Liner note by Roland from BtP • April 2018
First, some history. After releasing five excellent – yet undervalued – studio albums between 1967 and 1971, Procol Harum hit the jackpot with their gold-selling 1972 album, Live with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. An ambitious recasting of their best work to date, it was performed in moving and masterful style, and yielded a chart hit with the stormingly re-arranged Conquistador.
As the Edmonton line-up – Gary Brooker (voice and piano), BJ Wilson (drums), and Chris Copping (Hammond organ), with recent acquisitions Alan Cartwright (bass) and Dave Ball (guitar) – toured the UK, USA and Japan, they worked some half-dozen ambitious new Brooker/Reid songs into their set. Sessions for the Grand Hotel album began, at London’s AIR studios, but incompatibilities surfaced, and in Summer 1972 the band resolved to scrap existing work. A fresh guitarist, Mick Grabham, joined in September: ‘His contribution was astounding,’ in Brooker’s words.
Edmonton’s success meant there was more money and time to lavish on the follow-up: hence the gatefold sleeve, and the glossy lyric booklet reproducing a charcoal illustration, for each song, by American album-art director Spencer Zahn, long-time friend of Brooker and Reid. Although Procol were able to re-record everything from before the line-up change, flying everyone back to California’s Pacific Palisades to reshoot the Jeffery Weisel band-photos was not feasible: through improbable darkroom trickery, Grabham’s head was grafted plausibly on to Ball’s lankier body. Despite the spacious package, the album documentation feels meagre. ‘The who-did-whats, a few brief thankyous, it was all a bit tongue-in-cheek,’ says Gary. He doesn’t now recall the author, but ‘… being the only one who spoke French, I probably put in the “ooh-la-la”.’
In April 1973 Chrysalis Records threw a Grand Hotel launch party at New York’s Plaza Hotel, ‘a terrific send-off,’ as Brooker recalls. ‘We’d just arrived from London, everyone in tails, absolutely knackered, but we managed to party on!’. Andy Warhol, Linda Lovelace, Carly Simon and James Taylor were among the ‘A-list’ guests. The press-kit included Grand Hotel soap, flannel, towel, notepad, pen, ‘do not disturb’ handle-hanger and so on; more usefully, pictorial street hoardings proclaimed the new album. No previous Harum release, or line-up, had received such treatment.
Procol had always profited from gradually mutating personnel: incoming players contributed fresh sounds and approaches. Their earliest line-up had yielded just the world-conquering single, A Whiter Shade of Pale; its successor recorded three albums; the next re-grouping two, and the Edmonton cohort just one. But the Grand Hotel line-up would remain stable for three busy years: and according to Geoff Whitehorn, Procol guitarist since 1991, it proved ‘… the band’s strongest identity period: “We are Procol, we sound like this!”.’ He contrasts this with the more disparate output of the previous enduring line-up, responsible for Procol Harum (1967), Shine on Brightly (1968) and A Salty Dog (1969). ‘Brooker wrote very eclectically: his wide palette went against group identity. Arguably the Beatles did the same.’
Surprisingly – since the band had been founded to showcase songs by Brooker (music) and Reid (words) – Grand Hotel, the band’s seventh album, was the first to be penned exclusively by the duo. ‘Our previous album [Edmonton] was all past material, done big,’ Gary told me. ‘We hadn’t written since Broken Barricades , and this was simply the first time that nobody else wanted to contribute. Back when Robin Trower and Matthew Fisher were in the band … well, you didn’t want to deny your fellow conspirators: you learnt to keep them involved.’
One notable collaborator who came into his own was producer Chris Thomas. ‘Chris was always given free rein,’ Gary says. ‘We’d never record the tracks then clear off, saying, “Let us know when it’s mixed.” One reason you work with a producer is that he makes your ideas come out well, or even adds extra!’ Thomas and Brooker certainly added plenty to Grand Hotel (CD-01), exhausting sixteen-track capability in compiling a sonic equivalent to Reid’s rich, dense wordplay and sensuous scenarios.
