Keith Reid meets me, at his own suggestion, on the steps of the Victoria and Albert Museum in Kensington. Jestingly I inquire if this famous edifice is ‘his local’, his London residence being so close. ‘It’s the old cliché,’ he replies. ‘Live so close, yet I haven’t been here in years.’ As we meander through the Chinese Gallery – each assuming the other knows the way to the Madjeski Courtyard and its open-air café – he adds that it’s no different the other side of the Atlantic … you can keep a place in Tribeca, but you haven’t necessarily climbed the Statue of Liberty.
Keith is no stranger, however, to nearby Hyde Park, where, he tells me, he belonged for a year to the Serpentine Swimming Club, and swam there daily at 7 am. ‘In winter you can’t stay in for long, of course, but the blood rushes out to your skin …’. Sounds exhilarating, I say, but is it good for you? With a gesture straight out of Waiting for Godot he indicates his own person, inviting me to judge for myself.
Freshly turned 72, Keith remains enviably lean and nimble … alarmingly so, in fact, when he dodges into traffic to cross the Cromwell Road as we part a couple of hours later. Readers may feel that he dodges pretty nimbly around one or two of my questions as well; but our two hours’ conversation feel open, thoughtful, intriguing … and always affable.
Our topic – pretty well exclusively – is his new album, In My Head, due for UK release on 7 December, and fortnight later over in America: buy or pre-order it from Amazon.co.uk or from Amazon.com. I’ve been listening to it for a week – in a nutshell, it's surprising, engaging and thought-provoking ... a must-have – and quickly find out that I’m the first person he’s talked to about it. He’s interested, and amused, to know how it’s struck me.
Like Keith’s previous solo offering, 2008’s The Common Thread, In My Head features music by various composers sung by various artists, and consequently offers a less cohesive listening experience than the typical Procol Harum record of yore … arguably the only similarity is that in both cases all the words were written by Keith.
‘Do you think of the new album as a compilation?’ I ask. He weighs his answer carefully.
Not a compilation, no, it’s an accumulation, because I write songs all the time. It’s a question of accumulating songs until you have enough to make a record.
I remind him that, in 2008, he declared he had 'plenty of other items that might have made the cut' but, as he then observed, '55 minutes [thirteen tracks] seems plenty: sometimes too much is worse than not enough.'
I notice the new collection [which comprises ten songs over about forty minutes] has been ten years in the pipeline ...
Well, goes to show, time flies! Laughter. Ten years, what’s wrong with that? More laughter. Well I haven’t been working on it for ten years. These songs have been written over the past few years, some more recently than others. But I got down to serious recording in … let’s think … the serious commencement of this record, when I got started in earnest, I can date clearly, because I was working in Sweden and I was driving to the airport when we heard on the radio that same weekend Julian Assange took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy.
Was that cause and effect?
Yes – laughter – he needed to get out of my way!
Of Keith’s 2008 singers – Steve Booker (2 songs), Chaz Jankel (1), Southside Johnny (2), Terry Reid (1), Michael Saxell (1), Bernie Shanahan (2), Chris Thompson (2) and John Waite (2) – only Waite and Booker are involved again in 2018; and of the fourteen 2008 composers – Steve Booker*, John DeNicola, Barry Goldberg, Jeff Golub, Chaz Jankel, Anthony Krizan*, John Lyon, Matt Noble*, Andy Qunta, Maggie Ryder, Michael Saxell, Mark Taylor, Chris Thompson, John Waite* – again only a small minority (marked with asterisks) are featured in 2018.
You didn’t revisit many of the collaborators from the first record?
That wasn’t deliberate, it was just the way it worked out.
The John Waite and Steve Booker songs on In My Head, are they coeval with those composers’ contributions to The Common Thread?
I don’t think so.
One strong point of continuity is the record label, Rockville. I ask Keith why his music is being published by a small company in faraway Bavaria.
I just really like the guy who runs the label. Manfred, who did the last record: he wanted to do this one, at the same time as I wanted to do something …
When Manfred Plötz was asked, in a recent interview, how he would describe Keith's new collection, his response included 'In My Head is a wonderful collection of soulful songs, featuring six different singers. But it's not only the music. It's also Keith's extraordinary talent for writing lyrics. Keith Reid is a wonderful poet, and he's a unique phenomenon in music history: being an essential part of a band (Procol Harum), but not sharing [the] stage.' Plötz himself plays in the band Pavlov's Dog, whose new album – resonantly entitled Prodigal Dreamer – is released the same day as Keith's.
How did you two become acquainted?
I think somebody introduced me to him but … I really can’t remember …
Reid's memorial drive appears to stall, and he laughs. We both know there will be quite a lot of answers of this kind. The Assange/Ecuadorian Embassy episode was August 2012, so I realise I’m not necessarily asking Keith about recent history. I turn to specifics of the record.
The first track on the album is a huge surprise, I tell him. This Space is Vacant (4.10) – intimately sung by Maya Saxell, and accompanied exquisitely at the piano by Anders Widmark, a big name in Swedish jazz – marks a major departure from the tone and density of The Common Thread. I ask if Maya is related to 2008 Reid collaborator Michael Saxell, the Grammy-award winning Swedish hit-meister. The answer comes back, immediate, fluent.
Maya, yes, she’s the daughter of Michael. He played me a tape of her doing a Bruce Springsteen song, and I really liked the way she did it. And I filed her away in my memory: ‘I really like that girl’s voice’. And later on, when I was looking for the right singers for these particular songs, I thought, 'Let’s see how she sounds.'
