'Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes'
The Piper's Tune
The Piper's Tune its lyric burdened with existential guilt, its musical darkness walled in by sombre piano and organ ought to be a classic of Procoldom, yet few fans number it anywhere on their list of favourites. 'As stately as anything the band has done
' claimed the press-kit for Procol's Ninth: but the treatment of the song on the record lacks drama, and the singing sounds rather tired, even ragged. Procol Harum were unhappy that Leiber and Stoller didn't work rock-and-roll hours, choosing to shut up shop in the early evening: yet somehow this song sounds as if it was recorded at the lowest ebb of the night, perhaps even without their producers' commercial touch.
It seems probable that The Piper's Tune set out to some extent to revisit a technique that distinguishes Grand Hotel, whose verse and chorus accomplish a natural-sounding harmonic journey from an opening C major to D flat major at the end, with the consequence that each new verse sounds as though it has started in a fresh key, though the musicians are repeating the notes they played before. In the present song the start of each verse does present some harmonic drama, but this is achieved at the price of arbitrary, wandering changes in the long lead-up, during which a rock-listener's ear, accustomed to a strong tonal centre, tends to lose interest. A Rum Tale is similarly bold in its harmonic architecture, but there the ear is entranced by lively leaps and a well-balanced melody: here there is some relatively lacklustre stepwise movement.
We start in E major, in a slow, slow 4, and the instrumental hook tumbles engagingly enough from piano and organ, underpinned by unusual harmonic rhythm from the groaning ensemble. Influences of the Beatles' Norwegian Wood are clear in the contour of the line, its key, and its use of a drone. The vocal pits a new tune over the same three strong chords they bear the same inter-relation as those under the first line of Without a Doubt and after that we find an E major slipping to E minor (exactly as Norwegian Wood does at this point too). This device demonstrated under 'how strange the change from major to minor' by Cole Porter in Every Time We Say Goodbye can give a delicate, submissive feel (it is specially effective in Skating on Thin Ice) but it is weakened by over-use: here we immediately hear the same trick again on a A, and the key shifts into A minor, cadencing on a G seventh and requiring a piece of instrumental sellotape (an impetus-sapping C7 bar) to join it on to the chorus starting on an F minor. This is an odd place to find ourselves in a song that started in E, and it's an oddly lethargic chorus, unpredictably repeating an already-sounded chord (under 'you'll hear his music'), and following a chapel-hymn chord (G in the melody, B flat 7th underneath) with an extended 'Amen' plagal cadence in E flat. Apart from the ponderous double-arpeggio that brings in the last chorus reprise there is no other material: the instrumental middle, which features some interesting drumming, uses the same chords, striving for our interest by playing slightly louder and slightly faster.
The phrase that gives the song its title as well as being pitched very high even for Brooker's famously elastic voice is intriguingly off-kilter. The common phrase, 'he who pays the piper calls the tune' (thought to originated in a letter of 1792 by Lord Chesterfield concerning seagoing warfare), means that the worker is at the behest of the employer, and might here indicate weariness at being under the yoke of a record label a state of affairs fully explicated in the album's next track. But in Reid's text 'they say the Piper calls the tune'
which is exactly the opposite of the common phrase. While one would like to be able to find a reason for this reversal, the text, although bristling with entry-points, doesn't seem to lead us to any definite conclusion. It could be, as with '
a whiter shade of pale', that Reid seeks to get mileage from a reversal of the expected. Is this also the case with the title, The Prodigal Stranger?
Whatever the reasoning, 'piper' seems to have led Brooker and the band to think of the Highland Pipes, usually known as 'bagpipes'. Panpipes, or recorders, could equally have been the starting point for an arrangement: but the present semi-Caledonian sound-world (imitated by the droning, sustained accompaniment and skittish drumming patterns, and by the assumed Scots accent) tallies with the guilt-laden flavour of the text thanks to a widely-held stereotype that Scottish culture, largely thanks to its religious heritage, is prey to above-average levels of sexual Puritanism and consequent repression.
Did the band want to book a piper, as successfully used in a pop context by Paul McCartney, Roy Wood and others? Claes Johansen's Procol biography, which considers that the track is 'yelling out for bagpipes to be added', quotes Gary Brooker saying, 'Try telling Leiber and Stoller that. I mean, there's gotta be, hasn't there? I mean, we're almost playing the pipes
'; yet in a Danish interview (1984) Gary says 'Leiber and Stoller wanted bagpipes on it'. Later in the interview he refers to another 'pipe tune' that Procol Harum used to do, the officially-unpublished McGreggor. Some fans took this to mean that The Piper's Tune had grown from the ashes of the abandoned song, and it took Westside's 1999 exhumation of a half-finished McGreggor to prove that the songs were not musically related.