Just as Zahn’s illustration emphasises the sepia imagery of the topper-and-tails album cover, the triple-tracked choir and symphonic score speak of nostalgia to the casual listener. In fact, though, Brooker’s writing owes little to the so-called ‘classical’ repertoire of yesteryear. Whitehorn claims Gary has ‘an orchestra in the back of his head’; presumably there’s also a jukebox stocked with palm court trios, circus waltzes, and melancholy Russian exotica: Grand Hotel combines them all.
But listening to the unadorned Grand Hotel (CD-10), without choir and orchestra, is not a let-down, rather a revelation: BJ’s rolling triplets; Cartwright’s incisive bass (prefiguring some of the ‘Russian’ section’s orchestral brass); phantom hands adding arpeggio flourishes to the piano part. Grabham’s background guitar sings like Frankie Valli in verse two: he brought in his 50-watt Wallace amp and 4x12 cabinet (‘a big beast!’) for the roaring guitar solo, though elsewhere we hear a more manageable Vox AC30. All this dynamic contrast, energy and drama, the subtlety, the shifts in key, mode and metre: everything emanates from the Procols themselves.
Arguably Copping’s inventive organ, and the mothwing-flutter of BJ’s multiple mandolins, were almost submerged by the eventual orchestration (tape degradation, in the course of endless overdubbing, played a part too). But the combined result remains phenomenal: a thrilling and unique achievement. The late super-fan Douglas Adams, introducing the band’s symphonic showcase at the London Barbican in 1996, spoke of listening to Grand Hotel while writing The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Puzzled by the ‘huge orchestral climax that came out of nowhere’, he imagined ‘some sort of floorshow going on. Something huge and extraordinary.’ The outcome was his Restaurant at the End of the Universe, where a candlelit band plays under ‘a dark and sullen sky hung heavy with the ancient light of livid, swollen stars’, and the host quips that ‘we are in for a fabulous evening’s apocalypse!’ Adams’s melding of Gothic portent and throwaway populism here perfectly mimics the contradictory pleasures, not just of this Brooker/Reid masterpiece, but of much of the album that it heads.
The title-track’s European feel carries into Toujours l’Amour (CD-02), with its Gallic title (ironically, ‘love always’) and putative Spanish excursion. Romancing with Grand Hotel’s ‘continental bride’ has given way to a kitchen-sink tale of incompatibility, cat-disposal, carnal fantasies (again, ‘a French girl’) and sudden suicide, all portrayed with compact and ingenious wit. Grabham, a much rockier player here than his pre-Procol recordings suggest, carves two impressive solos from Brooker’s densely-piled and unpredictable chord-changes.
The Ball-era Toujours (CD-12) defines the arrangement, but feels unfinished: no backing vocals, unadventurous lead playing. The rhythm guitar, choogling inconsequentially, seems to be steering the ensemble into Caribbean territory. The re-recorded version is faster, with more devilish attack from piano and drums, and a monster vocal, far from the mood of Zahn’s lachrymose drawing. Grabham replicates Ball’s rising lead, behind his own solos. ‘Chris Thomas suggested this,’ Mick recalls now, ‘a part worth saving from the original.’ He’s adamant (March 2018) that he didn’t play over anything recorded before he joined the band.
As for the title, it also belongs to a cocktail, jointly devised by Procol Harum on tour in Japan. Ball’s e-memoir, Half Hippie Half Man (Amazon), records the formula, based on a ‘purple unction’, from Bols, named ‘Parfait Amour’: ‘Tall glass, small amount of crushed ice and a slice of lemon, 2 x Parfait Amour; 2 x vodka; splash of kirsch, topped with 7-Up. Stirred.’ Don’t try this at home.
A Rum Tale (CD-03) is a compendious miniature that reprises elements of the previous narrative, comprising a fantasy of escape into alcoholic oblivion, a desperate joke about literary ambition, and a rueful review of marital dissatisfactions: the ingredients of a blues, perhaps? Yet Gary Brooker sets Reid’s lyric to a delicious waltz melody, whose capricious chord-changes and modulation constitute an obstacle-course for any unwary pianist. Brooker liked composing at the piano, ‘seeing what came out’, and remembers this tune’s having ‘fallen from the sky: we used it without any changes.’
