Forty years ago, Procol Harum's Grand Hotel, an opus of considerable ambition with a palpable air of nostalgia, came out amid a blitz of albums by bigger acts. It may not have sold millions, but it ranks with the best of its era, argues Henry Scott-Irvine.
"Procol Harum had one very particular effect on my life," said Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy author Douglas Adams in 1997. "Grand Hotel always used to interest me, because while Keith Reid's lyrics were all about this beautiful hotel — the silver, the chandeliers, all those kind of things — suddenly, in the middle of the song, there was this huge orchestral climax. I thought, it sounds as if there ought to be some sort of floor show going on: something huge and extraordinary, like the end of the universe. So that was where the idea for The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe came from: Procol Harum's Grand Hotel."
In 1972, Procol Harum scored a hit with their single Conquistador, which had graced UK Top 30 and a Billboard Top 20, alongside the album from which it came, Live In Concert With The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, which made No 5 in the US.
The recording sessions for Grand Hotel began in earnest at London's AIR Studios in April 1972, with Chris Thomas producing Procol Harum for the fourth time. He now confesses that while making what was to be Procol's seventh studio set, he was "also secretly moonlighting at Abbey Road co-producing Pink Floyd's The Dark Side Of The Moon", having gained a solid reputation based upon his work with Procol Harum.
Procol's new album "will be intentionally very European in style," asserted Procol's Gary Brooker in a Chrysalis press release. The Grand Hotel "concept" was there from the outset, and while the album was still being made, the sleeve's photo session took place on 4 July 1972 at an infamous villa on the Pacific Palisades, Malibu, Los Angeles. This mansion had also doubled as the interiors of New York's famous Dakota Building in Roman Polanski's movie Rosemary's Baby.
During the Grand Hotel recording sessions, tensions between guitarist Dave Ball and drummer BJ Wilson came to a head over a joke that singer-songwriter Gary Brooker had made while lightheartedly mimicking Ray Charles on the piano. Ball laughed along, but Wilson was not amused and things suddenly erupted into a punch-up between Ball and Wilson. Sometime later, Brooker asked Ball into the privacy of an AIR Studios production booth. "It's not working out," he told the stunned guitarist. At a band meeting, Ball demanded to know "Why?", while the others sat in a brooding silence. "It's because of him, isn't it?" said Ball, pointing at Wilson, who refused to look him in the eye.
Ball was on the money, but decided to leave without any fuss. It was collectively agreed that the press announcement would state: "Dave Ball wanted to get back to playing the blues." Ball, who'd been Robin Trower's replacement, had seen Procol through their renaissance in a tenure that lasted just fifteen months. "Dave Ball was showing signs of unrest," Keith Reid told Cameron Crowe (later to direct the Hollywood feature Almost Famous) in Circus magazine of May 1973, "He was uninspired in his musicianship and his attitude. In his eyes he had just finished his stint with us."
Grand Hotel had originally been scheduled for an October 1972 release, but this was scrapped when Procol decided to re-record 90 per cent of the album, rather than just replace Dave Ball's guitar parts with new man Mick Grabham. As a consequence, the release date was put back until the early spring of 1973. Additionally, Procol cancelled a series of gigs in order to return to AIR studios in November 1972 to undertake the re-recordings. The band was also now out of contract with A&M in the USA and poised to embark on an exclusive international output deal with Chrysalis. It was with a certain amount of pride that Procol's press officer, Cameron Crowe, announced that "the Grand Hotel sessions have moved swiftly and proficiently with the album being completely finished by 26 January 1973".
Grand Hotel was something of a tour de force for Procol. But one constant question seemed to preoccupy British music critics: "Is it a concept album?" The cover showed the members in front of a fictitious Grand Hotel suggesting that it might be. On 17 March Melody Maker reviewer Richard Williams felt that the title track lived up to its subject. "Expanding on the mood Van Dyke Parks created with 'Hung velvet overtaken me, Dim chandelier awaken me' in The Beach Boys' song Surf's Up, Keith Reid's lyrics speak of fine wine, rare meats, serenade and sarabande, Dover sole and œufs mornay, profiteroles and peach flambe, and around this rich imagery Gary Brooker creates sad minuets and stately slow foxtrots, based on the rock rhythm, but amplified by a superb arrangement for orchestra and chorus. He has learned how to use this medium, making a joke of the most avant-rockers who try to borrow from classical music ... almost unique in that the more ambitious they get, the more they succeed."
