'Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes'
Fires (Which Burnt Brightly)
'I don’t know what sort of mood he was in,' said Gary Brooker, introducing Fires (Which Burnt Brightly) at a Texas concert, where he had called his writing partner Keith Reid onstage to take a bow. 'I suspect … maybe the milkman had exposed himself or something.' (mp3 here). Later in the year, in the UK, he name-checked Keith again before this song, adding that he 'writes all the words. I like this particular lot. I don't know what they're about ... President Nixon, I think.' In Copenhagen, in 1972, it had been 'Fires (Which Burnt Brightly) – from the hideous Mr Reid'. It may be that the evident beauty and gravity of this song prompted him to such pre-emptive flippancy.
It is one of the pieces Gary referred to in April 1972 when he told Melody Maker 'I’ve written about five or six tunes.' It was first recorded with Dave Ball on guitar, and re-recorded with Mick Grabham, at which stage the guitar's decorative role (live mp3 here) had been largely taken over by harpsichord. In other respects the 1972 live version was very much as we hear it on the record, five moderate and stately verses in a nominal C minor, which in fact moves all over the harmonic shop: the bass makes a series of semitonal climbs, playing alternately roots and third-notes, so that the tonal centre soon lifts to a B major, in a manner faintly reminiscent of the chorus of Homburg. The ear is denied the expected E major for four more bars, however, while the harmonies subside through a series of 'classical' inversions; and further resignation is conveyed when the E turns to an E minor, and the song winds its way home up the circle of fourths. Even 'home' is relative, however: the little Bach-like see-sawing figure that prefaces every verse starts on a final inversion, the most unstable manifestation of a chord, and takes its elegant time to achieve equilibrium; even then, it leaves the piano restlessly arpeggiating, except at the end when it pounds out block chords in anticipation of the second instrumental, or vocal solo.
The inclusion of such a boldly-featured female voice is unique in a Procol song (until The Prodigal Stranger ODs on them, female backing voices are heard only on Grand Finale and Skating on Thin Ice). 'Have you heard of the Swingle Singers?' Keith Reid asked Circus in May 1973. 'They're a French choral group who are pretty famous in Europe, and we've long been admirers of theirs. We thought it would be nice on that track to have … a female voice not singing the song but the backing. We got in touch with the woman who is the featured voice of the Swingle Singers, Christianne Legrand, in Paris, and she accepted.'
Christine Legrand makes an unforgettable mark on this song. Her warm, sophisticated 'Oo-la-lah' makes a lovely contrast to the soulful Brooker larynx, and its counterpoint (occasionally multitracked) loops round the verbal melody, pointing and highlighting significant chord-changes, in a manner reminiscent of the Fisher organ-melody in A Whiter Shade of Pale. Chris Copping told BtP (April 2001) that Legrand had improvised the scat solo herself: nevertheless it harks back to the shapely splendour of Fisher's break in Shine on Brightly – and there are those who consider that this is no coincidence, as we shall show below. There seems to be little doubt that the band were thrilled to work with Legrand, since Gary had been a Swingle Singers fan in pre-Procol days, and their work had 'influenced A Whiter Shade of Pale in some way'. 'She was everything we hoped for as a vocalist,' he told Chris Welch (2000), adding that her solo was 'absolutely marvellous'. Her work punctuates a long track which – though its verses are beautifully constructed – offers no variety by way of a middle section or chorus, none of the 'schizophrenic' elements Brooker had noted in his own song-writing of the period. It also spares us the two consecutive organ-solos … the key and the harmonies do not lend themselves to a guitar break … that have usually been heard on the road. Fans who were at the Lyric Theatre in Baltimore when Steeleye Span supported Procol Harum (1972?) report that Maddy Prior came on stage to sing the Legrand parts: in more recent times, though the song has been played with choirs, no soloist has been found to emulate Legrand's scatting [the honourable exception being that of the Palers' Band!].
