'Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes'
Without a Doubt
Without a Doubt has some claims to being the grandest conception on the Procol's Ninth album, a strong, square number in an authoritative D major, with punchy bass work and drumming, and some of Keith Reid's most concentratedly effective song-words. It is one of a small handful of Procol songs whose working titles we know, this one having been introduced on stage as 'The Poet’ at concerts before the Procol's Ninth album sessions began. But a good while earlier, in November 1973, Keith Reid revealed to an interviewer that 'There’s a song about me, writing, saying: I got out of bed, this is how I did it, I couldn’t sleep … ' quoting several salient images in detail: he spoke of it with atypical vim, implying that it was a track due to appear on Exotic Birds and Fruit. It seems very likely that The Poet was rejected from that album by producer Chris Thomas, and, though it was announced from the stage as the next Procol single, it never materialised in such a form (when they changed producers, and were without a doubt(ing Thomas), it became Without a Doubt.
The song starts with a commanding piano flourish, which the band grandly takes up and repeats with increasing excitement on the guitar; the voice that comes in is energetic, the rhythmical accompaniment dramatic. However the brilliant production lasts for 48 seconds, before we seem to cut to drop-ins from an entirely different treatment: the voice goes echoey, weedy tambourine takes over the percussion duties, a toyland reggae off-beat develops and the piano appears to be reprising a syncopated piano motif from Butterfly Boys. Listening to the pre-Ninth touring version of the song (mp3 here), it is clear that it had some under-developed passages, and presumably Leiber and Stoller felt justified in obtruding some gimmicky variety if their mission was to create a hit single. But whereas the flute solo on Pandora's Box created a memorable melodic effect, the present elaborations are merely fussy, and doubly inexcusable to Procol fans is the loss of the space allotted to BJ's drum fills. Maybe, as song writers, they could have assisted in finding some alternative harmonic material for that underdeveloped passage, rather than transporting us fleetingly to a different sound-world to distract us from it. Gary Brooker once mentioned that Without a Doubt was a tribute to Little Feat, a band spoken of admiringly by several Procolers: the band did their own early demo of this song: it would be interesting to hear if it sounds like Dixie Chicken!
Whatever one's reservations about the verse, the chorus is as Procolian as could be hoped for, with its ascending bass-line and marvellously dramatic chord-inversions. The first chord of each line has its seventh note at the bottom, resolving upwards into a second-inversion chord, then a diminished and a minor, before dropping to start again: the singing is suitably soulful and we could be listening to something developed at the same time as In Held 'Twas in I. It was often heard during the album promotion, when this chorus always seemed specially moving; and though the Leiber/Stoller syncopated bassline lived on in the verses once Ninth had come out, that seemed satisfactory on stage, when the disc's fussy instrumentation-shift wasn't practical. Impossible also was the stage recreation of the brass section that decorates the recorded track, but their funky honking is not integral: BJ's decoration, in a live setting, was all that the song required to lend it drama.
According to the album press-kit, the song is '… kept good-humoured … by the poet's delusions of grandeur.' The words offer a rock-lyricist's sustained fantasy about breaking out into literature or dramatic writing. In interviews Keith Reid would claim that he could satisfy his artistic needs within the Procol format; nevertheless he later branched into play-writing, though he assured BtP that this side of his work would not be coming up for public scrutiny in the future. Some feel that, by using many of the clichéd terms that one finds in reviews, Reid aims to sustain a fantasy about success in writing, while simultaneously mocking the language of the critics whose approval any author needs to court. Crawdaddy (October 1975) saw this track as 'a cathartic spring breeze for Procol' ... yet the breezy optimism of the verses is in sharp contrast to the despair on the same subject which follows in Typewriter Torment: and the choruses seem to reflect much the same, deep anxiety.
- 'I'm going downstairs to be a poet': folklore locates the poet in a garret, upstairs; equally the budding, teenage poet works in a bedroom, upstairs: there's something topsy turvy about this 'going downstairs' in this opening line, reminiscent of 'We've run afloat' at the start of A Salty Dog. But perhaps what is pictured here is the romantic notion of being seized in bed with a great idea, and getting up to record it in one's composing domain. Logically of course there is no reason not to have a pen and paper in the bedroom. 'I'm going downstairs …', maybe suggests this is a resolution made on getting up, in which case it could be viewed as a literary recasting of the bluesman's characteristic opening, 'Well I woke up this morning …'. It also reminds us of 'I sat me down to write a simple story' (Pilgrim’s Progress).