Zahn’s image suggests voluptuous relaxation, which the swirl of Copping’s Hammond reinforces. A concert harp glissando completes the luxurious soundscape: no other ‘classical’ addition is needed. ‘Musically speaking I could have done with more words,’ Gary says now, ‘and gone through the verse twice before reaching the high notes. That little climax comes a bit soon.’
A pre-Grabham Rum Tale does survive, its tape-hiss beyond redemption for CD release. It’s an instrumental sketch: piano, organ, plodding bass. BJ’s drum entry is sorely missed. Structurally all sounds familiar – with key-change and ritenuto ending – but it’s twenty percent longer, and the pace feels somewhat leaden.
TV Ceasar (CD-04) is the one Grand Hotel song where indulgence looms: arguably over-repetitive, its choral/symphonic effects dress it ‘in borrowed robes’ ordered up for the more deserving title-track. Reid insisted this wasn’t a concept album, but lavish embellishment is nonetheless a signature trait of the whole collection.
It’s a post-Orwellian satire of voyeurism and violated privacy, questioning who’s really watching whom: Zahn’s illustration accentuates the ‘eyes and ears’ involved. Strangely ‘Ceasar’ is the original title-spelling (‘Not like Julius,’ Gary explains. ‘Different chap, that’s all.’). The densely-packed libretto alludes in part to American talk-show tsars, familiar TV fare in endless tour hotel-rooms. Home-era Procol had played on David Frost’s show: Gary’s ‘oooh’ at 3:52 parodies Frost’s vocal mannerism.
Another multipart composition, the song contains one distinctive chord sequence (under the refrain’s ‘TV Ceasar, Mighty Mouse’) that’s closely echoed at 1:44 in the co-eval For Liquorice John (both numbers postdate Ball’s departure). Surprisingly Mick didn’t play his solo through an amplifier: ‘I allowed myself to be talked into going directly into the board, through a fuzz box: horrible sound!’ Like most of its album-mates, TV Ceasar starts with piano; uniquely, it features an indeterminate, faded ending.
A Souvenir of London (CD-05) is a jingle-jangle ditty, lacking almost all Procol’s signature sounds. It seems an interloper, though like many Grand Hotel tracks it comprises two compositional elements: in this case, the sung strum-along, and the instrumental with its prominent sixths and sevenths.
It’s a novelty in the tradition of Mabel, Good Captain Clack, and Boredom, but inspired by the buskers Brooker encountered daily, passing through Piccadilly Circus to AIR studios. Reid found his song-title stamped on a pencil; perhaps the coyly-insinuated syphilitic narrative was triggered by the shared syllables in ‘sou-venir’ and ‘vener-eal’? Zahn’s artwork graphically highlights the ‘leaking out’ line. The song made an ill-fated single (‘Somebody must have thought it was a good idea,’ Gary laughs). Back in 1968 the one-man band of Don Partridge – whose instrumentation Souvenir imitated – had charted. Procol’s record didn’t, not even after the BBC prudishly banned it.
Some accounts claim the Ball-era Souvenir was used wholesale on Grand Hotel. An enigmatic pre-Grabham version, too sloppy for the present re-issue, is still extant. Its vocal and instrumentation are familiar, but the rhythm-stops are uncertainly managed, and it’s overlong. Since it lacks the final vinyl’s melodic electric guitar (which Grabham now recalls having played) and spoons solo (which Ball remembered recording, alongside roadie Denny Brown) its place on the developmental timeline remains unclear.
Bringing Home the Bacon (CD-06) is a dramatic, flat-out rocker that brilliantly showcases the dynamism of a confident, inventive, almost reckless band. ‘I just listened to my second solo on the record,’ Mick told me lately, ‘and thought, “What on earth was I doing?”. But at the time I was quite satisfied.’ The scarcely-audible ‘Pahene Recorder Ensemble’ (Brooker and co, by any other name: ‘Harry Pahene’ had been a professional pseudonym of Gary’s late musician father) is clearer on (CD-11) the Ball recording. This must have needed re-recording for new version, which is faster. The earlier, more relaxed pace gave Gary audible time to relish Reid’s juicy language, an American diner antidote to Grand Hotel’s sumptuous menus, delivered, with choice economy, in a few full-fat mouthfuls (as Zahn’s illustration shows!).