The voluptuous female presence on the track of course draws attention to the love-gone-wrong interpretation of the text, which was the aspect Keith Reid talked up on his uncharacteristic promotional spree in 1973: 'Let me put it this way: our affair's all over and then my partner says, "But it's not. We're still together." What I'm saying is that we're waging a war that's already lost … All we have left in us is the habit, - the habit of fighting with each other.' (Circus). However this view undersells a rich song that continues a Chrysalis-era tradition – begun with Broken Barricades – of setting a lachrymose fin de siècle atmosphere that simultaneously explores themes of the futility of war, the end of civilisations, the decay of personal relationships (possibly including those with the record company), and the 'fire' going out of the band in particular. As noted above, some have sought to identify the particular 'fire' with the group's former organist, noting the similar letters in 'fires' and 'Fisher', the presence of the Fisher-keyword 'brightly', and the background of Matthew's mysteriously re-joining, then re-quitting, the group at the time this song was brewing. The 'fires' image, however, is a standard symbol of romantic song from Smoke gets in your eyes ('when a lovely flame dies') through We'll Sweep Out the Ashes in the Morning by Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons, right up to The Cure's latest album Bloodflowers, where we find 'the fire is almost gone and I've nothing left to burn': it seems perverse to assume that the word was chosen by 'the hideous Mr Reid' for its overlap with a former band-member's name, even one who is part of the 'cast' that has sailed away, was once reputedly at odds with the band over financial matters, and played the harpsichord the last time it featured on a Procol record (Look to Your Soul). Fans who need the song to refer to something 'real', rather than being an autonomous artistic creation, would be best advised to consider the relation between this text and the content of other, more evidently personal, songs on the album.
The song does have a curious relationship to For Liquorice John, which precedes it on the album. In the original LP's illustrated booklet, the songs are presented in the opposite order (perhaps pride was meant to come before the fall?); on the Chrysalis CD re-issue, a banding error makes Fires begin with the final dolorous chord of John. More significantly, both are songs bemoaning a fall from grace (there are several others in the Reid songbook, of course, particularly Wreck of the Hesperus and The Idol. The opposite principle is perhaps heard in No More Fear of Flying, while Harlequin (recorded by the Hollies) appears to embody both fall and resurgence.) The Spencer Zahn illustration in the Grand Hotel booklet appears to show flames assailing an arcaded building, or possibly a billowing curtain; it is one of the more oblique pictures in the set and does not pick up the idea that the once-flaming energies are 'spent'. Reid's text is presented in LP booklet and CD liner with a stop at the end of every line, unlike its two neighbouring songs, which have no punctuation whatsoever; in his book, My Own Choice, Fires is similarly endstopped, though every line ends with a period, whereas the other texts use a comma after 'bent'. Whether this signifies that Keith is actually interested in the niceties of punctuation, however, remains arguable.
The song was often performed from May 1972 until the end of the promotional rounds for Grand Hotel: it was mysteriously introduced at Osaka as having been 'influenced by the great Pahene Ensemble' (who are later credited with recorder-playing on Bringing Home the Bacon), and the present compilers would like to hear from anyone who can interpret this remark, presumably some sort of in-joke. On stage, as on the record, piano and organ melded in an ensemble of great solidity, and the drums, and piano, took responsibility for achieving differentiation between the verses – some military percussion effects were notable in the lead-out from the middle passage. Having been successfully premièred with choir and orchestra at The Rainbow, Fires went in that arrangement across Germany in October 1972 and to the Hollywood Bowl (September 1973). It featured (in a different vocal arrangement), on the 1993 'Rock Meets Classic' tour, when Gary was accompanied by Procolers Whitehorn, Cottle and Spinetti, who did a grand job on the drums. This programme was largely revisited at the Procol Harum Barbican recital, where the mischievous introductions continued with 'this is one of our trilogy of war songs – there's only two of them, this is the first'. Gary played the introduction an octave higher than usual; the first instrumental break featured an unusually febrile Hammond; some of the most attractively intricate details of the original recording were realised orchestrally (mp3 here); but the first part of the Legrand solo was taken reflectively, even ruefully, at the piano, before the ensemble took over. It was lovely; it might have sounded well from Fisher's fingers too.
- 'This war we are waging is already lost': the first couplet conveys futility, both by its sense and by its half-rhyme. The war is lost already, and its rationale is a ghost, unreal or insubstantial and rooted in the past. In Reid there is 'nothing to fear' from a ghost (Monsieur R Monde), although it's 'stranger than you've ever known' to ride a Ghost Train. Those who insist on a band-biographical element point to 'waging' as a reference to fiscal remuneration, and the word 'ghost' has reminded some of 'at first just ghostly' in A Whiter Shade of Pale, a song that has reputedly generated its share of financial dissent.
