'Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes'
The Idol, slow, majestic, crowns a remarkable side of solidly-inventive music on the Exotic Birds and Fruit album. In vinyl terms it occupies a similar position to TV Ceasar on the previous album, its protracted playout delaying our flipping the record
and finding something entirely unexpected there! Some would say both these songs are overlong, permitted to sprawl in order to compensate for there being only four items to a side. However The Idol begins small, and continues to accumulate in weight as it plays on: it really does start like the thin end of a wedge; the fade-out at the end is its only musical disappointment.
Gary Brooker's comments in a 1974 UK interview, about the studio background to this recording, may be worth quoting at length: 'The Idol is a big one for me, I mean a big one for the group
We put a tremendous amount of work into this one. Originally
I just did it solo at the piano, going straight through the words in the song. And that was that. When we got into the studio, we found it worked out a lot differently with the group. It goes through a lot of build-up, a lot of voices going on, background singing as well
it was a mammoth job for Chris Thomas to do the mixing but he finally pulled it off
on this album we used for the first time the 24-track machine. Thomas was in his glory year. We would normally record stereo piano, stereo drums, that sort of thing. On this particular one we had ambient mikes all over the studio. On The Idol I played acoustic piano once, in stereo of course. Then I tracked it and then I played three tracks of electric piano as well. That was just myself. Mick must have done as many on guitar as well. A big wall of sound. We really had trouble to get it all on tape again. We finally made it.' There are indeed some strange details deep in the mix (listen to the bass voice on the left channel at 3:27) but its hard to hear evidence of all those instrumental overdubs. Gary's enthusiasm for the track may have waned slightly over the years: The Idol was not wheeled out for duty on 90s tours, though many less interesting songs were heard again and again.
This number begins in F minor, with a second phrase a tone lower; in written notation these keys bristle with accidentals, and they are not much-liked by guitarists, but at the piano it all sits very comfortably under the hand: the rolling, stair-climbing piano-motif between the lines has an ancestor in the between-verse fill of All This and More, and a similar descendant in Taking the Time. Gary's soulful iterations of the title are densely overdubbed: his harmony-singing has never been better; Alan Cartwright's bass accompanies the main vocal with force and restraint: BJ Wilson's dramatically syncopated drum-entry is one of his classics. As the organ joins in, E flat minor gives way to a bright E flat major, and the harmonies rejoin the beaten track: first with a couple of rounds of the well-known Brooker sequence (I, IV-of-IV, IV, I) that underpins Without a Doubt, The Piper's Tune, and many others; then a dive to G minor and up the cycle of fourths to B flat, then the same again using a G major as the springboard. The chorus starts on an A flat chord which, following a B flat, imparts a sense of anticlimax, while also implying that a full-cadence resolution is being held in reserve. Indeed it is: now all the lines of the chorus (unconventional, in that it has only three) end with perfect cadences, and carefully-arranged scales on guitar and organ link the lines. The chorus has a hymnal feel, also heard in As Strong as Samson, perhaps reminding us of Geoff Whitehorn's comment that Gary likes to play hymns when he should be rehearsing! There is no middle-eight or other harmonic material, but the verse/chorus cycle begins again: there is sufficient substance here to fill a track lasting some 6 minutes 38.
By normal Procol Harum standards, the words are straightforward. There is little richness, the contradictions are more irksome than startling, and there is no attempt at narrative development. The much-repeated title merits scrutiny: 'an idol' is a god, originally subject to totemic representation in statues or figurines made from valuable materials. The Bible, shot through with condemnations of idolatry (and, in addition, of the waste of symbolic offerings of food), is responsible for the word having a pejorative flavour (this mindset filters into Broken Barricades with its 'your idols absurd'). The Christian use of 'idol' to mean 'false god' led to its demotic broadening to include any figure who is looked up to or worshipped by others (singer William Broad subversively took the pop-star application of the word to an extreme, by adopting Billy Idol as his stage name). Procol Harum themselves, in their first flush of success, were courted to playing pop idols, being used as tools of a fascist state, in a film which eventually settled on Paul Jones [a pop idol who covered Homburg!] in this role.
