'Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes'
As Strong as Samson
Gary Brooker gives a brief introduction to this song, to camera, from his
home studio, as part of the Cherry Red Records 'Artist of the Month' promotion
in July 2020.
It might be argued that the shade of Dylan, which hung heavy over the early
Procol albums, walks again in the political-critical lyric and slightly
countrified music that constitute As Strong as Samson. One could imagine
the Dylan of Tangled up in Blue making a good stab at the verses, though
the see-sawing, hymnal melody at the end of the chorus presents a contour that
would deter many a vocal mountaineer.
It's a strongly-constructed common-time tune in the ballad-key of D, starting
with a fluent piano introduction which, unusually, is not simply the same as the
accompaniment to the melody that then comes in. The whole piece is written in
what we might call Gary Brooker's 'naïve' style, led by the tune, rather than
by the chords: these are not conventional (we visit C major at the end of the
third phrase of the verse) but they do not present any aural shocks either; the
chorus has a traditional Procol feel when the strong mediant major resounds at
the start of the second line. It's unusual in Procol terms for the verse-lines
to start with minor chords (chiefly the relative minor) but the formula of
delaying a dominant until the very end of the verse, and starting the chorus on
a subdominant, is exactly shared by The Idol, the album's following
track. However Samson has a genuinely hummable chorus, its end joyously
reminiscent of childhood hymn-tunes, whereas the chorus of The Idol has
three lines that constantly seem to be sagging back to the tonic. The last
repetition of the Samson chorus, with the vocal commuted to a descant,
harks back to the transformed organ-melody at the very end of A Whiter Shade
of Pale … one of that record's innumerable, classic felicities.
As Gary Brooker said in a 1975 UK interview about Exotic Birds and Fruit,
'It’s a set of lyrics of our time very much. I suppose there’s a little bit
of industrial dispute, a little bit of malintention, whatever else is going on.'
Not until Holding On would Brooker and Reid again write so openly about
matters that were in the news. The 'labour-relations' verse deals with matters
that specifically impinged on the band during Prime Minister Heath's 'winter of
discontent' (which we discuss in detail in the notes on Butterfly Boys);
the 'famine' verse deals with the differential between the starving and those
who watch their suffering on television; and the 'Arab/Israeli' verse deals not
in political insight so much as in the fear that this war is the thin end of the
wedge of a catastrophic global conflict. The tone is somewhat reminiscent of
Dylan's Masters of War, and rather more so of Blowing in the Wind
(1962), since resignation, rather than anger, is the principal tone.
The instrumental playing sees the whole band on excellent form. From the very
outset BJ Wilson flourishes and decorates at the drums as if this is a piece
that he absolutely loves – the same relish is heard from him on the BBC Live
CD, when the rest of the band sound less-committed. Organ and strummed acoustic
guitars give a warmth to the soundscape and we gradually become aware of the
presence of an unprecedented participant in Procoldom, the pedal steel guitar.
'We had a guest musician on this one, well we sent him a cheque as well,' said
Gary in the 1975 Exotic Birds interview. 'BJ Cole …he used to play with
Mick Grabham in a group called Cochise some time
ago. He added a lot of atmosphere to this one. Everybody played very great on
this … Chris Copping got a fine little organ solo, really fitted in there
nicely.' Though Chris Thomas's work on this album is much-criticised by
audiophiles, he does pull off a successful balancing act, ensuring that Cole and
Copping don’t tread on each other's musical toes; pedal-steel often occupies
the same tonal range as the organ. There is no lead guitar audible on the
record, but Grabham certainly plays some inventive fill-in lead in contemporary
live performances (mp3 here). It's unfortunate that the
words 'when you're being held to ransom' are not very easy to hear: this is
partly because they are so entirely unexpected. Without them the pungency of the
lyric is compromised, and when the song came out as a single the title grew a
parenthesis to make the words plain (so, curiously, this album has two
tracks with variant titles, the other being Monsieur R Monde).
