'Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes'
This imposing song begins with an uncharacteristic Procol prelude, whose powerful octaves achieve a bombastic overkill rather than the intimations of grandeur they were perhaps striving for. The slightly distorted introduction sounds like a pastiche of Hollywood-style Entry of the Gladiators music from some toga epic, suggesting a contest between opposing forces. The up-front song- and album-title (one of several Procol songs named with the words 'Something' and 'Nothing') ushers in a suite of numbers loosely touching on esoteric matters [TWatT draws on Kabbalistic lore and vegetation resurrection myths], perhaps surprisingly making this the nearest Procol Harum got to a true concept album. From the imagery of this opening song, one has little reason to suppose that the magic the album deals with is of the white, virtuous variety.
There is something alarming about the non-diatonic relations of the chords that compose the opening, and the harmonic leap between the first and second statements of the theme is the augmented fourth or tritone, conventionally shunned as being the ugliest interval in the scale, and dubbed diabolus in musica. The two statements of the theme, unsettling in itself, are unsettlingly slightly different, and prefigure an uneasy harmonic ride: uniquely in Procoldom, every verse of this song is in a different key. Perhaps the open fifths were intended to supply an oriental effect, perhaps tallying with the slogan in some of the album publicity which invited us to 'open the gateless gate of Zen'?
Barrie Wilson's impressive drum punctuations give way to a C minor piano-figure that may have been the original seed of the song: this seed, however, is truly pianistic in its scope and idiom, and is no mere tempo-indicator such as the piano lead-ins to many of the songs, on the Grand Hotel album for instance. With its halting rhythm and ever-shifting harmonies, stepping up, stepping backwards, Something Magic works hard to keep us guessing; piano, bass and drums drive it along, but also interpolate onomatopoeic emblems (the ticking clock, the heart-beat, the little larky tra-la-la), that symbolise to a more or less literal degree the developing imagery of Reid's text. Organ provides a churchy wash; glittering synths decorate the dark backdrop with a falling pattern; guitar is reduced to a subtle accompanying role, clipping the offbeats and making dam-about-to burst noises.
A lavish orchestration by jobbing Miami arranger Mike Lewis, conductor of the session, uses a brass section on loan from the Sunshine Band, and also illustrates the words in filmic fashion, with elaborate skittering pizzicati for the demons of the night, and suitably expansive swirlings for the ends of verses (where the boldly-recorded bass guitar – the first we had heard of the excellent Chris Copping in this role since the Broken Barricades album – drops by a very prominent tritone again, just before 'the centre of the storm' passim).
Brooker well knows how to heighten musical tension with transpositions: the classic case must be the way verse two of Grand Hotel appears freshly, in a key apparently higher than verse one's, though that is an illusion caused by harmonic meanderings within the verses themselves. In Something Magic, however, the verses stay true to one key internally, but each is a semitone higher than the last; additional sonic elaboration distinguishes each successive verse, not least the ever-more densely layered Brooker harmony vocal. The mildly grotesque middle section – maybe introduced with an eye to another Pandora-like hit? – gives reign to the woodwinds and some quietly stratospheric trumpeting, but artful orchestration cannot disguise the fact that this new material – its tune taken by the piano when the song was road-tested before the recording sessions – is again unrelated to the verses or to the prelude. In that respect the song is like Robert's Box, a repository for heterogeneous musical ideas. The arrangement of the song, as well as the harmonic content, is about as stuffed with detail as one could reasonably imagine: the running line of quavers at the end of each verse is a particular Procol signature (perhaps originating in the turnback between sections of the Simple Sister middle episode) but other aspects seem to be freshly minted for this song which - like the opener of the previous album - seems to have had by far the most care lavished on it of the whole set. It seemed to acquire a new sheen of echo on the 'remastered' CD release; Gary Brooker recommended A / B comparison of vinyl and CD versions, in conversation with BtP (here).