However the first pop idols overshadowed the teenage years of the men who became the writers of the sixties and seventies, and their work sometimes reflects the hollowness of the popular esteem they themselves acquired (cp The Seeker by Pete Townshend, or Subterranean Homesick Blues by Bob Dylan
'don't follow leaders
'). Writers of such lyrics sometimes found themselves in the unwarranted position of receiving fan letters asking for help in their own lives, based on truths supposedly discovered in the texts: Reid's words here in part reflect the frustration and emptiness of being on the receiving end of such expectations.
The song was first performed on 5 November 1973 in Copenhagen, and it was toured in promotion for the Exotic Birds album; despite the lack of all the studio overdubs it could be brilliantly effective in performance: on the live BBC recording the arrangement is much the same as the recording, though the vocal harmonies are taken by Cartwright and Grabham. The band had made little use of onstage harmonies earlier in their career: 'We didn't always have voices that could blend very well,' Gary told BtP here. There is some effectively violent rhythm guitar in the verses, and a scorchingly passionate solo; the drumming is perhaps a little muted, but BJ makes effective use of cymbals. But after these promotional duties The Idol went into an inexplicably long hibernation, emerging at Redhill in relatively attenuated form, with only a cursory glance at the preliminary 'Oh the idol' section before the song got going.
- 'Oh the idol, Oh the idol': in a Procol context 'idol' might be expected to refer to Ray Charles or Little Richard
but the rueful declamation with which the song starts suggests that the worship of external idols is not part of the picture in this song. Keith Reid kept it vague when he commented to Circus Raves (1974): '
a very mysterious song. It could be about a lot of people, one of them myself. It concerns anybody who desires something enough to worship it and then, through too much adoration of something or somebody, you begin to see it's really not as magical as you first thought after all.' A second Procoloid reading would look for 'idols' among former band-members: could it be Trower (a real idol to blues guitar fans) or Fisher (the band's most supernaturally musical alumnus), who both did eventually come back into the fold to 'pull them through' the 1991 rebirth. BtP asked Gary Brooker about this (see here), to which he replied, 'I get an image of a golden, Biblical idol, not someone specific from rock music.'
- 'They knew the monster's every trick': following the preliminary vocal, this line appears to equate 'monster' with 'idol'. The tricks of a monster would typically include duplicitousness and unpredictability. 'Trick' is also used to allude to a magician's sleight of hand, or a prostitute's services, but these meanings are not taken up elsewhere in the song. 'Trick' in its bridge-playing sense might relate to 'game' that follows, but this is no more helpful than 'the trick' sought by the narrator of Robert's Box, where the word means 'desired outcome. Here it most probably signifies 'quirk'
as in the Brooker / Fisher / Reid song Trick of the Night, from Gary's third solo album. As in so many Reid songs, the identity of 'they' remains shadowy, but it will become clear that this time the indeterminate 'they' is looking for help from the protagonist, rather than sitting in judgement on his shortcomings.
- 'They knew his secrets': the pronoun 'his' tells us the gender of the monster / idol. It is obviously someone well-known to 'they': all his tricks, all his secrets apparently lie open to their scrutiny, and his conduct is revealed as 'a game' and himself a 'charlatan'. Other secrets in Reid are equally unspecific: 'She's swallowed my secret' (A Rum Tale); 'Finding out your secret fears' (TV Ceasar); 'Just a whole load of secrets' (Man with a Mission); 'The secrets of the hive' (A Dream in Ev'ry Home); 'There's a man with a secret' (The Hand that Rocks the Cradle).
- 'every stitch': idiom contends that 'a stitch in time saves nine', which is perhaps appropriate in a song where a remedy is being sought, and the possible source of remedy is procrastinating. 'They knew his secrets every stitch' is presumably intended to imply that they unpicked the garb of the charlatan, or, more metaphorically, that they saw through his outward disguise, and found that he was intrinsically no more wise or potent than themselves. Clearly this idol does not merit their adulation, yet the music (by avoiding full cadences) is contrived to be full of wistful longing for completion. 'Stitch' can also mean 'amusing', and to 'go on the stitch' is to have sexual intercourse. 'Stitch' perhaps prefigures the possible cross-dressing thread in The Thin End of the Wedge.
