaming
face depicted above. Tears are not prevalent in Procol writing except in the
earlier (Regal Zonophone) albums in such songs as Quite Rightly So, Good
Captain Clack, Magdalene (My Regal Zonophone), All This and
More, and (tears of joy) in A Salty Dog. Crying is mentioned in Too
Much Between Us, and denigrated in the reference to 'blubbering' in Bringing
Home the Bacon. The idea of 'emptiness' recurs in Procol Harum songs:
'got the only empty seat' (Something Following Me); 'The
houses were open, and the streets mpty' (Dead Man's Dream); 'The
presses are empty' (Broken Barricades); 'I came home to an
empty flat' (Toujours L'amour); 'The cellar is empty' (Drunk
Again); 'broken promise empty lie' (Fool's Gold); 'I
was feeling kind of empty' (Last Train to Niagara)
- 'And heaped up leaves of bitterness': the image is autumnal, and may
recall 'when my hair is turning grey' from In Held 'Twas in I. The
falling of leaves, as the greying of hair, is one of time's tricks; but the
'heaping up' speaks of a human intervention, and it may be this that is
being linked with the ensuing mouldiness. 'Leaves' may also be taken to
refer to pages of typing, or the pages of a book'; 'leave' is equally
'furlough' or 'time off' from a tour of duty, or indeed a rock and roll
tour: 'I'm home on shore-leave' says the mermaid in A Whiter Shade of
Pale. In rock and roll songs the word often conjures images of drugs [cp
the Nick Drake album Five Leaves Left], whether leaves of the actual
plant or the rolling papers by whose aid they are inhaled.
- 'turned mouldy down the years': the reference is ostensibly to fungal
growth on decaying organic matter; but as we also have a verb 'to mould',
meaning to cast or shape matter, this phrase could at a pinch signify
'become formulaic down the years'.
- 'Nothing but the truth': this line is taken from the oath taken by jurors
in British courts: 'I promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and
nothing but the truth'; it is also a common parlance in its own right (it's
the title of the 1941 Paramount Bob Hope vehicle, about a stockbroker who
takes a bet that he can sell the absolute truth for 24 hours). Though the
word 'nothing' is much stretched-out in this song, Reid was clearly
convinced of its 'singability' elsewhere: see 'Nothing matters now' (Seem
To Have The Blues Most All The Time); 'though nothing shows' (Quite
Rightly So); 'nothing's better left unsaid' (Glimpses of
Nirvana); 'I've nothing left to say' (In the Autumn of My
Madness); 'for there's nothing hidden anywhere' (Look to Your
Soul); 'Some say there's nothing and some say there's lots' (Boredom);
'And all for nothing quite in vain' (The Wreck Of The Hesperus);
'Nothing that I didn't know' (Nothing that I Didn't Know); 'Nothing
called (not name nor number)' (Whaling Stories); 'Nothing but
the truth' (Nothing But the Truth); 'Nothing but a charlatan'
(The Idol); 'he'd nothing left to say' (The Idol); 'and
from ghosts I have nothing to fear!' (Monsieur R. Monde); 'Who's
got nothing to share' (Man with a Mission); 'nothing to
believe in' (The Hand that Rocks the Cradle). This 'nothing + truth'
formula compares interestingly with Bob Dylan's Nothing Was Delivered (first
legally heard on the Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo in 1968):
'Nothing was delivered / and I tell this truth to you / not out of spite or
anger / but simply because it's true'.
- 'Common words in use': in certain walks of British life 'common' means not
only 'usual' but also the less neutral 'vulgar'; this cannot be the exact
tenor of the phrase here, yet there is a critical tone: 'yes, we hear that
all too frequently' might be a prosaic equivalent.
- 'Hard to find excuse': in many live performances Brooker sings 'hard so
hard', to circumvent the problem of stretching out 'hard' over three rocking
syllables. The meaning here is somewhat condensed, and relies on two senses
of the word 'hard': to find an excuse [for what has happened to the band] is
hard in the sense of 'difficult'; facing the truth is hard in the sense of
'punishing and harsh to the sensibilities'.
- 'Harder than the truth': the public's first glimpse of Reid included 'the
truth is plain to see' (and the two missing verses of A Whiter Shade of
Pale also included the word 'truth': 'in truth we were at sea ', 'dirt
in truth is clean); his songs continued to emphasise the word: 'still sees
truth quite easily ' from A Christmas Camel; 'I know in truth they
envy me ' from Shine on Brightly; 'He only speaks the truth, ' from Rambling
On; 'the truth was writ quite clear, ' from Look to Your Soul;
'tell the truth ... in truth it's just as well, ' from Crucifiction Lane;
'the truth is leaking out, ' from A Souvenir of London; 'Nothing but
the truth ... harder than the truth, ' from Nothing But the Truth;
'the truth and the word, ' from As Strong as Samson; 'Falsehood for
truth, ' from New Lamps for Old; 'the truth of this story, ' from The
Worm and The Tree. It's notable in the Old Testament Procol songs how
'truth' is emphasised on the band's very first record, and Reid keeps
referring vaguely to it until we finally learn what it is in the very last
words of the Something Magic album – whereupon the group splits up!
Note also that the New Testament starts, as before, with The Truth Won't
Fade Away ….
