'Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes'
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.
What sort of expectations was the title, Procol's Ninth, intended to set up? That the music could stand up alongside that of Beethoven, Schubert, Mahler, who had all written nine symphonies? Or, again by analogy with these composers, that Brooker and Reid were not going to write any more?
The album was preceded by a single, Pandora's Box (CHS 2073, backed with The Piper's Tune) in July 1975 in the UK. Heavily featuring tuned percussion and flute, the song seemed a radical departure to die-hard fans of the band's five-piece sound, and perhaps a portent of highly-arranged songs to come. Melody Maker's review (2 August 1975) included: 'One to play when you’re watching a telly programme and the sound has been turned down. Miss.' (In early 2001 the instrumental passages played in the background as the BBC's legendary children's programme Blue Peter explored beneficial scientific applications of maggots – they obviously didn't know Dead Man's Dream!). But it was not a miss: the record-buying UK public took it to a convincing No 16, and it was performed, among other shows, on Top of the Pops and on The Geordie Scene. Sprightly and hummable, it is certainly the poppiest of all the Procol singles – a far cry from the Beethovenesque album-title. The album press-kit, however, saw it differently: an 'ominous cut in the tradition of Whaling Stories and Fires (Which Burnt Brightly)'! As a tour-tie in the single (and album) were also released in Eastern Europe; the same coupling was released in the USA – the promo single contained mono and stereo versions edited by 18 seconds to 3:18 – but it sold less well there.
And what sort of expectations did the title, Pandora's Box, set up? The UK media like to use the phrase in political and sporting reports, usually where 'can of worms' would do: "this opens up a real Pandora's Box". From the point of view of mythology, however, a 'Pandora's Box' is a present that seems valuable, but turns out to be a nuisance, even a curse. Pandora means 'all-gifted'; she was the first woman, and her dowry included a jar (erroneously commuted to 'box', in many re-tellings) given to her by Jupiter, which contained all the world's sorrows. She presented this to her husband, who opened it, against all advice, and the sorrows escaped: some versions say that only Hope remained (how prophetic for Procol Harum's last hit single!). The highly miscellaneous stream of images in the song, many of which reflect insecurities and problems, might be taken to represent the escaping sorrows from the box. It's a title like Boredom and Rambling On, seemingly designed both to describe the content and to pre-empt criticism of its nature.
The 'all-gifted' title might seem also to tally with the disc's exotic instrumentation: as well as the percussion we hear acoustic guitar, several strata of high synthesiser, layers of orchestral texture, and brass for Handel's entrance; electric piano is well-back in the mix, the Grabham guitar makes a very brief appearance with lots of flange on it, and Copping's characteristically hectic organ break comes only toward the fade-out. But in fact the title existed long before Leiber and Stoller got to grips with the song. It's a very unusual Procol number in that we have three distinct versions to consider, grub, pupa and the imago that finally winged into the charts.
The first version dates from Regal Zonophone days, and was released (incomplete, without vocal) in a contemporary stereo mix as the title track of 1998's final Westside trawl of the vaults, apparently in response to fan pressure. We cannot know what the vocal melody would have been like, nor the words; but the harmonic structure of the song is precisely the same as the famous single, albeit played in a far more languid fashion. Matthew Fisher (quoted in Then Play On - Michael Ober, 1992) said, 'We actually did Pandora's Box for the first album. I couldn't even remember recording it at the time because I was so stoned … '; on the other hand Gary Brooker said, in a 1984 Danish interview, 'Pandora’s Box was written very early, maybe even before we got the band together …we didn’t record it then.' The song presents a repeating three-chord cycle in A minor, developing through F and G, slipping up a semitone and back into A minor for the end of the third phrase; oddly, the fourth phrase starts on the same chord. The refrain toys with the sub-dominant, its semitonal descent a little reminiscent of the Strangers in Space chords. This early version starts with a highly-saturated guitar line, repeating the notes c, b, g sharp and a, right through the entire verse: this droning motif neatly fits the harmonies of the third phrase as well as the rest of the verse, but the effect of the repetition is perhaps a bit deadening. The other abandoned strong feature is a fanciful glissando in the chorus-section, very characteristic of the Fisher of A Whiter Shade of Pale, Skip Softly (My Moonbeams) and so on (mp3 here).