Something Magic/Fools Gold (Chrysalis 11604) was released as a picture-sleeve single in the Netherlands (March 1977): significantly, the local Chrysalis picked a song from Procol's Ninth for the B side. The edited image from the album sleeve does indeed depict a magical event, impossible to achieve in real life without suspending the laws of nature; but interestingly the full sleeve, which depicts one song (Musical Fish) that never made the cut and possibly others that we know nothing of at all, shows the band as relatively-uninvolved spectators as the decapitated woman placidly confronts them and the flying fish (not out of water) sails by in its anti-gravity bowl. Themes of 'going against nature' will surface in many, if not all, of the songs on the album.
Something Magic was heard on stage before the band went to Miami to record it; most of its features were in place, though the vocal melody was not wholly evolved. The spooky string parts, to be realized by Mike Lewis, were already in Gary Brooker's mind (mp3 here) though the 'clock' effect was played by the pianist, not the drummer; Claes Johansen's Procol biography reports that the song was still faintly chaotic when the band played it though for the Albert Brothers: it came a long way subsequently. It was justly selected to be the album's title-track. "Something Magic I always thought was a really good song," said author Keith Reid in a Danish interview (2 February 1984); he later selected the words for his My Own Choice.
Something Magic was performed almost continually during the album promotion tour, with much synth-elaboration, even on occasions with a different prelude, adapting Purcell's Funeral Music for Queen Mary; it has not been played live since.
- 'The centre of the storm': the usual phrase, 'the eye of the storm', refers to the paradoxically-still heart of a tornado. The substitution here of 'centre', in conjunction with 'apart' two lines on, will remind many readers of 'things fall apart, the centre cannot hold' in The Second Coming by WB Yeats, a short poem whose dense imagery [encompassing birds, drowning, shadows, darkness, nightmare, and the imminent birth of something alarming and remarkable] overlaps rather interestingly with Reid's song. The music 'It's the centre of the storm' is set are, of course, the opening four notes (even in the same key) of Repent Walpurgis, except that each is repeated: this Gothic quotation may contribute something to the darkness of the song!
- 'The world is torn apart': a storm in the weather can tear apart aspects of the physical world, but the intimacy of the succeeding line suggests that the 'world' here is a personal one, as in 'my world fell apart'.
- 'When the world is torn apart by the beating of a heart': the heart-beat that can tear a world relates to 'something magic being born', either metaphorically at the conception of a new life, or else at the moment when the mother (or the ultrasound scanner) first detects the infant heart-beat. But there are also echoes of the destructive power of EA Poe's The Telltale Heart in which the victim's heart, continuing to beat under the floor, betrays the killer. There are other 'heart' references in Too Much Between Us, Nothing that I Didn't Know, Toujours L'amour, Nothing But the Truth, Fresh Fruit, Fool's Gold and The King of Hearts, none of them very positive: this album's Wizard Man of course has 'an angel's heart' among his uncivilised accoutrements. The Something Magic press kit referred to the album in terms of 'music for the soul of Edgar Allen Poe to wander to'. Very few Reid songs use the word 'magic' (Robert's Box, Pandora's Box, Wizard Man)
- 'Like a dam about to burst': when something is 'being born' the child's arrival is preceded by 'the breaking of the waters', the bursting of the fluid-filled amniotic sac, which encloses it. 'Dam' is neatly punned here: it's the word for a river-barrier but also means 'mother' (usually of an animal). In view of the imagery of fresh life in this verse, it may be worth noting other animal-puns, 'heart / hart' and 'night-mare'. The 'dam about to burst' brings to mind the flooded land in Broken Barricades in which 'dead daughters', nothing magic, are the outcome. Bizarrely enough the word is spelt 'damn' on the Something Magic page of Keith Reid's My Own Choice. Unusually for a Procol song, this song is heavily sustained by overt simile: elsewhere we tend to find this in the middle of songs (Nothing but the Truth) or in a chorus only (As Strong as Samson) or merely sporadically The Milk of Human Kindness).
- 'Like a drunkard's crazy thirst': to pursue the child-bearing theme, it's during breast-feeding that the mother feels the craziest thirst, and that the baby guzzles with the craziest abandon. This theme is explored with horrified relish in Bringing Home the Bacon; it seems unlikely to be part of the primary meaning here.
