I might as well put my cards face up on the table right from the start, and admit that when I arranged to talk with Keith Reid a couple of weeks after the release of the new Procol Harum album, Something Magic, it was with the intention of having an argument.
Not that I have anything against Keith or his mates, you understand … in fact, as anybody who managed to wade through my History of Harum last year will know, I'm something of a fan. It's just that after listening to the new album a number of times and seeing the stage show twice, I thought that (a) the material comprised a rerun of standard Procol leitmotivs with little that was new or relevant to say, and (b) The Worm and the Tree, which fills up the second side, was a considerable artistic faux pas.
This latter impression was reinforced by a disastrous performance of the work at Oxford, where the audience responded to Gary Brooker's intoning of the simplistic lyrics by following any mention of the victim (the tree), the villain (the worm) or the hero (the young man) in the tradition of Victorian melodrama. Much booing, groaning and cheering effectively destroyed any serious impact the piece might originally have carried.
As someone who thinks that In Held 'Twas in I (along with the rest of the Shine on Brightly album) is a brilliant evocation of the mood of a particular era, and even derives a certain transitory pleasure from all that ‘Electrified Fairytale’ business on Utopia’s last album, I can't reasonably be accused of bias against extended ‘concept’ works. So … why not take the lion by the tail, and try to get some background on what is obviously a milestone in Procol's illustrious career?
Here he is, sitting in the record company inner sanctum, sipping at a Scotch and looking decidedly un-leonine, so off we go … in for a penny, in for a pound. What made you do it, Keith?
‘Well, actually the idea for it came about a few years ago. First of all, people had been asking when we were going to do another extended thing like In Held, and I also felt it would be nice to have something like that to do onstage. So I thought about it, and it seemed that when people do things like that, they tend to make them overcomplicated, so it struck me that it would be better to do something with a simple story to it, something really straightforward, and let everything else around it be more complicated. I wanted the storyline to be very simple so that there would be lots of room for descriptive music.’
For the uninitiated amongst you, I will mention at this point that The Worm and the Tree is an allegorical tale, concerning a worm (boo!) which crawls into a tree (aah!) and munches away at its core, making a nasty pong and generally curdling the karma of the surrounding forest. Things look grim, until a young man (hurrah!) comes along, chops down the tree and destroys the worm, allowing peace and sunlight to return to the forest. From the ashes of the burnt tree, a young sapling rises up, and the moral of this story is that ‘the worm can be killed yet the tree be not dead / for from the roots of the elder a new life will spread.’ How reassuring.
Unfortunately, this sort of very two-dimensional allegory virtually died out with the middle ages, excepting overtly theological works like Pilgrim’s Progress, because it was found to be a very constricting form of expression, and Keith's attempt to revive it does justice neither to his proven talent with words, nor whatever message he's trying to get across. What did inspire it by the way?
‘Oh, it's hard to say now what it's about, because it's a couple of years since I did it. I'd rather people drew their own conclusions about it, because the reasons I had for writing it probably aren't particularly relevant. The moral-of-the-story kind of thing just doesn't apply to why I wrote it, so I'd rather people made up their own minds about it.’
The shortcomings of the words (in my opinion) are emphasised by the fact that instead of singing them, Gary speaks them, sounding very uncomfortable in the process.
‘It wasn't intended to be spoken, but the whole thing just took a long time to come together … Gary had all the bits and pieces to put together to make it work as a whole, and it was only when we came to record it that we decided to do it with him narrating it. We toyed with the idea of getting in someone who's good at that sort of thing – someone like James Mason – but we decided in the end that it wouldn't really be valid as Procol Harum if we did that. There would also have been the problem of doing it on stage.
‘We expected adverse criticism. I would say valid criticism of it is (a) whether it should have been narrated, and (b) whether Gary should have done it, but I think that our reasons for doing it the way we did are valid ones.
‘I certainly expected a lot of personal criticism from the lyrical point of view, because it is simple, but it's deliberately simplistic … and if you take it for what it is, then I think that it's good. If you compare it to In Held then you're setting up a false standard, because it's nothing like that. With In Held, we just started at the beginning and carried on till [sic] we came to the end, whereas with The Worm, it couldn't be very different from the way it is. Once the story was written, once we decided to go ahead with it, it couldn't really have been very different. When you have the battle you obviously have that kind of music, and when you have the peaceful bit, you have that kind of music. The thing was conceived much more as a totality … you can say it's not a very good idea.
‘Actually, I expected it to work much better visually than on record, because I saw in [sic] more in visual terms than lyrical, which is why the story is written simply but in colourful language. I always envisaged it having a visual thing to go with it, which we haven't got together yet … somebody could make a really great light show to go with it, or some kind of film.’