Real pipes and marching drums might have added some vibrancy, which The Piper's Tune lacks. The track seems under-produced, and the sounds indistinct by comparison with the rest of the album. We have no idea whether the still small voice (sounding like Keith Reid) which says 'hi' from deep in the mix at 2.29 is a deliberate embellishment or a mixing oversight. Some wonder why, if it's Reid, he chooses to greet us in this particular song, and wonder if his middle names are actually as Scottish as they seem; but there's no more reason to associate this song with his personal life, about which little is known, than there is with any other.
The Piper's Tune was released as the B side of the UK Pandoras Box single (CHS 2073) single in July 1975. It was played live as early as March 1975 (at the Rainbow), and had acquired much more robustness, largely thanks to heavier guitar and more syncopated percussion, by the time it was heard in Mannheim (mp3 here: 'one, two, three for a Scotsman!), Munich and Vienna in January of the 1976 promotional tour; it would surely have gone on developing on the road, but it is doubtful if it has been heard since February 1976.
- Probably few songs begin with the words 'and so' (though Reid has a well-known chorus that does!) but the effect here is that we are being dropped into a parental monologue that has been in progress some while: both CD booklet and vinyl album-insert have this starting with a lower case 'a'.
- 'You've made a nasty mess': a 'mess' can be an abstract predicament as well as a physical lack of order that needs clearing up. The word 'nasty' here is so pointed that it is tempting to discount the possibility of metaphorical mess, and assume that it's a literal one: since it seems that a young child is being addressed, the mess could be one relating to personal hygiene, maybe bedwetting or something similar. This would not be likely to merit a 'careful trap' on the part of the parents, however, and a sexual interpretation has also been advanced: maybe Reid's fictive scenario relates to parental detection of a son's sexual activity (masturbation-anxiety is a comic staple of Jewish comedy: see Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint). In this connection, we note that 'pipe' is recorded, in Eric Partridge's monumental work on British slang, as referring both to male and to female genitalia, and elsewhere he notes a variant proverb 'To pay the fiddler' which may also be significant: however it may be that any musical instrument worked with the fingers has at some stage been related to genital play: think of The Who, with Fiddle About and Squeezebox.
- 'You have caused your mother great distress': there's a similarly archetypal Jewish feel to this line, if a child is being reproved by an older relation, probably not the mother herself. If it's the father speaking, it could conceivably explain why the song twists the well-known proverb, 'He who pays the piper calls the tune': what if 'piper' were intended to be a pun on 'Papa'? Papa calls the tune in the traditional family, and it is he who makes the errant child 'face the music'. From about 1850 'piper' began to be used as a slang term for 'spy', which might add to the furtive, guilt-ridden atmosphere here.
- 'They're bound to even up the score': Once again, we do not know who 'they' refers to, but it carries the sense of an indeterminate authority-figure, or perhaps the consensus of a silent majority. 'Score' is an old English word related to Norse 'skor' meaning a notch; to 'even up the score' takes the harmless idea of settling money accounts into the area of obtaining revenge to offset a wrongdoing.
- 'You'll get no sweeties anymore': the reference is to sweetmeats or candy, not to sweethearts. Parents teaching a child to talk often add the suffix '-ies' to important words so that their final consonants will be clearly heard ('doggie', 'auntie' and so forth.) Once the child has learnt the proper form of the root word, the childish suffix is generally discarded: if it's retained, as here, the implication is patronising (or, in other contexts, endearing). Here we have an echo of Simple Sister where the victim was also deprived of sweets as a punishment.
- 'They'll give your friends a talking-to': 'talking-to' means 'remonstration': the tone here continues to be paternalistic.
- 'Persuade them not to play with you': 'persuade' seems oddly, even comically indirect in view of the forthright tone of the previous line. One could, if pushed, attempt to collate various fans' suppositions into a band-biographical interpretation of this song, though it must be said that this approach falls down on the utter absence of
external documentation for any of its claims. In one reading the Piper would be Kellogs (who played the Bosun's whistle on A Salty Dog) or Gary Brooker (you'll hear his music'), and the 'mum' would supposedly be the rest of the players, perhaps irked by the age-old imbalance
IN writers' and non-writers' income, and threatening to 'even up the score' by deciding 'not to play with you', which would mean that the writers would 'get no sweeties any more' (earnings previously compared to 'cake' in Butterfly Boys). In another reading 'mum' would be Chrysalis, and the 'nasty mess' the label's reaction to Butterfly Boys in which they were openly attacked on the band's previous album.
- 'Your awful crime': there's comic value in the gross disproportion between the 'awful crime' and the sanction, 'get no sweeties.' Listeners who'd like to believe that punishment should fit crime will imagine that the offence here cannot really be 'awful', or else the 'sweeties' must really refer to something else (it's been noted that a pipe can be used for smoking certain drugs, and that 'score' relates to their acquisition (drolly, the Grand Hotel sleeve thanks Gary for 'scoring' for the orchestra!)). The Procol world, however, is one where the judge can let the prisoner free, where the plea is denied, the cell is locked on a sickly sibling, and prisoners read the Sheriff's mail: justice is simply not dependable. Despite a wide interest in matters of justice, Procol songs use the word 'crime' rather infrequently: 'others who remain untrue and don't commit that crime' (Look to Your Soul), 'partners in crime' (Strangers In Space) and 'you pulled the perfect crime' (Into the Flood); on the other
hand 'awful occurs a lot: "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 gaping scream' and 'They caught us in that awful glare' (Nothing But the Truth); '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);
- 'There'll be no second chance this time': we might infer that other infractions have come to light before, presumably lesser cases where a second chance has seemed appropriate. The child is here learning the hard lesson that rules previously established cannot be depended on now.
