1 October 2012: it is a long time since any of us has heard any music recorded by Procol Harum in a studio; longer still since the band featured on a single. Yet this evening I am listening to the new single featuring our heroes: over seven minutes long, it is their new recording –made at Abbey Road – of A Whiter Shade of Pale.
The tempo, on first listening, appears somewhat slower than the celebrated single; the organ sound is lighter, less saturated, and the ornamentation of the melodic line is unmistakably different. The prominent piano, and Geoff Whitehorn's arpeggiated guitar figure, make it clear that we're not listening to any kind of remix of the original.
then the vocal comes in: Yumi … sounding something like a Japanese Edith Piaf,
perhaps not as comfortable as one would like in the higher-pitched areas of the
melody, and audibly wrestling with one or two of the Western sounds in Keith
Reid’s enigmatic libretto.
Then comes the first chorus: and underneath Yumi’s voice we hear the unmistakable tones of Gary Brooker, dropping in and out with a harmony line. By the time we get to the first organ break, the differences from the original recording – which had seemed so marked – no longer impinge so distinctly. One’s ears are drawn to the playing of Geoff Dunn, the tone of whose kit is considerably more ‘plummy’ than that of Bill Eyden’s original.
The next verse is quite a surprise. ‘She said I'm home on shore leave,’ begins The Commander, who has the whole verse to himself, with no audible sign of his Japanese co-star. It is a nicely flexible performance with plenty of rubato and unexpected melisma. This time Yumi is the ‘visiting’ voice in the chorus, supplying the low harmony that Gary sang the first time round.
Geoff Whitehorn's guitar now steps up for a solo, taking the place of the expected organ tune. It's a shapely, nicely-judged melodic break, quite different in its contours from the original Hammond line, and with less of the piercing, raw Whitehorn tone one would expect if it were a live recording. During Geoff's break, Josh’s Hammond lingers in the background, padding the chords.
Yumi then takes up the familiar ‘She said there is no
reason’; Gary returns for the Vestal Virgins line, prolonging the word ‘eyes’ in
characteristic fashion. Strongly-accented crotchet triplets take us into the
next chorus, which is again shared, Brooker mixed down, Yumi mixed up in order
to assimilate the varying vocal power developed by the two singers.
For the next organ break Josh Phillips ‘inverts’ the melody in traditional fashion, but this performances is not set to fade out 1967-style; as he switches to the fast chorale on his Leslie another chorus ensues, the singers this time staggering, or overlapping, certain phrases. It does sound as though they are together in one studio – as indeed they were when this was recorded at Abbey Road – but in fact Yumi’s vocal was redone upon her return to Japan, where the single will be released in November, in advance of Procol Harum’s concert dates in that country.
And for the organ final playout, the bassline (the ever-steady Matt Pegg) is shadowed by some distorted guitar work in the tenor area; then the song really is over, with squealing Hammond, thundering drums, and the aura of Brooker’s (grand?) piano lingering once the whole ensemble has departed.
All in all, then, an intriguing piece of work, and – with
its extra verse and guitar solo – certainly a must for the Procol completist.
To Western ears, though, it is probably not going to seem an entirely satisfying
rendition of the famous song; let us hope it ‘sounds like Platinum’ to the
Japanese market where, after all, Yumi is a star of Carole Kingly magnitude.
Whether a Procol-only mix of AWSoP 2012 – perhaps with Gary’s double-tracked vocal in the chorus – will ever emerge, of course, only time will tell.
Procol dates in 2012 | A Whiter Shade of Pale page