'Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes'
(You Can't) Turn Back the Page
This is a big four-four rock ballad wringing a moody atmosphere from the switch between major and minor tonalities: the verse in G minor, the chorus in G major, though it shifts into B flat for its final phrases; it's an unusual Procol song in that it has a middle-'eight', and it harks back to the Brooker compositional methods of the earliest albums, in that the dominant chord is rarely used (in the verse the dominant appears as a minor chord the first time we hear it, not the expected major; then the second time it resolves not into the tonic but into the sixth of the scale: all this imparts freshness and interest, a very opposite approach to that used in for instance The Truth Won't Fade Away.)
The treated piano of the introduction might recall For Liquorice John, written in response to the death of an associate of the band. Some fans were perplexed that Procol Harum did not pen a song specifically about the loss of their drummer, BJ Wilson, who died in 1990; others saw (You Can't) Turn Back the Page as exactly that. The text does not particularly support such a reading, and it's surely worth pointing out that since 1990 A Salty Dog, reportedly BJ's favourite Procol song, has very frequently been played 'for those that have gone before' ... and Brooker's terse dedications, before that highly emotional song, probably commemorate his feelings better than any purpose-built song would do. (You Can't) Turn Back the Page was one of two songs Fisher rated as favourites from the Prodigal Stranger album, according to Mike Ober in Then Play On (1992): The Truth Won't Fade Away was the other. "They're great songs," he said.
Various bits of electric guitar are heard in the mix, but the impression is of mixing-desk as main instrument, rather than of human musicians at work. Similarly the wash of synth strings, the meandering solo Spanish guitar, and the odd touches of tambourine are all contrived to emphasise the lonely thoughts of the lyric, in the way that film scores do, but there isn't the direct emotional connection here that we find in earlier Procol songs. At 2.37 the backward Spanish guitar part, something of a musical irony, does not appear to quote any other Procol music, unlike the backward vocal in In Held 'Twas in I.
The song has had several memorable performances. During the 1995 UK tour, a suitable emptiness replaced the acoustic guitar fills; backing vocals by Geoff Whitehorn assisted by Matt Pegg were an unusual and impressive feature (mp3 here). At the Barbican 1996, the orchestral arrangement accentuated the song's filmic qualities, though the choral arrangement was more mannered. Gary left the piano to showcase his vocal at the front of the stage; and the song may have been treated as a vocal showcase for Jerry Hadley at some preliminary stage on the Symphonic recording, since Hadley's tenor obtrudes through Brooker's for one phrase, presumably the judge's verdict, in the middle section: it seems unlikely that he would have been asked to sing this one line only. This 'middle eight', which is in fact stretched to an unusual nine bars, is slightly ponderous and seems to bear kinship to the middle sections of Something Magic and of Taking the Time.
- 'The night surrounds me': as in A Dream in Ev'ry Home, the first phrase of the first verse recurs at the start of the second, a device conferring an appearance of thematic unity. References to 'night', very often focussing on loneliness, nightmare, drinking and demonic manifestation, are numerous in Procol Harum: the word 'night' occurs in songs as diverse as 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, Grand Hotel, Nothing But the Truth, Beyond The Pale, Something Magic, (You can't) turn back the page, Perpetual motion, This Old Dog, I'm a Reader and a Writer
- 'I can't turn back the hands of time': this phrase is broadly equivalent to the proposition in the song's title, though in Homburg the hands of the town clock do indeed turn backwards. In that song the hands, like the 'sign-posts [that] cease to sign', are false signifiers, lying to the listener: the bitter tone of the present song belongs to the voice of experience.
- 'When I look around me': so many of the early songs were preoccupied with difficulties of seeing, it is a surprise to find this simple declaration here.
- 'My thoughts are of the lonely kind' compare Ray Charles (Gary Brooker's original vocal hero): 'I'll live in memories of the lonesome kind' (from I Can't Stop Loving You). A sense of personal loss pervades this song, though it is not clear quite how this relates to the gambling images and the subsequent court hearing. 'My thoughts are of the lonely time' has been noted as a variant in concert.
- 'Such a game of high stakes': much gambling imagery is found on The Prodigal Stranger (for instance 'Ev'ry day's a game of chance' from All Our Dreams Are Sold) though there are earlier references to this idea too: 'All of it had been a game' (The Idol).
- 'We gambled and then we lost': calls to mind the 'dissipating fortunes' at the gambling stake in Grand Hotel, though the moody music and the later references to 'judgment' suggest that this 'gambling' is on a much more serious footing. Images of dicing for one's life are not uncommon in literature and art from Chaucer onward, when the game of 'hazard' was equated by the church with much more serious sins. 'Faîtes vos jeux' occurs in Reid's Ghost Train lyric, whose finely-matched verses draw a parallel between 'innocent' recreation and mortality, and in this connection it's worth remembering that 'judgment' has an apocalyptic meaning, as in 'Day of Judgment'. 'You've gambled and your chance was lost' occurs in the heavily-judgmental The Piper's Tune.
- 'We were fools to believe': the word 'fool' is often used in Procol Harum songs, and often, though not always, in a self-castigating sense: contributing 'themselves and also any fool' (Homburg); 'like a fool I believed myself ' (She Wandered Through The Garden Fence); 'some think that I'm a fool' and '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' etc (Fool's Gold); 'not fooling anyone' (Taking The Time); '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).
- 'That we could beat the odds': to beat the odds is to triumph by chance against the statistical chance: an existential rashness in the song that is harshly trumped by the defeatist refrain.
- 'But the story always ends the same': Reid often uses 'story' to allude to his song narratives (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, among others) but in conversation 'story' can be derogatory, meaning 'spiel' or 'rigmarole'.
