'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.
This imposing, swiftly-moving song starts with syncopated drums echoingly inviting us to play 'spot-the-downbeat', while three distinct 'World Music' elements the high female voices, the Khoisan mouth-noises, and the men's sibilant exhalation contribute to the impressionistic sound-painting. Despite these supposed echoes of the Serengeti (the 'Serendipity Plain' as Gary self-mockingly called it at the Barbican in 1996) the introduction is completed by classic churchy Procol Harum harmonies, the organ ringing out over a pedal note which resolves upwards in a faint, slow echo (at about 30 seconds) of the openings of Nothing but the Truth and Robert's Box. The latter's uncharacteristic rhythmical looseness is another shared feature once Holding On gets going.
The song is in a sturdy D major, though the presence of the 'Salty Dog' chord (under 'Gods of war' etc) lends plangency to the harmonies, and there are some very attractive chord-inversions. A curious feature is the short second verse, whose premature jump to the 'Salty Dog' chord always comes as a surprise. Despite the presence of some well-known Brooker motifs, there is also a sense of real harmonic originality: the sudden, warm G major on 'strong', where a B minor would ordinarily follow the first-inversion F sharp seventh, recalls the instinctive felicities of Shine on Brightly or Salad Days. It was extraordinary to open the seal on this CD in 1991 and to find it contained a single song written only by Brooker / Reid; but some commentators, such as Douglas Adams ('one of the three best tracks they ever made': see here) have elevated this piece into the pantheon of Procol classics. Certainly it is 'up there' among the songs Gary has aired with pickup bands, such as Conquistador and A Salty Dog, alongside which Holding On was played at the 'Lilies of the Field' Bosnia Benefit in 1995, and A Whiter Shade of Pale, with which he played it on Dutch TV in 1998.
The song has featured in other arrangements: the haunting orchestral touches heard at Procol Harum orchestral gigs of 1996 and 2000 were first heard on the 1993 'Rock Meets Classic' German tour under the baton of Christian Kabitz, and the song was played in a pared-down orchestration live, three times, by the Gary Brooker Ensemble: it features very attractively on their 1996 record. The Hottentot (or Khoisan) clicks have not featured live: successive choirs have had enough problems pitching the opening note, even singing it at the right time: at Guildford Gary gives them a stern cue at the piano. The sole Procol-only rendition appears to have been an unscheduled insertion of it in the setlist for a radio performance at Vejle, Denmark, February 1996, when the orchestral / choral introduction is replaced by some distinctly Latino busking at the piano, and in which there are no backing voices at all.
Written in New York 'about the war that was going on it in the deserts', Holding On shares an atypical political focus with As Strong as Samson, (which might appear to harbour another hostage reference, but its 'being held to ransom' is metaphorical, in the context of labour-relations): however the message is entirely opposite in that the former bewailed the helplessness of the individual in a harsh war-torn world, while Holding On surges into an optimistic chorus reassuring us that we will one day be free. Keith Reid selected the words for his book, My Own Choice.
- 'Zika nor nama ... hesah!': these are the spellings transcribed from the Gary Brooker Ensemble's score for the choir at Aldershot. 'Zika' has been glossed as 'bury' but the phrase as a whole defies interpretation: it doesn't make sense in Swahili, despite GB's claim in contemporary interviews, or on the Zoo promotional CD: 'It was thrown somewhere towards Ethiopia
we needed some girls to do some chanting. And these girls
were South Africans
and they were quite fluent in either Swahili or Zulu, I'm not sure what
'). It would be interesting to know if these 'girls' contributed the idea for mouth-clicks from their own ethnic experience, or whether the band brought the idea in themselves the idea has been familiar to all pop music audiences since Paul Simon's Graceland album. These exotic words have remained in all orchestral performances of the song, and have remained a source for onstage fun: 'Anybody from Swahili here? I knew there would be! Careful girls!' Gary joked at Guildford 2000.
- 'Through this hourglass sands are running fast': just as Reid favours the anachronistic 'looking-glass' for mirror, so he here makes use of the archaic 'hourglass' to portray the passing of time. It's not a whimsical effect, however: since we can see the sand pouring, the sense of time 'running out' is far more urgent. The sands running through the hourglass correspond to the 'burning sands' of the desert location, but contradict the 'killing fields' which, in Roland Joffe's film of that name, refer to Cambodia under Pol Pot. Elsewhere on this album we find plenty of comments about time and its passage, perhaps most notably in (You Can't) Turn Back the Page. The hourglass continues the paradoxical use of anachronistic timepieces the sundial, the chiming watch as symbols in Procol Harum songs . Here it represents a striving for poetic resonance, as the alternatives [digital electronic wristwatch, clock on the wall] would contradict the ambience being striven for. The archaisms here and elsewhere are presumably intended to stress the eternal presence of warfare.
- 'sands are running fast': Reid has quite a high quota of 'sand' references before the two in the present number: 'sand has taken seed' (Conquistador); 'new-mown sand' (Mabel); 'one foot on the seashore and the other in the sand' (Magdalene (My Regal Zonophone)); 'sand so white' (A Salty Dog); 'sands of gladness' (Whaling Stories); 'glittering sand' (Broken Barricades); 'swimming in the sand' (Butterfly Boys). It's an unusual word to receive emphasis in popular song, but it sings well.