- 'In the dark hours of the soul:' Dark Night of the Soul is the treatise by mystic, Juan de la Cruz (1542-91), who may have acquired the phrase from Garcilasco. It refers to the transitional low in consciousness-elevation: a period of self-doubt following initial illumination and preceding full enlightenment. In Wax Paper (25 February 1977) Keith Reid explained, 'The hours between 3 and 5 am are traditionally the time when humans reach their low point. I understand that most people who die in their sleep die between 3 and 5.' The ensuing verse takes great pains to depict the darkness of the night, and calls to mind the famous opening of Glimpses of Nirvana, and the gloomy bedroom setting of Salad Days (Are Here Again). Other references to darkness in Procol songs are legion: 'In the dark I grope' (Kaleidoscope); 'darkness is no reason' (In The Wee Small Hours Of Sixpence); 'the nights are now much darker' (In the Autumn of My Madness); 'There's a dark cloud just above us' (The Devil Came From Kansas); 'In darkness through my being here' (All This And More); 'everywhere light, yet darkness engulfed me' and 'It was dark in the death-room' (Dead Man's Dream); 'down dark alleys sailors crept' and 'Darkness struck with molten fury' (Whaling Stories); 'We lie in darkest night' (Nothing But the Truth); 'Who will live in darkest night' (Beyond The Pale); 'When you're out in the dark' and 'Slipping down on the darkest side' (The hand that rocks the cradle); 'you won't find favour on the dark end of the street' (the unpublished Last Train to Niagara); incidentally, major Harum-fan Douglas Adams entitled his second (1988) Dirk Gently adventure The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul, neatly adducing a Procol title-element to that of Juan de la Cruz's treatise.
- 'Nightmares take their toll': the song portrays a world where heart-beats can do mortal damage, and nightmares take their toll. 'Toll' has the additional meaning of 'sonorous chime on a bell' and this – along with the ticking clock – is part of the means by which the midnight atmosphere of the verse is established.
- 'Shadows come to mock': ordinary shadows cannot come without light, and the verse paints a very careful picture of darkness. This word must therefore be understood in its meaning of 'shade', meaning the ghosts or souls of the departed. Classical mythology supplies a likely identity for this nocturnal visitor in Nyx, the personification of darkness, who emerges from Tartarus at the end of every evening to bring night to the cosmos. Nyx is the parent of many characters who seem all to have their place in the Procol world: Momos (Blame), Moirae (Fates), Hypnos (Sleep), Oneiros (Dreams), Thanatos (Death), Keres (Doom), Nemesis (Retribution), Oizus (Misery), Hesperides (Daughters of Evening), Apate (Deceit), Geras (Old Age), Eris (Strife), Philotes (Tenderness); they could even be the source of the night terrors described in this song. All these sprang from Nyx alone; but she also mated with her brother Erebus (darkness) to produce Brightness (Aether) and Day (Hemera). Nyx and Erebus were born of Chaos, the primeval void.
- 'Demons of the night': mythology has various daemons, supernatural beings with extraordinary powers ... in European usage they are evil spirits that might be conjured up by a magician to do his bidding. Le Cabinet du Roy de France, an anonymous book published in France in 1581, estimated that there were in existence 7,405,920 demons at the command of 72 princes. Contemporary usage often describes a person having to 'confront demons' when trying to throw off problems with drink, drugs and so forth. The supernatural usage lives in on the game of cricket as the 'demon bowler' who has seemingly supernatural power over his opponents [The Kinks' song, Cricket, invites us to 'beware the demon bowler']. Reid has no shortage of references to night: see 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, and the unpublished songs This Old Dog and I'm a Reader and a Writer.
- 'Like vultures for their bite': vultures do not come to bite the living. Here something is being born, and vultures famously gather over a dying animal; in view of the storm at the start of the words. and the music's thunderous overture, we may be being invited to contemplate the birth of something dead, such as Frankenstein's monster, which was galvanically animated by lightning, some 'rough beast' as Yeats puts it.
