'Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes'
A lilting 'slowie' with a waltzlike feel well-suited to its nostalgic subject-matter, Perpetual Motion is actually in a bluesy compound time, and much of the vocal styling harks back to Procol's earthier period. Its harmonic construction is in fact full of artifice which contrives to keep it sounding fresh: an opening sequence of shifting chords over a pedal A is reminiscent of the design of Homburg, as is the strong sub-dominant flavour of the chorus. There's also a middle-eight, however, though it is not very strongly differentiated from the rest of the material, and it ushers in a key-change verse, a tone higher: a standard Tin-Pan-Alley trick, though very rare in the Procol canon. Strangely, perhaps, the modulations following the Hammond solo bring the song back into its original key
transitions largely unnoticed by the casual listener [A Rum Tale also features a key-change instrumental that modulates back to the home-key, but in that case the effect is much more apparent]. The chorus juxtaposes a six-bar and an eight-bar phrase, sharing this slightly uneasy technique with The King of Hearts
maybe reflecting the influence of co-author Matt Noble, since this is a technique not found much on other Harum records.
The soundworld of the track, with very prominent Hammond, sinuously interpolating decorations behind the vocal melody, is very appealing to the 'traditional' PH fan; maybe it was being considered for a single from the come-back album (it's reminiscent in feel of successful Elton John 'grown up' chart songs like I guess that's why they call it the blues). The organ solo is strongly reminiscent of Fisher's work on Salad Days (Are Here Again) and Brooker's off-mic vocalisations, from that early period, make an interesting return. Gary sings one rather waywardly-pitched phrase, as he reprises the Grand Hotel words about silken sheets: the effect is strongly 'human' and attractive on a record often criticised overall for a somewhat mechanical sound. Less attractive to Procol purists are the heavily-layered backing vocals which though they don't command much attention for record-listeners are certainly missed in live performance.
Performances have been very few, and all in 1995: at the House of Blues, LA, on July 18; 'For any romantics in the room' at the South Shore Music Circus in Cohasset, MA, on 30 July; at Cropredy on 11 August, and memorably at the UK's Cheltenham Town Hall where Gary said, of the title, 'lot of p's in that
it might go pop!'. At Cropredy it preceded Quite Rightly So, which always seems to crop up when Perpetual Motion is on the set list.
- The song's title is a reference to the scientific chimera of the engine that itself generates the power by which it is kept in operation; perhaps also evocative of the punning chauvinistic put-down, 'woman's one true invention: a state of perpetual emotion'. Shakespeare brought the phrase to a certain prominence in Henry IV pt II: 'better to be eaten to death with a rust than to be scoured to nothing with perpetual motion': the same play contains 'uneasy lies the head that wears a crown', which seems to inform imagery from All our Dreams are Sold, the adjoining track on the album.
- 'Rings around the crescent moon': the opening phrase has echoes of Ring Around the Moon, the 1947 romantic comedy by Jean Anouilh, familiar to English-speaking audiences in Christopher Fry's translation. Certain misty weather conditions do occasionally produce the appearance of a rainbow, of muted colours, encircling the moon when it is full. At Cropredy, in the open-air, Gary said, 'There was a lovely moon out there. Is it still out there?' and, in response to the crowd's appreciative roar, he dedicated Perpetual Motion thus: 'We'd like to play a slow one now in homage to the moon'.
- In contexts where 'moon' is a romantic symbol, 'ring' often has marital overtones. However Reid tends to use the word 'moon' literally, not to say ominously: 'the sun and moon will shatter' in Homburg; 'the new moon's in the sky' in Piggy Pig Pig; 'meet you on the other side of the moon' in Song for a Dreamer; 'No use howling at the moon' in The Pursuit of Happiness; only in 'She promised me the moon' in The King of Hearts does he invoke its romantic qualities, and even these are quickly dashed. The 'moons' in A Salty Dog are 'months', and the word is mockingly coupled with 'Junes', a fall-back rhyme of the hack song-writer. Though the present song includes 'tune' and 'spoon' neither of these is rhymed with 'moon'
which instead ushers in a sidestepping half-rhyme, with 'rooms'.
