Procol Harum

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the Pale

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Simple Sister ... the Heaviest Cat

Roland Clare


Not even the most ardent admirer could ever claim that Procol Harum maintained the standard of their earliest work throughout their entire recording career, so a graph drawn to represent the average fan's response would presumably show a downward trend overall.

But the points of maximum downward gradient will vary greatly from listener to listener. I remember once (OK, I was fourteen, I know better now) being (relatively) disappointed by A Christmas Camel; and I remain not-terribly-keen on the unfocused instrumental workout in Skip Softly (My Moonbeams). Further downward wobbles in my fan-graph came with Too Much Between Us (pitched too high) and Crucifiction Lane (awkwardly recorded) though both had some great redeeming features (the words, in the latter case, are among my very favourites, and it was nice to discover that this was Keith Reid's opinion too). The Home album, which to this day doesn't contain a single disappointing moment, hugely restored the upward trend in my final days of living at home, and then came Broken Barricades.

I had the album as a going-away present from the office-girls where I'd been working as a van-driver, and I didn't listen to it until I'd installed myself in my first cold, varnish-smelling college room: unpacking the new Garrard turntable and the huge white Nivico headphones, bought with my driver's wages, and connecting to the feeble little battery-operated headphone amplifier, acquired on poor advice, before I'd realised that all my fellow students would be accustomed to would insist upon non-stop music of the same noisy type that I liked.

'Duh duh duh duh duh ...': Robin Trower opened the new album, just as he had done the previous masterpiece ... it seemed a good sign. But straight away there was repetition in the air ... the same riff twice ... and then a sloggingly banal chord-sequence started up, C minor, B flat, A flat, G, and that happened twice as well. The curve had started downward again.

Wrong notes in a printed score of 'Simple Sister'

I remember listening unimpressed to the rest of the track before going out to a dinner, where I was to meet my Tutor (and, incidentally, fellow PH-watcher Peter Christian for the first time, he whose Keith Reid search-engine remains one of the Seven Wonders of online Procoldom). And during that meal I realised that Procoloid disappointment was giving way to a kind of hypnotic fascination, as the central riff from Simple Sister kept trying to replay itself in my head, though I couldn't quite get it right. [In a wonderful song, For a Dancer, Jackson Browne perfectly expresses this phenomenon of 'a song I can hear playing right in my ear but I can't sing; I can't help listening' ... though here it's a metaphor for the loss of the eponymous dancer, at whose grave the song appears to be being sung]. This was a riff of nagging moreishness, extremely familiar yet somehow ungraspable, 'hard to remember, hard to forget' as the poet would later express it. Furthermore I could not get my mental ear round the semi-quaver runs in the turnback, try as I might, throughout the dessert course .. and it curiously was reassuring later on to see it incorrectly notated in a Procol song-book (see graphic ... I can't now report which book, since all my Procol collection went home with someone else after the Guildford convention, alas).

As October 1971 unfolded I completely changed my mind about the song [I rationed myself to a track a month so as to have constant new Procol material until the next release came out ... and 20+ years later I again rationed The Prodigal Stranger so intently that I hadn't played it all by Procol's 1995 tour, and I had to 'cheat', sneak-previewing the last few songs so that I would recognise whatever I heard that August] as it became increasingly apparent to me that the slogging banality was wholly deliberate, and had been contrived as a solid frame through which we would focus our attention on the wondrous complexity of the central riff section.

That naggingly haunting mid-riff now revealed itself as a close relation of the opening of Cool Jerk by The Capitols [mp3 here], an upbeat record of the type I couldn't stand at the time, with the bragging vocalist characterising himself as 'The heaviest cat you ever did see' while the quasi-soulful chorus in the background reminded me that I would far rather be Doing the Trouser-Press, baby. But though Brooker had borrowed the first five or six notes (and their very sprightly rhythm) wholesale, he had done something much more interesting with them than the composers of The Capitols' song had done: it modulated from C major up to E flat, then again to G minor and down again ... it went somewhere, rather than being just an R&B elaboration of the basic blues progression as in Cool Jerk.

Cool Jerk started out with bass, then added 'some eighty-eights' (on a particularly awful-sounding piano), and then added the whole band; but Brooker's ensemble built up minutely slowly, something added every time the refrain re-started, constantly surprising the listener with melodic and rhythmic ideas, begging the question, 'how can this end?'

Other pop records came to mind which used heavy repetition and progressive layering: Hey Jude and I Want You (She's So Heavy) for instance. But in both those cases the question 'how can this end?' was evaded ... it 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 this Beatle climax pattern, I think.]

