Bud Scoppa: Gothic Inclinations on Grand Hotel: Rolling Stone, 10 May 1973
You can't deny Procol Harum their important place in rock's scheme of things. They were the first to bring together the energy and mood of American rhythm and blues and the intensive bigness of European romantic music. At their height, they were as mysterious and as powerful as any artist, black or white (I thought at the time that A Whiter Shade of Pale was Percy Sledge's follow-up to When A Man Loves A Woman until I was told it was some English guy stealing from Bach). Their first and third albums, Procol Harum (just reissued by A&M as A Whiter Shade of Pale) and A Salty Dog contain some of the most stirring moments in popular music.
The band was thrown out of synch when organist-composer-producer Matthew Fisher left, but it was able to come into a kind of equilibrium by expanding the role of guitarist Robin Trower, thereby substituting a visceral kick for the loss of stateliness and dramatic tension. The reshuffled group made two mostly good albums, Home and Broken Barricades, and turned itself into a first-rate rock & roll band with occasional delusions of grandeur. Then Trower hit the road, and there were no remaining checks against Procol Harum's tendencies to get pompous and melodramatic. The commercial success of their subsequent album, recorded live with full orchestra and chorus, reinforced those tendencies.
Grand Hotel is the first studio effort of the reorganized group, now completely under the control of Gary Brooker, Procol Harum's singer, pianist and songwriter, and Keith Reid, who provides the lyrics to Brooker's music. The new album makes it clear that the Brooker-Reid coalition is in need of an equal and opposing force, as Fisher and Trower provided in the past, to balance and focus their Gothic inclinations.
Grand Hotel is 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.
Here's Reid, after cataloguing sinfully rich delicacies in the title song, and then depicting, in TV Ceasar, a world controlled by a character in a television cartoon, telling the story of a death in For Liquorice John: 'He fell from grace and hit the ground / He fell into the sea and drowned / They saw him struggling from the harbor / He saw them wave as he went under'.
Reid's preoccupations with sin, decay and redemption in an absurd world are getting out of hand -- he seems to mock himself. But he almost makes up for it with his lyrics to Toujours l'Amour ('She took all the pleasure and none of the pain / All of the credit, and none of the blame...') A Rum Tale and Robert's Box, all straightforward, and all with a recognizably human self-awareness. Reid may have hit rock bottom on the album, but in these songs he seems to have discovered a workable new direction for his writing.
Brooker's music, with its lavish use of orchestral and choral elements, is the real villain of Grand Hotel. The title song, TV Ceasar and Fires (Which Burnt Brightly) are pushed way beyond the scope of their lyric content by Brooker's hopelessly extravagant arrangements. The last-mentioned track might have had some impact if Brooker had not substituted a dignified, sweetly scat-singing female voice for the guitar line that would have made sense there. And the album as a whole would have worked much better dramatically if Brooker had called on the band itself, rather than orchestrations and choral parts, to supply the punch. They've found a powerful guitarist in Mick Grabham (formerly with Cochise) but he isn't given a chance to cut loose until Robert's Box, the album's only real pounder (and its most appealing track). Procol Harum also have one of the best drummers in rock in BJ Wilson (the group's first producer, Denny Cordell, insists that Wilson was their real talent), who does what he can to lift things up and turns in a performance that is even more impressive because of its context.
If Procol Harum make use of their resources as a rock group by abandoning the orchestra and choir and looking to Grabham, Wilson and the simpler side of Brooker, who's an exciting rock & roll singer and piano pounder when he wants to be, they may someday be able to mark off Grand Hotel as a confused and uneven transitional album. If they go the other way, I'll be happy to turn to Matthew Fisher, who has a demo tape circulating that picks up where A Salty Dog left off, and Robin Trower, whose first solo single has just been released. By the time Procol Harum releases their next album, Fisher and Trower should have out LPs of their own. Then we'll know for sure where the core of this once-great group is.
Thanks to Joan May for submitting the review and for including these comments:
In addition to his work as a music critic for Rolling Stone in the 70s, Bud Scoppa was an executive with Zoo Records at the time Prodigal Stranger was recorded, and served as Label Spokesperson for the band with the Press. It's possible he was a guiding force behind Procol's being signed by Zoo.
The picture that originally accompanied this article may be seen here.
I appreciate Scoppa's sentiments about using the band's resources instead of outsiders such as orchestras, choirs and scat singers. PH did seem to follow his advice for Exotic Birds and Fruit, but unfortunately weren't rewarded for it commercially. Perhaps they would've been, had the sound engineering on that album been better.
I totally agree with his very apt praise for MF, BJW and MG! But didn't he listen carefully to Bringing Home the Bacon and Toujours l'Amour? How could he have missed the great guitar on those?
I have no idea what he was objecting to re KR's lyrics.
Was Fisher's demo tape free of all the orchestration that unfortunately appeared on Journey's End? If not, I can't imagine Scoppa liking it better than Grand Hotel. [I was wrong! See here] (If it was free of the orchestration, I want a copy! :-)
His last sentence was too simplistic, in my opinion: since the post-PH Robin Trower and Matthew Fisher deviated so much from their PH styles of composing and playing, I don't think their solo works did much to answer Scoppa's question.
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