Procol Harum

the Pale

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BtP in conversation with Keith Reid, 2003

The Well's on Fire ... plus!

This telephone conversation took place on 18 February 2003, and in it Keith Reid talks about his new work on The Well's on Fire as well as many other matters of interest ... and he concludes with his estimation of Lost in the Looking-Glass by the Palers' Project.

Because Keith measures his words carefully, the transcript may occasionally seem clipped or terse; but in fact he was in amiable good spirits, and generous with his time.

Roland from 'Beyond the Pale'
Good evening again, Keith. I was hoping you could say something about the songs on the new album. But I notice that people over the years always seem to ask you, 'Where do your ideas come from?' and I don't want to ask you that one!

Keith Reid
I'll do what I can, but I do want people to sort of discover them for themselves, if you know what I mean.

Well as you know I'm a teacher of English and I come to your new words with the same fascination I've always had ... I mean, it might even be because of your words that I've ended up as a teacher of English.

Oh, dear! (laughs)

So without talking through all the songs, could you say how you feel your work has changed since the end of, shall we say, Something Magic?

God, since the end of Something Magic?

Well, what fans call 'The Old Testament'. The Old Testament Reid is quite an angry, maybe quite a mournful writer, but we got some much more upbeat stuff on the last two albums.


I have no idea. It's very hard for me to know. You don't really examine how ... it's just something that happens naturally. Speaking for myself, I didn't make any conscious decision to change my style. It's just something that happens.

Presumably if you write honestly, then what you write depends on what's happening to you.

Well this is it.

I mean, you're living in the USA now

That's right, and you're very much influenced, you know, by your surroundings, by what's going on in the world at the time ... what's going on in your own particular world ... it's very much a case of my writing as a response to what's going on around me.

You sound like a more contented bloke, personally, in these songs, but a much more angry man about the outer world.

Right! Well, as I say, that may be ... yes, I don't know.

I saw the same thing that you picked up in The Guardian, in September, the words of Stephen Maboe. Will he ever hear that? Have you found any way of getting that song to him?

Mmn, I suppose I could. It crossed my mind, it did cross my mind that I could maybe send a copy of it to the guy that wrote the article. It's interesting. It crossed my mind, I might do that.

That's one of the most harrowing moments on the album, 'We don't even own the ditch where we're dying'


Pretty direct.

Good! Well, I'm trying to be.

How do you feel about that song in comparison to Blink of an Eye?

Well they're very different, because one song is really me trying to put myself in the head of ... identifying with a particular person ... trying to tell their story ... and the other one, Blink of an Eye, is more me responding to the events. And also to a lot of people around me, you know, who went through that experience. This World is Rich is one person's response, whereas you know Blink of an Eye is more of a collective response to a situation.

What is the mood like, in your part of Manhattan? Is the rug really pulled out from under people's feet still?

Um, yes, I would say so, I mean one of the most interesting things was to see how it affected different people, and to see how different people coped. You know I live in an apartment building ... how different people on different floors of the building reacted. Very interesting responses.

Did you write it shortly after the business?

No, I wrote it ... let's see ... I wrote it in about June of last year, more than six months later, about eight months later. I think the thing is, it takes a while: things trickle down. It takes a while for you to know how you really feel about things.

It's very committedly neutral about the causes ... 'a big black bird flew down' ... you're not pointing the finger there!

Yes, well! It's a way of looking at it (laughs)

I'd see that in relation to Holding On or maybe As Strong as Samson from the Old Testament, where you really did seem to be looking outwards from the Procol Harum world. But it's hard to trace the roots of some of the other new songs back to that time. Every Dog Will have His Day ... there's nothing as overtly funny as that on the earlier albums

Well I must be making some progress, then! (laughs uproariously)

Do you actually own a dog?

I have owned dogs, but I don't own one at the moment.

And is it anatomically true that puppies chew their balls off?

All dogs chew their balls.

Not right off!

I didn't say it chewed its balls off ...

Well I haven't got the lyric booklet yet ...

No it doesn't ... it just chews its balls, doesn't chew 'em off.

I must have misunderstood what Gary was singing.

No it just chews its balls, as all dogs do.

Fair enough. Were you there when it was being recorded?


