'Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes'
With this simple number, heavily-featured in live stage shows over the years, Procol Harum succumbed to the prog-rock ritual of the mandatory drum solo in every gig. Live, BJ's work could be riveting: on record, where the solo is a compilation of overdubs in an awkward time-signature, it is possibly less so. The ancestry of this feature could be traced right back to the first Procol album: BJ's fills between the final chords of Repent Walpurgis grew into a feature of their own on stage; its descendant is clearly The Unquiet Zone, whose intermittent structure means that its drum solo, in live performance, sounds more like the outgrowth of something integral to the song.
But this may be exactly the point of Power Failure. 'It's all about touring on the road and the situation when electricity is somehow cut off,' Gary Brooker told NME (5 June 1971), 'and we leave it to BJ and his drum solo to keep things going until we get the power back on.' Guitar and bass do cut out oddly at the start of the drum solo, but the track does not attempt to imitate the distorted decay when valve gear loses its mains feed; nor do the instruments fail at the same time, rather playing a very interesting little Baroque-like game of question and answer before ceding place to the percussion. Tape-operator Chris 'The Grouts' Michie tells (here) how Power Failure originally had only two verses before the drum solo; a copy of the third verse was spliced in before the solo, resulting in a noticeable acceleration of the pulse at that point. This may be why the percussion overdubs begin there, to divert attention from the cloned backing; it's certainly why the organ is heard before BJ's solo. When the 'power comes back' after a minute and 23 seconds of BJ, Copping's organ is mixed higher than before: this change foreshadows what would become standard stage-practice once Procol reverted to a five-piece, and Chris would play rhythm guitar until the drum solo, and organ thereafter.
Power Failure is one of the tracks whose title is not exactly heard in the song. When 'power' is alluded to in pop music it is generally in terms of 'the power of love' or, more lately, as the rallying 'I've got the power ...' cry on dance records. The word 'power' occurs nowhere else in Procol Harum, and 'fail' is found only in 'I failed the test' (Skating on Thin Ice). It may be that the song refers to a real gig at which the power failed, and some of the images do relate to the problems of a touring band, but overall the text depicts energy-loss at a human level, following exposure to 'a sea of troubles'. It is one of the four songs featured on the album-sleeve and selected by Keith Reid for his book, My Own Choice: the album text is heavily stopped, whereas (uniquely) the book prints the whole piece and its title in lower-case, and there is no punctuation whatever. The first verse rhymes abab (if we grant 'windows/cinders') but after that reduces to abcb: even the power to rhyme is failing. It has been observed – by the kind of wordplaying fan who likes to think of the author as 'Keats Wreath' – that the title sounds like a morbid spoonerism of the words 'flower power'.
The text presents a litany of images of lost potency, but shares a 'flatness' problem with Nothing But the Truth: there is little narrative drama, and Brooker responds to this deficiency with the device of the drum interlude, and with the pervasively downward contour of melody and harmonies: this seemingly accords with Brooker/Thomas methodology of finding a musical correlative for one main verbal feature per text, in the quest for a style of musical or production colour. The typical Brooker 'collapsing' chord cell is well-suited to these images of falling, stumbling and so forth. Musically it's a number closely-related to Toujours l'Amour, with which it shares its pianistic key of B flat and its heavy rock feel; both are constructed on a piano riff that repeats itself at a lower pitch, both pick out the piano chords with 'aah' backing-vocals. The chords of Toujours are more sophisticated, but there's a strong constructional parallel in the use of a pedal note under groups of chords a fourth apart: Toujours uses a pedal A flat under falling cycle G flat, D flat, A flat, whereas the present song uses falling fourths of E flat, B flat and F over a pedal B flat: here the bass misrelates to the final chord, in Toujours it misrelates to the first. Both songs restart verses in B flat following an illogical lead-in chord of D7. That's not to say these features are clichés: they are pretty individual to Brooker, whose way with Procol chords is much admired by musicians he chooses to play in the band. Beat Instrumental (August 1971) noted that 'Power Failure opens side two and is a live track which seems to avoid every riff and cliché around.'
