'Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes'
Gary Brooker gives
a brief introduction to this song, to camera, from his
home studio, as part of the Cherry Red Records 'Artist of the Month' promotion
in July 2020.
The Broken Barricades album starts, like Home before it, with Robin Trower's guitar playing an unmistakable signature phrase. This angry eruption signals the start of the song that engineer John Punter called Pimple Blister, with its cruel, some would say misogynistic lyric. Like Whisky Train, this is an enormously popular song with live audiences, specially in the USA, and since it was written all Procol's guitarists – Trower, Ball, Grabham, Renwick and Whitehorn – have played it. The five-note opening rhythm, on a repeated note, even found its way unwittingly into Mick Grabham's final bars of Beyond the Pale.
There is much repetition in the air: of rhythms, of chord-sequences (the conventional C minor, B flat, A flat, G has even been used by Procol Harum before, in Skip Softly (My Moonbeams)) and of lyrical patterns. And the middle section repeats four chords over almost a hundred bars, while various sounds and melodies – including the 'mad banjos' as Robin Trower called them – are added on the top. But there is also a lot of subtle variation: admittedly the piano relies heavily on Brooker's staple motif the 'collapsing' chord (exampled in this between-song doodle mp3): but this is played in several varieties: in the verses we hear it four times as a two-beat motif, then four times as a three-beat motif with added minor seventh preceding it; latterly the brass copy it too. Similarly the repetitions in the middle-section riff are enlivened by a variety of turn-backs, some relying on syncopated piano 'pushes', others on eight-note running figures. In the Barbican orchestral version there are varieties even of this, some of which have been imitated on the road by the five-piece band: these are all 'cunning irregularities', in Hardy's phrase, to ensure that the repetition does not stale the listener's ear.
On stage the song exists in two varieties, the mere three-verse one (a mere 3 minutes 17 seconds on the Beat Club recital of 27 November 1971), and the extended 'build-up' version, over a melodic bass-line midway. The longer version is far more dramatic – the same instinct for juxtaposing opposites resulted in the insertion of the quiet Bach Prelude into Repent Walpurgis, another thundering four-chord passacaglia. Strangely there are some fans who would prefer both songs in attenuated form. It's worth dilating on the origins of the central riff, which has borrowed the first five or six notes (and the sprightly rhythm) wholesale from the opening of The Capitols' 1966 Cool Jerk (mp3 here). But Procol do something more interesting than the Cool Jerk composers: they modulate the motif from C major up to E flat, then again to G minor and down again … it goes somewhere, rather than being just an R&B elaboration of the basic blues progression. The Cool Jerk riff starts out with bass, then adds 'some eighty-eights' (a particularly shoddy-sounding piano), then immediately the whole band, but Brooker's ensemble builds up minutely slowly, something added every time the refrain re-starts, constantly surprising the listener with melodic and rhythmic ideas, begging the question, 'how can this end'? Musically the arrangement (by Brooker, conducted by George Martin, who is not credited on the sleeve) may be one of the big anomalies in the Procol catalogue: most of their orchestral work draws on baroque or romantic European traditions, but here the layering also seems reminiscent of modern, minimalist composers like Reich and Glass. Other famous records use heavy repetition and progressive layering – for instance Hey Jude and I Want You (She's So Heavy) – but these cases have endings faded or cut, somehow leaving the effect unconsolidated in one's ear. [Matthew Fisher's great cumulo-enders, Journey's End Pt II and I'll be There, follow the Beatle pattern too]. We do hear such a throwaway technique on the Barricades album in the final minutes of the title track. But Simple Sister, like its antecedent Whaling Stories, offers remission from the build-up, finding a closure that offers emotional relief.