This marks a bit of shift from the way it's been in the past?


And a shift you're happy with, presumably?

Well yes. I don't really understand your question ...

People thought in the past ... there was always this thing in the Press that you had to justify why you were there, and yet it seemed blindingly obvious to the proper fans why you were there ... you were half the main thing.


And now there seems to be a Procol Harum existing without Keith Reid being there at the gigs. I don't know when you last saw the band play?

Um ... can't remember ... can't remember. Well you see it's difficult now because you know, I'm often not in the same country.

Do you reckon you'll be at any of the forthcoming European gigs?

Possibly ... it just depends where I am.

What can I say? A lot of people would like to buy you a drink!

In that case I shall try to attend as many gigs as I possibly can!

Come to the Lewisham one ... we've got a fans only ... and band-only ... bar there, and a lot of people would like to shake your hand ...

All right, I'll travel a long way for a free drink (laughs!)

Please do. I guarantee you a brandy at least.

What about ... Old English Dream is an interesting song ... it seems to have a lot in common with that WH Auden poem, Refugee Blues.

Yes, that's right. What happened with that is, funnily enough, ages ago ... because that lyric was written quite some time ago ... ages ago somebody told me that my writing reminded me of WH Auden, which I was very intrigued about. So I had a look at some of his stuff, and in doing so I just picked up on this particular poem of his, and just decided to quote a bit from him, and take it a bit further, take it somewhere else.

Which it does do. Would you call that an adaptation, or an improvisation on it, or what?

I don't know what I'd call it.

I haven't seen the lyric-sheet, but does Auden get a mention?

Unfortunately I wasn't asked to contribute to the liner notes.

Of course Stephen Maboe is in the title of This World is Rich.

Well that was different ...

You couldn't call it An Old English Dream (for W H Auden)!

No, different thing entirely! I didn't write it for WH Auden.

Somebody's recently pointed out some supposed similarities between your work and WH Davies, who wrote something that is reminiscent of A Dream in Ev'ry Home.

I've no idea who WH Davies is. A Dream in Ev'ry Home ... I'm just trying to think about that song ... I had something in my mind about 'The Bride Stripped Bare'.

The Duchamp picture.

Yeah. But there's ... isn't there a painting called 'In Every Home a Dream House'?

There's a Roxy Music song based on that title ... [In Every Dream Home a Heartache, inspired by a Richard Hamilton collage entitled, "Just What is it that Makes Today’s Home So Different, So Appealing?"]

'In Every Home a Dream House' ... it's the title of a picture by a modern artist .. it's the title of a picture, anyway.

I'll check that out. It's one of the nicest things about Procol Harum, how they've always been Post-Modern, bits of this, bits of that cropping up everywhere.


On that lovely adaptation of the Handel Aria, did the music come first?


How can I tell? Because you've got a three line ... a triplet in there, which suits the music, and I can't think of many places [except Wreck of the Hesperus, Your Own Choice ??] in your work where you have three lines as a unit. I think you've said that you find it hard going, putting words to finished music?

Yes, well it's something that I've learnt to do, something that I used not to like to do, but over the years I've developed some kind of ... sometimes it's quite an interesting thing to do, because it pushes you in directions you wouldn't normally go in.

Are you satisfied with that song?

Yes, I love it. Think it's great.

And have you got any other favourites on the album?

Well, basically I pretty much like all of it. I think ... I like Every Dog Will Have His Day ... that's my favourite.

And that quotes from Shakespeare.

Does it really? (laughs!) You know a lot more about this stuff than I do!!

That's Hamlet, isn't it after Ophelia's funeral and he's been fighting her brother in her grave ... he says

'Let Hercules himself do what he may,
The cat will mew and dog will have his day.'

Really! (incredulous) Well you see, this is the trouble ... you know a lot more things than I do.

Sure I don't ... but the way I see it, that phrase gets into the language, and you pick it up out of common parlance, and we're all listening thinking 'Reidy's quoting Shakespeare again' ... like the phrase Milk of Human Kindness which comes eventually from Macbeth ... interesting the route the words take from the plays into your songs.


I'd like to ask you roughly when these songs were written. We know a Robe of Silk goes back a long way


And So Far Behind ... I heard you play that in 1975

It's much earlier than that; I think that's one of our earliest songs.