This Space is Vacant is a song about the narrator’s interactions with a homeless person whom he’s wont to pass in the street, but who’s suddenly absent. The first verse uses deft and ingenious half-rhymes to set up the scene:
I used to see him every day, sleeping on the pavement
But lately when I pass that way I see his space is vacant
‘Spare change,’ he used to say, ‘I’m not your entertainment’
The straightforward good cheer of the indigent – who asks ‘why are you so sad?’ – is contrasted with the ambivalent thinking of the walker, who sometimes, like a bad Samaritan, crosses the street to avoid him; and we gradually learn that he himself has no particular place to go; the parallel is drawn and we start to wonder whether he’s a candidate for the empty place on the pavement. I’m puzzled, perhaps haunted … by a ‘disconnect’ between this tale of two directionless men and the womanly voice that sings it. Close-miked, sultry Maya’s style would suit a bedroom confessional, and chimes askance with Reid’s unflinching interrogation of his imperfect relationship with the homeless, ultimately absent man. The interiority of the performance makes a strong impression … yet the story is the tale of a street.
What are we to make of this ambiguous narrator?
I don’t think of him quite the way you do …
But isn’t that a giveaway? We’re saying ‘him’ not ‘her’. You’ve given the lyric to a woman.
Particularly with these Maya tracks, the thing I really liked about her is that she really inhabits the songs, she’s living it. She does in my opinion what a really good singer should do, sound as though she means it, and she’s experienced it. And basically, that’s what I’m looking for in deciding who’s right for different songs: people who will really inhabit them.
In fact Maya inhabits forty percent of the new album and is in every way a standout. I wonder if Keith had written with her in mind.
No, I wrote those songs before I’d ever met her. All the songs on the record … they’re all about me in some way – and that’s partly why I called it In My Head – and the singers are just … I’m using different people to represent, no, to voice me. But that’s always been the case; that was the case with Procol Harum songs too.
I suggest that in the Procol days fans felt they were effectively hearing the Reid voice, even though it was almost always Gary Brooker singing the words. Though Gary sang soulfully, it was never histrionic; he was never acting a part, and seemed a relatively transparent vehicle for the lyricist’s insights and imagery. But now, given the profusion of varied characters voicing Keith’s thoughts on these two solo records, it’s hard not to think in terms of personalities and how these match – or colour – the material. Maya Saxell, the only woman on the team, is a radical departure and brings something really new to the Reid world: one can't help noticing that, if her name were an anagram, it would be only one letter adrift from ‘I am all sexy’.
Is it? Laughs. I’d better not tell her that. Look, initially, I just did the piano, and actually at that stage I hadn’t made a decision what I was going to add to the tunes apart from getting the right person to sing it.
Keith tells me that composer Anders Widmark, in Sweden, had not only played some brilliant piano – conspicuously, his chord voicings vary (sometimes fleetingly) to reinforce the emotion of the lyric – but had provided a guide vocal.
You were there for his piano recording?
I was responsible for the piano recording! He’s a fabulous piano-player.
And how do you know Anders?
As with Michael Saxell … these things recede in my mind, but I must have met him through the famous Ingmar Bergman [story here!]
How often one says that! (Laughter). So you went to Sweden and did stuff with Maya?
I went to Sweden – to Gotland, to be precise – to record the tracks with Anders, who wrote the music for those three songs. Maya lives in Vancouver.
You mean they’re not playing together in real life?
I’ve given something away there. You see this is the wizardry … when people say, 'What do you do in a recording studio?' ...
Is there anything that’s ever done in your absence?
I produced it all. Hands on with everything, all over the place. The record was made in Sweden, America, and Canada. Vancouver’s in Canada, isn’t it?
So you were in Vancouver?
No, that’s where Maya is; I sent the tunes to her, and then we talked about it a lot, and she sent her parts over.
Amazing. It really sounds like a man and a woman playing together, when you've just set up a mic and happened to get one brilliant take. Whereas there are other tunes in this accumulation that positively invite us to imagine the multi-tracking involved. I’m almost shocked to learn that Maya was not curled on a cushion adjoining the piano stool, but recorded her part far away in space and time, and then simply dropped it into Anders Widmark's recording.
There were some technical difficulties which had to be sorted out, so it wasn’t quite as simple as that. But it is totally organic. We married the two elements together with Matt Noble – he’s my trusty compatriot in that respect. Back in the day a producer was always in the room at the time, but I don’t think that’s the case these days.
Can you remember why you made this one the lead track?
It kind of set the tone for the album, when the Maya tracks were done, and I thought ‘that’s the kind of record I’d like.'
You didn’t think of doing a whole album in that way?
Pause. Maybe one of these days.
Needless to say the second track, which gives its name to the whole collection, presents an enormous contrast. Prominent lead guitar (textural, not really melodic, and sometimes recorded backwards), groovy beats, and an assertively mobile bass line are provided by The Spin Doctors’ sometime guitarist Anthony Krizan, who also sings.
Anthony? I met him through Frankie LaRocca. He’s a [New] Jersey guy, and I met him when I did the overdubs on Thieves’ Road at his studio in Jersey. That’s where I did In My Head, in his studio.
The highly original lyric presents two voices debating the relative merits of original versions and covers, in terms both of songs and of films. One voice puts the younger point of view and the other responds with self-deprecating humour recalling Procol’s Yours if You Want Me. I remark that the energy and weird vocal style of In My Head (3.57) make it a second standout in a row, and remind me of The Only Monkey, the most aggressive and challenging song from the previous album.
I do like that a lot. I’m going to redo that tune one of these days.
Do it with … (he ruminates)
Orchestra and chorus?
(laughter) Some people thought it was just comic. And it was intended to be humorous, but not comic, I don’t think. Chuckles. But anyway I will redo that song at some point.
Whereas The Only Monkey was bleakly misanthropic (its bluntness underlined by some brutal key changes in Chaz Jankel’s instrumental track) In My Head is genuinely funny.