"Grand Hotel reeks of nostalgia," wrote Sounds' Penny Valentine on 10 March, "and of the Cannes seafront in the winter of forty years ago; of paved ballrooms and maître d's with smoothed-down hair; of palm trees, vast mirrors, and cherubs smiling with plaster mouths — the music tinged with the kind of empty sadness Gary Brooker writes so well." Keith Reid says: "It's about the grand life that we don't lead very much of the time. It's more wishful thinking than reality. It's quite humorous in parts and maybe that's what I intended."
"The middle instrumental section was a throwback to what you might have heard in a Grand Hotel," Gary Brooker explains. "This captured music which we had heard in grand hotels all round Europe. For us that stopped when they closed the Palace Hotel in Southend-on-Sea. It was the end of Palm Court orchestras. We used to see them. So the middle section with BJ Wilson playing 22 mandolins was really just a Venetian input to the song. Wilson played it like that onstage!"
"Grand Hotel was a case of how big can this go?" recalls Chris Thomas. "Megalomania set in there! In the middle, we got BJ Wilson to play 22 mandolins. Then we mixed them all down so we had this fluttering effect in the background. There was a choir that we tracked three times, and an orchestra. One of the problems was that we put down so much that we made copies of copies of copies and started to wear the tape out. So it never sounded as wonderful as I had wanted it to. It got more worn out at one end, so we put more stuff on top to try to compensate for it. Despite that it's a fabulous song... one of Gary's masterpieces."
Reid's lyrics display a black humour in the rocking Toujours l'Amour. "The song means 'long live love'," he confessed, "and it is an obvious quip about the song itself. The title is humorous, because in the song, the woman goes off, leaving a chap who comes home to his empty flat to find a note she's left for him; she's taken the cat as well."
Was the song self-referential? "No," smiled Reid, "I've still got the cat!"
The ballad, A Rum Tale, shows Reid further spoofing love gone wrong. Chris Copping provides some fine Hammond work on a song which is entirely sans guitar . Reid told Circus magazine, "That's a real drinking song. Well, not a drinking song as such, but a song from the bottom of a bottle! The music is actually quite romantic. It's sort of a South Sea island type of thing — or very Caribbean."
TV Ceasar made for an epic end to Side One of Grand Hotel. The song, actually written in AIR studios when the band reconvened there in November, was inspired by American TV chat show hosts, who came over as being far more perspicacious than their European counterparts. Reid recalled a time in 1972 when he turned down the chance to go to Disneyland with the rest of the band, preferring to kick back in his hotel room watching Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett. "When we come to America we avidly watch all the talk shows," he told Hit Parader's Beryl Felice. "Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, and David Frost ... I remember when David Frost was very big, about two years ago. Now he's not that popular any more, but when he was at his peak, Frost could have been — and maybe was — ruling the world. Just like Procol's TV Ceasar, whose 'mighty mouse tops the pops in every house'."
The actual moment that inspired Reid to pen this somewhat overlooked song came from a typical moment of disingenuous TV chat-show banter, prompted by the producer's autocue, featuring Frost's trademark "Great to have you on the show," which he told every guest. "So that prompted me to think about these guys being the real rulers of America... being TV Caesars... The song is about that whole situation. It's about a TV Caesar who's got a 'mighty mouse' and gets the news in every house. Instead of us watching him, it's really that he is watching us while we're eating our TV dinners, 'creeping into eyes and ears, finding out our secret fears'."
A Souvenir of London was Gary Brooker's affectionate tribute to London's bygone cockney buskers. Having witnessed street musicians each day outside Oxford Circus's underground exit, situated next to AIR Studio's entrance at 214 Oxford Street, Brooker decided to do a kind of Don Partridge tribute. Reid came up with a set of saucy lyrics. "I've said this before, but I always find it funny the way songwriting works," Reid said wryly. "I was just trying to do some writing, and I didn't know what to write about and I had a pencil, which said 'A souvenir of London'. I thought to myself, 'What else could that be?' So I wrote a song about venereal disease!"
The recording itself was a lot of fun. "The guys all sat around in a semi-circle inside AIR studios," recalled Chris Thomas. "BJ had a big bass drum. There was a banjo, an accordion, acoustic guitar, and a mandolin. Gary had an idea for a spoons solo. Nobody could actually play spoons. So our roadie Denny Brown, a London guy, had a go. He couldn't do it properly, so someone [Dave Ball] joined in. One tapped out the rhythm, whilst the other guy played the offbeat. We cut it together and it does sound like one guy playing spoons." A Souvenir Of London was the only cut to make it to the album with Ball's guitar part intact. Mick Grabham was gracious enough to concede, "That's Dave Ball on guitar there — not me! I didn't play on that one." Although Ball went uncredited on the original 1973 album release, the oversight was rectified with the 2009 CD reissue. However, when it was originally issued as a Chrysalis single, A Souvenir Of London received a blanket ban across the nation's airwaves.