- 'It seems they're out to take your skin': before political correctness afflicted family life, hyperbolic threats such as 'I'll skin you alive' or 'Ill have your guts for garters' could be uttered to children who could respond positively to the force of the wording without necessarily fearing the literal punishment. Here, however, the threat seems more than rhetorical, as it is sustained in a second line: 'cut you up and throw you in' suggests the making of a stew, with ghastly echoes of the Titus Andronicus story. There may be hints here of a religious circumcision ritual, or some retributive equivalent; if taken in tandem with 'They're out to make a sacrifice', the passage might refer to a skinning-alive for magical sacrifice, as historically occurred when gods needed appeasing, and which might be the case if the 'crime ' in the first verse was a sin against the moral order.
- 'They say you've led them up the path': the usual phrase is 'up the garden path': it implies that the victim has been strung along, on a route which proves ultimately to lead nowhere. To take a pleasant walk is 'to take a turn', which we partly hear in the next line.
- 'Now they'll take their turn to laugh': this phrase, which appears to suggest that previously the accused party in the song has been doing the laughing, resumes the 'even up the score' idea from earlier in the song.
- 'You've fallen in their lap': 'lap' is used in phrases such as 'lap of the Gods', 'lap of luxury', with the implication of security at the very centre of something. Here the context gives 'in their lap' overtones of 'into their clutches', and the parental 'lap' has lost the reassuring sense it would ordinarily have for a young person.
- 'It's no use knocking on the door': very often doors and keys have a sexual meaning in rock lyrics, as of course has the word 'knock' itself. Here however the implication is that the person being addressed is not trying to get in, but to escape from a room where he has been solitarily confined, and there are echoes Simple Sister, where the key to a cell was thrown away to ensure a relative would never emerge. The other famous door-knocking, in a former influence of Reid's, comes in Bob Dylan's Knocking on Heaven's Door: it is conceivable that this is part of the cloud of meaning in this song, since some very strict religions forbid a 'second chance' for sinners. More prosaically, a naughty child has been shut in his or her own room as punishment.
- 'There is none can help': a curiously stiff formulation, though the sense is obvious: some of this stiltedness may be intended to add a sense of elderliness and remoteness to the speaker at this point, and it stresses the finality of an impossible situation: there is no means of atonement for the mysterious transgression, yet a sacrifice is demanded; once again Kafka would have been proud.
- 'You've gambled and your chance was lost': this is not like the recreational gambling in 'On Carousel and gambling stake': (Grand Hotel), but it will be vividly echoed in the later 'We gambled and then we lost' in (You can't) turn back the page.
- 'And now you'll have to pay the cost' / 'and you're the one to pay the price' / 'and now you'll have to pay the price': the emphasis on 'paying' here may not be unrelated to the ethnic style of presentation, since the Scottish nation is reputed, by some, to be reluctant to part with their money. A related phrase will recur in 'and pay the cost' from (You can't) turn back the page; and we find 'There's no one here to count the cost' in Robert's Box, where the 'cost' is a matter of both finance and conscience.
- 'You wouldn't take your mum's advice': on the record Brooker sings these lines a strong mock Scots accent, such as he also used on the abandoned McGreggor. It is not clear what mum's advice would be, but it now seems that the child's transgression was not merely to make the mess, but to defy his mother in so doing. It is possible that religious dissent lies at the heart of the song, and that the child is somehow going against the 'mother church' of his upbringing, perhaps in rejecting a rite-of-passage ritual involving the cutting of skin. Notably the reference to this parent starts out as the formal 'mother', and becomes the more endearing 'mum', perhaps implying the father's striving for a knowing bathos. The word 'mum' is not common in song: Reid uses it once in Souvenir of London, where a similar guilt is in play, and once in TV Ceasar, where 'dad' also occurs. Otherwise the only 'father' is the Dalai Lama in Glimpses of Nirvana, whereas mothers are less sparse: 'Can't you hear me mother calling you?' (Crucifiction Lane); 'Old Mother Hubbard's ran off with the chair' and 'Call my mother's name': (Drunk Again)
- 'They say the piper calls the tune / You'll hear his music very soon': this repeated couplet seems to be the punchline of the song, and it combines the (distorted) piper proverb with a hint of the common phrase 'face the music', meaning 'face up to the consequences of actions.' However words, melody and arrangement seem to combine in underselling each other at this point in the recording, leaving the regretful majority of listeners unstirred and unsatisfied.
Thanks to Frans Steensma for additional information about this song