In my head I’m Motörhead, in my head I’m
In her head I’m halfway dead, old and weird and smelly.
In my head I’m Motörhead, dangerous and crazy
In her head I’m Father Ted, old and weird and lazy.
At least, it starts out funny, though the tone shifts when the ‘old and weird and lazy’ voice declares ‘Now it’s all a piece of shit and no-one gives a fuck’
Yes, but the whole song is supposed to be like that, about remaking things.
I’ve never heard that song before, I think this record’s cool
You always say the old one’s best, you’re just a sad old fool.
Do you really think that old versions are always better, and remakes always dodgy?
You’re not just adopting a grumpy old man position?
It’s a wry commentary! But yes, the music was always better then, but it isn’t worse now, because there’s lots of great music coming out now.
The two generations in that song are characterised by different voices. Who are the two vocalists?
It’s all Anthony, all Anthony Krizan.
But I notice there’s a ‘Support Vocal’ credit for ‘Keith Reid’.
It’s in the chorus, ‘In my head I’m Motörhead’. I’m there. I’m in there.
Singing? [The chorus is a primitive riff, delivered in a distorted, manic holler]
I don’t think I’d call it singing. Anyway, through the magic of the recording medium, I’m in there.
I remind Keith of his previous Hitchcockian micro-role on The Common Thread … another parallel with The Only Monkey, in fact.
I’d forgotten about that.
But whereas the Monkey song is a critique of all humanity, this one is more about the foibles of one character, and it’s more culturally specific, or even limited. I ask if Father Ted is known in the States?
A good question: we’ll find that out. They get BBC TV over there, they have comedy channels over there, and considering there are such a lot of Irish people in America … put it like this: (a) I don’t know, and (b) I imagine so.
And (c) it’s not even the Father Ted character himself who’s ‘old and weird and lazy’ ... isn't that the alcoholic, Father Jack?
Is that right? Uproarious laughter.
Arguably of course this Father Ted error, from the narrator, could be taken as an additional affirmation of his out-of-touchness with relatively-recent mass entertainment. But before I can come out with that, Keith plays his own get-out-of-jail card.
Well anyway, it’s Art. I’m allowed to …
Thieves’ Road (4.45) doesn’t concern itself with jail, nor the courts, but offers a kind of admonition to an unnamed ‘you’ who ‘… rode your winning streak down where the crossroads meet’. The language remains somewhat indeterminate, and, like the music, doesn’t offer too many surprises. Sprightly acoustic rhythm guitar, solid four-to-the bar bass, rhythm shakers, piano and languid, slightly-distant lead guitar offer a pleasing, if unvarying, listening experience. By comparison with the foregoing numbers, this Booker/Reid song seems a more mainstream piece of work.
Did all these songs start with the words?
Yes. Probably. … probably. I’d have to go through it in my head, but probably.
You made a precious vow
but you broke it anyhow
You’re out of favours
You hid your smoking gun
out where the buffalo run
you’re no angel
Thieves’ Road struck me as a possible exception … it’s quite unusual to have six lines before the chorus, and Steve Booker plays around with the vocal rhythms, to fit them into the song meter. I wonder if there was a rhythm track first.
I think he had a feel first: I think he told me he’d got something, and then I started writing.
So Steve Booker, he’s writing, singing, multi-tracking. It’s nice that the who-did-whats here are more complete than on the previous record.
Yes, Steve did the basic tracks, but then we added to them: I did that in New York, in Jersey.
Are there any unlisted musicians?
I’ve tried to be pretty exact. Jon Korba played the mellotron on Thieves’ Road, and piano.
Is Korba another Noble associate?
No, he’s with Hall and Oates sometimes, I think. He’s a Jersey guy. They all know each other.
Do you work from a list of singers, mixing and matching, mating the right voice with the right song?
It works in different ways. With In My Head, for instance, it hadn’t particularly been my intention for Anthony Krizan to sing it, but when we were putting the tune together I thought he sounded really good on it, and I didn’t feel there was any reason for me to get anyone else to sing it.
I suppose the modern-day song-writing process almost always involves a recording-machine running, so the songwriter is effectively making a demo on the fly?
Yes, and quite often the composer will do a guide vocal, even if you get together with the intention of writing a song for a particular artist.
Is that what happened with You’re the Voice? You released (composer) Chris Thompson’s early version on The Common Thread, but of course the huge hit came with John Farnham’s voice.
You’re the Voice was for Chris, and Chris was going to do it, and I know he kicks himself to this day, although it wasn’t his fault; that song was for an album that he was doing but the producers told him they didn’t think it was a very commercial song, and left it off the record.
As almost happened with Over the Rainbow and the Wizard of Oz producers.
I didn’t know that. Another example, All I Need to Know, the one that John Waite’s singing, I wrote it with him and Anthony Krizan. And you know, if you’re writing with John Waite … he’s going to sing it …
You were writing in the room with him?
I can’t remember. Not in the room … but he was involved all the way throughout, and no-one’s going to put that across better than him … they’re just not! I suppose the rule of thumb is that if you’re working with people who are singers in their career, you pretty much will end up with them singing the song … though it doesn’t always work out like that.
Almost all your singers seem to be composers as well … I gather Maya Saxell writes music for films.
She’s done plenty of things. Actually she had a band in Sweden, called ‘Said the Shark’. They’re really good!
I like the fact that their album is called Always Prattling on About Wolves.
There you are … a Swedish sense of humour.
There’s paradoxical Reid wit in Thieves’ Road, as well as the Wild West imagery:
There’s a thousand ways to go astray when you look for fools’ gold
And you’ve got to be an honest man when you take the thieves’ road
When you write something like ‘look for fools’ gold’, are you aware that you’re sending a little message to Procol fans there?
No. Not intentionally.