- 'You can't turn back the page' and 'you can't turn back the hands of time': these are more literary equivalents to the commonplace metaphor 'you can't turn back the clock', referring to the irreversibility of time: in Homburg the hands do 'both turn backwards'; in PPP ('watch the book, the page is turning'). Conversely Reid's John Farnham idealistic hit, You're the Voice, begins, 'We have the chance to turn the pages over.' Frans Steensma asked Brooker and Reid (Utrecht, 13 February 1992) if they would have done it another way, if they could have turned back the page? "The thing is you can't turn back the page," Gary replied. "I can't even think about what would I have done had I another choice, 'cause I haven't got another choice." Matthew concurred: "Well obviously if you did have a chance to do it again it would be stupid to do the same thing …so you try it some other way, but, as Gary said, you don't get a second chance." [It is not relevant that to 'turn back the page' is a slovenly alternative to using a book-mark to keep one's place in a text.]
- (You Can’t) Turn Back The Page was released as a 5" CD single in Germany (BMG/Zoo PD 49092). The other two tracks on this single were One More Time and Perpetual Motion, all three being album versions. The cover showed a hitherto unfamiliar variant (part of the head) of the man + shadow + umbrella photo emblem. The exact release date is not clear: PD 49092 numerically precedes the German The Truth Won’t Fade Away (numbered PD 49160), but as The Truth Won’t Fade Away was released in October 1991, and the album in September 1991, it's hard to see how (You Can’t) Turn Back The Page can have come out before them. "A small mystery to me," says Frans Steensma.
- 'Trying to relive every moment as it came': this desperate attempt to freeze and apprehend past happiness is related to images of 'sand slipping fast' elsewhere on the album. There is a lot of 'trying' in the Procol world: think of 'trying to find some kinda romance' (Lime Street Blues); 'I tried to stretch out in it' (Something Following Me); 'Phallus Phil tries peddling' (Cerdes (Outside The Gates Of) ); 'to try to throw some light' (Salad Days (Are Here Again)); 'trying to intercept my dreams' and 'I tried to rob a bank' (Seem To Have The Blues Most All The Time); 'what I'm trying to say' (Rambling On); 'I tried to hide inside myself' (Magdalene (My Regal Zonophone)); 'trying to swivel right out of there' (Long Gone Geek); 'trying to sell you cheese' (The Devil Came From Kansas); 'on its tide I tried to hide' (Crucifiction Lane); 'trying to find the words' (Pilgrims Progress); 'trying not to fall' (Barnyard Story); 'try to gauge' (Luskus Delph); 'Tried to keep it confidential' (A Souvenir of London); 'They tried in vain to bring him round' (For Liquorice John); 'trying hard to win', and 'trying hard to force the pace' (Fool's Gold); 'trying to act the hero's part', 'trying to make a name', 'trying not to freeze' (Taking The Time); 'Tried to understand her' (The King of Hearts); 'Try to find a diff'rent way' (All Our Dreams Are Sold); 'eagles only dare to try' (Learn to fly).
- 'I try and get you off my mind, but still ... it hounds me, if I could see you one more time': these are the lines that seem to hold the most inklings of regret for a lost friend, while 'hounds' in particular has a force significant of crisis.
- 'One more time': these words also supply the title and refrain of the next song on the album.
- 'In a moment of madness': this important line, borrowed from The Mark of the Claw, was double tracked by Brooker on the Symphonic recording. It calls to mind the euphemistic verdict customarily returned that suicides died 'while the balance of the mind was disturbed': this suggests that their lives were not self-ended deliberately, and consequently allows them to be buried in consecrated ground.
- 'We gambled': the narrative doesn't make it clear who 'we' are, but presumably it is the first person 'me' and the 'you' whom the singer wishes to see again.
- 'Now we live in the shadows': ties in with the repeated references to 'the night' in the song; conversely 'light' is generally equated with truth and divine benevolence, from which the events of the song seem to have banished the ambiguous 'we'.
- 'And pay the cost': the common phrases would be 'pay the price' or 'count the cost': in conflating them Reid brings to mind the way an unsuccessful plaintiff in a court case might be obliged to pay the costs of the case. A simliar phrase occurs in 'now you'll have to pay the cost' from The Piper's Tune; 'There's no one here to count the cost' comes in Robert's Box.
- Regarding the shift of metre in the bridge section, BtP correspondent Robert Barnes notes
a kinship with 'the following chorus lines from
Handel's oratorio Susanna ... "The cause is decided, the sentence decreed / Susanna is guilty,
Susanna must bleed."'
- 'The judgement's been set': the religious and legal overtones are obvious, but 'Judgment' is the name of a tarot card. Here the imagery relates closely to that of The Mark of the Claw. Once again, if we choose to pursue a judicial interpretation, the nature of the transgression is unspecific, unless it relates to the gambling losses (whether financial or spiritual) previously mentioned.
- 'The jury retired': a jury 'retires' from the chamber to weigh and reflect on evidence before coming to a verdict. 'plea was denied': the same phrase occurs in the Trower / Reid song Little Boy Lost on the same Trower / Bruce album that features Gone too Far, many of whose words are recycled as Into the Flood. Here the overlap is small but still significant, as is the fact that the other song presents a rationale of sorts: 'judgment came down on the opposite side' for the little boy who's 'been found with your hand in the till'
- In this nightmarish case, however, as soon as the jury retires we learn that 'The court's now in recess' and that the 'plea's been denied' … such is the implacability of this court that neither judge nor jury appears to be involved in the denial of the plea, which is perhaps why it is hollered in such Godlike stentorian tones on the
Symphonic record. The ensuing iterations of 'You can't turn back the page' seem to long for a time before the hearing, and before the offence, yet the nature of both remains inscrutable: Kafka would be proud.
Thanks to Frans Steensma for additional information about this song