- 'Got a great idea: gonna write a sonnet': presumably it's the proposed content of the sonnet, rather than the form itself, that strikes him as new. The sonnet ('little song') has fourteen lines, intricately rhymed according to one of a number of set schemes, and the form has been popular with poets since the time of Petrarch (1304–1374). The lines (in English sonnets from Shakespeare onwards) characteristically have ten syllables: so the first line of the present song could be the start of a sonnet of sorts, though the stresses are not distributed in the conventional iambic fashion. In interview Reid implied that he had woken up with a sonnet idea, but had changed his mind to 'I'll write a play', while keeping the same topic.
- 'A verse or two of peerless prose': a sonnet doesn't have separate verses and 'prose' is continuous writing, the exact opposite of verse (where the poet inserts line-breaks for effect).
- 'peerless … priceless': certainly the effect here is poetic as the alliteration and morphology of the words links the two ideas of great value. 'Peerless' means 'without equal' and is often used in a religious context. The would-be poet is setting his sights high!
- 'A priceless quip to gild the rose': the normal allusion is to 'gilding the lily', meaning the practice of adding extra ornament to that which is already beautiful; 'rose' here could be an allusion to an architectural feature being painted (such as a ceiling-boss) or even to the Rosicrucian brand of mysticism ['Rosicrucian' derives from 'Rosy Cross']. The rose was a symbol of the Virgin, and frequently gilded in pre-Reformation churches, but it was deemed too voluptuous thereafter and the lily took its place in the gilding stakes. 'Lily' here could only have led to an unfortunate rhyme …
- 'I'll make my fortune overnight': very few poets make a fortune over the course of a lifetime, let alone overnight … unless they have the good luck to pen a #1 hit record of course. Two very different readings of the song are possible, one where the narrative voice comes from a mere aspiring writer, the other, more poignant, where it comes from a writer who has indeed found huge fame overnight and who is now striving to recover it after a period in the commercial doldrums.
- 'My work will set the world alight': the allusion is not to literal fire, but to the contagious enthusiasm as the news of the author's talent spreads like wild-fire.
- 'Just a line is all I need': the change in the music signals the author coming down to earth as he realises that the intention to write, and the reassurance of a set form, is nonetheless no guarantee of inspiration. The repetitive use of 'just' in this song reminds us of the pathos in of Robert's Box with its 'just a pinch' …
- 'Just a thought to sow the seed': so bereft of inspiration is this poet that the initial thought, which he lacks, is not considered to be the 'seed' itself, but a precursor even to the seed. Ordinarily we speak of the 'germ' of an idea more than the seed, but the botanic image is apt, in view of the 'rose' earlier in the verse.
- 'Just a word to start me out': the Gospel according to John assures us that 'in the beginning was the word'; furthermore when God's labours were over, he rested: a Biblical reading of this line therefore invests 'the rest will come' with a punning extra significance. The idea of 'a word to start me out' may tally with Reid's real view of the creative process: he has often commented that you get one line [like 'a whiter shade of pale'] and that's like a piece of a jigsaw, from which you work out the rest [his remarks on The King of Hearts are similar].
- 'Without a doubt': this repeated phrase became the title of the song which was introduced as The Poet on tour in the autumn of 1974 tour in 1974. (mp3 intro): Gary Brooker said on 29 October 1974 that the band had been in the studio 'just before we came away', and the band had been off the road most of that month. It seems likely that this was when The Poet was recorded, possibly with the band producing themselves. Without a doubt it was being groomed as a single, and so the adoption of a frequently-heard verbal hook as its title was commercial good sense. Mick Grabham told BtP that Bob Ezrin was in line for producing what turned out to be Procol's Ninth. 'We'd done a recording of what is known on the album as Without a Doubt, but at the time was called The Poet. We'd done a version of that at Phillips Studios, and we played him that. He said, (American drawl) 'You haven't got that dance pocket, ya gotta have that dance pocket'. 'Doubt' is a word Reid does not use much: 'no doubt about it, it's my own tombstone' (Something Following Me); 'a doubting Thomas who would be?' and 'only sometimes, still no doubt' (Glimpses of Nirvana); 'There's no time for doubt' (The Final Thrust).
- 'I'm going downstairs to write a book': the author's ambitions have galloped in size. Whereas the 'sonnet' verse was distinguished by delicate imagery, 'gild' and 'rose' and 'peerless' all carrying suitably mediaeval connotations, the 'book' verse focuses on images relating to the industrial processes of a book's manufacture.
- 'Got a great idea's gonna really cook': the forceful vernacular language here is apt for the factory imagery, and carries forward the sharp contrast with the matter of the earlier verse. There is cooking elsewhere in Reid: 'Explore the ship, replace the cook' (A Salty Dog); 'don't forget to thank the cook' (The Devil Came From Kansas); 'I was learning how to cook the goose' (Taking The Time);
- 'A rattling good yarn with an ironic twist': the pages of a book are 'sewn' together with stitches: Reid deftly exploits the double meanings of 'yarn' (both 'story' and 'cotton thread') and 'twist' (the characteristic 'twist' of cotton, and the unexpected reversal in a story). 'Rattling good' is a breezy phrase of approval: 'rattling' of course neatly relates to the factory process, as does 'riveting', in the next line, to a lesser extent. 'Rattling good yarn' would be a common cliché in brief book reviews of thrillers.
