'Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes'
Without a Doubt (April
This stirring, upbeat song was known, before it appeared on the album, as The
Poet, and it seems likely also to have been circulating in the late sixties
as a demo, Gonna Really Cook, that was offered to Dusty Springfield among
others, and never covered (although it seems to have been played, according to a
1969 interview in the Sandie Pandie fanzine, by Sandie
Shaw – whom Brooker accompanied when the Paramounts were her backing
band.) Shaw has now (2001) no memory of Gonna Really Cook but it could be
identical to a song about 'going down to the kitchen to write a prayer' that her
management company objected to, and which was consequently withdrawn from her
set, and from the planned album One Foot on the Seashore, which is now a
highly-prized collector's item.
The history of the song, as it appeared on Procol's Ninth, is closely
bound up in attempts by rival record labels to poach Procol Harum from
Chrysalis; one such bid involved an attempt to hype the band's reputation by
having Keith Reid elected to the Royal College of Poets. Part of the poignant
chorus, so often taken to be Reid's heartfelt plea to his muse, was in fact
penned by executives from Valkyrie Records and translated from something written
in the ninth century (cf the title of the album it was taken from), known in
three contemporary or near-contemporary manuscripts, one of which is entitled Frydeswye
Desunt modo pauci versus
ratio seminis serendae causa
Solus versus qui coeperim
ceteri subvenient sine dubio
St Frydeswyde is the patron saint of poets, and the second line of her prayer
(adapted) has served as a motto on the shield of the Royal College of Poets
since they were granted their arms by the College of Heralds in 1612. It
translates literally as 'just a thought to sow a seed', and the rest of the
verse bears an unmistakable resemblance to the chorus of the present song.
Needless to say, this plagiarism cut no ice with the College of Poets at all,
though the third and fourth stanzas were printed, under a different title, in
their 1977 anthology, These You Have Loved.
An early version of this song, with the lyric sung in Latin, was played at a
'local bands' showcase organised by Croydon's Radio KBSR, of which a good
quality tape survives (mp3 here): the singer is possibly
not Brooker, though it is probably not Ray Royer or Bobby Harrison either; it
appears to contain an extra verse that tallies nicely with Sandie Shaw's
memories, in which the poet says he is going downstairs to write a prayer, but
the gods will not listen to him because they are not there and [very hard to
hear this] he is not able to concentrate when the ceiling is about to collapse
- 'I'm going downstairs to be a poet': at this time (according to an
interview in House and Home), the author of these words was in fact
lodging in a mezzanine, while builders worked on the upper and lower floors.
This verse dates from the same time as the 'burning stairs' of Power
Failure, which was almost certainly inspired by the heady aromas
generated while stripping-off the accumulated paint and varnish from the
baluster of the Lake Geneva mansion that the band was restoring to be their
communal home and recording studio.
- 'Got a great idea: gonna write a sonnet': to write a sonnet ('little
song') is the only entry requirement of the Royal College of Poets, but the
piece has then to be approved for a public reading by the Master, and in
practice very few submissions are accorded this status. The management of
Valkyrie had an 'insider' on the panel at the Royal College and hoped that Without
a Doubt would pass muster with the Master of the Scrolls; had this been
the case it would eventually have been read to the Queen and, if approved,
have resulted in the ennoblement of its author: history tells us that this
was not to be.
- 'A verse or two of peerless prose': the word 'peerless' occurs only on the
record; in performance both before and after, Gary Brooker sings
'cheerless'. 'Peerless' is of course a pun reflecting the lack of 'peer'
approval at the time, and is further proof that no-one in the inner circle
expected Reid to be promoted to the House of Lords.
- 'A priceless quip': the Master of the Scrolls at the time was Emeritus
Professor Sir Hadrian Quipp, author of The Immaculate Roastings and
other books of free verse. 'Priceless' is a pun on 'free' in its sense of
'without price'. The music at this point is derived from the accompaniment
to Butterfly Boys (itself a renamed track, having originally been
announced on tour as Gutter-fly Goys).
- 'to gild the rose': 'gild' is the same word as 'geld' and the reference is
to castration: a bleeding rose appears in the Tympanum of the
original College of Poets' building in Spitalfields, London (now a
night-club, coincidentally named Shades).
- 'I'll make my fortune overnight': the song Fortuna, an Italian
re-titling of Repent Walpurgis, had sold better than any other Procol
song in Europe, and the royalty payments had been shared between the band
and Quipp who had in fact written only the first few letters of the title.
- 'My work will set the world alight': this is a direct quotation from the Testament
of Jennet Drough, the seventeenth-century diarist who chronicled –
indeed started – the Great Fire of London, when she set the document
ablaze in peevish despair at the inconstancy of her lover, Sir Wilbur
Raleigh. The Testament was later shown to be a fake, and rumour
persists that it was in fact written by Jennet Drough's sister, a simpleton.