Nice that it's come out at last.

Yes! Well it turned out ... well I think Gary has the idea of trying a couple of these old things and seeing how they worked out, and it came together really well.

As far as I'm aware there's really quite a lot of Brooker / Reid songs from the Old Testament that still haven't been recorded ... things we heard you play on stage. Is it true that the original idea, when you approached Eagle, had been to do an album as it were resurrecting some of those 'lost' songs?

I think that was Gary's idea, but it wasn't something I was very enthusiastic about. I was much more enthusiastic about doing new songs.

So you don't foresee Last Train to Niagara getting recorded.

Doubt it (chuckles). But who knows, anything's possible.

I think Robe of Silk is one of the songs that will sell this album to the diehards.


It's got legendary status really ... people heard it at the Felt Forum or wherever in 1973.

Oh God.

And never heard it since. They called out for it at Redhill at that reunion, and Gary and Matthew immediately started to play it, then immediately stopped ...


A very annoying moment! You say Old English Dream was written a while ago. Was that before this album was in mind?

Oh yes, yes. It was written quite a while ago.

Do you know if the music was written afresh, or just the words?

I don't know. I just wrote the words.

This World is Rich must have been written very close before the album was recorded? It was early September that I saw that [interview with Stephen Maboe] in the paper.

Yes, actually I think what happened was that I saw that in the paper and it struck a very strong chord with me, and I think it was shortly after that that I went down and spent a day with Gary, and he had some chords and he was playing around with them, and I said 'Well I think I've got something that will fit with that.' So, yes, you're right.

So was that one actually written with the two men in one room?

No, the words were totally written, I'd written the words. He had the little chord thing that he was playing around with, and I said 'I think I've got something that will work with that.' So that's as close to ...

Well he's on top form with those chords ... it's so haunting.

Yes, beautiful.

Can I ask you a technical question? In The Emperor's New Clothes, which is another of Gary's classic tunes, you've got places where you aren't rhyming at all.

Have I ?

Haven't you?

I don't think so.

Well maybe I'm hearing it wrong again. I'm hearing

They promise the moon and they squander the earth
The only person you fool is ...


Well ...

There's a word for that, surely .

Half rhyme? I wonder if you see that as the way you're going, maybe, away from the Tin Pan Alley moony Juney sort of rhyme ...

It's just whatever works at the time ... I don't always consciously try and rhyme ... I don't try and rhyme exactly.

Normally you have the vowel sound very close, or similar.

(Laughs) You've studied my work a lot more closely than I have!

I don't know if you ever get to see 'Beyond the Pale' but Sam Cameron and I have written up quite a lot of the songs in quite a lot of detail. Is it peculiar to talk to somebody who's possibly put more thought into your work than you have, or is it gratifying ...

Oh it's gratifying, it's just weird ... well 'weird' isn't the right word but, as I say, you're more conscious of these things than I am, do you know what I mean? I just kind of write them and move on, as it were.

Were all of these written for a Procol Harum project? Maybe you've already sort of answered that in the case of An Old English Dream.

Well the thing was also that ... I mean, that wasn't written for another project ... it was just something that I wrote that I had lying around, as it were. So it wasn't written for something else. It was just something that I wrote because it's something that I do.

I know that from time to time you've used an idea in maybe more than one place.


Some bits of Robin Trower songs also crop up in Procol Harum.

(laughs) Is that right?

Doesn't into the Flood have some words in common with Gone Too Far from one of Robin's albums? And with Tabaluga and the Magic Jadestone, in fact.

(laughs) My God, you know more about my work than I do. Well you know what, sometimes I do that deliberately, because I like to think ... you know painters will sometimes paint the same subject over and over again, will I deliberately revisit things.

We hear you saying 'New lamps for old' on the new album, and quoting from A Whiter Shade of Pale on the previous album.

Yeah, yeah.

This is the Post-Modern thing I was talking about, isn't it?

Yes I often do that deliberately, because I think that ... it's a valid thing to do ... you know when painters paint the same subject over and over again, I sometimes think that's what we do anyway.

From the listener's point of view it does create the idea that we're listening to a body of work.

Yes! And I sometimes do it just because it amuses me.

