What do you call a musician who cannot sing or play an instrument? Give up? The correct answer is a lyricist. Yes, a lyricist; the most under-appreciated band member next to the drummer and the hard-working roadies. When you think about Elton John do you also think of Bernie Taupin. When you’re singing “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” understand that those words came from the mind of Bernie Taupin. Elton John put the beautiful music and voice to it, but,without Bernie Taupin there would be no yellow brick road immortalized in song.
Keith Reid concentrates only on words. His craft is language. He may not sing or tickle the keys of a piano, but he certainly knows how to create lyrical poetry with the best of them. His words are somewhat unconventional but that is what makes them great. Reid left school at 15 with hopes of becoming a lyricist. He was inspired by Bob Dylan (who has not made a rash decision because of Bob Dylan?). Luckily, through Island Records chief Chris Blackwell, Reid was introduced to Guy Stevens (producer of The Clash’s London Calling) who then introduced him to vocalist/composer Gary Brooker. Yes, the meeting seems convoluted but it was a match made in heaven.
Another quasi-cliche cemented Reid and Brooker’s relationship. Reid set surreal lyrics to a song named “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” while Brooker and the rest of Procul Harum set a melody to the lyrics. Six million copies later, “A White Shade of Pale” is still considered one of the best progressive rock songs of all time. Rolling Stone agrees. It is #57 on their list of the Top 500 Rock N’ Roll Songs of All Time. So, let us explore the lyrics of Keith Reid.
Keith Reid wrote all of Procul Harum’s songs; some by himself and some collaborating with other band members. He is known for his terrific imagery and excellent sense of poetic rhythm (and he is not a musician? I think so, just in a different, more written fashion). Reid is also a master storyteller and this ability is displayed well in his songs. “A Whiter Shade of Pale” proves this. Take a listen before you read the comments.
Great song, right? My favorite lyrics in this song have always been:
“She said, “There is no reason
And the truth is plain to see.”
But I wandered through my playing cards
And they would not let her be
One of sixteen vestal virgins
Who were leaving for the coast
And although my eyes were open wide
They might have just as well been closed
And so it was that later
As the miller told his tale
That her face, at first just ghostly,
Turned a whiter shade of pale”
Set to a magnificent piano part and Brooker’s heavenly voice, these lyrics are highlighted well. The lyrics of this widely misunderstood song are about a boy/girl relationship and the somewhat nautical journey through sex and love. Reid explains a somewhat drunken exchange delicately and this helps the song remain rather cryptic to some, but clear to others. I just love the water imagery. We see this again in “A Salty Dog,” my second favorite Reid lyric.
Beautiful, right? I do not steer you wrong. My favorite lyrics:
“We sailed for parts unknown to man, where ships come home to die
No lofty peak, nor fortress bold, could match our captain’s eye
Upon the seventh seasick day we made our port of call
A sand so white, and sea so blue, no mortal place at all”
First, understand that a “salty dog” is one who has travelled much and witnessed a lot of the world. This song is a classic sea story and is written quite well. Reid enjoys sea stories and symbolism and I enjoy his lyrics a lot. He is the classic example of a lyricist who should get more credit.