- 'Passions rise from basement rooms': paradoxically 'passion fills the empty room' in another Brooker/Reid song, written for a film, with the related title of Dancing Underneath the Moon. Here also we find lovers 'Dancing on an empty stage
Partners in a dream parade', parallels to the wistful imagery of the present song. Elsewhere however Dancing Underneath the Moon indulges in very ordinary songwriting phrases: 'the girl who passed you by, each night she haunts you
letters that you sent
tell her that you loved her'
(to say nothing of the perplexing 'hidden waters never sleep')
and it's worth noting that Perpetual Motion does not venture into this saccharine territory.
- 'worlds collide': Worlds in Collision is the title of the Immanuel Velikovsky tract (1950) that advances theories of catastrophic planetary crashes in Earth's remote past. Here the 'worlds' appear to be the private yet overlapping worlds of the dancers. 'Worlds collide' is in the common parlance of religious apocalypticists, as a quick internet trawl will confirm.
- 'Star-crossed lovers' adopts Shakespeare's 'A pair of star-crossed lovers take their lives ...' from the well-known prologue to Romeo and Juliet: ironically the stage lovers' lives are over within days of their meeting
their affair is far from 'perpetual'.
- 'they spoon and swim': from the start of the nineteenth century 'spoon' was a colloquial term for 'simpleton', and it gradually evolved in meaning to include silliness and sentimentality: gradually it acquired the sense of 'flirt', and was later used by Denmark Street's 'Tin Pan Alley' songwriters to signify a kiss, in the song By the Light of the Silvery Moon, for example. It occurs in that sense in Shine on Harvest Moon, a song Brooker has name-checked before playing Shine on Brightly live. Here the coupling of 'spoon' and 'swim' as well as nourishing the aquatic imagery supports a double meaning associated with light-headed, dizzy excitement. The idea of swimming is found in other Procol Harum songs such as Your Own Choice, The Idol, Butterfly Boys.
- 'The laughing gods they just reel them in'
a fishing image informs Reid's personal take on the idea that man is the plaything of the Gods. Shakespeare asserts 'As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods / They kill us for their sport' in King Lear (Act IV, scene1); less memorably Webster contends that 'we are merely the stars' tennis-balls' in The Duchess of Malfi (Act V, scene 4). References to God also come in Piggy Pig Pig, Whaling Stories, A Rum Tale, Nothing But the Truth, The Mark of The Claw, Holding on, The Pursuit of Happiness.
- 'See them wait down the line to take the bait': this pursues the angling reference, though perhaps 'weight down the line' might be a more germane spelling of what we hear. 'Down the line' also means 'down the railway' and by extension 'later in time' and is well-known from several R&B songs, especially Move on Down the Line by Roy Orbison, played by Procol Harum as an encore in the early seventies.
- 'Hostages they're tempting fate': this curious phrase, which seems to have osmosed into the present song from Holding On, (is 'crescent moon' an Islamic symbol?) brings to mind the phrase 'hostages to fate', perhaps suggesting the way that a would-be permanent liaison seems like a hubristic challenge to fate, to destroy it. As Strong as Samson might appear to harbour another hostage reference, but its 'being held to ransom' is metaphorical, in the context of labour-relations.
- 'Dancers in perpetual motion': dancing, that staple subject of popular music, occurs very infrequently in Keith Reid's writing, and this is his only reference to social dancing
unless we count 'skipping the light fandango'. Elsewhere we find dancing as solo display 'Neptune dances hornpipes' (Cerdes (Outside The Gates Of)) 'jugglers danced and horses pranced' ('Twas Tea-time at the Circus) or as metaphor 'The waiters dance on fingertips
The wine and dine have danced till dawn' (Grand Hotel) and 'My pen will dance across the page' (Without A Doubt).
