'Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes'
The King of Hearts
Like several other slow songs on the Prodigal Stranger album this lovelorn ballad begins with piano and percussion; guitar and organ then compile a wistful collage in the key of F minor. Despite the mildly exotic percussion, and the unexpected nylon-strung guitar fill-ins, the verse is built on classic 'Procolian' chord-progression, stepping in churchy fashion up the fourths, avoiding a dominant. The chorus stirringly moves up into the subdominant key for a while; its nine-bar phrase took some getting used to, though the extra bar devoted to emphasising the important word 'king' would not raise an eyebrow in folk music.
Though it lacks the signature melody of A Whiter Shade of Pale the song does mimic the structure of that great single in terms of the placement of its instrumental, verse and chorus sections, and in the way the Hammond decorates the verses with a linear counterpoint, broadening to a Leslie chorus for the refrains; of course the words directly hark back to AWSoP in several ways as well. The squealing, electric guitar is perhaps reminiscent of the doodling on the orchestral Walpurgis, or the snatched outburst at the end of Crucifiction Lane. The scalar episode before the final chorus, and the highly ornamented wind-down of the organ at the end, represent the side of Matthew Fisher's work that nostalgic fans most hanker to hear.
The King of Hearts was performed regularly in on 1991–92 promotional tours for The Prodigal Stranger album, but much less frequently thereafter; it surfaced occasionally in 1993 and on the last date of 1995's outings [Clacton-on-Sea] but seemingly not since, which is a shame since many Procoholics think it works better live than in the studio. It has been introduced by Gary Brooker as 'a tale about a Spanish lady', a remark no doubt inspired by the neo-Hispanic acoustic guitar stylings on the record: but there is nothing very Hispanic about the fundamentals of the music, nor about the words. It's a song that would seem to invite cover versions, though it would oblige the singer to present himself in the light of a victim; blues-singers would have no trouble with that but they seldom have the range or the control of a Brooker.
- 'There was trouble in the air / Just a subtle hint of danger': the trouble/subtle internal half-rhyme is unusual, and appealing. The 'just a subtle hint of …' is borrowed from the language of scent-advertising.
- 'And a woman dressed in black': the long tall woman in a black dress is something of a rock cliché, but here the sombre attire is associated with her choice of playing card, and with her witch-like powers. She seems to be a close kinswoman to Dylan's Sweet Melinda in Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues who is 'the goddess of gloom … invites you up into her room'. The fact that Melinda 'leaves you howling at the moon' (cf The Pursuit of Happiness) provides an additional Reid / Dylan link, if such a thing were needed.
- 'Out looking for a stranger': strangeness is a key concept in Keith Reid's work: 'Grief and laughter, strange but true' (Quite Rightly So); 'a strange disguise' (Glimpses of Nirvana); 'in case of passing strangers' (Crucifiction Lane); 'a dream, as strange as could be' and 'the stranger and me' (Dead Man's Dream); 'I was the stranger' (Skating on Thin Ice) and 'strangely repeated' (Strangers In Space); 'I'm the prodigal stranger' (Man with a mission) … to say nothing of the images of exile and removal that pervade his oeuvre.
- 'She promised me the moon': she falsely offered the unattainable; 'moon' is often associated with womanhood (Diana, goddess of the moon, was also goddess of chastity and of the hunt: all of these characteristics would seem to overlap to some degree with the woman / enchantress in this encounter)
- 'King of Hearts' does not seem to have any common referent outside card-games, although there are many songs called King of something [Pain, the Road ...]. When playing cards are used for fortune-telling, however, Ace of Spades denotes 'an impending blow' when pointed down and 'serious trouble' the other way, while King of Hearts represents a man in whom the enquirer has invested her future romantic hopes (King of Diamonds is a 'ladies' man', the King of Clubs 'a married person' and so on). 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); 'save the world and be the king' (Fool's Gold); 'I'll be king of the stage' (Without A Doubt); 'King of the fools' (Skating on Thin Ice) and 'In the king's apartment' (All Our Dreams Are Sold).