"Bringing Home The Bacon was inspired by American hamburger joint menus," Keith Reid told Streetlife's Angus Mackinnon in May 1976. "It's about American menus we saw on all our visits there," added Brooker. "Tender juicy steaks, breastfed baby duckling, three-day-old, honey-fed, fresh thin sliced delicious gourmet veal, wrapped in a heavenly blessing of crushed breadcrumbs and egg yolks, grilled to your personal delight on a bed of lettuce garnished with dill pickles. Keith got all that off actual American menus. I suppose you could say Grand Hotel is one end of touring and Bringing Home The Bacon is the opposite end." Keith Reid added, "It's really just about obesity in America." In 1997, author Douglas Adams admitted "the song was almost certainly the inspiration, along with Grand Hotel, for The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe", his sequel to The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy.
Bringing Home The Bacon featured the debut of the Pahene Recorder Ensemble, which is Procol humour at work, the name 'Pahene' being a euphemism [sic] for the recorder and flute work undertaken by Ball, Brooker, Wilson and Copping. Chris Thomas notes, "I really don't know where the idea came from to use the recorders. We came in to re-record the song with the speeding up of the piano for melodramatic effect. When Mick Grabham joined and did it on the road, it worked better at a faster tempo. So after Dave Ball left we redid it in this faster tempo, but still using [the earlier tapes of] the Pahene recorders."
"One final point concerning Bringing Home The Bacon," adds Chris Copping. "A part of the song that might have been 'borrowed' on another record is the Pahene Recorder Ensemble. Listen to The Colour Of Spring by Talk Talk. The last track ends with recorders. [Talk Talk's] Tim Friese-Greene was a tape operator back in our day ..."
For Liquorice John, boasting phased-down piano and chromatic harp, is dedicated to the late Dave Mundy, a friend of Brooker's who had inspired Procol's secret rock'n'roll sessions at Abbey Road in 1970, later released in 1997 under the title of Ain't Nothing To Get Excited About and credited to Liquorice John Death & The All Stars.
Reid's lyrics nod in the direction of Stevie Smith's poem Not Waving, But Drowning. It is without a shadow of a doubt Procol's most overlooked song and one of their greatest. The song should have been a single, and a hit, being every bit as good as David Bowie's Rock'n'Roll Suicide and as evocative as Elton John's Funeral For A Friend, issued later in 1973. For Liquorice John is arguably the finest Procol production work undertaken by Chris Thomas. The song features his trademark qualities as a producer; a wall of sound; layering of instruments; and a perfect integration of percussion, within some of the most magnificent melodies Brooker wrote.
Chris Thomas: "On For Liquorice John I seem to remember having some very strange set-up with out-of-tune pianos. I wanted the thing to sound like it was under water [to create the effect of drowning] and I didn't do it in the control room. This was in the days before any boxes for digital post-production trickery. A twelve-string guitar was played and then picked up through a Leslie speaker. This was connected to an upright detuned piano with Gary playing the same riff in perfect time to the guitar part. The result was a very weird sound indeed, which just seemed to work!" Chris Copping says: "There are so many great production tricks on For Liquorice John, like the piano through a Leslie; a guitar amp mic'd close to an upright piano with the sustain pedal held down..."
Gary Brooker: "... And drumming parts cascading around and all through it. For Liquorice John wasn't a happy song, because it was about suicide. It had quite a bit of aggression about it and a lot of sweetness too along the way."
Fires (Which Burnt Brightly) is most European in tone, as if it had come from a French movie by Claude Lelouch. It features the voice of Christiane Legrand, lead singer with the Paris-based Swingle Singers — a lady with a magically resonant voice. As Andy Tyler described in Disc of 17 March 1973, "Her noo-nah-noo backings and scat solo near the middle are exactly right."
Gary Brooker: "The opening of Fires is a little bit from Bach's Well Tempered Clavier. I hadn't written anything which was Bach-like since A Whiter Shade Of Pale. So I thought I'd have another go there. The Swingle Singers had probably always been a favourite from about 1966 — especially their Bach renditions. Christiane Legrand, their lead singer, the sister of the film composer Michel Legrand, had such a sweet voice. We were at AIR Studios with Chris Thomas. We'd probably already recorded that song, but we thought that we needed somebody else doing that one. Suddenly, Christiane Legrand was there like the next day or the day after!"