- 'Nothing but a charlatan': though 'charlatan' is often used to mean 'fraud' it derives from the Italian 'ciarlare' (to prattle) and properly denotes a person who claims knowledge that they do not possess, such as a quack doctor, or possibly a songwriter or poet who implies he has meaningful secrets that might guide other people's lives. (The Charlatans are, incidentally, a band from Manchester). Reid's uses of the word 'nothing' are legion, in such songs as Quite Rightly So, Glimpses of Nirvana, In the Autumn of My Madness, Look to Your Soul, Boredom, The Wreck Of The Hesperus, Nothing that I Didn't Know, Whaling Stories, Nothing But the Truth, Monsieur R. Monde, Man with a Mission, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, and the officially-unpublished Seem To Have The Blues (Most All The Time).
- 'Perhaps there was a chance of coming through': the fatalistic application of battlefield imagery ('coming through' recalls details of The Final Thrust).
- 'It even seemed that he might think it too': 'perhaps', chance', 'seemed', 'might', 'think'
this couplet is laden with conditional and imponderable terms that combine to indicate how remote the chances of this idol's salvation must be.
- 'But he could see no point in diving in': the monster / idol assesses the situation in selfish terms. Whatever participation he envisages, the word 'dive' suggests that it will be a matter of 'taking the plunge', an action that is not reversible. The swimming image seems apt, but is surreally abnegated by the conclusion that he will 'neither sink nor swim': what option remains? Mere passive floating? Many songs in the Procol canon deal with images of submerging, in particular 'as I slithered under' (The Dead Man's Dream); 'I'm going down' (Wish me Well); 'sailing on a sinking ship' (Butterfly Boys); 'sink or swim', which again sounds like a line from The Final Thrust, has a long pedigree in literature: Chaucer in The Knight's Tale (about 1386) writes that 'She recceth neuere wher I synke or swim' and the best-known 'sink or swim' in music comes in the lovely traditional song The Water is Wide, often sung to the Scots tune Waly Waly: 'There is a ship that sails the sea / She's loaded deep as deep can be / But not so deep as the love I'm in / I know not if I sink or swim.' Its use is not common in rock [but see 'every day's a holiday / sink or swim / laughing as the ship goes down / we shall live again' from the Immaculate Fools] yet the idea of swimming or drowning is found in other Procol Harum songs such as 'Went to the river, but I could not swim' (Your Own Choice); 'we're swimming in the sand' (Butterfly Boys); 'Swimming against the tide' (Skating on Thin Ice); 'Star-crossed lovers they spoon and swim' (Perpetual motion); 'in whose waters I shall drown' (The Devil Came From Kansas); 'or drown amidst this stormy sea' (The Wreck Of The Hesperus); 'Knew I'd drown if I went in' (Your Own Choice); 'He fell into the sea and drowned' (For Liquorice John). In mediaeval times suspected witches were evaluated by immersion: if they sank, they were not witches. When things go well, they go 'swimmingly' and someone who is doing well in the main current of popular opinion is 'in the swim'. A literal idol could not swim, of course: Magritte's Birth of the Idol (1919, above) interestingly shows a totemic figure near the ocean, apparently on a sort of diving-board.
- 'So they found he'd nothing left to say': as the monster / idol gradually comes into focus, we learn that it is someone whose 'sayings' are important to the band, as opposed to his playings, perhaps a lyricist as opposed to a performer. We might assume that the idol is Reid himself in connection with 'every stitch', it has been pointed out that Keith had reportedly worked in tailoring at some early stage, and 'stitch' is the nickname for someone in that trade. Much of the next album concerns having 'nothing left to say' (though that theme dates back to 'when all my thoughts are spoken' in In the Autumn of my Madness). If we take Reid to be the narrator, he might be referring not only to the drying-up of inspiration, but also to his temperament. As he presents himself in Taking the Time he might actually be 'the idle' as well as the 'the idol'; it is also tempting to view Fool's Gold as the sequel to this lyric, as there the narrator speaks of having wanted to save the world and be the king, alluding to that idol-role in terms of 'gold', the material of which idols were typically made.