So, what of the title? Samson is one of the best-known Old Testament Biblical
characters. He was last of the twelve Judges of Israel, and some allege that he
represents the sun/light/day, and Delilah the night: the pair thus make up a
good-and-evil partnership. 'Samson' comes from the Hebrew 'Shimson', a
diminutive of 'Shemesh' meaning sun: the locks of his hair are said to be the
rays of the sun. 'Delilah' means 'delight' in Hebrew yet some trace it to an
Arabic word meaning 'to flirt'; thus in a sense Samson and Delilah epitomise the
Arabs and Jews mentioned in the song. Samson's story has been frequently taken
up by song-writers: Reid is the only one not to have involved the temptress
Delilah, with whose faithlessness Samson's fate is so intimately bound up. One
of the earliest versions is Rev Gary Davis's Sampson and Delila, possibly
written by Blind Willie Johnson; Samson and Delilah was a hit for Middle
of the Road 1972, and Bad Manners in 1982; both characters are mentioned in the
Bruce Springsteen song Fire. Delilah was commemorated in the 1968 hit
single by Tom Jones, reworked in 1975 by the Sensational Alex Harvey Band. Samson
et Dalila is the opera by Saint-Saëns, with a French libretto by Lemaire,
first produced in Weimar 1877; Samson and Delilah is the ludicrous 1949
de Mille epic film starring Victor Mature. The name Samson has become a by-word
for a man of prodigious physical strength. The name 'the British Samson' was
given to Thomas Topham, a London carpenter, who stabbed his wife and then killed
himself in 1769. Richard Joy, 'the Kentish Samson' died aged 67 in 1742.
'Samson' is also the name of a make of military tank, and is mid-nineteenth
century slang for a potent cocktail of brandy and cider.
The Samson story is found in Judges 13-16. He reportedly killed one
thousand Philistines, using the jawbone of an ass (the 'ass's jawbone' today is
a percussion instrument, used on Nothing But the Truth); but he was
unable to resist the blandishments of a Philistine woman, Delilah, who seduced
him into cutting off his hair (the source of his strength) and delivered him to
the Philistines, who blinded him. 'Eyeless in Gaza' as John Milton depicted him
in the brilliant verse-drama Samson
Agonistes, Samson's strength was renewed by the Jewish God, in whom he
never lost faith, for one last effort in pulling down the Philistines' temple
– in which crush he lost his life. Judges is the part of the Bible in
which the most lurid tales are to be found: many of these (concerning
kleptomania, gynosadism and the tale of the four hundred virgins) were pruned
from later translations. Interpretations of the Samson tale are twofold: some
contend that it retreads Eve / Pandora territory, showing how the world is
brought to naught by temptations of the flesh and the wiles of women; others
view Samson as an emblem of the weakness of the people of Israel, who quail
easily and precipitate their own downfall. With the background of the
Arab-Israeli war informing the final verse, Samson is an aptly-chosen peg for
this song to hang upon, but Reid seems to have intended a general look at the
rottenness of the world, rather than a narrowly political one, as these
contrasting quotations indicate: 'As Strong As Samson is about the
Arab-Israeli confrontation and the general state of things, politics and so on:
as profound as you care to take it.' (Streetlife, 15 May 1976); and 'I
wrote that at the time around Watergate.' (Danish interview, 2 February 1984).
It was one of the songs he selected for his book, My
'We did want it out as a single at the time,' said Gary in a 1975 interview.
'We got very involved in thinking like that. Until one day we decided to time
it. We found out it’s about five and a half minutes long. So that was the end
of that. It wasn’t the end of the song.' Indeed it was not: edited from 5:05
to 3:46, As Strong As Samson (When You’re Being Held To Ransom) / The
Unquiet Zone (CHS 2084) was released as a single in January 1976 in the UK,
after the release of the following album, Procol's Ninth. The remixed
version puts BJ Cole’s pedal-steel much more to the fore, and the acoustic
guitar as well, but it failed to follow Pandora's Box into the charts.
The song was probably first played live during the eight-date UK university
tour that started 28 February 1974 at Exeter University. It was definitely heard
at Golders Green Hippodrome, 22 March 1974, which became the BBC Live CD, and it
was also part of the setlist during the month-long USA tour (April–May 1974)
when the political background needed explanation: mp3 here.
Of course it popped up again during tours early in 1976, to promote the single.