This unique build-up is finely structured. Bars 1 to 32 follow the Skip Softly chords, after which the guitar plays a more-or-less fixed melody over the Cool Jerk riff, heard for the first time. Bars 41 to 64 comprise another 'unit' of Skip Softly and Cool Jerk; then the guitar lets rip for an improvisation over the Skip Softly chords, running from bars 65 to 88 (at the end of which section we hear a cross-fade between two takes, using two different guitars). Bar 89 begins a Skip Softly sequence that delays its last chord, and the brief drum break at 97 begins the Cool Jerk section in earnest. Piano, bass and drums start it at 98; bar 106 adds one of the manic chattering sounds we now know to be Gary Brooker's piano, recorded while running the tape slow, and subsequently speeded up. Chris 'The Grouts' Michie describes this process in illuminating detail here: for a long time the source of this sound was a mystery, though Geoff Whitehorn's strummed guitar does a capable job of imitating it in live performance. One more piano note is added every eight bars until 146, by which time high 'chiming' notes are heard as well, and at 154 guitar and 'celli join the chattering fray, with some quiet brass. High melodic strings are added at 170, whooping brass at 178, and heavy Wagnerian brass at 186. Just when pop precedent primes us to expect a fade, the Skip Softly motif cuts in at 194, and one more verse is sung; 210 sees the speedy coda, (including a new chord!) and the long growling C minor sustain at 213 ends the song. Gary told the NME (5 June 1972) that this was 'Music from the 23rd century'.
The reversion, from the Cool Jerk section to the opening matter again, is done with a musical brutality entirely suited to the cruelty of the words. It’s a song of vitriol and abuse, continuing the Still There'll Be More vein of writing. Perhaps it was a deliberate irony, adapting the riff of a positive, life-enhancing dance tune to offset Keith Reid’s savage libretto. This piece portrays serial vindictiveness like Poor Mohammed does: but what disease merits such cruel treatment? Despite the problems of interpretation that it poses to the record-buyer, Gary told NME that the piece was 'Lyrically quite simple, but there's something very personal about it. A quick summary of a situation Keith ran into somewhere.'
Backed with Song For A Dreamer, it was released as a single (A&M 1287) in the USA in August 1971. Simple Sister (stereo / mono) was also issued as a promotional copy. It appeared on record on the bootleg The Elusive Procol Harum, recorded at the WPLJ radio show in New York in April 1971. This is the month when the song was first played on stage, and it has not left the repertoire although drummer Ian Wallace, in 1993, opined that it sounded a bit dated. It was played in an orchestrated version at the Hollywood Bowl, and at Edmonton: it didn't make it to the Live album, where it might have helped loosen some of the 'pomp-rock' prejudices that unjustly beset the band. At the Barbican it was presented in an entirely new Brooker arrangement, with a Carmina Burana-style walloping introduction, and vocal chorus which threatened to topple into self-parody with such a restricted lyric to sing. It was an extraordinary choice to play 'a heavy metal thing' with orchestra at the Barbican, as Gary pointed out, mentioning that 'it never really had any tune to it'. But if we listen to his grimly voluptuous little scherzo for the violins, pitted against raucous brass, slogging percussion, and tiny bursts from the rock instruments, (mp3 here) we get a glimpse of an arranger whose idiom is very much his own … and perhaps Berlioz's. In a 1977 interview, possibly the Old Testament's last, Brooker indicated that the band needed to move on and not just play 'Simple Sister … relying on being 'English'.' But at the Barbican he seemed to have gone back in time, asking the audience 'does anybody out there know what a guitar riff is?' The addition of a ballet-dancer to the performance was strange indeed, a development that scarcely seemed to bear any relation to the original at all, except in that it concerned a female character; and even that is open to doubt when we look at the libretto.
