Procul, O procul este profani!
Yesterday I visited the Borders bookshop in Oxford Street and had to pass through the 'Esoterica' section en route for the History section. And it is huge. Shelf after shelf, bookcase after bookcase. You wonder who writes all this stuff and where do they get it from? And who believes that anyone is going to buy it? In my day Alan Wicca was a famous TV interviewer who specialised in interviewing the rich and famous (and brilliantly taken off in a Monty Python sketch). Now he's a full scale cult.
Anyway on the way home I started thinking about some songs which deal with this sort of thing. There seem to be lots of references on the Grand Hotel album.
The presentation of the album gives cause for concern, representing a convention of wizards or undertakers with disembodied heads floating on decapitated bodies and containing a book of charms or incantations. Inside a necromancer displays some of his crystals and potions to other wizards. They are meeting at an isolated old house possibly on the tropical island of Haiti to summon up the forces of darkness. A song cycle describes the night's activities.
A convention of witches and allied demons cut loose, perhaps at a Solstice. The summer Solstice is a particular favourite. Certainly 'greeting the dawn' features highly on the agenda. 'Crystal clear' implies invocation of spirits. The candles are probably black. Feasting and cavorting throughout the night. Someone (?the devil) asks for his 'continental bride' - witches were known as brides of Satan (see below). Pinching and biting are a favourite pastime of imps. And lots of dancing! The waiters dance on fingertips just as fairies dance on a pinhead. The wine has been dancing too. The witches like their meat rare and dance with it 'gambolling steak' although of course stake could have a very different connotation here. 'One more toast' an illusion to witch-burning after which witches usually are toast. 'Peach flambé' is a sideways reference to burning. The peach is known as the 'devil's nectarine' because its skin is hairy like an old crone's. The McVitie's ginger nut is also referred to as the 'devil's biscuit' ( I was told this by an economist in Putney). No real connection here but I thought I'd throw it in anyway as being vaguely relevant to the overall piece.
French, the language of Haiti. References to knotted umbilical cords conjure up birth-strangled babes and at some point a cat or 'familiar' is taken away. Secrets are swallowed, names are taken and victims lamed. Still, all in a day's work for the average bride of Satan.
A Rum Tale
... concerns a bewitching with the victim starting to waste away and getting strange delusions and 'fuddled' fancies towards the end where clearly the balance of his mind is disturbed. 'An island somewhere in the sun' could be a reference to Haiti, home of Voodoo.
... is clearly a spirit conjured up and not a very benign one at that. He 'gets the news' from his 'spies in every crack and corner'. Saints and sinners alike are implicated. No reference to Roman emperors despite the title. Invoked spirits often had grandiose names (see Count Thecoste at the end of the album).
A Souvenir of London
More French. A learned reference to The Devils of Loudon possibly misread during the recording session. 'n' and 'u' are frequently confused when transcribing medieval texts. The original made clear references to the possessions experienced by a group of nuns in 17th century France. 'Souvenir' is 'to remember' in French. There a nun found the writing of demons on her hand. It can't be declared to the doctors (see For Liquorice John) for obvious reasons. This is best heard on the 'B' side version of the single. Maybe TV Ceasar was also involved. However other critics believe this song was inspired by Nostradamus and predicted the rise of Punk and in particular that of Sex Pistols led by one Mr Lydon. They say that the mantra-like repeated 'souvenir of Lydon' may refer to some body part of the said Johnny Rotten but all the 'leaking' references suggest that it is saliva being kept as a DNA sample for cloning purposes. 'There's a lot of it about'.
Bringing Home the Bacon
'Gobbling up the cakes'. An allusion to the making of cakes from victims' urine. A curse is mentioned. Possibly also some reference to 'spawn of the devil' in the missing fourth verse. 'Breast-fed' may reflect the way in which witches suckled their imps and familiars. Alternatively the title could be a reference to Sir Francis Bacon whose interest in the occult is far more widely known than perhaps it should be. Except by me. So perhaps it is an account of a devilish (but inexperienced) person who has borrowed a book on witchcraft from the local lending library and is trying it out on an innocent child with heartrending results. The child explodes. I'm quite surprised this track wasn't used in Trainspotting. Next thing we know the lyricist's moved to New York? Perhaps we should be told.
For Liquorice John
The herbal extract Liquorice is black and so is particularly suited to the dark arts. This account tells of a male witch or warlock being tested by immersion in water. The idea is that if he has sold his soul to the devil then the waters will reject him. Even after he has 'fallen into the sea and drowned' the onlookers can still see him 'waving from the harbour'. So he has clearly not been bound before being thrown into the water. Again the learned doctors (as churchmen were known) didn't hesitate and possibly forgot this necessary precaution. But they too are suspect because despite their ecclesiastical credentials they 'knew no cure'. So they could be demons and he could be an innocent which is why he sank instead of floated.
Fires (Which Burnt Brightly)
Either the central feature of a coven or the tragic end of those apprehended. However the victory of Evil over Good for which these detestable wretches strive with the allusion to 'malice and habit' having 'won the day' is balanced by the fact that the war 'is already lost'. More sophisticated references lie within the lyrics. 'Our flowers and feathers as scarring as weapons' is a clear reference to the dangers of witches' charms. Famously witches are able to harm their victims remotely by inserting metal pins into wax images. 'Standards and bugles lie trod in the dust'. Interestingly the devil had a coat of arms comprising three toads. It features occasionally in rolls of arms and paintings of the Apocalypse. This implied that he was a gentleman. The apocalyptic vision is further emphasised by graves bursting open.
A reference to a wizard/druid/magician or conjuror and his 'magic box' touching on oriental practices. Perhaps the conjuror has not been paid his fee and is wreaking some revenge or is merely withholding a favourite 'trick'. One of the risen dead, a devout and inspired native of the Indian subcontinent ('awe-ful sikh'), asks for some charm to help him recover. He offers great recompense in return for his soul. A spirit called Count Thecoste (? has a tail) may also be involved but Gary Brooker's memory for words obscures this thread. Perhaps the victim has turned to voodoo. Towards the end the omnipresent 'doctors' reappear and confront the victim. There may be an exorcism.
So in summary, the action begins in a wild demonic bacchanal at an old house possibly in Haiti. A victim is selected and drugged and an ancient spirit TV Ceasar is summoned. He recounts the glory days of the 17th century. The victim is then thrown into the harbour by the demons in a travesty of the conventional witchfinding process. An innocent baby stolen from its mother is brought in and used in grotesque rituals before the assembled witches warlocks etc sing of their struggle against the forces of good. This anthem 'brings down the curtain' on their night and we are left with the victim asking a voodoo wizard Count Thecoste for some cure from his enchantment.
Sadly I don't have any means of playing the record backwards but I'm sure that if I did it would only confirm my suspicions.
Features at 'Beyond the Pale' | The Grand Hotel album