'Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes'
This raucous rocker continues the piano-punishing late tradition of Bringing Home the Bacon, Monsieur R Monde
songs still recognisably Procolesque, in terms of compositional detail, but verging ever closer to the Elton John style epitomised by Saturday Night's All Right for Fighting and so forth.
It's unusual, for a Brooker-Reid song, in being guitar-riff driven (other songs of this apparent character (like Drunk Again or Simple Sister) are often in fact driven by bass-riffs that almost certainly started life on the piano, Brooker's left hand having a life all its own). It also shares with Simple Sister the unusual trait of starting with an alliterative first line that is also the title
which it then follows with another alliterative doubleton, alerting us to the wit and verbal wile it will deploy as it ostensibly deals with the pains of writing. At the time of the album Keith Reid was wont to imply that he was only making fun of his theme of writer's block, but listeners cannot help but be struck by the heartfelt 'I've done with it all', poignantly heard on the album's last original song, which then yields to a ready-made Beatles retread, having come a mere two tracks after Without a Doubt's fantasy about becoming a celebrated writer outside the format of the rock lyricist.
The song starts with whole band together save the organ, running up and down a short scalar tune in the fret-friendly key of E; stinging rhythm guitar fills the texture, and there's a sense of restrained power. The song proper starts after an unexpected little handclap in a rogue five-four bar, just faintly reminiscent of the way irregular metre is used in The Devil Came from Kansas. No sooner has the song got going, with some nicely recorded, slightly-phased drums, than it loses impetus again with rhythmical halts; the melody is bitty, the chords restricted to E and A, all imitative of the inspiration-deficit the words will describe. When the music breaks away into B major, alternating with a C sharp minor, a backing of 'ooh and aah' sounds makes its insidious entrance; the hand-claps on the word 'clap' are amusingly timed. A Harrisonesque arpeggionic guitar figure takes us down, in B major, to an implied conclusion in E; it breaks back and tries again, only to settle on an A: again, the musical details very artfully underpin the dissatisfaction in the lyrical content. The chorus-chords ring clever changes on a highly typical Brooker 'cell' which has developed from Wish me Well onwards: here A major collapses into E, B into F sharp, and round again with the latter pair reversed. It's over these this pleasing sequence that Chris Copping improvises his characteristically serpentine solo, reprised in the playout where one might have expected a guitar solo, in view of the key. The final verse, which begins after a short-measure false-start (cf Man with a Mission) has helped us back into the right key, particularly shows the hand of producers, Leiber and Stoller, when the ensemble stops (imitating the final frustration in the words) and some very un-Harumesue percussion holds sway.
The song was probably first heard live at the 'Over the Rainbow' concert in March 1975, when the song attracted the scorn of a reviewer so unastute that he considered the band's self-parody to be 'unwitting' (see here). It may conceivably have been played in Poland and Yugoslavia when the early-released album was promoted there, but it is not to be found on any subsequent setlist from 1976 and 1977. The song was revived ('the little-known Typewriter Torment) in the 1995 tours by the 'New Testament' band, presumably because its palpable riffing suited the tastes of the bashy 90s. Its form was fundamentally unchanged, but the early five-four bar was gone, Fisher's organ work was often bluesier than Copping's, and a Whitehorn guitar solo decorated the middle instrumental section. Variant words included 'it bothers me still', and some of the unorthodox verbal stresses (such as the jerky groupings of 'if only
my-doctor') were regularised. The song had a formal ending, unlike the fading record, built out of the faint rhythm-guitar pattern on the original track
which underlined its kinship to Drunk Again (1995 mp3 here).
- 'Typewriter torment, a dreadful disease': a familiar and benign apparatus, the typewriter, is yoked to the extreme word 'torment', with undoubted comic effect: this is underlined by the alliteration, which also distinguishes the hyperbolic 'dreadful disease'. When Zigzag observed to Keith Reid April (1977) that Without A Doubt and Typewriter Torment were taken as a sign that [he was] finding it increasingly difficult to come up with the goods, Reid replied, "Oh, I intended those songs to be humorous ... I think people took them a bit seriously and thought I was getting paranoid about it all
" We would be ill-advised to construe all his songs about sickness incidentally this is this only use of the word 'disease' in equally light-hearted fashion.
- 'Caught it the first day I touched the keys': this line equates the 'disease' with a sexually-transmitted malady, about which rumours tend to circulate that 'you can catch it from sheets / toilet-seats' etc. In fact in the 1970 Robin Copping film, The Procol Harum, quite a long sequence is devoted to Reid working (or at least, waiting for inspiration) with a biro, no typewriter in sight. But the choice of 'typewriter' here allows Reid to refer to the 'keys' of the machine, which brings into focus the parallel between him and his pianistic writing-partner, who has contrived the music of the verses to imitate the starved inspiration that the song deals with.