- 'Simple Sister': the song starts with its alliterative title, sharing this unusual feature with Typewriter Torment. The phrase could be a variant of the well-known nursery title Simple Simon, but the phrase 'Simple Sister' also occurs in Lindisfarne's Fog on the Tyne ('we can have a wee wee, we can have a wet on the wall, if someone slips a whisper that it's simple sister, slap them down and slobber on their smalls') which was in the UK charts in October 1971 and possibly written at around the same time as the present song. 'Simple' means 'uncomplicated', 'naive', even 'of diminished responsibility': its sense in Lindisfarne's song is unclear. The liner notes on The Best Of Procol Harum (A&M, 1973) speaks of their song's 'familial interplay taken to a savage musical extreme' but 'sister' is not necessarily a sibling reference: it is used today among non-related black women, lesbians and 'strong women' in general ['sisters are doing it for themselves'], and Reid clearly uses it in a non-sibling way in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle: 'there's a visionary sister'. If 'sister' is intended literally (as the domestic correlates of 'toys' and 'bows' might seem to suggest) the story is perhaps an antecedent of The Piper's Tune, another paean to family strife, where the threat of incarceration ('there's no use knocking') yields to the niggling pettiness of 'you'll get no sweeties any more'; there are 'sweets' in this song too. A 'simple' is a medicine with one ingredient, hence a medicinal plant (thyme or sundew, for example, are simples used in the treatment of whooping cough). This may connect in some listeners' minds with the fact that 'sister' is the standard mode of address for nurses and for nuns, both professions who might make use of simples in their 'caring' work.
- 'Whooping cough': this is a bacterial infection that affects children, who become racked with short spasmodic coughs; since World War II mandatory vaccinations have held it in abeyance in the UK except in relatively poor households, but it did kill a lot of children in the 1850s. In pre-modern times the 'magic' cure for this disease was apparently to stand on a beach at midnight and let the waves wash it away. Brooker has sung the words 'whooping cough' in a venereal context, in the Paramounts' Poison Ivy: it may be a euphemism for some sexual malaise here. 'Whooping cough' is not usually caught through any irresponsibility on the sufferer's part, so it is hard to see why the patient here is punished so severely. 'Simple' can't mean merely 'uncomplicated': perhaps the song castigates someone of diminished responsibility who has not known how to prevent getting herself infected, and for whom a spell in an isolation hospital 'cell' is the family's springboard for getting rid of her forever? If unwanted pregnancy is the issue, we might hope that 'sisters' such as nurses or nuns would be exempt, thanks to their professional skills or their vows of chastity; but if sufficiently simple(-minded) they might be 'taken advantage of'.
- 'Have to burn her toys': 'have to' implies that there is a compulsion, and that the harsh treatment specified is somehow logical. Here it would make sense if the toys were too infected to be used again. Reid makes copious use of the verb 'burn' – 'burnt the mast' (A Salty Dog); 'Burnt by fire' (The Wreck Of The Hesperus); 'The harbour lights are burning bright' (All This And More); 'Ain't gonna burn up no more flame' etc (Whisky Train); 'burn out her eyes' (Still There'll Be More); 'A candle burning bright enough' etc (About to Die); 'Burn me up sweet oyster girl' (Luskus Delph); 'Falling over burning chairs' and 'Spark plugs burned up' (Power Failure); 'burn his prayers' (Poor Mohammed); 'I'll burn down the town' (A Rum Tale); 'Fires which burnt brightly' (Fires (Which Burnt Brightly)); 'We're burning in the furnaces' (Butterfly Boys); 'stars which burnt so bright' (Something Magic); 'burnt it to dust' (The Worm and The Tree); 'On these burning sands' (Holding on); 'I'll burn down the house' (Man with a Mission) – but burning toys is an especially disturbing image.
- 'Take her treats': treats are given as a special reward, so to take them (or to 'have to take them' if the 'have to' carries over) is a punishment. A child (or pet) might be given treats to induce good behaviour (correctly-modified excretion, etc). Burning contaminated toys might be a hurtful necessity to a child, but the privations that follow seem less and less justifiable.
- 'Eat her sweets': as stated above, this echoes The Piper's Tune, where the removal of sweets is offered as a punishment. There can be no real pretence that this is for the child's benefit; and if health is somehow involved, the sweets should be burned as well, not devoured by their confiscator. However since toys, treats, and sweets all relate to childhood, it's possible that the 'sister' in question is being deprived of them because she is not, in some sense, a child any longer. In the matter of an unplanned pregnancy, for instance, vindictive parents of the mother-to-be might choose to sweep out all reminders of their child's compromised innocence. The 'sweets' are not necessarily confectionery, of course: it could be a reference to drugs ('simples'), medicinal or recreational.
