'Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes'
The Unquiet Zone
The vibrant, punchy song is fundamentally an E minor blues in fast rock time: although the harmonic structure is much elaborated, the characteristic underlying twelve-bar changes may still be clearly detected. Unusual for a Brooker tune in that it relies heavily on a guitar riff, it foreshadows some of the sliding-semitone harmonies such as the few jazzy chords just preceding the vocal entry that will soon be heard on The Worm and the Tree and which may, of course, have been brewing in his mind and hands at the same time.
It is one of several songs on the Procol's Ninth album that visit entirely new sound-worlds for the band we presumably detect the influence of Leiber and Stoller in this respect and, despite the initial surprise of hearing that funky clavinet a sound akin to Stevie Wonder's around this time (on Superstition for instance) and squalling brass, this was a number that Procol aficionados quickly grew to like, and which was very frequently heard on stage (it has also, astonishingly, been used as test-card music on British television!). The clarity of the production is unrivalled, and the multi-layering is somehow done without destroying the notion that there is a five-piece band in there playing their hearts out. The first guitar solo break divides the song into two parts, the first of which highlights the vocal over Barrie Wilson's drum and cowbell obbligati: the choppy chordal offbeat decorations here bear a faint resemblance to the falling figures that start Robert's Box and Nothing But the Truth, and throw a little unexpected tonal mischief into the melting pot. After the guitar break this feature disappears and the playing is more predictably 'ensemble'. It may be that we are hearing a compromise between two rival treatments that were being considered: but it's a brilliant one.
The performance on record is fresh and uninhibited, with some superb guitar soloing and, of course, remarkable chattering percussion (just after 'guts and gore' it's particularly marvellous!) and a blistering vocal performance
it's hard to believe that this is the same band who picked their weary way through The Piper's Tune a few tracks later. The album press-kit alleged that 'Mick Grabham's guitar scorcher in here won't allay the envy of other groups trying to lure him out of Procol'. The song was performed live on tours shortly after the release of Procol's Ninth and (alongside Pandora's Box, The Piper's Tune and Without A Doubt) is one of the few tracks from the album to have survived 1975. Pandora aside, it was the only piece from the album that appeared regularly on setlists in 1976 and 1977, presumably because it was so exciting to play. It was heard on stage in a number of guises, originally as a shortish piece, then with a long introduction sometimes featuring much funkily-articulated rhythm guitar, sometimes riding solely on the crude power of the riff. Following its album-promotional duties it started to stretch out as a jamming vehicle crowd-participation was an important element, and latterly Solley's synths and of course as a vehicle for the magic of Wilson's drum-solos, once Power Failure went into retirement (though there are several setlists that show both pieces). The song sometimes clocked in at over twelve minutes (Mannheim, 4 February 1977: a good seven minutes was drum solo): it has of course not been heard live in post-BJ days.
Some would say that the words don't quite match the class of the music. They deal vividly enough with the terrors of the battlefield, but the use of the impersonal 'they' and the indefinite 'we' tends to hold the listener at arm's length. Certainly it was not Reid's intention to emulate Owen or Sassoon: he may well in fact have retained the traditional schoolboy antipathy to such authors, whose efforts were (and are!) considered obligatory reading for the young. Gary was not taking the subject wholly serious when he introduced the song at a 1977 concert as '
some impressions gained from watching a programme on the Third World War ... sorry, hasn't come yet; First World War
when you're down there in the trenches with the gas and this we put to a disco beat
' It may have been this danceablity of the piece that prompted its selection as the B side for a single (drawn from, remixed from, and re-titled from, the previous album): As Strong As Samson (When Youre Being Held To Ransom) (CHS 2084) was released as a single in January 1976 in the UK, but did not see active service in the charts.
- 'They seek us in this unquiet zone': we do not find out who is seeking whom, but in a 1975 interview Keith Reid offered that 'the unquiet zone is like a sort of No Mans Land', the noise being due to armaments exploding and so forth. 'Zone' is originally a mathematical term relating to diagrams. The name of the song conflates two other titles: The Twilight Zone, the mysterious TV programme that was popular about the time the original Procolers were teenagers, and the widely-recorded folk song, The Unquiet Grave (words here) which reflects the idea that immoderate grief (such as Hamlet's, incidentally) can cause unrest to the souls of the departed. We have not sought to establish whether the present song was an influence on the naming of eccentric Long Island recording artist, The Unquiet Void. 'Seeking' was a staple of songs that branched out of the Hippie-meditative culture, but that lies far from the present song's topic; but it does have a brief and grotesque verbal parallel with the opening of the Kinks' Dedicated Follower of Fashion
- 'From hole to hole' / 'like frightened moles': the mole lives underground for security from its enemies; arguably the mole's realm is one continuous hole, and even a non-frightened mole would not be a model of courage. Moles in popular song are quite rare; less so in literature. there's not much overlap between the Procol world and Wind in the Willows, but Reid's work sometimes recalls two Kafka stories, Der Riesenmaulwurf, about rumours of an abominably oversized mole, and the hilariously sad Das Bau, about the burrowing beast who constructs an immense defensive warren but feels obliged to live outside it, to guard its entrance.