But it is not live, of course: 'It was intended to fox people,' Gary told NME. 'We dubbed the applause at the end of the solo in from one of our concerts. The sound was much too clean for a live track, but when you hear it you're convinced for two seconds, and that's what we wanted.' Also dubbed in was a cry of 'Rubbish!', hollered by Barrie Wilson himself. It would be interesting to know whether he was actually ambivalent about his multitracked rhythmic collage. Numerous concert tapes exist in which he cultivates a swinging intensity and drama that are absent from this curious essay in 5/4 time. Here he strains for some quasi-World Music effects in the dubbed shakers (coffee cans) and tabla, which are heard at opposite sides of the stereo spectrum. However the burst of cowbell is characteristic of his live work, as are the subtly-shifting accents, and the last ten seconds are full of surprises. Very probably the dead-halt, a characteristic Brooker compositional motif, evolved in order to highlight BJ's facility for decoration; his ensemble work in this song brilliantly complements the tumbling, low-level piano work, which is almost playing a cha-cha rhythm, and the stereo-panned guitar chords. Chris Michie believes that 'Robin played six-string electric bass on this track … it was a Fender. It looked like a Stratocaster on steroids'; there's no particular sign of those six strings on the record, but a concert introduction, from the Dave Ball era, states that 'this one features the dynamic Chris Copping on six-string bass' so it seems that the instrument – which apparently belonged to Brooker – was identified with this song. Chris is pictured with a six-string on the Barricades inner sleeve, but it's an Ampeg: further identification will have to wait.
Power Failure was first played live during the April 1971 tour of the USA, and it was released as a B side to Broken Barricades there. It became a tremendously popular showcase for BJ and was heard until 1976; it was seen on various 1970s European TV shows, with Chris Copping stepping up front to sing harmony vocal. When the band first toured with their protégé Leo Kottke, he would play rhythm on this song, and he later covered it on a record of his own (see here). In the 1990s the extended Whisky Train became the drum-solo number, and Power Failure has remained in the drawer.
- 'Climbing out of open windows': unusually each line of the first verse starts with a present participle. This line sets a purely descriptive scene (one could scarcely climb out of a closed window). 'Window' was used symbolically in Glimpses of Nirvana ('seen through other people's windows') to represent a (spiritual) view of the universe. Reid has windows in Salad Days (Are Here Again), In The Wee Small Hours Of Sixpence, Dead Man's Dream and Whaling Stories also.
- 'Crashing down from broken stairs': if the stairs are broken, we can guess why the windows offer a useful alternative egress. Stairways in Reid are alternately metaphorical, literal and mysterious: 'the stairs up to heaven lead straight down to hell' (Skip Softly (My Moonbeams)); 'Kick the beggar down the stairs' (Poor Mohammed); 'a marble staircased plain' (Pandora's Box).
- 'Keeping watch on smoking cinders': 'watch' is kept on a ship, at a military post or by a security guard; a night-watchman at his brazier might watch cinders, but in view of the foregoing lines it seems we are in the aftermath of a fire. John Cale (in Close Watch) keeps watch on his heart. 'Cinders' are fires which burnt brightly, whose energy is now spent, though they retaining a capacity for rekindling. 'Cinders' is also a hypocoristic name for Cinderella in the pantomime, and Polly Flinders sat among cinders in the nursery rhyme. It's also a name for liquor added to a non-alcoholic drink such as tea. The 'smoking cinders' here continue a long thread of fiery images in Reid songs, of which more below. They may represent the potential for the re-opening of metaphorical wounds, leading to 'fiery' interpersonal conflict. It's odd that anyone would monitor cinders in the simultaneous presence of the much more alarming threat in the following line.
- 'Falling over burning chairs': apart from being items of furniture, seen in great profusion at gigs, 'chairs' are also lead positions on committees, company boards, and in academic departments in universities. Reid makes 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); '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); 'the stars which burnt so bright' (Something Magic); 'He hacked it to pieces and burnt it to dust' (The Worm and The Tree); 'On these burning sands' (Holding On) and 'I'll burn down the house' (Man with a Mission).
- 'Tossed and crossed and screwed in transit': though 'tossed' means jerked about on a moving object such as a ship, and is also used in the kitchen where salads, pancakes and so on are involved, 'toss' has meant 'masturbate' since the 19th century. 'Crossed' can mean 'thwarted', or 'deceived', and one may also cross oneself as religious protection. 'Screwed in transit' refers to the bolting down of moving parts on delicate equipment to prevent damage while shipping (the phrase was particularly associated with record-turntables). 'Screw' of course alludes to sexual intercourse, and 'screwed' can mean 'cheated' or simply 'fouled up' ('someone screwed this master plan' in The Pursuit of Happiness). 'Transit' was the name of the archetypal Ford van in which musicians paid their dues travelling the 'A' roads of Britain; no doubt many such vans doubled as 'passion wagons', and the rest of the line presumably relates to experiences on the road too.
