I recently hauled out the 1997 re-release, with bonus tracks, and gave it some more listens. My reaction to this album is invariably colored by how I felt about it when it came out. A fresh convert to punk/new wave, I felt Procol had been slowing down and losing their creative spark for the past two albums. I suspected Brooker’s first solo album would be more of the same, but wasn’t sure. The title song (actually heard on the radio!) and the album cover led me to hope otherwise. Irrelevant to the record as it was, there was a very punk-bad-taste coincidence of an actual plane crash (or two? see here) just a week or so before the release of the record with its comic plane-in-distress cover. There is a comic/spooky aspect to the sleeve that’s in keeping with the best of old Procol Harum (thinking of Something Following Me, Skip Softly, Rambling On, etc.). I think that might be Monsieur R Monde lying on the floor in the aisle. At any rate, the title song has a whiff of New Wave about it, with its herky jerky rhythms and ironic, detached lyrics. It’s attitude of almost surreal resignation to some mysterious menace reminds me of Nothing But the Truth, as well as a number of other Brooker/Reid highlights. Typical of this is how the predominantly minor key melody almost perversely resolves to major at the end of every phrase – echoed, in the photo, by Gary’s happy obliviousness.
Unfortunately, at least for my 1979 self, the rest of the album completely abandons this tack. It is overall a finely musical album, with at least a couple of heartfelt, and a couple of sprightly performances. Murray Head’s Say it Ain’t So Joe is just a really great song, even if it does encapsulate some of the weirdness of the 1970s (a mournful ballad about one of the worst dictators of recent times?). I find Brooker’s version a good alternate to Roger Daltrey’s. Daltrey goes for theatricality, Brooker for soulful pathos. I have no doubt Tim Renwick could have done the final guitar solo, but I could easily be convinced it was an uncredited George Harrison as well.
Manhattan Melodies manages to capture the melodic sweep of Procol’s Grand Hotel. I find Get Up and Dance another bright spot, as Brooker puts real tease into the old-timey music hall vignette. Looking back from however many decades it has been now, the album is a pleasant , very well crafted reminder of the mainstream late 70s, highly recommended if you want something from that period you’ve probably never heard. A couple of attempts to be funky in a mellow way sound more mellow than funky. To my ears, aside from the title track, it never really rocks out despite trying a couple of times. I’m afraid Nick Lowe’s version of Switchboard Susan takes Gary’s version out with the trash.
One exception to this last is the bonus track SS Blues, which brings up a couple of other issues. It rocks, in a rootsy way, it’s a Brooker original, and it has an engaging personal attitude – in that last, it looks forward to The Angler on Gary’s next album. Listening to this song makes me think about the rest of the collection differently. Perhaps, under George Martin’s polished production, and his sidemen’s polished performances, there’s a more personal album, or the hint of one that could have been. I think he didn’t really get the lyrics for it untilEchoes in the Night, or the sound for it until Within our House.
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