- 'The cause for the fighting has long been a ghost': there is fighting, real and metaphorical, serious and playful, in several other Procol songs: 'In fighting I did hurt those dearest to me' (Pilgrims Progress); 'French girls always like to fight' (Grand Hotel); 'Fights the flab in every house' (TV Ceasar); 'Fighting for freedom' (As Strong as Samson); 'fighting monsters all my life' (Fool's Gold); 'We must fight it out' (The Final Thrust); 'One hell of a fight' (the unpublished This Old Dog) and 'Not a lover or a fighter' and 'talking of the fight' (the unpublished I'm a Reader and a Writer).
- 'Malice and habit have now won the day': to 'win the day' is to 'become the dominant force'; this specifying of the victors helps us define the nature of the conflict in the song which, despite much battle-field imagery, is shown to be primarily of an interpersonal character. Maybe malice (groundless interpersonal hatred) and habit (the 'great deadener' in Beckett's words, but conceivably also a drugs reference) suggests that the conflict is in fact an internal one, with no external foe at all.
- 'The honours we fought for are lost in the fray': the 'honours' of war, as well as military decorations, are the privilege accorded to a defeated enemy of retaining his weapons; 'fray' as a noun means skirmish, but as a verb it refers to the attrition of a fabric by friction, a clearly-appropriate shade of meaning here; the word originates in the Afrikaans for 'to caress amorously', or to court.
- 'Standards and bugles are trod in the dust': this line is full of words of multiple significance: 'standards' are military flags often carrying a heraldic message, as well as being moral precepts to which one might aspire; in Procol terms the 'standard' is self-evidently the much-covered A Whiter Shade of Pale. 'Standard' is a popular newspaper name in Britain, as is 'Bugle', on account of its use in reveille and other message-bearing calls on the battlefield: the muted trumpet that features in the Barbican arrangement echoes a real bugle-call. 'Bugle' brings to mind the vocal brass imitation that concludes Magdalene (My Regal Zonophone); it could be argued that in this line two classic Harum moments are trampled underfoot in the supposed conflicts; and, in view of 'habit' above, it may be worth noting that many drugs have 'street' names incorporating the word 'dust', while 'to bugle' is to snort cocaine. In view of the later reference to flowers, we may note that 'bugle' is also a common plant (genus Ajuga) that would easily be trampled by a passing army. 'Dust' is a term often used by Reid as a symbol of the futility of endeavour, as all things come to dust in the end (see The Pursuit of Happiness in particular).
- 'Wounds have burst open, and corridors rust': the implication is that these fissures were once apparently healed, but that internal pressure has opened them (Hamlet uses a similar image to refer to the welling-up anew of past griefs and grievances). The rusting corridors is a puzzling image, though it 'sings' beautifully: unless a corridor is metal it cannot literally rust, but the implication may be that methods of access from one place to another have become unusable, perhaps through neglect (if popular idiom permits the wheels of power to be 'oiled', there's no reason why the corridors of power shouldn't rust). There is a probable pun here with 'corrode', a word not etymologically related to 'corridor'. 'Rust' was once slang for money; but in its general sense of 'decay' it 'never sleeps', in the saying appropriated by Neil Young for his 1979 album-title. Rust is also archetypally red, and it's conceivable that there is a gynaecological sub-meaning here; the poet Peter Redgrove writes about menstruation as The Intelligent Wound, and Reid in Song for a Dreamer gives us 'wound' where we maybe expect to hear 'womb'; does this song hark back to the 'dead daughters' of Broken Barricades … and do the rusting corridors represent unused female passages?
- 'Once proud and truthful, now humbled and bent': though pride is the worst of the seven deadly sins, 'proud' is often taken to mean 'having appropriately high self-esteem'. To be proud is also to stand erect above, or away from [it is used in this sense in the building trade]. 'Truth' is of course a permanent concern in Reid songs (see notes on Nothing but the Truth) and it relates to the 'deceptions' later in the song. 'Humbled' presents an antithesis for 'proud', just as 'bent' in its slang sense does for 'truthful'; but taken together the two words seem to signify old age, if not impotence, which corresponds in some sense with the anatomical reading of the previous line.