We hear the same throwaway technique elsewhere on Procol's 1971 album (so much of it written or devised in the studio) in the final minutes of Broken Barricades and of Playmate of the Mouth. But Gary Brooker also knew how to achieve something different, both in Simple Sister and in the earlier Whaling Stories, by offering remission from the build-up, somehow throwing its emotional effect into relief. Procol's cumulative Cool Jerk rip-off reverts finally to the opening matter, the sharp transition drawing our attention to its musical brutality, which of course is entirely suited to the hideous cruelty of the words.

Perhaps it was a deliberate irony, adapting the riff of a positive, life-enhancing dance tune to offset Keith Reid's savage libretto. What was a Simple Sister? Sue Reid says that Keith never gave her any reason to suppose that the song referred to anything real ... I confess I haven't spoken to Gary's sister about this. But maybe it was a set phrase at the time: it also occurs in Lindisfarne's hit, Fog on the Tyne, which was in the UK charts in October 1971 and possibly was written at around the same time.

But in the present case, 'simple' can't just mean '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 the isolation hospital is the family's springboard for getting rid of her forever? But if she's unclean, who is being recommended to 'wear her clothes'? Or is this just another way of irritating her?

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 perpetual incarceration yields to the niggling pettiness of 'you'll get no sweeties any more' ... if, indeed, 'sweeties' means mere sweeties! If the 'nasty mess' in the latter song is really onanistic in origin, as Sam Cameron has suggested, perhaps it's permissible to imagine that 'whooping cough' here is a euphemism for some sexual malaise? After all Brooker has sung the words 'whooping cough' in a venereal context before, in the Paramounts' Poison Ivy: though in that song it's evidently intended to be part of sequence of non-venereal complaints.

This instinct for the juxtaposition of opposites also resulted in the insertion of the Bach Prelude into Repent Walpurgis, a wonderful device for preventing the four-chord passacaglia from becoming wearisome. It was particularly peculiar, when I first started conversing with online Procoholics, to hear someone saying Walpurgis would be better without the Bach, and that Simple Sister was better in the concert arrangement that omitted the central riff section. I have to disagree, while conceding that the manic complexities of the recorded version even when Maestro Whitehorn does his best cannot really be captured on stage.

Chris Michie wrote very interestingly about the recording process: 'When I last listened to the record, it sounded as though there were five speeded-up pianos, but there might have been more. Once the section was completed, the mad pianos were all bounced down to a vacant stereo pair on the multitrack. A major screw-up occurred when it was decided to wipe the last portion of some or all of the pianos after a certain point. After discussing with Chris Thomas where he wanted the erasing to begin, [John, recording-engineer] Punter pushed the record button, only to discover that Chris had meant a point a bar or two later. So the mad pianos dropped out before the selected da-dah, da-dah, da-dah, da-dah descending sequence that marked the end of each repeating non-verse (chorus?) section, rather than at the end. This error was repaired by adding in another mad piano track which was recorded on to a two track machine and "flown in" during the mix. It fades out, a few bars into the next section.

So ... while working on a few notes for the Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes feature on this song, I tabulated the variations in the 1971 recorded performance, the 'cunning irregularities' that made me change my mind about its apparent banality:

Bar

Chord pattern

Piano ornamentation

What you hear

1

Cm Bb Ab G7

 

Unaccompanied guitar

17

 

2 chords in piano

Add voice, piano, bass, drums

25

 

3 chords in piano

 

33

C Eb Gm Eb

 

Guitar melody

41

Cm Bb Ab G7

2 chords in piano

Add voice, piano, bass, drums

49

 

3 chords in piano

 

57

C Eb Gm Eb

 

Guitar melody

65

Cm Bb Ab G7

2 chords in piano

Guitar improvisation

73

 

3 chords in piano

 

81

 

2 chords in piano

Guitars cross-fade

89

Cm Bb Ab Ab / G7

2 chords in piano

 

97

 

 

Drum break

98

C Eb Gm Eb

 

Piano bass and drums

106

 

 

Add one chattering piano

114

 

 

Add another chattering piano

122

 

 

Add another chattering piano

130

 

 

Add another chattering piano

138

 

 

Add another chattering piano

146

 

 

Add another chattering piano + v high chiming notes

154

 

 

Guitar and 'celli, quiet brass

162

 

 

Guitar and 'celli, quiet brass

170

 

 

High strings

178

 

 

Add whooping brass

186

 

 

Add Wagnerian sustaining brass

194

Cm Bb Ab G7

2 chords in piano + brass

Add voice

202

 

3 chords in piano + brass

 

210

Cm D7b9 Fm

 

Final quick chords

213

Cm ... end

 

Long held chord

So what is the point of this lugubrious, sterile tabulation of musical features that were undoubtedly perpetrated instinctively, and so very long ago? I'm not really sure. Perhaps they will prompt some fellow pedant to get out Gary Brooker's recent re-issue of Broken Barricades, with its crystalline sound, and listen to Simple Sister with renewed enjoyment? If not ... no loss!


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