The song next emerges in a stage medley with the ultimate Procol rarity, A Robe of Silk, and Piggy Pig Pig in April 1973 at the Felt Forum; again guitar starts it, but the approach could scarcely be more different, as Mick Grabham is in Cochise country-mode (mp3 here); the song still comes to dead halts between the verses but it has a chugging back beat and much cow-bell work from BJ. It is not until the 1975 single that the instantly-recognisable marimba-motif emerges: As Keith Reid explains in a 1975 UK interview on Procol’s Ninth: 'Jerry Leiber said, "Have you got a song that we haven’t heard?" So we played him Pandora’s Box, which is a song that we’ve always liked but which for some reason we never got round to do it. They liked that and they took it over. Transformed it completely." (1975 UK interview on Procol’s Ninth).
Leiber and Stoller, perhaps picking up the 'Spanish Main' reference, also came up with what the Press-kit was pleased to call the ' … Gothic-calypso. A light samba beat … alternated with a wailing, bluesy chorus to produce a startling Latin effect'. Gary Brooker has played with this idea in performance, introducing the song as 'one Peggy Lee had a hit with in Venezuela' and inserting pseudo-Hispanic mannerisms such as off-mic shouts of 'ariba ariba'. However the producers also added the flute solo (Reid: 'It was their idea to put a marimba on. They made that song into a hit ... They put the
flute solo on, they did the overdub (Danish interview, February 2, 1984)).
Procol’s five-piece sound wondered why the new producers had ceded the stand-out
instrumental break to an anonymous New York session flautist (an
intrusion comparable to Harry Pitch's harmonica solo on Your Own Choice);
but Leiber & Stoller’s hitman ears (maybe recalling the catchy woodwinds in Nina
Rossi’s Untrue Unfaithful hit from 1965, a melodic cousin of the Procol
tune) were vindicated. When miming to the song on Top of the Pops, Chris Copping stood at the marimba Brooker had played on record; and in live situations he played the flute line, or something like it, from a piercing synth perched atop his Hammond.
Completing the evolution of this Protean number, Nicholas Dodd orchestrated it for The Symphonic Music (1995) with a 'Sugar Plum Fairy' woodwind introduction complete with rain-sticks. The melody was entirely played by James Galway, 'the man with the Golden flute', in an overdub studio in Japan: the flute-break from the record was taken by the trumpet (as it was by the Palers' Band in Guildford 2000), and the marimba makes a token appearance 30 seconds from the end. Yet when this arrangement was played live at the Barbican, Gary sang it in the usual way: no other Procol Harum song has done official duty both as a vocal and as an instrumental piece
As if to prove that (as Gary told a Danish interviewer in 1983) it was '… by far the best song on Procol’s Ninth' Pandora's Box was played (quite unlike all other Ninth songs!) at every gig between August 1975 and May 1977. By the final tour it had acquired an excitingly ostentatious, protracted chordal solo from Peter Solley, and blues hollerings from the composer … 'talking 'bout a maaaa-rble …'. It has been frequently heard in the 1990s, where the setlist has of course increasingly resembled a 'greatest-hits' roster. The words, which Keith Reid selected for his book, My Own Choice], are perhaps too diffuse to have attracted many cover versions: there are other songs of this title but most – including Donna Summer's, pace Mr Brooker – are different compositions. There are of course many works of this title outside the world of rock: Swedish composer Lars Johan Werle's Pandora's Box opened at the Opera of Jutland in May 2000; Keith Reid is known to be a devotee of classic cinema, and he may have known the German 1929 film Pandora's Box (Der Buchse der Pandora aka Lulu) starring Louise Brooks, and based on the plays from plays Endgeist (1895) and Pandora's Box (1903) by Wedekind: in this a woman murders her lover, becomes a prostitute and is murdered in London by Jack the Ripper. However it seems most unlikely that the present song relies in any way on the low US slang in which 'box' means 'vagina'.
- 'While horsemen ride across the green': we should perhaps remember that these words were written in 1967, when the Dylan influence on Reid was high: horsemen appear from time to time in Dylan songs and generally symbolise trouble, thanks to their connection with the apocalypse. In the 1950s it is reported that 'green' was slang for low quality marijuana amongst the black community, but in the context of horse-riding the reference is more probably to 'greensward'. Much of the lyric is backward-looking, to
uncharacteristically rural, outdoor life.
- 'Snow White still remains unseen': the 1937 Walt Disney animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, is surely not 'unseen' by anybody of Reid's generation (John Lennon parodies it egregiously in A Spaniard In The Works (1965)). The story is based on an early 19th century tale by the brothers Grimm, and it concerns the familiar business of the maiden, the corrupting witch and the poisoned apple. Only this last element is apparently related to the rest of the song, inasmuch as it transforms the imagery of the Garden of Eden: in Genesis Eve, (whose husband was the first to fall) tasted the forbidden fruit and unleashed the knowledge of evil on the world: she is of course the Christian world's transformation of the Pandora myth outlined above. 'Snow White still remains unseen' could refer us to a world of long ago, corresponding to the time when the horse and the village green were commonplace ('A tale of fantasy ...' is how Gary has announced the song onstage (1992)); but 'snow white' might have a darker meaning, since it has come to be slang for cocaine.