It's perhaps curious that the song was not brought into the repertoire of the
Gary Brooker Ensemble for the church
concerts, but it did resurface with the New Testament Procol on the Jethro
Tull 1993 tour. Sadly for many fans (some regard this as their No 1 Procol
track!) it was in a light-weight version: gone was the piano introduction, gone
the solidity of the treatment: imported, in their stead, were cod-reggae
stylings, soul-man enquiries as to the audience's well-being, and exhortations
at the end to join in the cycling iteration of the final line of the chorus (mp3
here). It seemed understandable when Procol reggaed-up Boredom,
since that was always an ethnic novelty number: but it poses a real problem for
the faithful fan when the beloved band itself perpetrates a cover version which,
if by another artist, would be berated for its insensitivity.
This new version does not exist in any official recording, but it has been
much heard; it was almost always introduced with some patter about how the world
had not changed in the last twenty years, and by August 1995 it had acquired a
scripted ad-lib update: 'Black men and white men / And Croats and Serbs /
Causing congestion / And changing the words ...' which Brooker told BtP was not
Reid-sanctioned but was 'just me being a wise-guy'. The last time the band
performed it was in February 1996 at Vejle, Denmark; and when Gary Brooker
played the song, solo, at the request of Douglas Adams in
December 1999, it had mercifully reverted to its original form.
- 'Psychiatrists and Lawyers destroying mankind': the opening proposition is
provocative and forthright; from an Establishment point of view these
professions do good work, and Reid's unmitigated critique is not entirely
substantiated later in the song. However it is on a par with 'Your
multilingual business-friend has packed her bags and fled' as a surprising
opening line to a popular song, and it sets a tone of extreme despair that
pervades the number. The more radical views of psychiatric professionals
such as the libertarian Thomas Szasz and RD Laing did tend to agree that
psychiatrists were 'part of the problem', acting as agents for the state
control of deviance. Such critics also bewailed the polypharmacising that
made patients docile but incapable of recovery, and rock has spawned songs
about this and other aspects of therapeutic intervention [Cherry Blossom
Clinic by The Move, Rise by Public Image Limited ('they put a hot
wire to my head / because of the things I did and said') and If by
Roger Waters of Pink Floyd ('If I go insane / please don't put your wires in
my brain')]. For the lawyers, Reid's justification might be that big firms
have the big lawyers and therefore redress for the common man against their
misdemeanours is far from reach. A more lighthearted angle, on what is
perhaps a slightly 'student-protest' mindset, was taken by Brooker in the
90s when he introduced As Strong as Samson by joking, 'Mind you most
of you probably are psychiatrists and lawyers now'.
- 'Driving them crazy ... and stealing them blind': perhaps psychiatrists do
not really drive mankind crazy, but their profession has supplied a lot of
the terms by which 20th century man now habitually alludes to,
and construes, human personality and its disorders. As for the lawyers,
'robbing them blind' would be the more ordinary expression: 'blind' implies
the helplessness of the victims. In both cases this line accuses curators
(of our sanity and property) of corruptly promoting their own interests at
the expense of their clients'. David Lindley in the late 80s had a minor hit
with Talk to the Lawyer ('a professional liar').
- 'Bankers and Brokers ruling the world': this line is more probably true
than the foregoing; it contrasts with the past when kings and religious
leaders ruled the world. This perhaps sets up the doomed romanticism in Fool's
Gold where the hero wishes to 'save the world and be the king', while
these noble intentions are betrayed by the temptations of the 'fool's gold'
of commerce. Attacks on business were not uncommon for 60s' rockers [cp the
song Rats by Dave Davies on the Kinks' Lola vs the Powerman album,
and Brooker/Reid's own Fat Cats]. Several of
Reid's more epic lyrics seem to share the flavour of The Hunting of the
Snark, the wonderfully dark voyage-fantasy by Lewis Carroll, in which
the ship is peopled entirely by crew beginning with 'B': Carroll's Broker
and Banker are introduced in stanzas three and four (see here).