- 'Like Icarus we flew too high': Icarus was born in Crete of Daedalus and a
slave girl; his father made wings so that he might fly free from the cell in
which they were trapped by King Minos following the construction of the
Minotaur's labyrinth. Overcome by hubris, Icarus forgot his father's
instructions and flew near the sun, causing his wax wings to melt [cp 'my
wax is almost run' in All This and More]. A more sceptical
interpretation of the story suggests that Icarus perished through clumsy
oarsmanship, the 'wings' being sails. Icarus is found as a phonetic stowaway
in the title For Liquorice John (hear 'Fall Icarus'), another song
about plummeting from on high. References to flying can also be found in Rambling
On, and to an extent in Learn to Fly.
- 'We flew too near the sun': as with the reference to Pegasus 'the winged
horse' in Pandora's Box, Reid feels the need to spell out to the
listener the crucial elements of the Icarus story. Oddly, though, the song
does not go on to deal literally with the fall of Icarus, but makes a leap
into a consideration of hanging and beheading, and visualising a sudden
reprieve followed by exile.
- 'They caught us in that awful glare': the word 'awful' is repeated, this
time in reference to the glare of the sun, which is seen in a hostile light.
Once again the word 'they' seems to have no particular referent.
- 'Our hapless throats were strung': a person might be strung up by the neck
and hanged as a punishment, but this does not follow logically from the
foregoing consideration of Icarus. 'Hapless' is an archaic word for
'unlucky', and 'strung' has overtones, in rock, of 'strung out' addicted to
- 'But just before the final stroke': the 'stroke' reference is presumably
to execution, not to a caress, nor to a brain haemorrhage.
- 'They took us victims of the rope': these would be people who had already
suffered hanging; 'we' in this song narrowly escape death by hanging, only
to be exiled; the tone of this song is one of resentment at this treatment,
yet the next song , Beyond the Pale, appears in the light of a
positive exhortation to explore, even settle in, the regions to which these
victims are being unwillingly consigned.
- 'cast us far beyond the deep': the word 'cast' is used in various ways in
Procol Harum songs, but here, in connection with images of the rope, and the
sea into which we image Icarus plunging, the implication is that the victims
were 'cast' in the same way that an angler casts a line, using the arc of a
long rod to throw it far away from him.
- 'To lie in never-ending sleep': the victims are not permitted to die, but
seemingly to enter a state of hibernation; once more we see an overlap of
concerns between Reid and Beckett, many of whose characters are aware of
being trapped in a changeless state, to which the definitude of death might
well be preferable. This descent into endless sleep is ironic in view of the
way that the song begins with a dream. Hamlet decides against suicide
precisely because he fears 'that sleep of death' in which he does not know
'what dreams may come'.
- 'It seems as clear as yesterday': repetition of an opening line from verse
to verse is not uncommon in Keith Reid's work, and serves as a useful
unifying element when the imagery of the verses themselves is
- 'They cast us in the deep': this image is repeated from the previous
section, with the modification that they are now 'in the deep', whereas
earlier they were 'beyond' it. The 'deep' usually means the sea, but
listeners may recall the trip of Orpheus deep into the Underworld, which is
not a marine trip.
- 'We lie in darkest night for good': the phrase 'Darkest night ' occurs in
consecutive songs, Nothing but the Truth and Beyond the Pale.
From the earlier emphasis on sleep, we can assume that 'lie' here refers to
a recumbent posture, not to the telling of untruths; 'for good' means 'in
perpetuity': the idiom has no overtones of benefit, to the English ear.
Reid's references to 'dark' and 'night' are legion see such songs as Kaleidoscope,
Salad Days (Are Here Again), In The Wee Small Hours Of Sixpence,
Glimpses of Nirvana, In the Autumn of My Madness, The Devil
Came From Kansas, All This And More, Dead Man's Dream, Whaling
Stories, Something Magic, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, A
Christmas Camel, Wish me Well, Magdalene My Regal Zonophone, Memorial Drive,
Grand Hotel, You Can't Turn Back the Page, Perpetual Motion, and the
unpublished This Old Dog, I'm a Reader and a Writer, and Last
Train to Niagara,
- 'Never-ending sleep / 'A never-ending bitter gloom': the song includes the
element 'never-ending' three times; 'bitter' has also been used before in
the text; 'gloom' is new here, but again there is overlap with 'dankest
gloom' (Beyond The Pale); in any case it is a word with which Reid
likes to link the external and internal worlds: 'the gloom begins to fall' (Conquistador);
'the gloom around our bed' (Salad Days (Are Here Again)) and 'I
sat there in the gloom' (the officially-unpublished Alpha).
- 'Whose darkness seldom clears': the verse continues to re-emphasise, and
qualify, key elements: we have previously learnt that it is 'darkest night
for good'. [the liner for the Castle CD re-issue prints 'Whose dungeon
seldom clears' but this has not been heard in concert and is presumably a 'thinko'
by contagion from the word 'dungeon' on the previous page].
- 'Which fills our hearts with tears': a heart filling with tears is much
nearer to a traditional rock-song emotion than Keith Reid normally gets. His
references to 'heart' are relatively few: 'Let him who fears his heart alone
':'Endless heartache until she died' (Nothing that I Didn't Know);
'it was tied to my heart' (Toujours L'amour); 'Because of
fruit my heart is strong' (Fresh Fruit); 'Fool's gold broke my
heart' (Fool's Gold); 'by the beating of a heart' (Something
Magic); 'Wizard man's got an angel's heart' (Wizard Man);
'I played the King of Hearts' (The King of Hearts). Sadly the
sort of heart that Reid concerns himself with is not the sort of heart that
was getting into the mid-70s singles charts, with the consequence that this
most satisfying specimen of late-period Procol Harum writing remains largely
unknown to the record-listening public.
Thanks to Frans
Steensma for additional information
about this song