- 'slip an' sliding across the floor' reminds us of Little Richard's Slippin' an' a Slidin' though that record could scarcely be more different from the present piece. 'Slippin' and slidin'' is black 80s' slang for sneaking around; earlier it seems to mean 'sex' in the same way that 'rock and roll' originally did in songs; it appears thus in Let's Jump the Broomstick. Slip and Slide (in the sexual sense) was the title of a No 22 hit in 1974 for Medicine Head, a band whose words were praised by Keith Reid in Creem. 'Continental slip and slide' occurs in Grand Hotel in a context clearly referring to bedroom activities!
- 'Ships out on a moonlit ocean'
a phrase perhaps reminiscent of the Something Magic artwork
- 'Sailing toward a distant shore': if the dancers on the floor are ships on an ocean, clearly the 'distant shore' is not open to literal interpretation: the idea of the afterlife lying beyond the horizon is commonplace, however, and some listeners may be reminded of that on hearing this line.
- 'This simple stuff we build our dreams upon': Shakespearean pastiche, reminiscent of The Tempest: 'We are such stuff as dreams are made on / and our little life is rounded with a sleep' in which, significantly enough, the magician Prospero bids goodbye to his art.
- 'Waxing, waning, now it's almost gone': 'waxing' and 'waning' are phases of the crescent moon (respectively 'growing' and 'dwindling'). The phases of the moon are of course 'perpetual' in a sense that is not shared by the romantic love the moon is often used to symbolise: this is poignantly acknowledged in 'these velvet days are gone far too soon'.
- 'Velvet' is open to many interpretations, but one that is pertinent in slang is 'to the velvet': to be making gains/winning which might chime with the partly-developed love / gambling metaphor [see 'we play for gold but not for keeps']
- 'Passion plays the sweetest tune': 'plays' here operates in two senses, the one belonging to musical performance, the other to stage shows (Passion Plays were the religious tableaux that preceded the great age of Elizabethan theatre). Since the song contains several very evident borrowings from plays, it may be worth relating the phrase to 'What is our life? A play of passion' written by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1612. Passion Play is, incidentally, the title of an album by Procol's label-mates, Jethro Tull
- 'We spend our nights on silken sheets': the album's second-most-obvious borrowing from elsewhere in the Procol canon, since in Grand Hotel 'tonight we sleep on silken sheets'. However the borrowing is not absolute: here the lovers 'spend our nights'
there's no mention of sleeping. Nearly all the other songs referring to 'night' dwell on the depressing, concealing aspects of it (think of A Christmas Camel, In The Wee Small Hours Of Sixpence, Wish me Well, Magdalene (My Regal Zonophone), Glimpses of Nirvana, In the Autumn of My Madness, Memorial Drive, Nothing But the Truth, Beyond The Pale, Something Magic, (You can't) turn back the page and the unpublished This Old Dog and I'm a Reader and a Writer)
on silken sheets': when Frans Steensma asked Gary Brooker in February 1992 if Keith Reid had wanted King Of Hearts (quoting A Whiter Shade of Pale) and Perpetual Motion (quoting Grand Hotel) to be a puzzle for Procol fans, Gary replied, 'I think it was a bit of humour, really. A bit of quotation, quoting himself, I suppose. In fact, those lines fit in those songs anyway. Ive got the feeling if he hadnt written them before, they would have been in there anyway, almost.'
- 'We play for gold but not for keeps': the borrowings from Grand Hotel persist in this gambling reference: here 'gold' may seem to resonate with 'rings' at the start of the song, and 'not for keeps' is starkly at odds with the title, Perpetual Motion. The uneasy examination of marital perpetuity seems to be related to the theme of Fools' Gold, which 'fooled me too
shone so brightly, then fell apart'. It is not necessary though the repetition of the theme might seem to invite it to wonder what real-life situations might be being referred to in these songs.
Thanks to Frans Steensma for additional information about this song