'Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes'
Following directly from the sonic kaleidoscope of the Pandora's Box hit single, this second utterly-convincing number seemed to promise that the Procol's Ninth album would be a consistent marvel of energy, composition and performance: many would argue that this proved a 'broken promise', but this has not embittered fans, who continue to admire and enjoy the song. It's a substantial belter that wrings a marvellous vocal performance from its composer. From a gentle, poignant beginning with solely the piano for support, Gary's voice floats over a syrup of organ and sustained guitar, before Cartwright and Wilson start to pump, and the song develops with characteristic stops and starts, under an imaginatively and shapely guitar break, to a dramatic, cycling middle section. Through a characteristic climbing passage, of the Robert's Box variety, the song attains a dramatic peak, then drops back to the sparse arrangement of the introduction, to melancholic effect: we will encounter this A-B-A structure again on the album. More characteristically Haroid than many songs on this album, Fool's Gold stays true to A minor throughout, deploying some pretty standard jazz-rock chords to nonetheless dramatic effect; it's arguable that it started life as a set of chords, and that the hollered melody is somewhat secondary. The descending bass-line is a Procol staple, and Leiber and Stoller's wind writing (and the superb sound quality, notable also on piano and drums) puts the desultory brass-work of Playmate of the Mouth in the shade.
Despite the very powerful ensemble work, there's a quality of restraint at work in the arrangement: gaps are left unfilled, allowing small details (like the Fisherism at 'all my life', in that distorted curling Hammond sound which Copping patented on Grand Hotel) to shine through. Overall a lot of thought has gone into the control of light and shade here, which perhaps highlights an opposite tendency elsewhere on the album (in The Piper's Tune for example).Perhaps it is a pity that such a 'meaty' performance was permitted to end in a fade, though it does so on a fine bluesy cascade on the piano, echoing figures that we have heard earlier in the brass, but which may, of course, have been added after the piano was recorded. This fade revives another Procol trademark allowing us to glimpse a fresh and interesting melodic detail just as the music sinks below earshot.
The song was played live as early as March 1975, at the Rainbow, but is not found on any known setlist from 1976 or 1977. It was revived in the 1995 tours, occasionally heard with a spectacular piano break in the centre. It's a puzzling shame that Fool's Gold has not been covered by any other artist, since it is conventional enough in its words and music to have general appeal, yet a sufficient vocal showcase to have tempted, one would have thought, the mainstream likes of Joe Cocker or even Rod Stewart. Unsurprisingly the allusive title has tempted other songwriters: a different Fool's Gold was a hit for the Stone Roses (it entered the Top 75 on three different occasions), and there is another use of it again by Starry-Eyed and Laughing.
- 'I was trying hard to win': a sense of striving is important in the words and music here the next song on the album sees the narrator 'trying' again; in both cases the implication is that he is trying, not succeeding. There's a tremendous amount of 'trying' in the Procol world in such songs as Lime Street Blues, Something Following Me, Cerdes (Outside The Gates Of), Salad Days (Are Here Again), Seem To Have The Blues (Most All The Time), Rambling On, Magdalene (My Regal Zonophone), Long Gone Geek, The Devil Came From Kansas, Crucifiction Lane, Pilgrims Progress, Barnyard Story, Luskus Delph, A Souvenir of London, For Liquorice John, Taking The Time, (You Can't) Turn Back the Page, The King of Hearts, All Our Dreams Are Sold, and Learn to Fly.
- 'Save the world and be the king': these two far-reaching aspirations seem on the face of it as improbable as they are irreconcilable. 'Save the world' carries implications of charity work or environmental do-gooding, 'be the King' suggests a more feudal concept of domination. Christians would argue that it was Jesus's purpose to assimilate the two tasks, however; but though other songs show a clear interest in Christ's story (Glimpses of Nirvana, Shine on Brightly, Wizard Man for example) there is little in the lines that follow to suggest that Fool's Gold is another. 'King' and 'World' are both cards in the Tarot pack, and King is used is several other songs: 'gifts for me the three kings bring' (Shine on Brightly); 'King Jimi, he was there' ('Twas Tea-time at the Circus); 'I'll be king of the stage' (Without A Doubt); 'King of the fools' (Skating on Thin Ice); 'I played the King of Hearts' and 'King of the Broken-hearted' (The King of Hearts) and 'In the king's apartment' (All Our Dreams Are Sold). 'King of the World' is nowadays a phrase used in hyperbolic or triumphalist contexts: it originates with the Hindi, Shah Jehan, a title assumed by the fifth of the Mogul Emperors Korrum Shah.