You did have a phase of quoting yourself … and we see ‘sink or swim’ on Ten More Shows.
I did that a few times on The Prodigal Stranger deliberately. But the answer, now, is definitely not.
But the album cover, and the video, and the lawsuit song … I’m sure we’ll come on to these things … they definitely speak to a constituency that’s immersed in your past history.
I wonder why you’ve changed your by-line from ‘The Keith Reid Project’ to ‘The KRP’?
I preferred it. I don’t know if that’s been a wise choice. I didn’t understand this thing about [search-engine] algorithms. If you type in 'The KRP' it won’t come up straight away, but there are plenty of other KRPs [as well being the TLA for numerous businesses, KRP is also clubbers’ shorthand for ‘kissing random people’]. If you type in 'The Keith Reid Project' it comes up straight away. So … had I known that, I might not have done that. Laughs. I might not have done it.
I preferred it, to try and get it off of me. In an ideal world, I’d like it to be 'The KRP' just so … I’m not quite sure why …
You’re known for not being particularly self-promoting.
It’s not really that, it’s just … I don’t really know why. Maybe it’s snappier.
But it distances In My Head from your previous record, doesn’t it? Says it’s not more of the same.
Yes, I think so, and that’s a useful by-product. I didn’t deliberately set out for it not to be more of the same: but I didn’t want it to be more of the same. I’d always want to push forward.
On the promo video for the album, the acronym is unpacked or expanded: on screen we see ‘KRP, the Keith Reid Project’.
That’s Manfred, being mindful of algorithms. He stuck that on at the end.
So it’s Manfred who made the Ten More Shows film [3.17]?
No, he had nothing to do with it.
So … who made the film?
Maya Saxell … well it’s my idea; I spoke to Maya because she and her partner are film-makers, and I told her what I wanted. And then she completely ignored that … laughs … I didn’t storyboard it, but we discussed it in great detail, and then they came up with their own interpretation of what I was trying to communicate. But I love it.
It's quite enigmatic in a David Lynchian sense, with the little animal baubles hanging from threads in a forest.
No, nothing to do with me.
And you’ve got Maya, wearing a sailor’s outfit, with ‘Hero’ written on her hat, which I take it relates to the ‘hat full of dreams’ in the song.
That was totally me.
She’s rootling about on the forest floor, and she exhumes a tiny piano.
The film-makers came up with that bit.
Are you able to comment on the subsequent image, where she reburies the piano, with a door-key inside it?
No, that’s … the magic of the movies.
Do you mean, it would destroy it to talk about it?
But you can imagine the conspiracy theorists: ‘buried key, dangling threads: key / thread = Keith Reid’’
‘It’s all there …’ (doubtful noises)
And it’s not a great leap of imagination to relate certain passages to Keith’s time with Procol Harum, and the downward trajectory – in commercial terms, at any rate – of their career.
They say you’ve got to
play to win
But life ain’t always sink or swim
Sometimes you’re playing second fiddle
Sometimes you’re just stuck in the middle
I point out that when you listen to Schubert you'd be daft to wonder if Fischer-Dieskau himself is really obsessed with a Schöne Müllerin … but on The KRP album, because there are so many different voices, the question is bound to arise as to whether they’ve been chosen because their own history or nature matches some particular aspect of the lyric. Or does Keith feel that the dissonance between Maya's youth and the ‘heart full of scars … old guitar’ creates some kind of third aspect of interest – such as one might detect in certain Elvis Costello songs? Astutely he responds that a young woman could indeed own an old guitar, or suffer with a scarred heart.
In fact, though, our narrator here is both female and male, since Maya’s voice is underscored by a man’s voice throughout – somewhat reminiscent of the way latter-day Leonard Cohen used female shadow-singers.
Whose is the male voice? It’s not listed in the credits.
I can’t recall for the moment.
The video, of course, focuses strongly on Maya, unequivocally reinforcing the feminine side. Yet she’s impersonating a male mariner, and the 'Hero' hat, which adorns Keith’s head on the A Salty Dog cover, is abandoned in the wood, hiding … or perhaps marking … the piano’s grave.
The song appears to be performed in a dark wood … nothing very obviously connected with the lyrical material. You specified that?
No, I’m not going to take away from any of the magic … but I didn’t specify that, I will say that much. I will tell you this, we started off with On the Town¸ the Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra movie … that was the starting point … laughter ... that’s where we started. More laughter.
I’m reminded of the often-mentioned yet inexplicable fact that Midnight Cowboy was the mental springboard for The Dead Man’s Dream, but the conversation passes to the music of the present track, and its composer.
Rob Wasserman: he was a Lou Reed sideman, and San Francisco Conservatory of Music alumnus, I believe?
Unfortunately he’s passed away [1952–2016] and he’s a fabulous bass player, he’s got Grammies and stuff; a phenomenal musician, sorely missed. He plays any kind of bass but he’s primarily known for playing upright acoustic bass, and he had a band for years with Bob Weir from the Grateful Dead; I knew him through that.
The song is marked by a simple melody and a memorable opening hook. There's been quite a bit of overdubbing – shaker, guiro and fretless bass alongside the acoustic guitars – yet it could very well be performed, in an acoustic folk club setting perhaps, with just the two voices and one strummer. The aural mood is resigned, perhaps even mellow, and arguably this takes the edge off a lyric which, printed in the CD booklet as all these song words are, feels more rueful.
I like what you’ve done with William Blake: ‘see a world in a grain of sand’ becomes ‘build a wall from a grain of sand.’
I didn’t know that.
It wasn’t a misheard phrase?
You like upending proverbs, making us reappraise clichés and well-known quotations by distorting them slightly [1967's 'if music be the food of life’ pointed the way] …
I’ve done that in the past.