- 'You wear down your fingers': Reid likes to use the word 'fingers'
'Clutching fingers break the puzzle' in Kaleidoscope; 'Not a man who had a finger' in Whaling Stories; 'The waiters dance on fingertips' in Grand Hotel; 'They put their fingers in their ears' in Butterfly Boys; and 'Rings upon your fingers' in All our Dreams are Sold. It's a grimly comic idea that a writer's fingers are worn away by typing; but authors like Strindberg and Beckett have certainly reported debilitating psychosomatic disorders (boils, bleeding hands) associated with their craft: these are presumably manifestations of an inner disorder that the writing might relieve, rather than results of the act of writing itself.
- 'churn out your pap': the 'churn' is an apparatus for making butter, here chosen to emphasise the repetitive treadmill of writing for album after album; the primary meaning of 'pap' is "undemanding reading matter" [Concise OD] but it also means 'infant food' or 'nipple', tallying to an extent with the milky world of the churn.
- 'dose of the clap': though 'clapping' is something that performers court, the word 'clap', since the sixteenth century, has been low slang for gonorrhoea, somewhat less welcome. As noted above, Reid jokes that it can be caught from typing-keys. Souvenir of London, of course, is his chief treatise on sexually-transmitted diseases.
- 'It tortures me still': Reid tops the word 'torment' with 'torture', a combination he has already used in New Lamps for Old ('Merciless torment, torturous blow'). 'Torture' and its variants also occur in 'strapped me to her torture rack' (She Wandered Through The Garden Fence); 'our tortured course' (A Salty Dog) and 'eats it with poison and tortures its soul' (The Worm and The Tree). His intention may have been comic overkill, but Gary Brooker (in a 1975 UK interview on Procols Ninth) used similarly painful language with apparent seriousness: "The song is about
not being able to get the inspiration and wanting to do it but every time you sit down its agony."
- 'If only my doctor could see that I'm ill': the focus shifts from writing to another common Reid theme, the inadequacy or intransigence of the medical profession. Here, far from curing the disease, the doctor cannot even detect (or admit?) that the patient is ill. Other Procol doctors, portrayed in various lights, include 'The doctors say they must operate' (Song For A Dreamer); 'Got to show it to my doctor' (A Souvenir of London); 'The doctors didn't hesitate' and 'The doctors said they knew no cure' (For Liquorice John); 'Doctor where's your remedy?', 'Doctor where's your magic box' and 'Doctor please don't lock your door' (Robert's Box); 'Famous doctors all agree' (Fresh Fruit); 'Doctors cause uncertainty' (Pandora's Box).
- 'It harries me still': the word 'harries' (from the verb 'to harry', possibly deriving from 'harass') is very unusual, lacks really 'singable consonants, and could conceivably be part of a pun to which we are not privy.
- 'If only my doctor would give me a pill': just as the doctor seems incompetently unobservant, so the patient's plea is ludicrously unspecific.
- 'Typewriter fever gives birth to a flood': Reid has already used 'gives birth' in the song, whose emphasis is usually taken to focus on the drying-up of inspiration. 'Flood' however suggests exactly the opposite
the disease (like gonorrhoea, it must be said) seems to involve unwanted discharge. The Press Kit for Procol's Ninth called this 'an autobiographical tune about being a "compulsive", an addiction whereby the author can't stop writing
this tongue-in-cheek lament about Reid's habit'. However the notions of drying up and the flooding are not necessarily opposite: the real problem for the patient is that the flood of words continues morbidly after the inspiration has gone. As Keith Reid said to Zigzag (April 1977) 'Just to maintain that thing of being original is difficult.'
- 'It sweeps through your body and curdles your blood': pursuing the unsavoury parallel with gonorrhoea, this fever poisons the blood: Reid's choice of the distinctive 'curdle' is significant to those who remember his early prophecy about the autumn of his madness, when the end of his writing ability is painted with 'the milk has finally curdled and I've nothing left to say'. The contagion 'sweeping' through the blood recalls a passage from Hamlet (I.v), when the ghost uses the verb 'curd' about poison, administered significantly through the ear, that 'swift as quicksilver
courses through the natural gates and alleys of the body' to 'curd, like eager [vinegar] droppings into milk / The thin and wholesome blood'.
- 'You curse and discurse': the compulsive flood of writing is artfully invoked by wordplay, yoking two words that look like opposites, but aren't. 'Discurse' is not a common word in use, and may be intended as a reduction of 'discursive' long winded and rambling. Its not the same word as 'discuss' or 'discourse'.