Chris Thomas: "She had listened to the song and had a few ideas. She flew in from Paris and when she arrived, she said, 'If I could just go and have a large steak and a bottle of wine, then I will be ready for you!' We were all ready to go, but she went off and had lunch for about an hour and a half. But when she came back she sang this fantastic solo straight away and in one take."
Gary Brooker says, "She really got into it and then double-tracked and quadruple-tracked herself. I think Les Parapluies de Cherbourg's soundtrack by Michel Legrand must have stuck in my mind. Having thought I'd written a great tune, I suddenly realised there was a bit of unconscious plagiarism going on there... The French have always had strong melodies — and Procol Harum-like strong melodies. They've got that romanticism and a bit of emotion in there... "
Chris Thomas says they took advantage of what was to hand: "The keyboard on the track was in fact one of those Baldwin electric harpsichords that had been left from a film soundtrack recording session. At AIR there would often be interesting instruments left lying around like pipe organs, harpsichords, etc. I'd always find out how long they were hired out for and then I'd 'borrow them' until they had to be taken away." Keith Reid muses: "Fires (Which Burnt Brightly) is a sad song. It's me talking to somebody and saying the war we are waging, we are waging it, but it's already lost. The thing we were fighting for was finished a long time ago. It goes on to say 'malice and habit has now won the day', which means all that we are left with is the habit of fighting with each other ... 'the honours we fought for are lost in the fray'... the thing that we were fighting for was lost in the fighting..."
Gary Brooker goes on, "When we were about to do Fires... at a concert in Paris, Christiane Legrand was in the audience, unknown to us. She Just got up and climbed on stage and sang Fires, which was one of those great, great moments!"
The concluding track on Grand Hotel, Robert's Box, is lyrically reminiscent of The Beatles' Doctor Robert, about a certain New York physician whose large bag of goodies kept his clients permanently abuzz. The song's conclusion also slightly echoes of The Grand Finale from Shine On Brightly's In Held ‘Twas In I. Brooker's rumbling bassy vocal refrains and Thomas's full wall of sound help to give this track a distinct flavour, providing the perfect ending to a truly great Procol album.
To match the ornate nature and European style of much of the music, the sleeve to Grand Hotel was something of an artistic masterstroke. The large glossy lyric booklet contained black-and-white illustrations by Spencer Zahn, while the cover photographs were taken by Jeffrey Weisel and attracted the attention of up-market Italian art magazine 2001, which noted that the interior shots look "like the last gathering of survivors of a middle-class society all but extinct. There's pride and desolation in the expression of the 'guests', and at the same time an atmosphere of waiting for who-knows-what eventuality, positive or catastrophic."
The Grand Hotel's reception
With one notable exception in the shape of Rolling Stone's Bud Scoppa, who described Grand Hotel as "a collection of overblown production jobs that at their worst approach self-parody, and simpler, less grandiose tracks that suggest Procol Harum may yet find a way out of the corner they have worked themselves into", the critics were virtually unanimous in their praise for Procol's new epic. "There are nine tracks on Grand Hotel," wrote the band's champion, Penny Valentine in Sounds, "covering a great maze of emotions from nostalgia, to lost love, suicide, decay and desolation, and throughout there is no let-up in pitch... steadily assaults your nerve endings — without a moment to recover from the last attack, they move off into the next."
However, with very strong competition from the likes of Elton John's Don't Shoot Me I'm Only The Piano Player, Pink Floyd's The Dark Side Of The Moon and Led Zeppelin's Houses Of The Holy, rock's heavyweights would once again fly in the face [sic] of Procol's significant efforts. As a consequence, Grand Hotel was not a Top 10 album at home or in the US. Nevertheless, it reached a healthy Billboard position of No 21, remaining in the US charts for five months. Although it failed to chart here, by 1976 it had earned Procol a UK silver disc for 250,000 sales.
Procol's Grand Tour
"Procol Tour The World" stated the headline on Sounds' front page of 15 September 1973. "Seven British dates are confirmed for November, taking in the Royal Festival Hall in November as a part of a tour which takes in Britain, Australia, New Zealand, the States, France, Germany, Belgium and Scandanavia." By the time the paper hit the stands in the UK, Procol were touring Australia for the first time. There was considerable interest Down Under, and Brooker and Reid were both interviewed for ABC TV's music show GTK.