Or ‘They say the piper calls the tune’. They don’t say that, they say the opposite.
On one level I quite often get these things wrong! On another level maybe subconsciously my brain must be telling me it’s better this way.
Here you tell us ‘You can buy a life right off the shelf’? How does that relate thematically to the rest of the song?
what the advertisers tell you? I think that’s what the advertisers would have us
I wonder why Ten More Shows was the song chosen for the video.
Manfred just said, ‘Any chance of doing a video for that song?’
One song on the album that does instantly conjure up its own visual imagery is The Bank of Worry (3.05): it’s so easy to imagine a film in which its genial singer, Jeff Young, beckons viewers inside the portals of some imposing building.
Welcome to the Bank of Worry
Everyone is in such a hurry
No-one stops to smell the roses
The Bank of Worry never closes
Reid’s lyric worries away at this idea, stating the title phrase thirteen times in a mere twenty tightly-rhymed lines. The music, sumptuously multitracked by composer Matt Noble, nicely contradicts the systemic anxiety of the song words. It uses double bass, string sounds, understated brass, electric piano, gentle drums, congas: the texture is both rich and uncluttered, and it builds to a true soul conclusion, the declamatory lead voice duetting with choral responses. In the final bars we hear what may well be a guide rhythm track from a drum machine, but there's nothing mechanical about the foregoing song which – for my money – is over too quickly.
How did The Bank of Worry start? Was that an overheard phrase?
With that idea … pause … I was thinking about how it never stops. It’s a way of life. But it’s not a phrase that I heard, it’s something that came to me.
In the past you’ve been a bit caustic about bankers (viz As Strong as Samson)
This is a more generalised thing. It’s not specifically about bankers per se, it’s about being sold worry … because it’s always there.
Could it have been the internet of anguish, or the national grid of unease?
Yes, but that wouldn’t sound very poetic, would it? I’ve known Jeff for years, a very long time, and I’ve written songs with him in the past, I write songs with him occasionally. He makes records himself, and he’s been in Jackson Browne’s band, and with Steely Dan. Ah, it’s all coming back to me now … I know him from New York, a guy who’s been around in New York for a while and he went to live in California … he’s a good friend.
He’s also a good singer. His warm tones recall Sam Cooke to these ears … and the voice could even make a reassuring job of an advert for a real-world bank. Its cool, relaxed feel makes the conclusion – which abandons the rhetoric of smooth endorsement for an abrupt and chilling moment of truth – even more alarming:
The Bank of Worry wants your soul
The Bank of Worry’s out of control
It feels a good moment to turn to the rather worrying record cover, which shows a man and a red-eyed whale. The man's body-language looks untroubled … he’s got a lifebelt, after all … yet both he and the whale are on dry land … and they're both bearing their teeth.
That’s my idea too. Dave Cook is a good friend of mine, who very kindly did all the graphic design.
You devised the imagery? What would you like to say about it?
Well, what should I be saying about it?
The album hasn’t got a picture of you anywhere, unless people know that’s you in the lifebelt from A Salty Dog. The top half of the 'Hero' reminds us of Procol Harum, the bottom half – the trousers – reminds us of the human figure from The Common Thread cover. You seem to be turning your back on the whale ... is it another Whaling Story? We’re in a rather featureless estuary … if the whale has been beached, it seems exceptionally large to have been thrown up out of a completely placid sea. All in all it’s thoroughly enigmatic.
Yes. Yeah. I’ll buy that.
What did you specify when you contacted Dave Cook?
I showed him my vision, and he turned it into reality.
You had a sketch, or …
I had some photographs. He created the whole thing. I kind of … yeah I gave him a photograph. Everything you see there.
So somebody’s taken a photograph of you on a foreshore with a whale?
Mirthfully. Not exactly. Laughs. But I showed him a photograph that had all those elements in.
A photo of man and whale?
When Dickinson made the original painting, did you pose with the lifebelt, or is it artistic licence to superimpose those two elements.
I don’t think I posed with the lifebuoy. I think it was just a picture and she added those other elements afterwards.
But these images do suggest that you want the album to be interpreted, or construed, or evaluated, in connection with Procol Harum ...
Mm hmm. I don’t know.
Well you’re saying, here’s the cover of A Salty Dog, arguably the most famous Procol album cover …
Well I’m saying ‘Here’s me!’
Notwithstanding most people don’t know it’s you?
Ah well, you can enlighten them! I like the whole booklet. I think he’s done a fantastic job [we talk about the way the seashore runs through all the pages]
So it’s not Southend-on-Sea?
No! Although I don’t know why I’m saying that. I don’t know where it is. I love the artwork.
Whereas I said it looked like a man walking away from a whale, in fact it could be that the whale, with his red eyes and jaws gaping, is baring his teeth ready to assail the human figure.
Well, this is beauty of art, isn’t it, you can ! Two people can look at the same picture and get different things.
All we care about is what you get from it, and what you put into it.
Well, my job is to just put it out there.
I don’t think you can rely on the same trope when it comes to Trial of the Century.
What trope is that?
The one where you respond with ‘I must have thought it was valid at the time’. The Teflon reflex, ‘You can’t stick anything on me, guv.’
Many times I’ve brought parties of students here to London museums and galleries; when they say something like ‘Why did Picasso do this?’ I have to answer with plausible tangents, ‘some of these images crop up a lot in his work, look at the line, the colour, the balance, compare it with earlier and later stuff, see how it makes you feel.’ But I warn them. ‘As to what it’s intended to mean, we’ll never know … he’s not here to tell us.’
But in the case of Keith Reid, luckily you are here to tell us … if you choose to.
The Trial of the Century [3.34] seems to be explicitly about recent, or recent-ish, legal events.
Oh, for sure. No question about it.