There’s a Mabel-like whimsy in its bizarre third-verse vocal, but impetus sags in the repetitive section following. The final, Pythonic talk-back confirms Ball’s zany approach to Procol life. ‘A bit of a loveable maniac,’ Brooker reminisces (2018). ‘He did odd things at odd times, pretending he was a cripple, or fooling about in American Customs … the one place you really need to be a good boy! Our producer Chris probably had a hand in [Ball’s departure] – like Denny Cordell did with [1967 Procol-leavers] Royer and Harrison. Perhaps Dave wasn’t coming up with anything, or we needed someone a bit more serious, and not quite so tall.’ In his e-memoir Ball wondered if getting the Procol gig was ‘a by-product of not knowing exactly what I was doing.’ But Brooker’s recollection is positive: ‘Dave had a lot of blues in his background, and playing.’ Thirty-five years later Dave played with Gary again at the ‘Procol Rarum’ concert organised in London by ‘Beyond the Pale’, www.procolharum.com; he also participated inspiringly in three incarnations of The Palers’ Band. His death (1 April 2015) is much mourned by Procol fans.
For Liquorice John (CD-07): this poignant elegy looks back to the suicide of Dave Mundy, a well-loved ‘character’ from Brooker’s hometown, Southend-on-Sea. He was a loyal fan of Gary’s previous band, The Paramounts, calling them ‘Liquorice John Death and his All Stars’. Checking himself out of a psychiatric unit, Dave died (7 November 1970) by falling from a Southend tower-block.
But did Procol’s subject ‘hit the ground’, or fall ‘into the sea’? Reid’s contradictory lyric dramatises not the death itself, but the bewildered reactions of those affected. Brooker’s rising melody, for the lines about falling, is similarly paradoxical. Zahn illustrates Reid’s ‘wave’ pun from the end of the song, reminding us of Breughel’s C16 Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (though Keith tells me the apparent ‘fall, Icarus’ sound-pun in ‘For Liquorice’ was unintentional). By that point the choppy marine rhythms, the keening (uncredited) harmonica, and the elaborately-treated instrumental sounds convince listeners that the subject of the song, unlike its real-life inspiration, met a watery demise.
The ingenious Chris Thomas built up his sonic seascape live in the studio: he had Grabham track Brooker’s rolling intro on a Rickenbacker electric 12-string, placing its amp so as to excite the strings of a rundown piano. BJ Wilson’s contributions are extraordinary: see notes on (DVD-07). Mundy is rocked to sleep with suitably conflicted rhythms, 4/4 on the drums against the piano’s 7/8, and laid to rest – ‘under, under’ – with a lingering one-chord coda, recalling 1970’s Dead Man’s Dream.
Mr Krupp, a lost curiosity from the album sessions, strongly resonated with this song’s themes. As part of the spoken-word recording, Keith Reid recited a droll obituary that Gary’s mother had found: ‘Henry Higgings / fell from the riggings / in Yokohama Harbour / He hit the deck / and broke his neck / RIP thereafter.’ This text survives (selected, alongside the words of Grand Hotel tracks 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7 and 8) in Reid’s anthology My Own Choice (Charnel House, 2000). Grabham, himself given to declaiming comic verse, well remembers Mr Krupp’s neck-snapping sound-effects, but reports that Keith replaced the final obituary line with a simple ‘Sayonara’.
Fires (Which Burnt Brightly) (CD-08) explores another response to the Toujours l’Amour situation: unable to ‘exit the play’, the partners remain together, united by ‘malice and habit’. Reid’s 1973 lyrics are no longer gaudy mosaics of flugelhorns, Buddhas, Valkyries, pygmies, sea-shells and suchlike: he works with plainer images – ‘standards’, ‘play’, ‘cast’ – which listeners mine for their multiple connotations.
Gary Brooker’s setting repeats five long-form chord sequences; no second or third theme this time. Variety comes from non-standard additional sounds, the harpsichord perhaps suggested by the Bach-like quaver figure that starts the song. As for the soprano solo, it’s as if the ‘French girls’ in earlier numbers have come to life, their sensuous promise amply fulfilled in the improvised Baroque scatting of lead Swingle Singer, Christiane Legrand. Chris Thomas’s detailed production work, and the inventive yet restrained performances from all, make for a perfect ensemble piece, which continues to delight in concert. Zahn’s design mirrors the elegance and poise of the song, but his fires are clearly blazing, no ember in sight.