- 'Just another idol turned to clay': the line alludes somewhat to Daniel 2, in which the Old Testament prophet explicates a dream of the Babylonian monarch Nebuchadnezzar: the vision was of a huge statue made of different materials: its golden head and shoulders represented the Babylonian Empire (606539 BC), its silver chest and arms the Medo-Persian Empire (539331 BC), its belly and thighs of bronze the Greek Empire (331168 BC), and its legs of iron the Roman Empire (168 BC476 AD); the feet, partly iron and partly clay, represented succeeding empires, 'partly strong and partly fragile' (Daniel 2:42), in which we live now (the stone that ultimately smashed the statue was the second coming of Christ). Of course the graphic interest of this dream has greatly outlasted its political significance, and vernacular understanding now gives the statue 'clay feet', which undermine its rich upper structure. Reid's songs often show an interest in dreams, and in telling the future (think of Nothing That I didn't Know, or 'we saw our future' from The Truth Won't Fade Away) so it is perhaps unsurprising that he draws this image from the prophetic Daniel (a few verses on, Daniel dreams of the 'four winds' that also crop up in Wizard Man). Most would agree that the diminishing values, in this hierarchy of statue-metals, corresponds to Procol Harum's showing in the singles charts, having started with gold and then started on a slide. And some would argue that Reid saw himself, as lyricist and conceptual propeller of the band, as being responsible both for that early success and for subsequent failures to follow it up. It was ironic, after the golden glories of A Whiter Shade of Pale, that 1974 should have seen the band still 'searching for that superstar status' as Keith commented to Circus Raves. But it's the fragility of clay that Reid's lyric trades on, as well as the fact that the first man, Adam, was made from clay: this idol is no more than a man (cp the girl in Raglan Road, sung by Sinead O Connor, who becomes a mere 'creature made of clay' when the lover in that song comes down to earth).
- 'It seemed to them he must know what to do': the reduced, monosyllabic language here reflects the banality of the demands being made on the monster / idol.
- 'They knew that only he could pull them through': the phrase 'pull through' is used when there is a problem patch to be negotiated; to look to one person for salvation is idolatry in a nutshell, as the object of attention becomes deified by crisis. 'Pull through' is incidentally part of the language of stitching. One is naturally inclined to see 'they' as the rest of the band looking to Reid to throw some managerial or lyrical bread on the waters of their troubled career, which is neither sinking or swimming at this point.
- 'They thought that he would make a plan / He'd work it out, he'd understand': by the time The Pursuit of Happiness was written, 'something screwed this master plan'. The words here are shorn of allusion and uncommonly transactional for Reid; such language does not really live up to the intention (which he revealed to Circus Raves in 1974) that the song should reflect 'the hope we carry around inside ourselves and are so eager to squander on any object that catches our fancy. Nonetheless he selected these words for his book, My Own Choice.
- 'Like drowning men they clutched at every straw': this commonplace phrase, presumably reflecting the indiscriminate desperation of actual non-swimmers foundering, is rescued from banality by the fact that 'straw' and 'reed' are closely related! It has been suggested that the 'diving' idea relates to Reid plunging into the reservoir of pain and subconscious memories that any writer turns to for inspiration, fittingly bereft of 'every stitch' of clothing ('and for once I stood quite naked' (Magdalene (My Regal Zonophone)). Thus exposed, he really is the mere 'clay' from which man was made.
- 'They knew that he had saved them all before': 'saved' here could refer to the mechanical 'saving' of a drowning man, or the moral salvation for which we perhaps look to a spiritual idol. In a later, unpublished song, One Eye on the Future, One Eye on the Past, Reid ventures that 'we know were out of favour, we can't expect no saviour'. But that is explicit, whereas this lyric, simultaneously undemanding and unclear, remains (rather aptly) on the brink of unveiling its real frame of reference. We are left with a monster reluctant to dive, and must be content to view this situation as a curious parallel to the case of the Pandora's Box lifeguard who, despite his reputed bravery, finds 'no one for him to save'; here there are evidently numerous people to be saved, but the idol to whom they look for salvation cannot see himself in a saviour's role, and cannot summon the resolution, or self-belief, to become involved.
Thanks to Frans Steensma for additional information about this song