'Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes'
Wizard Man is a genuine curiosity among Procol Harum songs, with its country-pop approach, its chart-hungry hand-claps and 'ooh-ooh-ooh' backings, and its curious release history.
Harmonically it is extremely slight, employing only three chords, the classic I IV V root-position majors that were the lingua franca of the punk bands that were to unhorse Procol in the coming months. Though it's quite a pounding, insistent song in Procol terms, the tempo is actually quite a gentle one, and the key is a genial G. Structurally it is repetitive but not entirely predictable, with its five three-chord verses, three sung, two not; and its vestigial, wordless hook. The playing is tasteful (as is the vocal harmony, which grows verse-by-verse in the manner of the Something Magic vocal) but almost all the instrumental work could be classed as generic filler rather than melodic invention, with the exception of Peter Solley's organ work, which is similar in style and key to that heard live on the unpublished One Eye on the Future (mp3 here). There's a curiously splashed wrong note on the piano in the very final seconds of the fade-out.
BJ was probably referring to Wizard Man when he mentioned to his family that the band was planning to put out 'a country rock single', and Gary Brooker told Chris Welch (Repertoire Liner notes, 2000) that 'you can tell that Eagles were in the studio next door. Their influence filters through.' But in fact the 'country' influence is mild, certainly compared with the unpublished This Old Dog a relatively elaborate piece with its five chords which, with its vigorous bluegrass violin, would have been a more engaging, and no less surprising, choice for a single, or even for the 'B' side (which was ultimately to be Backgammon, the other exiled genre-experiment surviving from this session.)
Mick Grabham told Déjà Vu (1977): 'Originally Wizard Man wasn't going to be included because it doesn't fit in with the rest of the album, but then record companies being what they are, said "You've got to put that out as a single", which suited me because I thought that it would have been a hit. As it was, I was totally wrong ... ' Maybe the upbeat, poppy feel of the music slated it for omission: yet the magical allusions in its text do very much cohere with those of the other pieces on the album.
Yet the status of Wizard Man as an album track remains uncertain: it was missing from the test pressing of the Something Magic album and from both the German LP release (Chrysalis 6307 593) and the Spanish release (Chrysalis 28448-1). No European LP release had the track listed on the back cover, and none featured the words. It was announced on the European albums by an intrusive little yellow sticker on the front proclaiming 'contains the hit single', which was a common ploy at this time ... before the single scored its inevitable miss.
Wizard Man was never destined for chart success, but it made good sense as the middle track on side one of the Something Magic album, leavening the complexity of its weightier neighbours. Its place in the recorded repertoire has been subsequently consolidated: it has appeared (still without printed words,
except in Japan!) on all CD re-releases (as track three on the Castle one, as a bonus afterthought on the Repertoire version) and featured on Chrysalis compilations (Portfolio in 1988 and The Chrysalis Years 1973-1977 in 1989).
Wizard Man (backed with Backgammon) was released as a UK single (Chrysalis CHS 2138) on 18 February 1977, and has become a collector's item because, unlike most other Procol singles, the release was not mirrored in most other countries. In the USA (CRS 2115) Warner Brothers selected Something Magic for the B side (though their promo copy featured Wizard Man (mono and stereo) on both sides); in Italy (Chrysalis CHN 2138) Backgammon was the B side. The single was scarcely promoted in the UK: the advertisements for Something Magic give it a small mention ('including the new single, Wizard Man') and the 1977 tourbook doesn't refer to it at all. It was contrastingly reviewed ('Laid-back mid-tempo wallpaper, slight appeal in its predictability' said New Musical Express: 'No messin' about here. A straight smash into the kind of song which could well kick the ghost of A Whiter Shade... into the bucket. Just the stuff to rid us of the cynicism which dogs the idea that PH will ever be big again. Their best single in a long time. Chart potential,' said Caroline Coon in Melody Maker, 5 March 1977). It didn't chart: presumably anyone who wanted it already had the album which Chrysalis or Warners had hoped people would pick up on because of its inclusion.
It was performed regularly on the promotional tours, sounding much like the record, and diffidently promoted by Gary 'We hope it does something.' It has not been heard live since.
- 'Wizard man ...': 'wizard' may seem to tally well with the magical title of the parent album, but in fact 'wizard' is formed from 'wise', just as 'dullard' is formed from 'dull'. Marc Bolan's song The Wizard appeared as a solo-single in 1965, not long after his period of youthful friendship with Keith Reid; and apart from Man with a Mission this is the only Procol Harum song with the word 'Man' in the title.
- 'A magic tooth
pocketful of lead
an angel's heart': these mysterious wizardly attributes may refer to elements kept in the gris gris bag used by New Orleans magical practitioners to summon up psychic powers [cp. the Roger McGuinn song, Lover of the Bayou]. Witches similarly rely on such gruesome talismans: those in Shakespeare's Macbeth famously come equipped with a similar range of darkly anatomical items: a pilot's thumb, wool of bat, nose of Turk and so forth. Very few Reid songs use the word 'magic' (Robert's Box, Pandora's Box, Something Magic)
- 'Carry it low but keep it loose': one cannot be certain what the 'it' refers to: a tooth can be 'loose' (in the jaw, or in the pocket like 'loose' change; it's harder to see how it can be carried 'low'. Equally we can only guess in what sense the tooth is magic, whether it can perform certain feats, or merely confers a general aura of power on its owner (shark's teeth are popular in necklaces: the wearer is empowered by the knowledge that they are not still active in the shark). 'Carry it low but keep it loose' sounds a bit like an instruction to a gunslinger, which maybe underlines the musical resemblance of the track to I Fought the Law, a hit for the Bobby Fuller Four in 1966, which originated with The Crickets.