- 'Fires which burnt brightly, now energies spent': the line may remind us of 'keeping watch on smoking cinders' from Power Failure; its last three words recall the title All Passion Spent, the 1931 novel by Vita Sackville-West. This line of course gives the song its title, whose parentheses are the last in a Procol title before The Prodigal Stranger. Without them, the song would share a title with Fires, the 1981 novel by Marguerite Yourcenar, which seems to have absorbed many Procolian themes [Yourcenar (1903-1987) was Belgian, and her real surname was, anagrammatically, 'Crayencour'; she is commemorated in a song by Fischer Z]. Reid makes copious use of the verb 'burn': 'We fired the gun, and burnt the mast' (A Salty Dog); 'Burnt by fire' (The Wreck Of The Hesperus); 'The harbour lights are burning bright' (All This And More); 'Ain't gonna burn up no more flame' etc (Whisky Train); 'burn out her eyes' (Still There'll Be More); 'A candle burning bright enough to tear the city down' etc (About to Die); 'Have to burn her toys' (Simple Sister); 'Burn me up sweet oyster girl' (Luskus Delph); 'Falling over burning chairs' and 'Spark plugs burned up, power's fused' (Power Failure); 'Steal his books, burn his prayers' (Poor Mohammed); 'I'll burn down the town' (A Rum Tale); 'We're burning in the furnaces' (Butterfly Boys); 'the stars which burnt so bright' (Something Magic); 'He hacked it to pieces and burnt it to dust' (The Worm and The Tree); 'On these burning sands' (Holding on); 'I'll burn down the house' (Man with a mission). the word bright occurs, in various forms, in In The Wee Small Hours Of Sixpence, Shine on Brightly, All This And More, About to Die, Broken Barricades, New Lamps for Old, Fool's Gold, Something Magic, Holding On
- 'Let down the curtain, and exit the play': the third of the song's brief verses moves the metaphor from battlefield to more literary matters, starting with the theatre-stage, aptly, in view of the earlier claim that the conflict is becoming a charade. In the theatre the curtain is let down to signal the end of the drama, and to let the players resume their normal personae. 'Exit' is used here in unorthodox fashion (it really means 'he, she or it leaves') but it is the word illuminated at the end of every theatre corridor, to help the patrons find their way out. 'Play' of course is not only a theatre entertainment, but what musicians do for a living.
- 'The crowds have gone home and the cast sailed away': the choice of 'have gone' implies that the people have departed before the curtain was let down: some see implying that the band should be wound up since the 'crowd' who once 'called out for more' has already lost interest – though sales of Live at Edmonton would seem to indicate otherwise. 'Sailed away' seems curious for a cast or group, but in a later song (Butterfly Boys) Reid clearly portrays Procol Harum as 'a sinking ship', while Brooker greeted Procol's 1995 London audience with 'welcome aboard'. The departure of crucial band-members could be seen as 'the cast sail[ing] away' – 'cast' is something of a nautical pun, being the verb we use when we loosen a ship's mooring. Some listeners will be reminded of the Marx Brothers' film in which an entire symphony orchestra is cut loose from its mooring, and drifts out into the ocean to the bombastic strains of Wagner.
- 'Our flowers and feathers as scarring as weapons': 'feathers' is antiquated slang for money and fancy clothes, as used for ostentatious display; feathers were also worn in hats as marks of honour in military uniforms of a bygone age, and the white feather is given as a badge of disgrace to real or supposed cowards in a gesture intended to be hurtful and scarring. Flowers, though a typical lovers' gift, are often taken to symbolise virtue; 'flower' was 1960s slang for marijuana, in which case the 'turned to deceptions' line might be considered a lament over the decline of the 60s flower-power ethos into the preoccupation with money and status, against which it formerly railed. The flower in that era was seen as the very antithesis of any weapon.
- 'Our poems and letters have turned to deceptions': 'poems and letters' continues the literary theme of the verse, and could conceivably refer to the way in which Reid mailed his texts to Brooker, Fisher and Trower for them to set to music. Much more probably, however, we are intended to think of the characteristic communications of lovers in a former time, when quill pens ('feathers') were the writing implement. The pen is now as 'scarring' as the sword, and these communications, 'once proud and truthful', now contain lies (it may be coincidence that Matthew Fisher's Play the Game, containing the line 'once I thought they spoke the truth / but now I know they lied', came out in the same year). Again the writers and artists of the Hippie era may now half-rue the fact that their work has become a livelihood only, rather than furthering some noble cause of world improvement: and this returns our comments to the idea that the song will succumb, in part, to an interpretation involving 'interior' enemies in a single personality – just as it will, to an extent, reveal concerns regarding military, commercial, or personnel conflict, if we look for them hard enough.
Thanks to Frans Steensma for additional information about this song