- 'It's the dawning of the day': dawn is not only the daily return of light, but a figurative expression for the eventual arrival of understanding. The common expression 'darkest hour before the dawn' implies that the torment is at its worst just before enlightenment occurs, and it may be found, among many other uses, in two Procolesque publications, Fuller's Pisgah Sight (as early as 1650), and the letters of Robert Louis Stevenson (creator of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde).
- 'night-time's panic swept away ': the night is traditionally seen as a time of morally 'dark' happenings, including the practice of magic. Prosaically, experts note that depression is likely to be greater in the night time: equally, poets have noted that the imagination is heightened then by the reduction in visual stimuli. As Shakespeare puts it, 'in the night, imagining some fear, How easy is a bush supposed a bear!' (Midsummer Night's Dream, V i.). 'Panic' might seem an unusual word to find in a popular song, yet it also occurs in The Mark of the Claw, and in the titles of songs by Madder Rose, The Smiths and Be Bop De Luxe.
- 'The clouds which seemed so dark': the Something Magic album sleeve depicts a profusion of thunderously menacing clouds. However clouds are not only a weather phenomenon, but are often related to human emotional life: 'a cloud passed across her face' and so forth. Shakespeare famously introduces the depressive Hamlet via a question put by his murderous step-father in Act I sc ii: 'How is it that the clouds still hang on you?' The 'dark cloud just above us' in The Devil Came from Kansas is probably of this kind too.
- 'exchanged for morning's lark': this 'lark' is another beautifully chosen pun: on the one hand, it is a jolly word for 'fun-and-games' ('"Wot larks, eh Pip old chap!"' is Joe Gargery's catch-phrase in Dickens's Great Expectations); on the other, it is a morning bird, the opposite of 'vulture' in the previous verse – a rare pair of Procol references to specific birds. In English culture the lark is seen as a sign of hope and purity on account of its beautiful morning song, epitomised in such pieces as Vaughan Williams's The Lark Ascending, Flora Thompson's 1945 novel Lark Rise to Candleford and the traditional song, Lark in the Clear Air.
- 'stars which burnt so bright': presumably the intention here is not to emphasise the particular brilliance of the stars but rather the blackness of the night sky against which they were apparent; however this will not square with any literal interpretation of the 'storm' invoked at the opening of the song. When the song was being road-tested before the album was recorded, Gary sang 'shone so bright', but eventually alliteration seems to have triumphed over the wish to echo Shine on Brightly; the melody at this point in the song (mp3 here) also underwent later alteration. 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, Fool's Gold, Something Magic, Holding On. Reid makes even more copious use of the verb 'burn': 'We fired the gun, and burnt the mast' (A Salty Dog); 'Burnt by fire' (The Wreck Of The Hesperus); 'The harbour lights are burning bright' (All This And More); 'Ain't gonna burn up no more flame' etc (Whisky Train); 'burn out her eyes' (Still There'll Be More); 'A candle burning bright enough to tear the city down' etc (About to Die); 'Have to burn her toys' (Simple Sister); 'Burn me up sweet oyster girl' (Luskus Delph); 'Falling over burning chairs' and 'Spark plugs burned up, power's fused' (Power Failure); 'Steal his books, burn his prayers' (Poor Mohammed); 'I'll burn down the town' (A Rum Tale); 'Fires which burnt brightly' (Fires (Which Burnt Brightly)); 'We're burning in the furnaces' (Butterfly Boys); 'He hacked it to pieces and burnt it to dust' (The Worm and The Tree); 'On these burning sands' (Holding on); 'I'll burn down the house' (Man with a mission).
- 'Night-time's panic swept away': interestingly this song follows the general scheme of The Worm and the Tree in which a gruesome episode is followed by tranquillity: in this respect it differs markedly with The Mark of the Claw in which the agent of darkness eludes capture. In the present song, however, no agent of change is apparent: the unusual and passive formulation 'are exchanged' is used twice, pointedly evading any consideration of the cause of the change. This seems likely, however, to be the human imagination, since we have learned that the clouds 'seemed' dark, and that in fact it is only the 'panic' of the night that has been swept away, not necessarily the cause of the panic.
Thanks to Frans Steensma for additional information about this song