You ask lots of rhetorical questions – ‘was he excluded, or simply deluded, a wolf in sheep’s clothing or merely a sheep’ – but you don’t commit yourself beyond raising the question.
Well, that’s it, that’s my job. I wanted to … well I won’t say I wanted to, I was impelled to write a song about that situation, about my experiences ...
As you said when we started talking, ‘these songs are about me’. Is this song going to add to people’s understanding of the Whiter Shade of Pale lawsuit?
Ummmm ... I don’t know. They’ll certainly hear something about it from my point of view (laughs).
In fact the song uses the typical Reid trick of multiple viewpoints: for instance, though ‘slick’, ‘glib’, ‘mirrors and smoke’ may imply that the currency of the lawsuit was illusions, ‘the cat's out the bag’ suggests a revelation of truth. No doubt some will suppose this ‘cat’ refers to Procul Harun, the band’s founding feline. And elsewhere there are lines like ‘Song sounds familiar, they’re robbing the grave’ that don’t map conveniently on to the received lawsuit facts (though this instance may remind us of the exhumation and reburial in Ten More Shows).
Even in the lines that appear to invite an obvious interpretation, one quickly realises there may be more than one candidate to inhabit the pronoun ‘he’ … the defendants, plaintiffs, counsels and judge were all of the male gender. ‘With so many lawyers the truth’s hard to find’ could be interpreted as ‘even with such a wealth of legal expertise the truth is elusive’ or else ‘the more lawyers you employ the less likely you are to get to the truth’.
The words … see here for the entire text … are sung with feeling by Chris Merola.
Did you feel Chris Merola 'inhabits' this lyric? Did he know the legal background to the trial?
He didn’t, not at all. And actually a few different people sang that song, just a few different people, nobody that you’d know. A few different people in the Bronxville world.
When other people tackled it, did they get as far as finished vocals?
Yes. I worked on this tune quite a few times, and Chris’s is the one I liked best.
BtP reviewed Chris's album Straight Answer in a Crooked Town. And of course he plays twelve-string on The Prodigal Stranger … The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, as I remember.
I’m sure he does … if he said so. He’s a lovely guy. He’s quite good, I think. I met him through Matt Noble.
Matt who wrote the music here, and has half-a-dozen Procol co-writes to his name. I haven’t worked out whether you allotted particular lyrics to particular composers.
Not deliberately. Not on purpose. Not in terms of thinking, ‘Oh, this will be good for … so-and-so’. Invariably, if you think that would be good – to get so-and-so in to do it – it turns out that it’s not (laughs). But this was just one of the songs … I wrote quite a few songs with Matt, and that was just one of them.
You don’t specify who’s playing what on this one.
It’s all Matt.
The song starts with clanking piano triplets accompanying the slightly gruff tones of the singer; a synth bass comes in for the second verse, and the drums power into the chorus ... in which we notice some hovering Hammond. A dark scar of 'cello heralds the third verse, which is again haunted by the organ. The doubled voice gives weight to the chorus, then the first instrumental break ... a sliver of Bach ... is taken by string sounds and a glittering harpsichord. Everything winds down to piano and voice again, with intermittent drum entries that will please PH fans. When the Bach motif returns its duration is ever-briefer, curtailed by voices hollering the title; then the whole weighty piece collapses into the ambiguously-intended refrain of 'Give me break': it's very effective.
Even though you carefully don’t name names in the lyric, you put a layer of conspicuous Hammond organ on it, with very characteristic drawbar settings that counterfeit that classic plangent, nasal Procol sound. And then there’s the Bach satire, when you bodge a splinter of Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring into the middle of it.
(laughter) We tried a couple of things, and Matt did that and I said, 'Oh, I really like that.'
So it was your idea to sling some Bach in?
We were just playing around, trying to do something à propos. And I wanted to emphasise it as well, as I recall.
There’s another mixed-up proverb, your own take on ‘Give a man enough rope and he’ll hang himself’.
I was trying to express that idea, but it would have sounded clumsy. I’m saying that in my own words. ‘Don’t need a hangman when you’ve got enough rope’
And when you decide to make a record, you probably type out some song words … do you send 'Song A' to several composers and see if it strikes a note with them …
No, it’s not quite like that, because it’s an accumulation … I’m trying to think how it came about … pause … those songs, when I was doing them with Matt … those were days I was working with him, and I had a bunch of lyrics and we just started working on things and that one started to come together.
So it doesn’t mean there’s a Steve Booker setting of this song in the bin somewhere?
Oh no, no no no, not at all.
I think we have a lingering impression inherited from Procol days that sometimes a lyric got set by more than one person: Crucifiction Lane, for instance?
Yes, but that was a slightly different situation. I mean you could sit down and work on a song with one person and think, ‘It hasn’t worked out, I’m going to try it again with somebody else.’ I’m sure people do do that, but it’s not really fair, if you see what I mean. If you sit down and work with somebody, and that happens, you probably ditch the whole thing: it’s just something that didn’t work out.
A song that definitively did work out, to this listener’s ears, is Back from the Brink (3.47). This is a doom-laden miniature, voice and piano only, which may strike some listeners as a grandchild of Barnyard Story … though composer Anders Widmark’s piano is riddled with sprightly rhythms, countering the slow plaint of Maya Saxell’s vocal. It’s an old-fashioned, artful tune, decorated with intriguing intervals and variant harmonies that keep the ear in a constant state of engagement and surprise.
Scandinavian readers may well know this song already, from the Mikael Rickfors version. His 2004 Lush Life album also features Dance with Me, which is freshly interpreted as the penultimate track on In My Head.
Yes those two songs were written much earlier, but they weren’t in my mind back then, as candidates, when I was choosing material for The Common Thread. Michael is a very fine singer. But I haven’t heard his versions for ages: they didn’t play any part in my thinking about In My Head.