- 'Scare off all the boys': in the case of an ordinary infectious disease there would be no need to specify that only 'boys' should stay clear: this suggests that a sexually-transmitted disease is being referred to; or perhaps girls only are fit companions for a young mother-to-be? 'Scare off' is interesting ... evidently these boys are not amenable to reasoned persuasion. Or maybe the idea is that by showing such harsh treatment to the 'sister', the punishers are scaring off further transgressors?
- 'Have to put her out': literally this refers to expelling the 'sister' from the house; she might of course be a cat, since 'put out the cat' is a nightly commonplace in British households; however a feline reading here makes the 'clothes' line, below, doubly puzzling. To be 'put out ' is to be inconvenienced, and in the textile industry the sub-contracting of work to domestic households was called the 'putting out' system.
- 'Wear her clothes': if the tormentor is male this suggests cross-dressing, unless the remark is his instruction to another sister. If the victim of 'whooping cough' is unclean, wearing her clothes would be inadvisable; on the other hand she may be pregnant, unable to fit into them, so passing them on to someone else is suitably thrifty. Or maybe the adoption of her clothes is just another way of irritating her? Nuns and nurses, both known as by the appellation 'sister', also have their particular styles of apparel: by appropriating this garb one could be stealing the status of the previous wearer, and denying her her nunhood or nursehood.
- 'Steal her bows': a bow might be worn on the clothes, but generally it would be placed in the hair of a young girl to make her seem sweet and pretty, like the young Judy Garland. Again, this would not suit a juvenile primagravida. Some consider that the song concerns the playtime taunting of one child by others, in which case girl members of a bullying gang may appropriate the bows and clothes for themselves, to be displayed in mockery. Others construe 'bows' as ‘beaux’, paralleling ‘scare off all the boys’.
- 'Tell her that she's stout': 'stout', even in 1971, was a comically archaic usage for a young person of portly build. It would be a hurtful way of referring to the spreading waistline experienced in pregnancy. 'Tell her' implies that this is perhaps a lie repeated as a form of bullying. 'Stout' can used in a more positive way, in the story-book sense of a 'stout fellow', one who can be trusted, a 'brick'. Stout is also a dark beer, such as Guinness.
- 'Lock her in a cell': the word 'cell' implies that the persecution here is on a larger-than-domestic scale. Cells spell jail or prison, as in Long Gone Geek, but children at play could be persecuting each other in make-believe or makeshift cells. An isolation hospital room might be considered to be a cell, as might the minimal quarters of a nun.
- 'Throw the key': a common threat to the accused, by an enemy, is 'they're gonna lock you up and throw away the key', the implication being that a reprieve would be impossible even if it were later considered desirable. Throw Away The Key was a hit in June 1981 for Linx, on Chrysalis. Other key-oriented images in Procol songs include 'please don't lock your door' (Robert's Box); 'locked in bitter strife' (Fool's Gold) 'a mermaid's locket' (Memorial Drive); 'Poor Mohammed at the keyhole' (Poor Mohammed) and 'the key's in my kaleidoscope' (Kaleidoscope).
- 'Into the sea': admittedly 'key' and 'sea' look like facile rhymes which might be used here in simulation of schoolyard taunts; but in times gone by throwing keys into the sea was a component of magic ritual, in Russia at the very least. In literal terms, a tiny key flung in the huge ocean would epitomise irrecoverability; and taking the trouble to dispose of a key in such a showy fashion would aptly dramatise one's contempt for the victim.
Some have heard an echo of the
Israeli Prime Minister's famous 1961 speech in which he feared that
the Arab states wished to 'destroy the Jewish state and push all the
Jews into the sea, dead or alive’.
- 'Hope she never gets well': incarceration would help to guarantee the fulfilment of this malevolent conclusion. 'Getting well' is one of the lines that does not tally with the images suggesting an ill-considered pregnancy in the song; however the next song passes from this female whose life is reduced to abjection, to one whose life never begins at all, the 'dead daughter'. Of course Broken Barricades is not presented as a sequel to Simple Sister – musically they are dramatically different too – but it is nonetheless evident that delivering a dead child could indeed be an emotional affliction from which one might 'never get well'.
Thanks to Frans Steensma for additional information about this song