- 'Make sure the presses are ready to steam': the idea of the steam press relates to old-fashioned equipment in a print shop: but the imagery of printing runs side-by-side here with images of the cotton mill (historically Britain's foremost industrial process) in which connection 'press', 'steam' and 'scorcher' all carry associations of the smoothing of cloth: pre-twentieth century book-binding did make significant use of fabrics. As early as Broken Barricades Reid uses the line 'the presses are empty'; this narrator plans to fill them single-handed.
- 'This book is a scorcher': 'scorcher' is a racy extension of 'hot', signifying outstanding, and tallies with 'alight' in the first verse and 'cook' in this one. UK tabloid newspapers like to proclaim 'Phew what a scorcher' when the sun comes out ... 'Scorcher' was also a thief on a bicycle, earlier in the twentieth century.
- 'Just the first part's all I need': the writer contemplates writing a novel in parts, in the Victorian style, but as with the sonnet he lacks even a line to begin it. The 'great idea' that inspired him to 'go downstairs' appears to have come to nothing.
- 'The rest will come with lightning speed': the lightning 'flash' of inspiration is all that the lyric focuses on: the graft of authorship is omitted, to deliberate effect.
- 'A line to set the stage': the 'stage' image, with the dancing pen, sets up a link to the matter of the third verse.
- 'My pen will dance across the page': the idea of the autonomous pen effectively doing the work itself relates to the Surrealists' practice of Automatic Writing, which has been adopted, alongside other Dadaist techniques, by rock writers (conspicuously David Bowie) to achieve a dislocation of style and to liberate them from the thrall of past forms. Though Reid does seem at times to have employed a Surrealistic method, in his dreamlike, illogical juxtaposition of disparate images, it's arguable that this particular song is one of his most organised texts in conventional terms. The handling of imagery is highly-accomplished, and the mastery of irony (in bewailing his lack of inspiration he produces his most impressive effusion) is a delight.
- 'I'm going downstairs to write a play': 'sonnet … book … play' does not seem to represent a logically-organised sequence in terms of the effort required to accomplish them or of the potential reward. Rather the effect is of a desperate grasping for any medium that will satisfy the urge to be a writer; ironically none of the posited realisations of the 'great idea' is a song, yet a song is in the end [cp Pilgrim's Progress] all that it becomes. One of the authors of this paper, on first hearing this number, misunderstood 'play' as 'prayer' … which seemed to resonate well with the author's increasing desperation! Ultimately one is left wondering what 'great idea' this song was about ... was it akin to the material on Exotic Birds where this number was seemingly destined to appear, or is Reid harking back to the more fecund days of A Salty Dog and A Whiter Shade of Pale when the ideas really did seem to emerge unbidden, rather than being bullied forth by the commercialisation of the muse?
- 'This serious drama won't be understood': Reid is known to be a devotee of Samuel Beckett, surely the archetypal serious dramatist whose praise by critics predated his popular acceptance by a wide margin.
- 'The critics will love it and say that it's good': by ascribing the banal 'it's good' to the critics, the song's narrator implies that there will be a lack of inspiration on their part too. And Typewriter Torment, later on the album, is at pains to represent writer's block as an infectious condition. Note that his 'without a doubt' does not apply to the critical esteem he expects to harvest, but to the certainty of his inspiration to finish the piece.
- '"At last a new writer, a true nouvelle vague"': 'nouvelle vague' is French for 'new wave' and is commonly applied to a particular trend in filmmaking, rather than to theatre.
- 'In no time at all': again the emphasis is on the immediacy of the fame that will ensue.
- 'King of the stage' harks back to the 'be the king' at the opening of Fools Gold on the same album. Other Kings in Procol Harum songs are relatively sparse, but include 'gifts for me the three kings bring' (Shine on Brightly); 'King Jimi, he was there' ('Twas Tea-time at the Circus); '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).
- 'Just a story's all I need': 'story' is a word often used by Reid in referring to his songs (the titles of Barnyard Story and Whaling Stories, 'got the story' from The Thin End of the Wedge, and 'a simple story that maybe in the end became a song' from Pilgrim's Progress): thus the focus of this excellent lyric does come round, in the poet's own terms, to the very craft which brought him to our attention, and through which he communicates these insights.
Thanks to Frans Steensma for additional information about this song