- 'Pegasus, the winged horse': Pegasus was the immortal flying horse; there is some redundancy in specifying that he is 'winged' – note that Reid modifies this other mythologic quadruped from this era: the 'two-pronged unicorn' from Cerdes (Outside the Gates of). Pegasus sprang from his mother's neck when her head was cut off, and was owned by Bellerophon, who tried to fly up to Olympus; Pegasus was stung by a gadfly, and threw him back to earth. He went on to Olympus and drew the (flaming) chariot of the sun; this led Zeus to immortalise him as the constellation of Pegasus. It doesn't seem likely that Reid has the constellation in mind, any more than he has when writing about Cancered spectres or vestal Virgos. He mentions stars or their compounds in only a handful of songs, three of which are from The Prodigal Stranger: All This And More, Something Magic, Man With A Mission, Perpetual Motion and All Our Dreams Are Sold. Other celestial bodies are sparse too: Neptune is a favourite of his among Gods, gaining two mentions, but in both he clearly alludes to the deity and not to the planet.
- 'relays his messages by Morse'; Morse Code was invented by Samuel Morse in late 19th Century, and uses 'dits' and 'dashes' to represent alphabetical and numerical symbols: it is useful for communicating when voice or other systems cannot be used, and is transmitted as pulses of sound, light or radio; it is too widely-known to serve as a secret code, though this is required in the drug-oriented interpretation of the song that some have put forward. In former times 'clever' horses were toured round country fairs, exhibiting their supposed calculating skills by banging a hoof on the ground an appropriate number of times. This is not Morse, but Morse might be the next step for any horse that really had something to say to man. 'Pegasus' is the name of an international Morse organisation (see here)! The Finnish version of the present song is named Hermes, after the wing-footed messenger of the Gods, the mascot of the UK's Royal Corps of Signals. Pegasus has come to symbolise immortality: it has been suggested that the 'Morse' here could represent arrhythmia, faults in the human heartbeat.
- 'like some pirate sailor': not only is Keith Reid presented in piratical guise on the Salty Dog album cover, but Brooker and Reid went on to call their publishing company 'Bluebeard', a deeply piratical name. 'Sailor' is barely necessary from the point of view of sense: however it's interesting that the activities specified in the chorus have little to do with piracy, nor the sea.
- 'We crossed the Spanish Main': the 'main' is the ocean, and the Spanish main would be a likely stretch of water for pirates wanting to rob galleons returning, Conquistador-like, from South America. Pilgrim's Progress contains the line 'sought instead to find some pirate's gold'. However 'Spanish main' is cockney rhyming-slang for 'drain' ('main' is also the word for a primary water-pipe) and it has been suggested that this line refers to the surreptitious disposal of drugs, to avoid arrest, by flushing them down the sewer-system.
- 'brought our magic carpet': the original magic carpet belonged to King Solomon; Barrie Wilson appears to be riding one on the back of the Home album cover. Steppenwolf's Magic Carpet Ride (1968) makes use of this image in an evidently drug-related context. Very few Reid songs use the word 'magic' (Robert's Box, Something Magic, Wizard Man).
- 'a marble staircased plain': this is an inscrutable phrase, as well as being an awkward one to sing. A staircase is redundant on a plain, which is axiomatically flat: perhaps the staircase is an entry to the plain … but this too would be redundant if a magic carpet were available. The Surrealists, particularly Dali, Magritte and Tanguy, delighted in broad perspectives strewn with contextually-dislocated items such as tubas, telephones, snooker tables: this may be part of the effect that was being sought in this line. Other stairs in Procol songs include 'the stairs up to heaven' (Skip Softly (My Moonbeams)); 'Crashing down from broken stairs' (Power Failure) and 'Kick the beggar down the stairs' (Poor Mohammed).
- 'Handel plays his melody': George Frederic Handel (1685-1759) was the celebrated German violinist, keyboardist and composer who went into music in defiance of his father's wish that he become a lawyer. He is the only composer mentioned by name in Procol Harum songs – such a name-drop is characteristic of Dylan, however – and Handel's influence is much-felt in the 'churchy' chords and voicings particularly favoured by Brooker (statelier sections of The Worm and the Tree, for instance). He has many 'melodies' – one of the best-loved is Silent Worship from the opera Ptolemy (1728) which starts (in Arthur Somervell's words) 'Did you not hear my lady go down the garden singing' … which, some might argue, relates both to the sleeve of the first Procol Harum album and to its second track.