- 'Out there in the race': though the 21st-century New Yorker Keith Reid is reputed to go jogging, this would have surprised many listeners in 1975, who probably assume that the 'race' alluded to here was the rat-race of the music industry, or conceivably the human race.
- 'Trying hard to force the pace': there is more 'trying' here. Pace-makers are non-competing athletes employed to maintain a good speed in long races, so as to spur the true contestants to their best efforts; this may refer to the way Keith Reid, albeit a non-performer, in the band: 'was the real driving force behind it all' (as Matthew Fisher stated in 2000: see here).
- 'Fool's gold
': 'all that glisters is not gold,' says Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice (II, vii); this is famously true of the mineral Iron Pyrites [FeS2], whose yellowish nuggets are dubbed 'Fool's Gold' because they look like every prospector's dream, yet have negligible market value. Reid's treatment of the three 'Olympic' metals includes 'fat old Buddhas carved in gold' (Shine on Brightly), 'to find some pirate's gold' (Pilgrims Progress), 'turret full of gold' (Memorial Drive), 'storing the silver and hoarding the gold' (As Strong as Samson), 'Bright and shiny gold' (New Lamps for Old), 'Pave the streets with gold' (All Our Dreams Are Sold), 'We play for gold but not for keeps' (Perpetual motion), and there's even a lyric in Keith Reid's book, My Own Choice, entitled Gold Fever'; silver features in 'upon your silver shield' (Conquistador), 'don't beg for silver paper' (The Devil Came From Kansas), 'Watch the silver screen!' (Whaling Stories), 'sold for a silver dollar' (Memorial Drive), 'It's silver plate and crystal clear' (Grand Hotel); and lead gets a couple of mentions too 'Counting houses full of lead' (Piggy Pig Pig); 'a pocketful of lead' (Wizard Man). The alchemists truly were the fools in pursuit of gold, which they sought to obtain by transforming 'baser' matter. The specific fool's gold alluded to in the Procol Harum song is not, of course, FeS2: it may refer to the pursuit of anything that turns out to be less desirable than was supposed, perhaps with particular reference to the false promise of a marriage that failed, or the unrealized hopes of a glittering career.
- 'Fooled me too': it may be worth cataloguing the manifold mentions in Procol Harum songs to the idea of the fool: 'both themselves and also any fool' (Homburg), 'And like a fool I believed myself' (She Wandered Through The Garden Fence), 'some say that I'm a wise man, some think that I'm a fool' (Look to Your Soul), 'It doesn't matter either way: I'll be a wise man's fool' (Look to Your Soul), 'stop calling me Monsieur R. Monde you fool!' (Monsieur R. Monde ), 'Fool's gold fooled me too' (Fool's Gold), 'Fool's gold broke my heart' (Fool's Gold), 'Fools gold bitter sting' (Fool's Gold), 'Fool's gold cast the die' (Fool's Gold), 'I was trying to act the hero's part not fooling anyone' (Taking The Time), 'and I played the fool' (Skating on Thin Ice), 'King of the fools' (Skating on Thin Ice), 'We were fools to believe' ((You can't) turn back the page)
- 'Bright and shiny, looked brand new': these childish terms of approval contribute to the idea of a foolish, naive outlook. 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, Fires (Which Burnt Brightly), New Lamps for Old, Something Magic, Holding On
- 'Fool's gold broke my heart': neither 'broke' nor 'heart' is to be taken literally, of course. 'Broke' refers to a shattered ideal or illusion, and the heart is seen as the seat of emotional expectation. 'King of the Brokenhearted' in The King of Hearts is the strongest parallel in the songs, but Reid does use the word 'heart' surprisingly frequently: 'Let him who fears his heart alone' and 'Endless heartache until she died' (Nothing that I Didn't Know); 'it was tied to my heart' (Toujours L'amour); 'fills our hearts with tears' (Nothing But the Truth); 'Because of fruit my heart is strong' (Fresh Fruit); 'by the beating of a heart' (Something Magic); 'Wizard man's got an angel's heart' (Wizard Man) and of course 'I played the King of Hearts' (The King of Hearts).
- 'Shone so brightly then fell apart': Iron Pyrites doesn't readily crumble, so it seems likely that 'shone' here refers to the mineral and 'fell apart' to the heart. Verbal echoes of the song, Shine on Brightly, are evident here, perhaps lending substance to the idea that this song (like the following Taking the Time) looks back at Procol glory-days and compares them with the lack of commercial success, or artistic inspiration, of the Procol's Ninth era.