The pre-Grabham recording (CD-13) is all familiar structurally, including the dynamic bassline, but Brooker’s harpsichord (probably a Baldwin electric model) opens the song, and rather insistently contributes plenty of figuration taken, in the later treatment, by the piano. No guitar is audible, but audience recordings, from the Ball touring-era, show Dave fulfilling a decorative role, superseded on record by the harpsi. Chris’s organ solo is more energetic than the released version, and there’s another melodic keyboard low in the mix. No portents, however, of any future chanteuse from Ooh-la-la land.
The physicians in Liquorice John were merely incompetent; the very word ‘doctor’ in Robert’s Box (CD-09) is a satirical travesty. Reid’s title namechecks the Beatles’ ‘Dr Robert’, recreational medicator to the stars, and what unfolds is a seedy dealer/client scenario. As the customer’s pleas for relief escalate from breezy ingratiation towards importunate howling, so the music – Brooker’s goofy surf-time basso, and the dreamily-crooned Hawaiian ‘aloha’ – celebrates escape ever more tauntingly. Zahn’s picture perhaps shows the contents of the doctor’s ‘box’ evaporating.
A towering finale loops the patient’s oxymoronic ‘pinch to ease the pain’ over a tortuously-cycling chord pattern, a wall of sound, above which peeps the French horn’s ironic hint of ‘God only knows what I’d be without you’. Just audible, but effective nonetheless, is Mick’s arpeggionic contribution: half-a-dozen layered overdubs on his Fender Esquire, ‘re-strung with octave strings’. Finally the heroic Les Paul solo negotiates some Elgarian chord-changes, and rounds off a tremendous album, pointedly perhaps, on a magnificent ‘high’.
In the pre-Grabham recording (CD-14), the vocal arrangement is already worked out. Ball’s guitar is heard, but not playing lead; the meandering synth (which possibly suggested the LP’s eventual Beach Boys nod at 3:59) may be a placeholder for a proposed guitar solo. The sung verses are yet to be seamlessly integrated with the heavy instrumental conclusion.
Procol Harum – Face au Public, from RTBF TV in Belgium, was first shown on 25 November 1973; it’s also known to fans as ‘Welcome to the Grand Hotel’. It’s a nicely-shot, fine-sounding document of a great band at the top of its distinctive game, in a sparely-intimate setting, without studio audience or post-production trickery. As the rostrum camera pans the Grand Hotel artwork, we’re reminded how the ‘maestros of dickey-bow rock’ image haunted Seventies’ journalism about the band, in the same way that 1968’s brief fashion experiment with ‘mediaeval spacemen’ outfits had tarred them with an inappropriate, psychedelic brush. But tonight, for the Belgian viewers, the band is attired in ‘smart casual’.
Six of the TV special’s nine songs are devoted to the new album. BJ Wilson’s rhythmical trickery kicks off Bringing Home the Bacon (DVD-01); Alan Cartwright attacks his Precision bass with a pick, and Brooker delivers graphic Reid lines such as ‘slobbering, goo-faced, mean’ with relish. Grabham and his ’59 Les Paul slice roguishly into the throaty texture of Copping’s Hammond: this was a live favourite of Mick’s. True to form, his second solo is dextrous, yet angry-sounding. Procol Harum is not just about energy: contrast is crucial, and brilliantly handled in this song.
Cartwright’s bass-work contributes notable rhythmic tautness to Grand Hotel (DVD-02) from the outset. Reid’s marvellous words continue to fascinate, forty-five years later. Though amused, Brooker sings with great soul; his piano-playing is fluidly inventive, the ‘Russian’ section exceptionally free in its rhythmical approach. Copping’s ARP Soloist, with after-touch pitch-control, hints at the solo violin from the record. It’s wonderful to see BJ Wilson at work, particularly in the four bars preceding Grabham’s guitar break. Listen as Copping wrings his trademark distortion from the Hammond C3 in the closing bars.