It could be argued that Rickfors’s regular, metrical delivery undersells the lyric. Its topic, after all, is a super-serious one – mountains of pain, the threat of imminent catastrophe, the ubiquitous passing of the buck – and the carefully-planned rhymes don’t want to run the risk of sounding like doggerel.
We go lighting a fuse
When there’s so much to lose
Grow that mountain of pain ever faster
Let’s draw back from the brink
Cos we don’t wanna sink
And it’s all going to end in disaster.
Rickfors's workmanlike delivery, over a backing of piano, upright bass, drums and a handful of brass, lacks Maya’s sense of exploration of the ideas in the song. Her freer, more introverted delivery gives a properly thought-provoking weight to the cunning irregularities of the lyric, in which we hear sometimes ‘mountain of pain’ and sometimes ‘mountain of shame’, sometimes ‘don’t wanna sink’ and sometimes ‘don’t wanna think’.
The opening line, ‘Put away those childhood toys’ arguably describes what’s happening in the Ten More Shows video. Alliterative decoration is attractively handled – ‘bricks … bats’, ‘tricks … traps’ – yet Reid also sidesteps that effect, giving us ‘trinkets and bangles and beads’, dodging the clichéd ‘bauble’. To this reviewer it’s one of the finest lyrics on the record, eschewing songwriterly formulae, yet obeying its own inner logic.
It’s a bit like the older Reid style, ‘all going to end in disaster,’ an undertow of pessimism … but here embodying a call to come ‘back from the brink.’ Which makes a great hook.
You know, The Bank of Worry started out from that line, but Back from the Brink was different … that line came along as I wrote the song.
The sound of the track is unique on the album. Maya sings her own, haunting harmony vocal, and the skipping, rhythmically playful piano (its forty-second coda reminiscent of Jacques Loussier) appears distinctly treated. Keith explains:
No, I know what you mean, it’s the same piano as in the other two piano tracks. I know what you mean. It sounds as if it’s got an effect on it, but it hasn’t. It just happened like that. There were really weird echoes in the room. It’s not digital. Some magical force took over.
The piano tracks were done over a few days but this is the only one on which that effect was observed. The recording engineer on the Anders Widmark numbers receives a special credit; but Keith concedes that there’s a mistake in its track-references..
It should be 1, 7, 9. I think what happened there is that this running order got changed a few times. You’ve spotted a mistake. Maybe you’ll be the only person to spot that!
All I Need to Know (5.06) starts gently with a couple of acoustic guitars, John Waite's character-filled voice picked out with distant, watery reverb. Doug Kistner's piano lends emphasis, and vibrato string sounds soon well up from the background, as the temperature of Waite's singing rises. The lack of drums is notable, and the guitars provide all the necessary rhythmical impetus.
lies in shadows
Ten silent fathoms deep
I swim through dark waters
to watch her sleep
This reminds me faintly of Love Minus Zero / No Limit: ‘My love she speaks like silence.’
I love that, that’s a great one. I haven’t heard that for years.
It’s as if a drop of Dylan has fertilised the soil from which Broken Barricades once grew: but here the imagery of tides, seashells, and wastelands is redemptive.
What’s the story of this one?
Once again, I met John Waite though Frankie LaRocca back in the day, and wrote songs with him for his record. We just remained friends and occasional writers.
Waite's In God’s Shadow is a favourite off The Common Thread.
Yes, I like that one a lot. All I Need to Know? I was working with John and Anthony and they had the tune going, and basically I wrote that in New York, and I think I just went back to my loft … I had the tune, not completed, but the musical basis was there.
What’s that glittering sound, in later verses, like a glass harmonica?
It’s some kind of keyboardy thing.
Waite's performance is emotive but not overdone: he has an incisive yet sympathetic voice which compels any listener's attention. Core aspects of this song feel reminiscent of Gary Brooker’s recent solo track, Somewhen, which posits the reunion of lovers at the end of their mortal life, though I don’t ask Keith if he’s heard that.
her my very heart … till death us part ..
but someday I’ll be with her and that’s all I need to know.
If this level of directness and emotional honesty doesn’t sound like Keith Reid ... it may be time to revise your opinion of his range!
And the same applies to
Dance with Me (4.04)
Won’t you dance with me, close to me …
when you dance with me nothing else feels real
In Maya Saxell’s halting, inward treatment, a lyric that arguably bordered on the sentimental in Mikael Rickfors’s 2004 version now becomes a sensual and existential investigation of the core question, ‘Is it only dreams that we pursue?’
One life, one wish … that will do …’.
A settled wisdom has replaced the signature nihilism of Reid’s early lyrical excursions; and although there’s still an acknowledgment of uncertainty, the poet now finds reassurance and adventure in doubt.
Life … it’s not being afraid … it’s ‘don’t know for sure’
'New songs are old songs' is a paradoxical proposition, and runs counter to both sides of the argument in the title song of this collection. But Saxell's voice draws us into this song about songs, and purges any saccharine potential from lines like 'your song is my song' thanks to the mysterious intimacy of her delivery. 'She sings it great,' says Reid, a couple of times. And Widmark plays it great too, voicing his own chords with delicious attention to detail ... basslines, tripletty fills, occasional passages played hymnally straight, sudden 'Piccadilly thirds' ... it's compelling listening.
I tried ten zillion instruments on that track, then chucked them all out. On quite a few of these tunes I tried all kinds of stuff. Definitely on the piano ones, and some of the others, just trying different stuff out to see what worked. Strings, drums, bass, you name it.
They all started with a full performance on piano?
I didn’t think they added anything. Laughter. I certainly tried!
I don’t feel the loss.
No, there’s a lot of depth to his playing, and the harmonics.