- 'They hunt us down like carrion crows': carrion is rotting flesh, and a carrion crow is one which feeds on this; it doesn't hunt. The foregoing 'us' has been likened to 'moles', which would not be characteristic crow-fodder. Carrion Crow is a traditional English song once recorded by the Scaffold ['the carrion crow sat on an oak / watching the tailor make his cloak']. Carron (with no 'i') was a well-known Scots iron-foundry (the word is still visible, cast on many items of British 'street-furniture') which gave its name to the Carronade naval gun, first manufactured in 1759. Specific birds in Procol songs include Cock Robin in Pandora's Box and the lark and vulture in Something Magic.
- 'This surely is a dreadful war': the tone of voice implied in this phrase is unexpected in a hard-riffing rock number, and suggests the ex-public school Officer types reputedly involved in the famous exchange 'Did you have a good war?' / 'My dear, the noise, the people'! It seems to invite questions about whether there could ever be a war other than a 'dreadful' one. If this song is to be seen as a protest against the attitudes that informed the century's wars, especially Vietnam, it is perhaps interesting that it comes a good ten years after the Hippie peace movement. Culture Club's The War Song makes an interesting comparison, as another piece that deplores war in somewhat hand-wringing terms; the 'dreadful' and 'awful' here recall the words Michael Tippett came up with when he could not find a satisfactory specialist wordman for his anti-war works.
- 'An awful waste of guts and gore': the idea here is awkward, since gore ensues from the wasting of guts; 'waste' is a word usually employed only to deplore the needless spillage of something desirable. The result is that the phrase appears to issue from a mindset more interested in the alliteration of the line than its sense: this might be typical of a commissioned officer's response, or it might
be an entirely legitimate view-point for a specialist lyricist with a rock-band. On the other hand, 'guts' may be being used partly for its slang meaning, 'courage'. In any event 'awful' is a word that occurs rather often in Reid's writing: 'I've got an awful pain!' (Something Following Me); 'it's hard at times, it's awful raw' (Glimpses of Nirvana); 'I'm awful sick' (Robert's Box); 'an awful gaping scream' and 'that awful glare' (Nothing But the Truth); 'your awful crime' (The Piper's Tune); 'a God-awful mess' (The Mark of The Claw); 'The smell was so awful' (The Worm and The Tree). There may in any case be a dreadful pun going on in the line, if we agree that Gary seems to be pronouncing the word 'awful' as 'offal'.
- 'An awful waste of human life': the question might be asked, what is the word 'human' doing here? It is not in fact redundant at all: the author's dismay at the spectacle of the battlefield is all the more horrified because it is humans voluntarily destroying each other in a way we would ordinarily find repellent in species supposedly far more lowly.
- 'This senseless, bloody, bitter strife': some writers would have considered recasting this line, since 'bitter strife' also occurs in Fool's Gold on the same side of the same album. Several variants in the word-order of this line have been heard on concert, probably more than may be attributed to momentary lapses or 'mental blocks' as Gary has himself called them. Perhaps there really was some uncertainty about the best way of expressing the idea, and it may rest in some sense on the dual meaning of 'bloody': to do with haemorrhaging, or as an emphatic blasphemy (it derives ultimately not from bleeding but from an elision, perhaps to conceal Papist leanings, of the words 'by our Lady'). Here, however, the alliteration of the 'b' sounds seems heartfelt, as does the passionate shell-scream of Brooker's voice: which is then magically matched for pitch and timbre by the first note of the guitar solo.
- 'We huddle close against the ground': this literal writing is unusually physical and vivid: we picture people huddling close to each other, and huddling close to the ground: the earlier imagery of 'hole to hole' is revisited here
- 'Scared to make the slightest sound': there is no logic here, as the zone is so 'unquiet', with the booming of great guns, that slight sounds would surely not be detected: but the line faithfully captures the unthinking panic of the imperilled soldier, cowed and diminished by the magniloquence of the surrounding carnage.
- 'Great guns boom': the line contains two compacted phrases suggesting that war is in a sense a flourishing industry: the expression 'going great guns' signifies 'prospering magnificently' (it's in the same officer-register as 'a dreadful war'), and 'boom' is not only an onomatopoeic representation of the sound of gunfire, but also a word used to signify 'huge expansion'.
- 'Constant march of pending doom': the word 'march' is used to signify the metaphorical strides of progress, as well as alluding literally to the regimented movement of soldiers. Brooker's diction on 'doom' is unusually emphatic, and it may be no accident that the last word in our ears, as Procol Harum unleash the first bout of soloing, is the most poignant and prophetic one from Owen's justly-celebrated Anthem for Doomed Youth.
Thanks to Frans Steensma for additional information about this song