- 'You're damned for all time': this epic hyperbole flies in the face of traditional poetic ambition, where writers hope to be elevated to Parnassus for their efforts. Chaucer saw the names of celebrated poets engraved on a mountain of ice in the (trippy!) House of Fame. Reid sees perpetual damnation as his fate
perhaps alongside Homer, Ovid, Horace and Lucan in the first circle of Dante's Inferno (Canto IV) alongside the virtuous heathens.
- 'The moment your fingers give birth to a rhyme': in the thematically-related Without a Doubt Reid has 'my pen will dance across the page', implying that the instrument, not the author, does the work: here the extraordinary metaphor of fingers giving birth has the same effect. In view of the apparent autonomy of these agents of writing, might we assume in shades of Burroughs's The Naked Lunch that the typewriter itself is causing the torment?
- 'If only my doctor would give me a pill': this harks back to pitiful plaint for 'just a pinch to ease the pain' at the end of Robert's Box. It is not unknown, of course, for creative artists facing 'blocks' to resort to drugs to unleash or re-stimulate the 'flood'. The central character of Samuel Beckett's Endgame is Hamm, a compulsive story-teller running out of material, who repeatedly importunes his servant, 'Is it not time for my painkiller?'. Reid has told BtP he admires Beckett; maybe the narrator of this song shares something of Hamm's longing for oblivion.
- 'Typewriter fever': verses one and two have rung the changes: 'typewriter torment'
and now Reid wrong-foots us with a repetition, designed to exemplify his lack of inspiration, just as we are expecting a third variant.
- 'I'm worn to a stub': a 'stub' is a remnant of something that gets used up or damaged, such as a pencil. Following the grimly humorous evocation of the typist's worn-down fingers, Reid now implies that the entire poet is being eroded away. Introducing the song on 30 July 1995, Gary Brooker gave a new, physical slant to the words, implying that the 'torment' lay in the trouble of trying to type and create simultaneously (mp3 here)
- 'dumped my Thesaurus': Roget's Thesaurus is the dictionary of synonyms beloved of amateur or uninspired authors looking for variant wordings to spice up their efforts.
- 'pulled out the plug': it comes as a surprise to learn that we have been dealing all along with an electric typewriter. If the spools are amenable to bending they must be metal, not plastic, which suggests an early model. In Reid's book, which is typeset almost entirely in Palatino, this one song is wittily presented in Courier, but not in any more dated typewriter style. Another Reid 'plug', this time in the sense of a bung, comes in Fat Cats on the Repertoire re-release of Gary Brooker's first solo album which ends with 'pull the plug and watch you drown'.
- 'rending my ribbon': ... 'rend' is comically archaic for 'tear', and is surely intended (like 'harries' perhaps) to imply that the writer of the song has indeed been rummaging in the Thesaurus. Here we are intended to picture him disabling the typewriter by ripping the ribbon off it, presumably in frustration.
- 'spool': there can surely be few rock songs that anatomise, or even refer to, the typewriter with such droll precision. It's perhaps worth mentioning that 'Spoooool' is a word uttered frequently, and with near-moronic relish, by the central character in Beckett's stage monologue, Krapp's Last Tape, who spends a great deal of the piece rewinding his tapes. It can be no coincidence that, in a suppressed item from the Grand Hotel album, Reid creates a central character (for whom 'it's all up', and who is 'to leave the stage so soon') named 'Mr Krupp'.
- 'Don't bother rewinding': in old manual typewriters the ribbon was automatically advanced by the act of typing, so that it wore evenly. When it had wound off one spool on to the other, the ribbon had to change direction, or be rewound by hand. The analogy with an open-reel tape-recorder is clear; at the band-biography level this might be read as 'don't bother rewinding the master tapes of this song, I quit (I'm done with it all)': the fact that Typewriter Torment was positioned as the last original song on the album surely reinforces such an interpretation, and the parallel with Krapp and Krupp is self-evident.
- 'Why can't my doctor just say that I'm ill? Typewriter fever is paying his bill': this pointed conclusion twists the song from an introverted consideration of a writer's difficulties, to a satirical attack on the medical profession. It seems that the author is paying to see a doctor who refuses to acknowledge that there is anything wrong with him: another compulsive disorder on the patient's part. The comedy of the song turns very dark at this point. Typewriter Torment may be a heartfelt consideration of creative blockage, and if so it is heartening that there are nineteen more selected lyrics after it in Keith Reid's chronological anthology, My Own Choice. He evidently overcame the problems the song describes, as witness the new direction that we hear in the material written for Something Magic.
Thanks to Frans Steensma for additional information about this song