The Hollywood Bowl was no stranger to rock'n'roll. The Beatles played there in 1964 and 1965, while Pink Floyd road-tested The Dark Side Of The Moon there in 1972. Two weeks prior to Procol's show of 21 September 1973 with The Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra (LAPO) which was scheduled to be radio syndicated on the King Biscuit Flower Hour, Elton John debuted Goodbye Yellow Brick Road in a much-hyped show filmed by Bryan Forbes. The pressure was on.
Isaiah Jackson was to conduct the LAPO and the Roger Wagner Chorale. The lighting and stage design would come from the legendary Chip Monck, who'd perfomed the same duties at Woodstock. The Hollywood Bowl had their own sound-man in the shape of Frank Supak, as three sound desks would be required for this epic outdoor undertaking, while Procol's producer Chris Thomas would be mixing. Procol also had their own sound engineer in the shape of David Pelletier, who had engineered the Floyd's Bowl show.
Derek Sutton, the band's ex-manager, remembers: "David Pelletier decided to do the show in mono for the LA audience. It was the best sound I'd heard at the Hollywood Bowl, and that was Pelletier's genius."
David Pelletier explains: "We had just come back from Australia and the one-sided sound system was a suggestion of Bruce Jackson, Elvis's engineer, later of Springsteen fame. We used this technique in New Zealand and Australia, and it worked beautifully during the Hollywood Bowl rehearsals. All that bass coupling filled the Bowl effortlessly. When it came to show time, we set everything just as it was the night before. Everyone waited. When the lights went down, suddenly, out of the darkness, came the sickening sound of one string player after another standing up, raising the microphones to where they were used to seeing them for a symphony recording!
"We knew then and there that we were cooked. Physics dictates that a microphone trying to pick up a soft string sound amid the din of a rock'n'roll band is going to pick up very little string and maximum band. To compound matters, at the moment the concert started, the Bowl union sound engineer arrived and dictated in no uncertain terms to Chris Thomas and me that he was going to operate the sound board and he would mix the orchestra and feed it directly to the mixers carrying the band. You can imagine how it went. Poor Chris was trying to replicate his Procol Harum And The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra album success, and I was leaning on the Bowl guy to lighten up and not reach for the sky with volume: `skreech'. In the end, after a two-hour struggle, it ended with everyone blaming it on a 'one-sided sound system'."
Despite the technical issues, Procol received several standing ovations during the two-hour concert. The band was on fire and Brooker's singing was superb. The first encore featured the band performing A Souvenir Of London without the orchestra. and then TV Ceasar with full orchestra, which segued into Rule Britannia, while a giant inflatable Godzilla suddenly appeared from the pool in front of the stage prior to a spectacular firework show, which lit up Hollywood's autumn skies. Procol returned to the stage wearing top hats and tails and took their bows to a ten-minute standing ovation.
A positive Rolling Stone review was marred by reports of screeching feedback throughout the concert. Luckily, it was not in evidence on the quadraphonic tape recordings made for the King Biscuit Flower Hour transmitted on 28 October 1973 (now officially available online through http://WolfgangsVault.com).
Gary Brooker says: "By the end of 1973 we said, 'Enough of this poncing around with orchestras. Let's get back to rock,' which we did when we went to AIR Studios in December to start on Exotic Birds and Fruit." Keith Reid laughs: "We always did that! Whenever we were successful with something we always then ran in the opposite direction!"
Grand Hotel Live, 2013
Forty years later, in March 2013, Procol Harum could be found touring in Denmark with The National Danish Orchestra and Choir and then in Germany across two sold-out nights on 5 and 6 April at the historic Stadhalle in Wuppertal, with the Sinfonieorchester Wuppertal and a ninety-strong choir, Kantorei Barmen-Gemarke, alongside a six-piece dance troupe featuring Jo Ann Endicott, formerly of Pina Bausch [sic].
With fans jetting in from 22 countries, the Procol concert featured on primetime WDR TV news bulletins, now on YouTube. The epic set featured three luscious moments from Grand Hotel, namely the title track, Toujours l'Amour, and Fires. Refusing to leave the venue, the audience gave a ten-minute standing ovation as Gary Brooker returned to thank everyone. The after-party [organised by ‘Beyond the Pale’] went on until 4am.
In adapting this piece for 'Beyond the Pale' we've cut out about 390 words of outright repetition, presumably an oversight by whoever laid out the artwork. Thanks, Andrea, for the typewriter torment