- 'Locked in bitter strife': these three strongly-emphatic terms usher in a
second verse whose language promotes a markedly more harrowing impression than
the first. 'Bitter' occurs twice in this song, and very curiously 'bitter
strife' occurs again two songs further into the album! In other numbers the same
adjective distinguishes 'bitter gloom', 'bitter cup', and the 'bitter taste of love'
'Trouble and strife' is Cockney rhyming-slang for 'wife', and there is certainly a connubial thread running through the imagery of this song.
- 'Fighting monsters all my life': the monsters are not specified, though listeners will recall 'the monster' in The Idol who held the promise of helping the band (perhaps) in some crucial way, and who let them down for want of commitment. In other ways the phrase 'fighting monsters' (if it's not to be taken literally, as it might be if St George or Theseus were the speaker) might seem to imply a man's battle against drink or drugs; equally 'monsters' could mean personal demons, or character inadequacies. The Procol world is full of references to fighting, as witness '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), 'The cause for the fighting' (Fires (Which Burnt Brightly)), 'Fighting for freedom' (As Strong as Samson), 'We must fight it out' (The Final Thrust), 'One hell of a fight' (the unpublished This Old Dog), 'Not a lover or a fighter' and 'talking of the fight' (the unpublished I'm a Reader and a Writer).
- 'I was out to break the pledge': one pledges allegiance to a vow of abstinence, or of marital fidelity, or of discretion about a secret society. Taking 'monsters' and 'pledge' together, the song might seems to relate to the tribulations of an alcoholic; taking 'pledge' with 'ring' below, it might seem to concern matrimony, or membership of some lodge or cult, since secret societies may also enjoin the wearer to keep a significant ring on one finger (in the UK, 'ring' is used where 'band' might be expected in the USA).
- 'Force myself across the edge': to live 'on the edge' is to cultivate a life of major risks, especially those of insanity, or bodily and moral jeopardy. In the (unpublished) This Old Dog the hell-raising narrator confesses that he has 'got myself on the edge of one hell of a losing streak' by staying up too many nights of the week; this is not an edge one would wittingly strive to force oneself across. In The Thin End of the Wedge one of the litany of 'wrongs' involves taking 'the wrong bend on the edge', and the questing Beyond the Pale invites us to 'search
past the edge, beyond the veil.' 'Edge' therefore seems to be associated with abyssal terrors, and its not impossible that this narrator is contemplating some sort of suicidal leap: if so, the mountain-top songs (Barnyard Story, Taking the Time) spring into an ominous new relief as potential companion-pieces for For Liquorice John.
- 'Fool's gold, bitter sting': 'bitter' in a bodily sense relates to sensations on the tongue, whereas an ordinary 'sting' (the word is used in relation to certain insects and to snakes) afflicts the skin only. But in its metaphorical application 'sting' is often associated with the pangs of death, following St Paul in 1 Corinthians 15: 'O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?'
- 'Broken promise, hollow ring': this brilliantly compendious line suggests disenchantment with a marriage, since both 'ring' and 'promise' are so closely associated with the wedding ceremony. However 'promise' can also mean 'potential' (as in 'the band was full of promise'), and the word 'ring' refers to the sound made by solid, pure metal (as in 'it rings true'). A 'hollow ring' is heard when the metal is an impure alloy or has casting-faults: so Reid's line could be taken to mean 'aborted potential, sounding more solid than it turned out to be'.
- 'Fool's gold cast the die': as in Learn to Fly, 'cast the die' is a double-edged term: 'it cast the die' could mean 'it moulded the molten metal into a stamp that would print' or 'it threw one of the dice to determine fate'.
- 'broken promise, empty lie': 'broken promise' is repeated from a previous line, and 'empty lie' seems to relate to the 'hollow ring' earlier. There is a lot of ellipsis in the short lines of this song
given the context, some would consider it legitimate to infer that 'empty' referred to a marital bed in which one was obliged to 'lie' alone. 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); 'So sad to see such emptiness' (Nothing But the Truth); 'I was feeling kind of empty' (Last Train to Niagara). Certainly the lines of Fool's Gold are sung in such a soulful way by 'Mineral Man' Brooker that the most passionate, heartfelt interpretations will strike many listeners as the most appropriate.
Thanks to Frans Steensma for additional information about this song