What it also highlights is that ... when your work seems to have changed quite a lot over the years, is it all one body of work, or is it a divided oeuvre? Do you think people coming to this album afresh will find A Robe of Silk really stands out, because of the really ... the self-consciously poetic style, perhaps a rather naive, pastoral, really English-psychedelic 1968 ...

Yeah, I mean, hopefully they'll find that attractive. I mean that did occur to me, I mean obviously does this really ... I mean I'd never write something like that now ... but anyway, who cares?

Quite! Who did the running-order?

Well we had a few different running-orders so I'm not sure how this one ended up, probably just by general consent.

I wonder whether it's lyrical reasons or musical reasons that dominate when you're putting an album together.

It's never lyrical reasons.

I know Gary likes to have no adjacent songs in the same key.

Right, yeah, it's never lyrical reasons. But it's always a question of 'How does the thing flow?', so it's never a thematic thing, a thought of 'Oh how does that work lyrically?'

So the people who see each album as having a theme, an album about the sea, or death, or whatever, maybe if they knew how the running order was arrived at, they'd think twice about that. Have you thought what the erroneous consensus is going to be about the theme of this album?

I haven't, at all.

There's a couple of songs with wells in them!


And this title, The Well's on Fire, comes from a song that's not yet been finished, is that right?

That's right.

Gary told me you had one over from this session that isn't on the album.

Is that right?

I didn't know if that was this song ...

No no, it wasn't that one.

So are you looking forward to doing another album with Eagle, or does it depend how this one goes?

Well yes, absolutely ... I'm very happy with the way this one turned out.

Well why stop, I'd say. Nobody wants you to! I think we've mentioned every song except for VIP Room and The Question ... very American?

Yes VIP Room, that's a very American attitude, New York type of thing.

Are you reporting an attitude, or are you sending up? Digesting it, simplifying it?

That's a good question. I'm probably reporting it. Yes.

'The Velvet Rope'?

Well, the idea of wanting to be in the VIP Room is a very New York kind of thing.

But isn't it very Reidified ... 'I want to die ...'

(laughs). It just seems to me that's taking it to an extreme conclusion, it's like, you know, wanting to be in the VIP Room at all costs.

Whatever the occasion ... even your own funeral!

Yeah. Going out with a bang.

And Shadow Boxed ... I wonder how easy it'd going to be for Gary to get all those words out in order when he's performing that one. Along with Bringing Home the Bacon that must be the densest thing you've done in terms of piling up the images. It's a style like Man with a Mission, isn't it?

Yes, I suppose it is.

And the thing you wrote which Gary read out at the gig they did at Guildford. A rap-influenced thing ... is that something you're aware of?

Not really, no!

All the internal rhymes ...

I was just having a bit of fun, you know.

Maybe the whole album sounds as though it was done in recreational mode.

Oh good.

Yes when you let out a sudden arrow, it goes right into the heart, I think. Wall Street Blues, very American but not without a certain universality, I suppose?


Makes me think of the Marx brothers ... Groucho losing all his money ... was that 1929?

Did he? Oh my goodness ... well he kept his sense of humour, didn't he? Well, what do you think of the album?

Gary played it to us in the barn at Christmas, and there was a kind of magic about hearing it there ... if you consider that I started following your stuff when I was fourteen ... and suddenly to find yourself in that sanctum ... you don't get an objective view of it! But it all seemed very warm, the sound's beautiful, never heard the Hammond recorded so nicely ... and I was very interested in it lyrically, as I say. First listening, you think Blink of an Eye is a real simplification of a complicated issue ... but you do find yourself singing it in the bath, a week later, and you think it maybe says something terribly tender and simple at the core of it. Maybe to have done anything else with it would have been being clever in a way you wouldn't have wanted.

What do you mean by 'simplification'?

The people who're left 'don't know how to cope'. It doesn't intellectualise, does it? It looks at it very emotionally. 'It was all over in a few seconds flat' ... such a commonplace phrase. But I know you've always done this thing of pulling ideas out of conversation. I suppose I mean it's surprisingly un-grand.

I was just trying to be very direct.

I believe a lot of people have done 9/11 songs, and I guess yours will be one of the most simple ...

I haven't heard too many of them, to be honest. I know that there's a few of them.