Keith tells me that this Dance with Me was not made with reference to the Rickfors version, nor was the decision to eschew additional instruments related in any way to the 2004 record’s reliance on upright bass, brushed kit, steel guitar, sax and trumpet to suggest a cocktail-bar ambience. But as he rightly observes,
Even if you pared all [Rickfors’s] stuff down to voice and solo piano, the feel would be very different.
It certainly would. Widmark is a very inventive player, exploring the full range of the piano, and one gets a sense of the restraint he habitually practises when, suddenly, at about the three-minute mark, he erupts into a wild piano break, as unexpected and effective as the classic moment on The Hissing of Summer Lawns where Joni Mitchell’s Harry’s House is interrupted and offset by the jazz standard Centrepiece. Widmark's exhalations, guttural exclamations and other Oscar Peterson-like behaviours are fearlessly commemorated in this exciting recording. Then he reins himself back, and Maya returns – almost an afterthought – for a couple of lines which restore the original feel of the song.
You can hear him banging the floor with his foot, which is great.
As producer, had you suggested a piano break at that point?
No no, but actually funnily enough with that tune he was used to doing it much more up-tempo. The way he envisaged that tune, and the way we did it, are very different. Because he envisaged it as an up-tempo rock and roll tune, and I said ‘Do it like this, and put that bit as the opening’. I had quite a lot to do with the arrangement of that tune. Nothing to do with the performance, but a lot to do with the way it turned out, and it wasn’t how Anders had envisaged it whatsoever. In his mind it sounded more like The Who or something like that.
So as producer Keith Reid pulled things back from the brink, as it were.
Thus the record, which represents a lot of pruning and winnowing, ends with another Booker/Reid song, House of Cards (4.43). Guitar, bass, gentle drums, and some organ hovering about in the background, create an initial wash of sound, which recedes as Steve Booker's warm tones take centre stage, venturing convincingly into his high register from time to time. The chords in the nicely-harmonised chorus are unpredictable, the hook catchy: the chromatic bassline is an appealing feature too.
In a carefully-engineered lyric Keith takes a wander through
his playing cards, conflating gambling lingo with the fragility of a house of
cards, and also using the ‘heart’ image as a pivot into the world of a doomed
Love has many faces
Tell me how does it feel
when you’re holding aces
you can’t deal.
House of Cards … not sure I've entirely warmed to this one yet, though the chorus is nice. What are its strengths from your point of view?
I just liked it.
I could imagine someone else taking this one up.
Maybe somebody else will? Could you do that for me, tout it around? Laughter
Are these songs calling-cards?
I didn’t write them with that intention. Maybe House of Cards is a bit more mainstream.
The romance narrative is judiciously defocused so that the listener can find her or his own resonances: no doubt some will seek to inscribe what they think they know of the poet’s history on to the final lines:
And the world you made
Has all gone up in flames
The best hand’s been played
And it’s too late to save
Your house of cards
As on The Common Thread, it’s a Booker/Reid song that closes this album. I wonder how Keith resisted the temptation to close symmetrically, bookending the whole show with another Maya Saxell song.
I felt House of Cards couldn’t have been anywhere else but the last track.
You told me that the running order for the first album had exercised you almost as much as any other aspect of it. Here you had four Maya ones to spread out … did that make it harder?
Let me just say that it went through quite a lot of juggling, and even when I delivered the record to Manfred he had his own ideas, and I listened to a few other people as well. I always wanted it to open with This Space is Vacant and everything else was just juggling to see what fitted where musically. I tried many permutations.
And (as with Procol) the running order is determined according to musical considerations, rather than lyrical ones?
Totally. People’s keys, voices …. you know, whose voice sounds good following someone else’s voice. No lyrical reasons.
What have I omitted to ask you?
I’ve no idea. You’re pretty much the first person I’ve ever spoken to about it. I’ve no idea what anyone would make of it, really. Laughter.
I tell Keith that I realise my response is pretty skewed, partly since I've taken a strong interest in his writing since I was fourteen, and partly since I've spent many decades being paid to help readers see the trees, real and imaginary, in many intriguing literary woods.
‘I’m always impressed with your painstaking approach, always impressed,’ he says; but we do agree that the record is not aimed at a constituency that will especially want to milk it for Procol allusions!
Yes, in an ideal world you want people to know nothing about it, and like it. You want someone to like it because they come to it with no preconceptions.
By now night is falling, and November is making itself felt: even dawn-swimmers in The Serpentine start to feel a little chilly. As we prepare to leave the Madjeski Courtyard, a discerning V&A mouse emerges from the shrubbery in search of crumbs fallen from the poet’s table. ‘At least it’s not a rat,’ Keith observes.
I don’t want to wait ten years for the next Reid solo album (Will its title rhyme? Is there a lurking joke here, a long series – The Common Thread, In My Head – whose dark punchline ends with the word Dead?). I want Keith to book a venue, a piano, and a guitar, and present Anders Widmark, Maya Saxell and John Waite in concert … to hear these very interesting songs in front of a live audience would complete them. But I don’t mention this: he’s busy signing my copy of his anthology, My Own Choice, published in 2000 by Charnel House.
I'm glad Reid is still working, doing such interesting stuff, and happy to have been among the first to talk with him about the new record.
Good luck with The KRP. It’s not a veiled reference to Mr Krup, is it?
I wasn’t thinking that.
It doesn’t matter whether you were consciously thinking it … laughter.
When I read Keith's inscription on the title-page, I notice that his instinctive propensity to rhyme has enshrined some mischief at the expense of my instinctive propensity to over-interpret. 'Guilty as charged,' I tell him, as we shake hands. 'Take care, man,' is his valediction.
Then, as aforesaid, he’s off the pavement and into the traffic.
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|The Common Thread – The Keith Reid Project|