A 'broker' is someone who sets up (who brokers) an agreement, but 'broker'
is also slang for bailiff, or one who comes to seize the possessions of a
debtor. The 'brokers' in the song are probably stockbrokers, and 'bankers'
would similarly imply big-time money-dealers, rather than the day-to-day
bank-manager, who would himself probably be a relatively impotent everyman
- 'Storing the silver and hoarding the gold':
'storing silver' is exactly what people want their banks to do, of course;
but the parallel word 'hoarding' has more sinister overtones. There's an
old-fashioned, 'story-telling' feel to this representation of the exchequer
in terms of precious metals; Reid likes the sounds of 'gold' and 'silver',
which occur in many other songs: 'fat old Buddhas carved in gold' (Shine
on Brightly), 'to find some pirate's gold' (Pilgrims Progress),
'turret full of gold' (Memorial Drive), 'Bright and shiny gold' (New
Lamps for Old), 'Fool's gold fooled me too' (Fool's Gold); 'Pave
the streets with gold' (All Our Dreams Are Sold), 'We play for gold
but not for keeps' (Perpetual motion), and there's even a lyric in
Keith Reid's book, My Own Choice,
entitled Gold Fever'; silver features in 'upon your silver shield' (Conquistador),
'don't beg for silver paper' (The Devil Came From Kansas), 'Watch the
silver screen!' (Whaling Stories), 'sold for a silver dollar' (Memorial
Drive), 'It's silver plate and crystal clear' (Grand Hotel).
- 'Ain't no use in preachers preaching': this casual language, with the
demotic double negative, is perhaps intended to impart a mid-sixties Dylan
flavour. The word 'preach' does not occur often in Reid's songs, only
'Though I teach I'm not a preacher' (The Devil Came From Kansas) and
its echoes, 'I was heading to that Preacher man' and 'Well the
preacher-man said …' from the unpublished Last Train to Niagara.
However in Holding On we find 'religious leaders teaching hate' (ie
preaching that war is right).
- 'When they don't know what they're teaching': the words seem
straightforward but a lot depends on how we understand 'don't know'. Taken
simply, a bad preacher tries to teach material that he does not himself know
properly; more interestingly, there's a sense implying that the preachers'
words are having an unsuspected effect, possibly the opposite of what is
intended, as in 'you don't know what you're saying' ie 'you are unaware of
the implications'. 'Teaching' is mentioned in a few other songs: 'by
teaching I'll be taught' (Look to Your Soul); 'Taking out the dog for
walks, teaching him how to bow' (Taking The Time); 'you were the
teacher' (Skating on Thin Ice).
- 'The weakest man be strong as Samson': the phrasing here is somewhat
awkward and unusual; more puzzling still is the relation that this phrase is
intended to bear to the foregoing. Is the intended sense 'I wish the weakest
man could be strong …'? Or is it all governed by the earlier 'ain't no
use', resulting in a sense of 'it's useless when the weakest man is strong
…'? One might suppose the latter, as Procol Harum were obstructed, in
trying to get their album made, by Trades Union disputes in which great
power was given to the man in the street: power-cuts affected every
household and hospital in the land. 'We were having a terrible time: you
could record from 2 till 4 but then not from 4 till 7,' Gary
Brooker told BtP, yet he adds that he felt sure that Reid was here
'coming down on the side of the man in the street, against the
establishment.' 'Weakest man be strong as Samson' applies to the third verse
as well as the first: modern warfare is driven by big money factors, and is
highly technological, so the fighting prowess of Samson and his jaw-bone
would now be of little value … he would be as impotent as the weakest man;
ironically, however, if the weakest man had the right nuclear-war materials
he could hold the world to ransom – the relevance of this to third-world
despots may have given rise to the song's very gloomy last line.
- 'When you're being held to ransom': 'ransom / Samson' is not a true rhyme
but it's a very effective pairing when the context is a labour-relations
stranglehold. As the country was held to ransom, all areas of life were
affected: Reid got word from Chrysalis that plans to furnish the album with
a booklet of lyrics and corresponding photos, to be compiled by Keith
himself, had to be cancelled because a paper shortage had struck. 'We were
at the mercy of the world. It was a terrible, helpless feeling, there was
really nowhere to turn,' he reported.
