Thursday, 7 January 2016

In Held 'Twas In I

Vestal virgins, light fandango and the rest of it. You’d be a fool to deny what could well be the world’s most seamless blend of classical and pop music. Literally Bach turning cartwheels 'cross the floor. But somewhere in the vicinity of Finchley Road, near the house where Sigmund Freud spent the final year of brilliant and inspired charlatanism, I suddenly realised that all along – it had been a different song.

And since we’ve alluded to “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” for the fourth or fifth time, we’re are not just talking about the greatest song by Procol Harum. We are talking about the 20th century. Which is where “In Held ‘Twas In I” comes in. A revelation that might have occurred on a psychoanalyst couch covered with Persian carpets and surrounded by ancient figurines, on 20 Maresfield Gardens. Back then, however, in 1939, progressive rock was not yet a thing of the past. Rather – it was a thing of distorted, chaotic future.

Or rather – it’s not progressive rock at all. It may have laid the foundation, it may be as grand and complex and pretentious as anything on Selling England By The Pound, but I prefer to view it as a collection of disjointed ideas and great musical thoughts brought together by a band overwrought by creative brilliance.

“In The Autumn Of My Madness…” is of course as good as anything ever written by anybody, but what hit me that day on Finchley Road was how much I was enjoying the whole ride. Maddening, elegiac, overblown. It was easy to admire, yet it was even easier to love. “Held Close By That Which Some Despise…” (note that the first words of each part make up the song title – seriously, not even 1968 could get much more pretentious than that) is almost embarrassing in its borderline treacly classical elegance. But it works, and is then followed by a circus-like section proving that genius and whimsy are often inseparable.

After all, as the smiling Dalai Lama said to the pilgrim: ‘Well my son, life is like a beanstalk, isn’t it?’ 

And from the fabulously far-fetched spoken-word intro to the overwhelming chants of that Wagnerian ending, you get it all. Self-indulgence, definitely, but also ‘glimpses of Nirvana’. Due to the sheer depth and scope or due it all being rooted in classical music or due to the talents of those involved, these glimpses are among the most striking 20th century had to offer. Took me about 10 years to catch most of them, but as any Buddhist will tell you – Nirvana never comes easy. 

But first and foremost - it's all a great and endearing joke. Which is where progressive rock loses, and Procol Harum wins.