- 'Don't wait for Christmas': in performance one rarely heard the unaccented word 'Don't', which completely reverses Reid's sense, if indeed sense is intended to predominate here over sound. 'Wait for Christmas' is an easy injunction to obey, unlike its opposite: since Christmas will come whether one waits or not, the only way to avoid it would seem to be dying beforehand. Brief though the song is, it is packed with images that many listeners will relate to matters of death and our attempts to evade it. Reid's use of 'Christmas' conventionally a time for celebrating an important birth may underline the impression that the wise men bearing strange items in these three verses are in some sense parallel shamen to those who brought gold, frankincense and myrrh to Jesus, or to the narrator in Shine on Brightly (more about this here). Unsurprisingly we look in vain for any orthodox piety in this 'Christmas' song, just as we do in A Christmas Camel or in the vicious Still There'll Be More ('I'll blacken your Christmas').
- 'when the four winds blow': the plural 'winds' (found also in 'God's aloft, the winds are raging ... winds are cold' (Piggy Pig Pig) and 'let the cold winds blow them down' (Beyond The Pale)) seems to imply an elemental force, not a mere accident of meteorology as in 'When the wind blows cold' (The Hand That Rocks The Cradle). The 'four winds' were those that blew from the four points of the compass, or the four edges of a conventional map; each was at one time identified with a different god. However in the context of the 'angel's heart' below, it's worth noting that The Book of Revelations (7:1) has '
four angels standing on the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth, that the wind should not blow on the earth
'. It seems that these winds are now blowing, perhaps implying that the angels have lost their battle to restrain them. Four angels also appear at 9.14 in Revelations 'who were loosed
for to slay the third part of men': perhaps these are the bedside visitors 'standing round me', whose clemency is besought in Juicy John Pink.
- 'When they carry you out you're gonna have to go' / 'When they carry you out you won't want to go' : the changing tag-line is a traditional ballad formula, which Reid uses occasionally (cf Something Following Me) and which is much favoured by his mentor, Dylan.
- 'Wizard man's got a pocketful of lead': it may be that 'lead' is here used to signify worthless money (cf 'Counting houses full of lead' in Piggy Pig Pig). Lead is toxic, however, which enhances its gris gris relevance; it's the cheap and 'base' metal that the alchemists sought to transmute into gold, and in that sense it is an opposite to the gold of the Magi in the Nativity story, Matthew 2:1-11. A literal pocketful of lead would be somewhat burdensome, of course. Reid refers in Procol Harum songs to gold, silver and lead, a thread we shall pursue elsewhere. Other elements used include neon and brimstone
- 'Keep a clear eye and a steady head': this again sounds like gunslinger talk, now inverted: novice gun-wielders would be better advised to 'keep a clear head and a steady eye'.
- 'Don't wait for Christmas 'cos it's bound to snow': in Northern European tradition, a heavy snowfall has become part of the sentimental iconography of Christmas. But it may be that this song's (characteristically English!) dwelling on Yuletide weather and the corresponding lack of Christian interest is intended to draw attention to the fact that Christmas is broadly the time of the midwinter Solstice, which nourishes the pagan theme of the song. 'Snow' in rock songs is often a coded reference to cocaine (note how 'Snow White still remains unseen' in Pandora's Box)
in which connection it is perhaps worth observing that 'wizard' sometimes refers to 'an ounce' [of cannabis]: this usage relies on an abstruse reasoning akin to Cockney rhyming slang: 'oz' is the British abbreviation for 'ounce' in the avoirdupois system, which is then encrypted as 'wizard' thanks to L Frank Baum, Judy Garland and The Wizard of Oz.
- 'Wizard man's got an angel's heart': one might expect to hear 'angel's harp'; being non-corporeal, an angel would not have an organic heart: angels are perceived as serving human needs in times of crisis, not of emoting for themselves; this is the key to Wenders's Wings of Desire film, where the angels become human. Angelheart is a later film, about New Orleans diabolism, by Alan Parker
who was to employ Gary Brooker's talents in Evita and who is reportedly a major Procol Harum fan. Metaphorically to have an angel's heart is to have a selfless nature: the context, however, surely promotes a more gruesome, anatomical interpretation, where the wizard possesses a heart extracted from an angel (whose consequent death, perhaps, has unleashed the winds from Revelation). The word 'Angel' also has a number of drug connotations
- 'Show it slow but do it sharp': 'sharp' in everyday lingo is an opposite of 'slow': this draws our attention to the implied antithesis of 'show it' and 'do it': the advice is to seem one way but to behave a different way, perhaps a necessary modus operandi for those involved in wizardry.
'Don't wait for Christmas join a travelling show': is this an instruction to 'get out of town'? The 'travelling show' could in a sense portray the touring rock band: once musicians acquire sound and light technicians their entourage begins to resemble the American touring shows of earlier times (as presented in The Band's WS Walcott Medicine Show from 1970's Stagefright album)
- 'When they carry you out you're gonna have to go' / 'When they carry you out you won't want to go': when they 'carry you out' you are dead, and these closely-related lines reiterate the fact that death is inescapable however much we may hope to resist it. One reason for pursuing magic and wizardry is to seek eternal life
and in Pagan terms Christmas is the time of year when vegetation (holly, ivy, Christmas trees) is brought into the warmth of the house,
with the intention of preserving the Green Man whom we hope to see resurrected in Springtime crops. Christianity grafted the birth of the Messiah also an agent of resurrection on to these earlier, earthier beliefs; Reid's tightly economical song, assimilating Christmas and the practices of the wizard, seems to glance obliquely at the conflation of these two belief-systems.
Thanks to Frans Steensma for additional information about this song