- 'Put my cards out on the table': a common parlance for 'showed all that I had to offer' (as opposed to concealing the contents of a hand of cards). The song takes the imagery of the card-table and uses deft verbal allusions to broaden its scope. The prime precedent card-related song is Lily Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts by Bob Dylan [a fellow Jewish writer whose like predilection for 'strangers' is often thought to reflect racial dislocatedness]. Bob Marley's Is This Love also uses the phrase 'lay my cards on the table'.
- 'But she laid the Ace of Spades': 'lay' was avoided earlier in the song ('put' my cards out) but now it's plainly stated, and the sexual overtone is compounded by the fact that 'Ace of Spades' is 20th-century black slang for the pudendum. More conventionally the 'Ace of Spades' is the highest-valued card in the pack, laid by the predatorily sexual 'woman dressed in black' to trump the stranger's 'King of Hearts'. It seals the narrator's fate in this song but it is also used to symbolise danger [as in Motorhead's 1980 hit, Ace of Spades ... presumably a paean to the ingestion of speed] which the moody, dramatic musical arrangement underlines. 'Black as the ace of spades' is a common parlance.
- 'I wound up where I started': 'wound up' not only suggests the end of a tortuous journey, but also indicates tension. In a sense the singer does end up exactly where Procol Harum started, quoting from A Whiter Shade of Pale.
- 'King of the broken-hearted' is a play on words seemingly without precedent. Reid earlier makes 'king' references both high and low in Fool's Gold and Skating on Thin Ice ['King of the Fools'] and there is a later king in All Our Dreams are Sold: none is literal in a monarchical sense. Reid said in 1991 that the line about no longer being The King Of Hearts, but the King Of The Broken-hearted, 'took him on a little voyage. A voyage to the past. That explains the A Whiter Shade of Pale references.'
- 'She cut the deck': she split the deck of cards at an apparently random place … a device much-abused by card-tricksters.
- 'By the light of thirteen candles': 'thirteen' is doubtless chosen for the 'bad luck' connotations of the number. Some listeners will connect this with the desperate gambling scene in Chapter 8 of Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native which (after a death's head hawk-moth has extinguished the candle) is pursued by the light of thirteen glow-worms: the best of Reid seems to share something of the heavy, doomladen quality of Hardy's language and narratives. Here the temptress's supernatural qualities are perhaps indicated by her use of candles, points of light to focus the psychic energies. Candles occur from time to time in Reid, literally in 'It's candlelight and chandelier' (Grand Hotel) and perhaps more metaphorically in 'search in vain by candlelight' (Shine on Brightly) and 'No candle burned with fire enough to tear that city down' and 'Light a candle up in kingdom come' (About to Die).
- 'the winner takes it all': a common parlance not confined to card games. This continues the gambling / love analogy hinted at in A Whiter Shade of Pale, Grand Hotel and Perpetual Motion, though little actual story is involved other than that the woman involved is playing an 'ultimatum game': the winner takes 'all', possibly the man's very soul [The Winner Takes It All was a 1981 chart-topper for Abba, which also refers to the Gods toying with the lovers … as does Perpetual Motion].
- 'I wandered through my playing-cards' ... this line from A Whiter Shade of Pale must be the most conspicuous internal borrowing in the Procol canon. 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, and 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. I’ve got the feeling if he hadn’t written them before, they would have been in there anyway, almost.'
- 'Tried to understand her': the narrator's incomprehension of the woman is a crucial element in the tale. 'Wandered through my playing cards ... understand her' may imply a divinatory use of the cards to foretell the conduct and role of the woman. Reid offers few narratives of man/woman encounters, and those he does are not often straightforward (think of Mabel, She Wandered Through the Garden Fence ...) 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); 'try and get you off my mind' and 'Trying to relive ev'ry moment' ((You can't) turn back the page); 'Try to find a diff'rent way' (All Our Dreams Are Sold); 'eagles only dare to try' (Learn to fly)
- 'I was looking for a face, it was right there in my hand': to 'face' is Irish 1920s slang meaning 'to court a woman', and the face that he finds is of course that of a woman on a 'court card' in his 'hand' (of cards) … the assimilation of characters' faces with playing-card faces owes something to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. There's also an echo here of 'face in my hands', a posture of miserable – perhaps broken-hearted – resignation.
Thanks to Frans Steensma for additional information about this song