I don't suppose many of the writers lived closer to it than you do.

Probably not.

You ask what I think of the album, I thought nobody's going to fault it on resting on its laurels ... and it's moving forward musically, that Fisher instrumental at the end ...

Oh I love that.

I'm looking forward to hearing it all live, really. The record is always a version of the songs at one stage but what I really want is to hear them being crashed out at high volume ... I think that's what it is with the real fans, they want to be in the room with it happening.

There are a lot of people who'd like to hear some more of the 'Lost Songs' recorded. It's heartening that you wanted to do another album. Have you got lots more stuff in the drawer?

Yes, I've got tons of stuff, oh yes. Tons of stuff.

So there's hope.

There's soap? (Laughs)

Hope for more. Are you working with anybody else now?

Not at the moment!

I think when we talked a while ago, you said 'Why don't you find out, it will make your life more interesting'!

Oh, did I?

It's not easy to find these things out. People often write to the website with questions for us. For instance 'Did Keith Reid write the words for Twice Removed from Yesterday?'

No. Did I?

You certainly aren't credited on the record. But if you consider what you write in Last Train to Niagara ...

Well that was just me having a punt, just putting that in there.

You're referring to many obviously-recognisable Procol Harum songs, so it looks as though you might be hinting that you wrote Twice Removed from Yesterday but for some contractual reason it couldn't be ...

No (laughs) they've read something into it that I didn't intend at all.

But you've said you like to put things in for essentially recreational reasons ... that could be a kind of ...

It could be ! (laughs) No it wasn't the reason. It was just me trying to pull as many Procol Harum strands ... trying to get as much stuff in ...

And counting a Robin Trower album as being somehow part of the oeuvre?

It must have made sense to me at the time. Must have been valid.

I hope you'll hear the current band playing.

Oh yeah, 'course I will. I think they're great! I think the guys have played fantastic on the record, the playing's great, and you know it's pretty much all recorded live, which in this day of digital recording is pretty rare, so it's a testament to the guys in the band.

What are your memories of doing The Prodigal Stranger in those terms?

This is much more just a straightforward group effort, you know.

Was that essentially quite laborious, doing The Prodigal Stranger?

It became laborious, towards the end, unfortunately, because we just took ... we spent such a long time.

I think Gary once said that they had to pull you out of the door to finish it, or something.

Well it did take a long time. But ... yes it really took a long time.

Were you happy with it, yourself?

Yes, I was very happy with it. It really was a great album. I haven't listened to it for a long time, but at the time I was happy with it.

It must have been pretty numbing when Zoo pulled the rug out from under your feet.

Well, there you go, you see. They pulled the rug from under our feet.

But you never thought you were living on Easy Street to start with?

No, I didn't think I was living on Easy Street, no.

And are you now? Are you a contented man?

Nope! I'm not living on Easy Street.

I don't know whether to say 'good' or 'bad' to that.

Oh, it's good.

You need some disequilibrium in your life, to keep working?

This is it, this is it, this is it. You need something to write about.

Did you know that there's a thing called the Palers' Project, which is a group of Procol Harum fans who ...

Gary told me about that, yes, I want to hear that.

Well will you allow me to send you a copy?

Oh yeah, love to ... that's right.

He did actually say that he thought you'd like to hear it, but when we spoke about that you were in New York ...

No, I spoke to him about it, like Monday or something, and he was telling me that it's fascinating, so yeah, I'd love to hear it. Yeah yeah, send me one.

Any way you'd be able to feed back to us any thoughts about it?

Sure, definitely!

Are you on e-mail?

No. But send it to me, and I'll have a listen, and ... give you some feedback.

Well, over the brandy that we're going to buy you in Lewisham on the Ides of March ... but there's nothing to beware about that, of course.

Oh right. Fifteenth of March? That's quite soon, isn't it?

Very soon! Don't leave the country, please!


Very nice to talk to you, Keith.

You too!

Later Keith rang BtP, and gave us permission to quote his opinion of the 2CD
'Lost in the Looking-Glass' by The Palers' Project:

"Really intriguing – lots of good ideas! Every home should have one."

Online ordering is here

Keith Reid's page at BtP

Another KR / BtP interview

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