Procol Harum is the wrongly-spelt name of a cat which may have belonged to Guy Stevens or possibly McGreggor (the dope dealer to the band). So, in one sense the band is a cat and cats are associated with magic as the familiars of practitioners. They are also supposed to be connected with luck and have nine lives. It is curious that the band produced nine albums before it died (live albums don't count).
There is some evidence that almost all of these albums did nearly die (thereby constituting a 'life') as there were false starts and abandonments. In an interview in the mid-70s, Gary Brooker told the NME that he would make another album and if it was crap he'ld make another and if that was crap he'ld call it a day and go into production. He knew there would be nine lives for this serendipitous cat. The properly-spelt name is Latin for 'beyond these things' making it a little surprising that journalists never drew the conclusion that 'procul harum' was Latin for 'far out man'. The phrase conjures up the world of esoteric knowledge alluded to by Shakespeare in Hamlet:
'There are more things in heaven and earth,
than are dreamt of in your philosophy.'
Despite the fuzz guitar and rock'n'roll trappings, the Procol Harum of the first four albums belongs back in the mindset of pre-scientific England where mysteries had not been deflated by rational thought and life was viewed starkly as a conflict between forces of good and evil. A partial reflection of this is in the fascination with time shown in strange allusions to the properties of clocks and their relationship with the universe. Primitive time-keeping measures (cock crows, bells) also appear textually and musically in a variety of contexts.
So, Procol Harum is a cat concerned with the outer world of esoteric knowledge, ie that which is not discernible on casual observation. And so it came to pass that the quintessence of Procol Harum is to be found in Home. This is where the true story comes, more or less, to an end with the words 'draw your own conclusions'. The entity lives on afterwards as a unit of entertainment but the lyrics are provided as part of the job description of a songwriter and the music takes different turns. Echoes are occasionally found of the world view which culminated in Home but these are revisitations to the well in the search for inspiration.
In Home, the varieties of esoteric knowledge are canvassed. In a simple broad sense we are talking about magic: that which is out of the ordinary. There are elements of a magical nature (such as the possibility that some of the lyrics in Cerdes alludes to the forbidden Hebrew device of a Babylonian devil trap) to be found elsewhere but this would take us off our chosen path. To be fair, there is a partial return to esoteric lore in the Something Magic album although this might well not have been the case if the Albert Brothers had approved of the sixteen songs that were demo'd in Miami.
There is no point in a line-by-line analysis of what a specific song, in Home, 'really means', as the writing is intuitive and dictated in part by (a prefigured anticipation of) the needs of the music to the point where one may make more sense out of looking at parts from separate songs together. If, indeed, sense is what you seek. The varieties of esotericism can however be traced to questions that can be attached to some specific songs. Is there life after death (Dead Man's Dream, About to Die, Barnyard Story)? Can you gain control of another person or alter the elements through certain practices, primarily casting spells (Piggy Pig Pig, Still There'll Be More)? Is it possible to obtain knowledge through psychic transference or subconscious exploration? Can the future be predicted (Nothing That I Didn't Know)?
In what follows I shall indicate the existence of 'magical' precedents for elements in Home that have baffled people. Let us begin with the soup. Many have wondered what Whaling Stories is about. At first sight it seems to be a basic linear narrative which might even be an update of traditional whaling ballads, of which they are many. Further inspection of the lines seems to bring up contradictions and inscrutable features. Taking the reference to 'soup' literally is an example of this. Invoking certain beliefs about witches brings light into the darkness. Storms at sea were frightening and inexplicable in a pre-scientific age. One view was that storms were caused by witches who boiled up substances in a cauldron and poured these into the sea. Witches were also thought to unleash lightning bolts at the targeted vessels. This is referenced in the song after the 'soup spilled out' along with the shrieking steam and fire and brimstone which have further black magic connotations.
Moving on to the casting of spells, there is an implicit indication of such practices in the punctuation of the lyric sheet provided with the original UK vinyl release of Home. Full stops occur frequently in the printing of Piggy Pig Pig, suggesting that this is a list of instructions to implement, or guard against, psychic forces. Offering to bathe one's eyes in a river of salt and piss on someone else's door could be construed transparently as
'I'll cry / I'll toughen myself up and I will do a horrible thing to you because I hate you.'
Yet there may be more to this than meets the eye. Urine and salt both have magical associations. It was believed that power could be obtained by procuring the urine of a witch and also that there is magical potency in one's own urine. A traditional form of protection against witches was to take a tile from the witch's roof, urinate on it, add salt and bake it in an oven. Aside from controlling others, magic entails the necessity for protection against their like-minded intentions. Fear of rivals' magic is palpably manifest in Piggy Pig Pig as the risk of psychic attack is alleged to be at its highest when the new Moon is in the sky, at which time the evil eye achieves its maximum force. The conception of an evil eye (originating with Medusa) is an innate ability to inflict harmful control of the destiny of others over and above anything garnered from magical training as an adept. This is, of course, the basis of the never-officially- released song, Alpha. As a final comment on Piggy Pig Pig it should be noted that it is basically chant-like rather than melodic. Chants are a staple element in performances of ritual magic.
In these matters it is hard to resist the temptation of playing the hidden-word game. The words 'bell', 'book' and 'candle' appear separately in tracks on Home. Bell, book and candle form a Roman Catholic ritual for the exorcism of witches. Whilst there is little directly on the Home album about predicting the future or obtaining knowledge by paranormal means these things do hover in the background. There are scattered references to aspects of Tarot cards, which are well known divination aids, in this album. Whilst an interest in Tarot is plain for all to see in the later Skating on Thin Ice, it pervades the work from the first released Procol song to what is effectively the last. The chariot (card VII) appears in Barnyard Story and the tower (card XVI) in Whaling Stories. These cards are linked in pack interpretation. In card XVI, The Tower, a purifying bolt of lightning strikes the tower which is also known as the House of God. The bolt of lightning is the result of failing a test set by the Devil. Here quite starkly is the conflict between good and evil which marks out the archaism of the Procol world.
In the documentary on the making of the album (The Procol Harum) there is a strange diversion when Brooker and Reid are asked about their record collections. Out of the blue, Brooker says : 'Keith reads in his sleep,' whereupon a discussion ensues in which Reid concludes that he wakes up because all the print hurts his eyes. This is a reference to remote viewing and automatic writing which might be read into the relevant lines about pages turning from Piggy Pig Pig. These also allude to predestination and fate, a subject which can of course take us all the way back to how Brooker and Reid came together and managed to combine with such fortunate chemistry. A sense of knowing the future breathes life into what otherwise might seem to be the quite banal lyrics of Nothing That I Didn't Know. In musical terms this is a lament and the lyrics are mainly a collection of woes but the line from the title is separated out in the music and there is also a sense that the word 'already' might be sung before the word 'know', as there is a hesitation. The prevailing mood of the piece is that the narrator in the song was aware of the impending doom of the character.
I am not suggesting that the Home album is any kind of incitement to practice magic. Rather, the intuitive leaning to the magical displayed there is a culmination of a restless attempt to reconcile conflicting elements in one's character in order to arrive at true wisdom and a true persona. Part of this conflict is sexual, as instanced in the cat (female) and dog (male) motifs, and also many of the Tarot symbols, but that is a subject for another day.
Any residual fear that the band themselves may have been involved in magical practices is safely banished by the obvious fact that they can't spell, which takes us right back where we started.
Many thanks to Dr Cameron for
this enthralling piece of writing.
'Beyond the Pale' looks forward to receiving visitors' comment and feedback.
More from Sam Cameron at BtP