- 'Famine and hardship in true living colour': the 'famine' verse represents
a change of subject, and deals with suffering witnessed on television: here
we find shades of TV Ceasar in the implied critique of the cosiness
and parochialism of the viewers. 'True living colour' sounds like a
typically hyperbolic advertising slogan for a new brand of television tube:
'living' is of course bitterly ironic in the context of famine, and 'colour'
may even be intended to relate to the skin of the sufferers.
- 'Constant reminders … the plight of our brother': the 'brotherhood' is
strictly notional, so long as one brother watches the other starving on
television. 'Plight' is an old-fashioned word, not suggesting any immediacy
of involvement with the issue; and 'constant reminders' suggests that the
viewer is being kept in the picture as the food-crisis unfolds, but that no
remedial action is being urged.
- 'Daily starvation our diet of news': 'daily' relates to 'our daily bread'
in the Lord's Prayer as well as to the daily news; and 'diet', 'fed' and 'to
the teeth' skilfully pick up the idea that not only does one half of the
world starve, the other half is glutted with unwanted matter.
- 'Fed to the teeth with a barrage of views': 'to the teeth' is part of the
idiom 'fed up to the back teeth', uttered when one has taken as much as one
can possibly endure. 'Barrage' likewise has overtones of insupportable
- 'Black men and white men, and Arabs and Jews': this 'war' verse becomes
more specific than any of the foregoing. Reid mentions 'Arabs' elsewhere in Song
for a Dreamer: 'Our friend the Arab will guide us while we dream' and in
A Christmas Camel where there are 'Arabian Sheiks' and so forth; we
may suppose that the ill-used 'Poor Mohammed' is of that nation too. Reid's
comments on Jews are all unspecific (unless we are to take 'Wedge' as being
phonetic back-slang for 'Jew'), but many traits of supposed Jewishness are
noted in our comments on various songs.
- 'Causing congestion and filling the queues': warfare in the Middle East
affected oil supplies and prices in Europe, resulting in congestion and
queues at petrol stations. Like the previous verse, this one unflinchingly
catalogues an apolitical, self-centred response to a human crisis elsewhere.
'Congestion' is a term used in economics to mean that a sufficiently large
number of people are using a facility that the average benefits are
decreasing as users join.
- 'Fighting for freedom the truth and the word': these three abstracts sound
like the tenets of some free-world national constitution; however the
subject is both Arabs and Jews, and the song pointedly isn't taking sides:
both factions believe they are doing the right thing. There is much fighting
in Reid: 'In fighting I did hurt those dearest to me' (Pilgrims Progress);
'French girls always like to fight' (Grand Hotel); 'Fights the flab
in every house' (TV Ceasar); 'The cause for the fighting has long
been a ghost' (Fires (Which Burnt Brightly)); 'fighting monsters all
my life' (Fool's Gold); 'We must fight it out' (The Final Thrust);
'One hell of a fight' (This Old Dog); 'Not a lover or a
fighter' and 'talking of the fight' (I'm a Reader and a Writer).
There is also a lot written about 'truth': 'the truth is plain to see, ' 'in
truth we were at sea ', 'dirt in truth is clean, ' from A Whiter Shade of
Pale; 'still sees truth quite easily ' from A Christmas Camel; 'I
know in truth they envy me ' from Shine on Brightly; 'He only speaks
the truth, ' from Rambling On; 'the truth was writ quite clear, '
from Look to Your Soul; 'tell the truth ... in truth it's just as
well, ' from Crucifiction Lane; 'the truth is leaking out, ' from A
Souvenir of London; 'Nothing but the truth ... harder than the truth, '
from Nothing But the Truth; 'the truth and the word, ' from As
Strong as Samson; 'Falsehood for truth, ' from New Lamps for Old;
'the truth of this story, ' from The Worm and The Tree; 'the truth
won't fade away ' from The truth won't fade away
- 'Fighting the war for the end of the world': the conclusion has a
cataclysmic flavour. Had this been Whaling Stories there might have
been new musical material here: as it is, the very attractive melody and
presentation mask the harrowing implications of the final line from the
average listener, and the soaring vocal harmonies at the end of the song
sound more like triumph than despair.
Thanks to Frans
Steensma for additional information
about this song