- 'Doctors cause uncertainty': John 'Chevalier' Taylor [surely not one of the horsemen?] performed operations to enhance Handel's eyesight: Taylor is written up as a quack in medical histories, although the biography of Casanova has him down as a good physician. It seems possible, however, that he may have hastened Bach's death, and irreparably damaged Handel's sight while claiming to have restored Bach's. There is little doubt that this caused some uncertainty. Reid's earlier work abounds in reference to not being able to see reliably, and his later work in references to doctors, mostly despairing: 'The doctors say they must operate' (Song For A Dreamer); 'Got to show it to my doctor' (A Souvenir of London); 'The doctors didn't hesitate', 'The doctors said they knew no cure' (For Liquorice John); 'Doctor where's your remedy?', 'Doctor where's your magic box', 'Doctor please don't lock your door' (Robert's Box); 'Famous doctors all agree' (Fresh Fruit); 'If only my doctor could see that I'm ill', 'If only my doctor would give me a pill', 'But why can't my doctor just say that I'm ill?' (Typewriter Torment)
- 'And though I know the lifeguard's brave / there is no one for him to save': this paradox has a flavour of Lewis Carroll, where for example the oysters in The Walrus and the Carpenter have 'shoes … clean and neat … and this was odd because, you know, they hadn't any feet'. It could be argued that we cannot assess the bravery of the lifeguard if there's no-one for him to save: furthermore he's redundant, like a staircase on a plain. Procol Harum songs do abound in swimmers and drowners; the prime candidates for this unemployed lifeguard's services would seem to be Liquorice John, who 'fell into the sea and drowned' or Icarus in Nothing But the Truth who 'flew too near the sun' and,
according to legend, fell back into the sea. 'There is no one for him to save' recalls 'There is no whole which I can choose' from Kaleidoscope: this seems to be a metre Reid is happy in.
- 'Cock Robin views his frozen feet': Cock Robin is another standard childhood figure like Snow White – his robustly masculine name apparently chosen to be the opposite of Snow White's virginal one. Cock Robin also featured in a 1935 Disney animation. It seems likely that the ballad it is based on dates back as far as the 14th Century in England: 'Who killed Cock Robin? "I" said the sparrow "With my bow and arrow, I killed Cock Robin."' The robin is steeped in English (pagan) myth and folklore, an archetype of male sacrifice; he is sometimes also interpreted as being the devil. Of course attempts have been made to link this line to the history of the band, since to have 'cold feet' is to reconsider, unfavourably, something previously agreed upon: this is thought, by some, to correspond to Robin Trower's attitude to the suitability of his blues style to the new keyboard-heavy band, though Brooker and Reid may well have written the song before even Trower's antecedent, Ray Royer, joined the Procol team. Specific bird-mentions are rare in Reid, though there's a carrion crow in The Unquiet Zone, and lark and vulture make a showing in Something Magic.
- 'wraps them in a winding sheet': a winding sheet is the shroud in which a corpse is swathed inside the coffin, (it's also the name given to the trail of wax left by a burnt-out candle). If Cock Robin represents a young virginal male, used as a ritual sacrifice, he might well end up in a winding sheet.
- 'calls out for his favourite drink': famously 'we called out for another drink' is heard in A Whiter Shade of Pale, while Cerdes (Outside the Gates of) mentions the highly-specific crème de menthe, apparently a favourite drink of 'Peep the Sot'.
- 'the Persian that's as warm as mink': this somewhat stilted line defies ready comprehension; it might be easier if we took 'Persian' to refer to a cat, since there doesn't appear to be a hot or warming drink of that name. This line is re-written as 'chocolate that's as warm as mink' in Keith Reid's My Own Choice anthology, and was sung thus by the Palers' Band at Guildford: Brooker (live) seems to be singing 'virgin' from time to time, but 'Persian' is definitely what’s written in the word-sheets of the original album and on the CD reissues. All in all it seems a suitably enigmatic conclusion to this set of images whose principle linking thread – apart from looking backwards to a time of innocence – appears to be their high degree of variegation. Though the song provided Procol Harum with a much-coveted hit record, it may have done the band an ultimate disservice, in appearing to confirm to the non-cognoscenti that, eight years after A Whiter Shade of Pale, their words were still dabbling in a multi-coloured stream of consciousness – whereas, in fact, this was a throw-back to the earliest days of Reid's writing for the band, which had subsequently moved on tremendously.
Thanks to Frans Steensma for additional information about this song