Brooker delivers a unique gem in Fires (Which Burnt Brightly) (DVD-03). Copping’s synth solo is a surprise, considered and academic; the Hammond break, thereafter, is differently conceived, and his rhythm-leg pumps characteristically. Grabham’s guitar plays a decorous backup role; everyone provides melodic elaboration or tasteful decoration. Crucially, from his riser, BJ can follow Gary’s hands: yet he seems rapt in a world of his own, mouthing favourite words as was his wont, not playing the drums so much as dreaming the whole song.
Grabham’s acoustic guitar imparts an unusual texture to A Rum Tale (DVD-05), a muscular rendering of an essentially whimsical song. Procol build slowly, and BJ’s snare-roll, setting up the transposed instrumental, is miraculous. Copping is on grand form: does his fine organ tone emanate from both Leslie speakers, or is one reserved for treating Mick’s lead guitar sound? Various little instrumental touches, as the song dies away, suggest the band is reluctant to let it go.
Barrie Wilson seems to have been deeply moved by the tragedy inherent in For Liquorice John (DVD-07), which brings out his most passionate drumming, on record and on stage. This performance – a classic instance of Brooker’s rhythmical piano freeing the drums to display emotion – shows him at his most eccentrically brilliant and mesmerising. Cartwright keeps a collaborative eye on both: the song may be a plaintive lament, but it still needs to rock. Grabham switches to a white SG for this sideman role; Copping’s high synth is again an interesting departure from the LP sound. The band negotiates rhythmical complexities without breaking sweat; and there’s no final, doom-laden chord: simply rich instrumental overtones, gradually fading away.
Suddenly, a tailcoat! But Procol wrong-foots any viewer expecting a grand finale. The hilarious A Souvenir of London (DVD-09) involves banjos for the keyboardists, and acoustics for the fretmen (this time Mick’s is a Grammer ‘Merle Haggard’ – ‘the sprauncy model with headstock binding and so on’ – which he’d found in Little Roy Wiggins’s Music City in Nashville). Watch for Copping’s boyish glee, BJ’s insouciant triple whammy (mandolin, percussion and singing along), and Cartwright tossing a nifty tanner into the smiling Guvnor’s titfer.
The three non-Hotel tracks significantly don’t include the high-selling Sixties’ hits. But 1969’s A Salty Dog (DVD-04) is among the band’s finest compositions; crafty vision-mixing ensures we see Wilson deliver his famous drum entry. There’s no lead guitar this time, though there was when Brooker playfully specified Salty at Mick’s audition: ‘He stepped up to the mark, didn’t want to wheedle his way out!’ Listen for Cartwright’s bassline decorations, Copping’s pedal organ-notes, and Brooker’s glorious upward slide into the vocal climax.
The 28 year-old Gary – at once fresh-faced and radiating ageless authority – imparts relentless momentum to the Edmonton amendment of Conquistador (DVD-06), Procol’s début album opener from 1967. Listen for his exuberant off-piste vocalisations, Mick’s intricate ensemble playing, and Chris’s gritty Hammond.
1971’s Power Failure (DVD-08) represents a rare Brooker/Reid mismatch: sparklingly suggestive words are paired with somewhat undeveloped, repetitive music. Its opening chords offer a glimpse of the harmonic resources that later helped furnish the more ambitious Toujours l’Amour. BJ Wilson accelerates the pace excitingly after 68 seconds of solo magic: as ever, his inspiring prowess overshadows all else on this number.
Thus, three views of Grand Hotel, inventive, unique and enduring, the more so for its false start and fresh blood. ‘It was only a year between Procol albums normally,’ Brooker recalls, ‘but because of Edmonton, and all the touring, we kind of missed one. So one had a lot more ideas going round in one’s head.’ A teasing pause, then a characteristic sign-off: ‘If we’d only had more time, it might have been a double!’
© Roland Clare, Adelaide SA, April 2018
Many thanks to Gary Brooker MBE and Mick Grabham for assistance
with these notes; also to Peter Christian and Satch Dobrey, and particularly to
Prof. Sam Cameron, my collaborator in the ongoing ‘Taking
Notes and Stealing Quotes’ pages at www.procolharum.com, to which readers
are referred for more detailed consideration of the songs discussed above.
|More liner notes from the same author | About this remastered double album set|