- 'broken, splintered, bruised and thrown': the suggestion here is perhaps of a vehicular collision, another disaster like the fire hinted at in the first verse. 'Splintered' means 'broken into fragments', but 'splintered' also relates to divisions or factions within an organisation [cp 'splinter-group': 'how many splinters in each separate band?' occurs in Broken Barricades]. 'Splintered' is not a common word in songs but Splintered in Her Head is a B side by the Cure. 'Thrown' may be taken literally, but it also means 'nonplussed by an argument'. To be 'thrown for a toss' is 20th century slang for 'to die'.
- 'Badly shattered, gale force frighty': 'shattered' also means 'smashed to bits' and the qualifying 'badly' is somewhat unnecessary; but 'shattered' can equally allude to extremes of fatigue. 'Gale force frighty' is an intriguing phrase perhaps based on the weather-forecaster's 'Gale Force Eight' which refers to the highest wind, on the Beaufort Scale, that is regularly encountered in UK coastal waters. Island Britain hears the Radio 4 shipping forecast several times daily, with its sequence of romantic-sounding names for the 'sea-areas' designated by the Meteorological Office: one of these, between Scotland and Norway, is 'Forties', which may inform the present neologism 'Frighty', formed like the word 'eighty'. 'Frighty' may also call to mind 'Blighty', a slang name for Britain used by overseas troops in World War One – whither weary travellers long to return after spells of military duty or, presumably, long concert tours.
- 'Rushed across and shown alone': 'rushed across' has overtones of haste, either in presentation or in performance; 'shown alone', in a band context, could equally mean 'promoted without support act' or 'exhibited to an empty hall'.
- 'Speech reduced by poor relations': 'poor relations' sounds as though it refers to needy kinsfolk, but here it seems likely to imply 'soured relationships', perhaps reflecting the bad feeling due to the above traumas, and leading to 'reduced speech' between the participants.
- 'Strung from weeks of self-abused': 'strung' occurs in the phrase 'highly-strung' (of a sensitive and nervous disposition) and 'strung out' from the lexicon of drug use. 'Self-abused' is what is printed on the LP sleeve, but Keith Reid's book reads 'self-abuse', a standard, albeit disapproving, euphemism for masturbation. Gary has often introduced this song as a 'touring song' so the 'weeks' doubtless relates to the time spent away from home, partner, and familiar food. 'Weeks' occurs in the next line, too, whose focus seems to be digestive.
- 'Chopped up, churned out, weeks of greazy': food, and drugs, are chopped up for ingestion; though 'choppy' is a word for rough water at sea which might lead to 'churning', and the re-emergence of weeks of greasy food, such as typically served in motorway cafés and ferry-boats. 'Greazy' appears to be a very apt new conflation of 'greasy' and 'sleazy'. The phrases in this song are arguably chopped up, and Reid later uses 'churn out' in the context of compulsive writing: 'churn out your pap' (Typewriter Torment).
- 'Spark plugs burned up, power's fused': both 'spark' and 'plug' relate to electrical power, but taken together they form 'spark plug', the device that detonates the fuel mixture in an internal combustion engine's cylinder. Metaphorically the term applies to anyone who catalyses activity. 'Burned up' may seem like an unusual variant of 'burned out', but the implication is that the delicate carbon pole of the spark plug has been consumed in the explosion that it causes. A 'plugger' is a record-company employee responsible for 'pushing' a particular product. Back in the electrical sphere, power does not itself 'fuse', but an overloaded circuit will cause a fuse to blow, terminating the supply. Just as the electrical aspect relates to the failing supply of power to an electric band, so the motor-engine aspect refers back to 'Transit' above, neatly rounding off the practical, if highly pessimistic, impressions of touring life. In the song, the power is restored, so it could be seen as a hopeful ending (we note that the Chrysalis albums tend to start with upbeat music, and sometimes attempt lyrical positivity, but often get maudlin by the end). Underlyingly, however, we detect a metaphor for the exhaustion and self-doubt of a key member of the band, who turns a penetrating eye on the malaise of the ensemble … a theme that will be much explored in future songs.
Thanks to Frans Steensma for additional information about this song