- 'In deserted plains kingdoms write their names': the allusion could be to territorially-acquisitive countries' names spreading across maps, but the archaic 'kingdom', as well as the image of writing in the desert, calls to mind the sonnet Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), which mocks the millennial arrogance of a once-proud monarch, his statue now 'a colossal wreck', and nothing about him known beyond his name and ambition.
- 'Kingdoms show their hands': the allusion is to revealing the contents of a hand of cards ... as in 'Put my cards upon the table' in The King of Hearts .
- 'Soldiers show their steel': the phrase (echoing 'Kingdoms show their hands') exploits a neat pun on 'steel', which could mean 'personal resolve' or refer to the metal involved in old-fashioned man-to-man armed combat.
- 'The men who play the gods of war': on the first Procol album the end of Kaleidoscope quotes some of the music from Gustav Holst's Mars, from the Planets Suite: Mars was the Roman god of war so in a sense Procol Harum themselves are 'the men who play
' References to God also come in Piggy Pig Pig, Whaling Stories, A Rum Tale, Nothing But the Truth, The Mark of The Claw, Perpetual Motion, The Pursuit of Happiness.
- 'Hostages who seek release': the song was written and recorded at a time of unprecedented coverage of hostage stories in the Western media. In particular these focused on Terry Waite, the archbishop of Canterbury's special envoy to the Middle-East who, pitted against the likes of Qadhafi and Khomeini, negotiated the release of British hostages held in Libya and Iran during the 1980s. In 1987 he was taken hostage himself and remained in solitary confinement for four years, eventually being released in September 1991. If Holding On had been released before Waite was, it might well have secured substantial success: its geographical uncertainty conferred some universality
- 'Holding on, holding on': these plaintive words are eminently 'singable'. Is it a coincidence that Gary has sung two further songs whose choruses start with 'hold'? There's his own Hold On, which he sang with the Eric Clapton band in 1980, and his solo album's title-track, Echoes in the Night, whose words are jointly credited to Brooker / Fisher / Reid.
- 'One day we will be free, one day if we're strong': though uncharacteristically optimistic for a Procol Harum lyric, this was exactly the positive outlook of the political hostages as portrayed by the media.
- 'Through the shadows cast to a brighter day': the verbal formulation 'shadows cast' is somewhat archaic, whereas 'brighter day' has become something of a clichι for optimists, occurring in many songs, names of charities and support groups and eco-friendly organisations. Reid's achievement is to pair 'brighter' with 'shadows', in the context of hostages emerging into the desert light after years of confinement indoors. The word bright occurs, in various forms, in In The Wee Small Hours Of Sixpence, Shine on Brightly, All This And More, About to Die, Broken Barricades, Fires (Which Burnt Brightly), New Lamps for Old, Fool's Gold and Something Magic.
- 'In these fields of stone': perhaps deserts answer to this paradoxical description? 'Fields' has again been used in a non-agricultural context, and 'stone', with its overtones of hard-heartedness, completes the picture of a barren stalemate.
- 'Far away from home': as well as having an album named Home and two song-titles featuring the word, Procol Harum sang a lot about home in both positive and negative lights: ''I'm home on shore leave' (A Whiter Shade of Pale); 'Thought I'd left it at home' (Something Following Me); 'ships come home to die' (A Salty Dog); 'Tell all my friends back home' (The Milk Of Human Kindness); 'I wasn't at home in bed' (Juicy John Pink); 'how far I was from home' (Pilgrims Progress); 'I came home to an empty flat' (Toujours L'amour); 'I'm not coming home' (A Rum Tale); 'I'll have to take it home' (A Souvenir of London); 'Bringing home the bacon' (Bringing Home the Bacon); 'The crowds have gone home' (Fires (Which Burnt Brightly)); 'Far away from home' (Holding on); 'you're coming back home again' (One more time); 'A dream in every home ' (A dream in ev'ry home); 'you can't find a way back home' (The hand that rocks the cradle) and 'leave our home for pastures new' in the unpublished One Eye on the Future, One Eye on the Past.
- 'In this vale of tears': cp. the valley of death in Psalm 23; this was already a common parlance by the time Robert Browning (18121899) wrote, 'Do I view the world as a vale of tears? / Ah, reverend sir, not I' in Confessions.
- 'Young men waste their years': the waste of young men's lives was a particular plaint of the poets who were active during and after World War One.
- 'Stand behind a guarded door': so says the CD booklet, but 'hide behind' is more commonly heard in performance.
- 'Religious leaders teaching hate, praise the war and call it fate': we would perhaps expect to hear 'preaching hate' here, but the word has been perhaps been avoided for its overtones of piety. There are references to 'teaching' in Look to Your Soul, The Devil Came From Kansas, Taking The Time and Skating on Thin Ice, as well as the significant parallel, 'preachers preaching when they don't know what they're teaching' in As Strong as Samson which also dwells on the interracial conflicts of 'black men and white men and Arabs and Jews'. The reference in Holding On is to all religions that have a doctrine of eliminating rather than converting the infidel: since fate has placed these unbelievers on the planet, no moral blame can 'therefore' accrue to those who order their destruction.