Procol Harum

the Pale

PH on stage | PH on record | PH in print | BtP features | What's new | Interact with BtP | For sale | Site search | Home

'Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes'

T V Ceasar

Album: Grand Hotel (1973)

Authors: Brooker / Reid 

 Read the words

Performed: promotionally 

Cover-versions: none

TV Ceasar, according to Keith Reid, was written 'in the last period' before the Grabham-version of Procol Harum started working on the Grand Hotel album: in other words, late autumn of 1972 probably saw the music composed for words that were very likely complete by August. The bitty arrangement does not quite sound like a fully-realised creation, and the 'cross-talk' by which one musical idea also crops up in For Liquorice John (which shares its 'late-developing' status) possibly suggests a hasty conception.

Many rock songs mention television but this (along with Lot of Wind by the Fall) is one of the few that are apparently exclusively about it. It should be borne in mind that TV, in the UK, was not the wide and pervasive phenomenon it now is. Colour television sets were not sold until 1970 and were still not dominant by 1973; only three terrestrial channels were on offer and many people could still not receive one of those (BBC2). For compulsive viewers there was less chance of escaping the domination of the personalities of the day. Though the personalities mentioned in the song are mostly British ones, contemporary interviews suggest that Keith Reid was motivated to write about television because of viewing experiences on American tours.

'They have these talk shows,' Reid told Zigzag (April 1973). 'Particularly a couple of years ago when David Frost was really popular there and Johnny Carson and Joey Bishop and all those shows, and the idea of the song was like they are all TV Ceasars – Caesars of the television; they are running everything.' Is the curious spelling 'Ceasar', which is found in all official references to the song, a deliberate mistake? Is it intended to fall midway between the 'Caesar' of Julius and the 'César' which is the Oscar-equivalent Award of the French Film Academy (which includes categories for TV)? Caesar owes something to a central image in George Orwell's once-futuristic satire 1984, in which omnipresent television sets gather information for 'Big Brother'. Big Brother has of course been adopted as the name of the new millennium's biggest 'fly-on-the-wall' television show, consisting of candid 'revelations' from a house with a plethora of hidden TV cameras: TV Ceasar would have been an apt theme tune for this entertainment.

Like all the songs on side one of Grand Hotel, this long number begins with a solo piano stating the fundamental motif of the piece, a typical Brooker compositional 'cell' – a last-inversion chord collapsing back on to a root-position triad on the same bass note. Though the song is in four-four time the first bar appears to be in three, or else it starts on a second beat of the bar, which is very unusual. The voice joins in soon, with drums and a prominently-recorded bass, and within thirty seconds the guitar and the orchestral strings are in full flight. They remain there for over five more minutes … though, as tape-operator Chris 'The Grouts' Michie commented to BtP, there is 'obviously a danger in throwing in the extra ear-candy too early – anything added after the second verse would have to remain in the mix until the end of the song, which would still be another five minutes away.' There's a lot crammed into this track (including the tail-end of an 'unclean' vocal erasure at 2:57). However Gary's orchestration is all interesting, with wide-flung string fills and some Handelian touches; only the drop-ins (heard at 2:13 for example), which may have been done by Chris Thomas, sound like spice-me-up afterthoughts: are these the acoustic basses with which Alan Cartwright is credited on the sleeve? Later in the song the organ becomes prominent; its solo starts with an unusually treated note, as does the ripping guitar, which brings a welcome vibrancy to the piece. Elsewhere the ensemble guitar has a Beatly flavour, echoing Here Comes the Sun as it conspires with the orchestra to decorate some of the song's empty spaces: there are quite a lot of these, passing-chords required to bring in the next section in a singable key; Brooker here lacks the boldness he uses in Bringing Home the Bacon, which juxtaposes fragments without the artifice of modulating gradients. He sings it with warmth and character, however, and the 'David Frost' vocal (see below) is a nice touch. Gary's bluesy voice is the antithesis of the stiffly-mannered choir, whose like we do not hear again until the orchestrated Butterfly Boys in 1995.

The song starts in B flat, working pleasant changes on the poppy I, IV, V, I formula. The orchestra's mildly syncopated intervention establishes F major, then the mood darkens with 'creeping in' in B flat minor, though successive minors brighten to majors as the tonal centre shifts upward: a 'spare' phrase brings us into E flat for the chorus. Here there is a resemblance to the middle section of For Liquorice John: the melody of 'his fall from grace was swift and sure' fits neatly over the chords of 'TV Ceasar, mighty mouse'. The chorus restlessly transposes itself downwards under the falling, saw-tooth melody, and ends in D, whence it takes a colourful dive into a transitional passage that ends with two bursts of a whimsical three-note pattern, rhythmically recalling the nursery-rhyme Three Blind (Mighty?) Mice. The chords have to wrangle seismically through B flat minor to G major, A flat, G flat and F, in order to be ready to begin again. The guitar takes its solo over the 'creeping in' chords, and the choir's cycling ending – reiterating the verses' mutating tag-lines – involves an adaptation of the chorus whereby the last chords tip upward again, the bass taking two semitonal steps back to where it started from. All in all, it could be said that the song finds ingenious harmonic solutions to the puzzle it sets itself.

A 'live' substitute for the fading ostinato on record has been found by repeating the falling 'three blind mice' chords and adding a final cadence; but another solution has involved a short coda in the form of a verse from the patriotic song Rule Britannia. 'Britannia' was the Romans' name for England and Wales and, long after Julius Caesar had left these islands, the English adopted it to represent the spirit of Britain, mingling ideas of empire, economics and military might; the poem Rule Britannia (words here) by James Thomson (1700–48) was set to music by Thomas Augustine Arne in about 1740 and is favoured by some as an unofficial national anthem. It's a particular favourite of the young revelers known as 'Promenaders', whose lusty participation on the last night of the BBC 'Prom concerts' from the Royal Albert Hall is an annual institution on British TV. If TV Ceasar has to grow a coda, this is the right song, with its Roman name, its dreams of imperial omnipresence, and its TV connection.

Doubtless the prospect of live orchestral gigs put the Rule Britannia coda into the band's minds, and it was heard in symphonic splendour at the very end of the Hollywood Bowl gig in September 1973; but TV Ceasar has also been played band-only with coda (Paris 10 August 1973, Gothenburg 29 October 1973 ) and without coda (Edinburgh Empire Theatre, 25 August 1973). Its gigging history appears to be limited to 1973 (it was broadcast from Biba's in London on the Midnight Special show in October) and – though it has a certain charm – it is probably not high on many fans' wish-lists for resuscitation.


Mighty Mouse and friend

Thanks to Frans Steensma for discographical information about this song


Back to the song-by-song index

E-mail contributions for this feature



PH on stage | PH on record | PH in print | BtP features | What's new | Interact with BtP | For sale | Site search | Home