Agreeing to disagree about The Worm we turned to a question that I thought to be related to the lack of inspiration demonstrated by it. In most fields of artistic endeavour, inspiration comes in patches, so productivity is usually made to coincide with that, but the nature of record contracts is that they demand a regular flow of product regardless of whether the creator(s) has anything particular to offer … so isn't writing to order like this a bit hard?
‘Well, it's not so much that as when you make an album you have a breathing space for a couple of months, and then you start thinking again about the fact that you're going to be making a new record. I suppose I write to order insomuch as if I don't write there aren't any songs, and the group has to have new material to survive.’
So does Keith have a backlog of songs from when the Muse is with him to see him through periods when the old creative juices have dried up?
‘No, I'm not very prolific, but I'm very selective in what I do. I don't give Gary anything that I don't think is really good. Anything I don't think is going to turn out into a really good song, I throw away.
‘Writing needs intense concentration, for me anyway … it's not something that happens vaguely. I have to put myself in a situation where I can concentrate intensely, and they don't occur. I have to make them happen. I couldn't do it every day of the week, like some writers do.’
Yet on Procol's Ninth – an album of very erratic quality – some of the words (eg Without a Doubt and Typewriter Torment) were taken as a sign that Keith was finding it increasingly difficult to keep coming up with the goods.
‘Oh, I intended those songs to be humorous … I think people took them a bit seriously and thought I was getting paranoid about it all, whereas I was commenting on it in a humorous manner – I thought. It does get harder, though. The more songs you write … the natural thing is that if you've been writing a long time, the things that influenced you in the beginning you leave behind. On our early records I was influenced by other music, like Bob Dylan, and different things that I'd read and admired. Stevie Smith, for example, I like her. But I was also influenced by everything that was going on at the time, whereas now I tend not to be. I'm as open and receptive to things as I ever was, it's just that there aren't that many things that are exciting or inspiring. I liked [sic] the things now that I liked ten years ago.’
The great change from the days of Shine on Brightly seems to be that the man who once wrote 'though I teach, I'm not a preacher, and I aim to stay that way' has run out of matter to impart. With the exception of Exotic Birds and Fruit, where songs like Strong as Samson and Butterfly Boys hinted at a wider perspective, the recent sets of words that he has written, especially on Grand Hotel, have dwelt largely on personal trivia.
'Well, it comes down to how you see things … I'm very proud of the work I did on Grand Hotel . I can write a song like Bringing Home the Bacon, which is about obesity, and to me it’s as valid as something like Strong as Samson, which is certainly more intense. To me, the most important thing is to have a good idea, and it can be a good idea about anything … it can be the Grand Hotel kind of thing, or the Exotic Birds and Fruit kind of thing, but the most important thing is that it's well written.'
But what are the criteria for judging what's a good idea and what isn't? Isn't something like Butterfly Boys, with its indictment of self-seeking governing classes (‘You say we haven't got a choice / refuse direct [sic] to hear our voice'), one of far more relevance, and therefore a better idea, than a piece of frippery along the lines of Souvenir of London or Fresh Fruit?
'A good idea is an idea that you can actually write about. There are lots of words in our songs, so an idea needs to be good to sustain three well-written verses, otherwise you've got nothing to write about. So if I can physically write a song of that length, then it's got to be a good idea.’
So what about the content, as well as the form? Shouldn't the words have something to say – 'the lesson lies in learning, and by teaching I'll be taught', and all that?
'The most important thing for me is to maintain a standard and to improve on it, and to be original. I have a standard which I've set myself, and it's important for me to progress as a writer. If you look at the lyric of The Mark of the Claw, there is no one else who could have written that, whereas I was certainly fairly heavily influenced on the first album. Just to maintain that thing of being original is difficult.’
We then spiral off into a long and convoluted discussion of the nature of creativity, with me claiming that creation without inspiration is the equivalent of a factory production line, Keith arguing that because he is creating something that wasn't there before, he must be creating on a different level from the factory worker, who merely assembles given parts, and me saying that his given parts are the words he uses ... and on it goes, getting nowhere, as you might expect. Keith probably wished I'd go away … he certainly gave me a funny smile when we met again a week later.
So anyway, the basic Procol tenet at the moment would seem to be 'art for art's sake’, as Victor Cousin, and more recently 10cc have said. And from that point of view, the first side of Something Magic, at least, is probably their most successful endeavour since Broken Barricades – strong melodies, strong arrangements, and a close marriage of musical and lyrical moods. That combination is something that most people would give their lead guitarist for, but Procol are (or were) capable of something far more evocative. And what Keith and I did agree on, is that artists should be judged by their own highest standards, not against prevailing mediocrity.
More Procol in print at 'Beyond the Pale' | Paul Kendall's History of Harum