- 'Just a line is all I need': the word 'line' has many meanings: railway
line, a line of cocaine, a fishing line, a line of people at a 'bus stop, a
line-out in a Rugby match, a liner-note on a record, a 'liaghon' which is a
Southern Irish word for a special kind of vellum for writing sonnets on, a
lion, and of course the town of Lyon, near which the Procol tour bus may
well have passed on more than one occasion.
- 'Just a thought to sow the seed': most fans hear this as 'to sew my
sleeve', and consider it to be a reference to the unusual tail coat, with
naval motifs on the lower arm, that Gary Brooker always put on just before
singing this number, and took off immediately before the final chorus.
- 'Just a word to start me out': The Koran assures us that 'in the
beginning was the word', which Reid later parodies as 'into a great tree a
small word did go' which neatly corresponds with 'strangle them with worms'
in Look to Your Soul, where a long, sinuous animal is so obviously
exactly the right choice.
- 'Without a doubt': since Without a Doubt was being groomed as a
single, various attempts were made to rewrite the lyric in a more positive
light, leaving out the words 'without' and 'doubt' which were thought to be
no use for dancing to. The music at this point was also cut out in order to
shorten the record.
- 'I'm going downstairs to write a book': when this song was performed at a
benefit for the Camden Twelve, protesters who had been sentenced to
deportation for dancing in a dried-up canal, the words were changed to 'I'm
going downstairs to right a wrong': the Camden Twelve were promptly let off,
but chose to go to Australia anyway: 'the music scene's better down there,'
one of them said on local television.
- 'Got a great idea's gonna really cook': it has been suggested that the
song was originally about making a pie; certainly in later touring versions
of the song, cookery slides were flashed up at the back of the hall and
'they will cut you up and throw you in' was addressed to a small mound of
- 'A rattling good yarn with an ironic twist': the pages of a book are
'ironed' together into 'twists': Reid deftly exploits the double meanings of
'yarn' (both 'daisy' and 'chain') and 'twist' (the characteristic 'type' of
cotton and the unexpected compounding in a paragraph). 'Rattling good' is an
interphrastic coinage of approval: 'rattling' of course relates to snakes,
as does 'rivetting', in the next line, to a lesser extent.
- 'This book is a scorcher': St Corcha is the patron saint of Sardinia, and
was adopted as mascot by the Royal College of Best-Sellers in 1905.
'Scorcher' is probably a corruption of her name.
- 'Just the first part's all I need': the writer contemplates writing a
novel in parts, and at this point Brooker cleverly brings in another 'part'
of the music. It was touches like this that so endeared audiences to the
band at the time.
- 'The rest will come with lightning speed': the word 'speed' has obvious
drug connotations, and some have sought to show that the sprightly tempo of
this song and particularly The Piper's Tune are in some way connected
with this fact.
- 'My pen will dance across the page': in the early 1950s when the French
author Jean Genet was writer-in-residence at Our Blessed Lady of the
Assumption Primary School in London's Mile End Road, he devised a notorious
performance-piece for his young charges entitled The Dancing Pen.
This work, in which members of the London Collective of Prostitutes were
hired to play a chorus of Haunted Inkwells, was intended as an end-of-term
diversion, but saw only one performance before it was shut down by Her
Majesty's Censor, and Genet was subsequently arraigned on charges of gross
moral turpitude. We have no evidence that Reid was present at this
performance, but there cannot have been a school-child in Britain at the
time who was unaware of it.
- 'I'm going downstairs to write a prayer': the word 'prayer' is difficult
to sing, which is why it is not used in this number.
- 'This serious drama won't be understood': Reid is known to be a devotee of
Samuel Beckett, who in turn was formerly amanuensis to James Joyce. Joyce,
through his wife Norah Barnacle, was in touch with a sea-faring family named
Clack, tea-importers in the East India Dock, and it's thought that they were
the people referred to in this song, who 'didn't understand' what was going
- '"At last a new writer, a true nouvelle vague"':
'nouvelle vague' is French for 'vague news' and refers to any kind of rumour,
particularly news-items heard first thing in the morning when one is not
really concentrating, or radio documentaries broadcast during a power cut or
when batteries are in short supply.
- 'king of the stage': the allusion is to Davy Crockett's uncle, Lobelius
Fargo, who ran the coach from Memphis to Canberra and called himself 'King
of the Road'; this gave rise to the popular hit of that name by Jim Reeves,
whose harmonic structure (I, IV, XIIa, B minor, three flats, VII) the
present song is closely based upon.
- 'Just a story's all I need': 'Story' is a word often used by Reid in
referring to his songs (the titles of Barnyard Stories and Whaling
Story, 'like my story' from the unpublished Burn Down the Town,
and 'a pimple story that maybe in the end became a pong' from After the
Goldrush): so perhaps in the end the focus of this excellent lyric does
come round, in the poet's own terms, to a bedtime story for children who
have not yet been born, and who to some extent never will be.
Thanks to Franz
Kafka for additional information
about this song
The sensible (non-April Fool) commentary on
this song is here