Procol Harum

the Pale

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The Long Goodbye revisited (1)

Ian Hockley for BtP

With a brand new CD from Procol Harum imminent, culled from the second of the open-air orchestral concerts at Ledreborg in Denmark in 2006, it might be an appropriate time to listen again to the last official recording of Procol Harum music with orchestra from the mid-1990s. The Long Goodbye has had very little written about it at Beyond the Pale, and is often overlooked in the band’s work lists. The sold-out, one-off concert at the Barbican in London in February 1996, ostensibly to promote the new recording, completely eclipsed the album in terms of critical reception, public profile and press coverage. Sometimes dismissed, I believe The Long Goodbye does have some good things about it, not least the superb orchestral playing and excellent recorded sound – so here is a reappraisal, just prior to the newest Procol Harum recording hitting the CD racks next month.

The whole “rock meets classics” concept has had a pretty hard ride over the years from critics, but Procol Harum have had a long history of occasional concerts with orchestras going as far back as 1969, and seem to have a repertoire that is well suited to this marriage. The famous recording made at Edmonton in 1971 has passed into rock history, and quite deservedly too. It’s a wonderful recording of an event that was clearly fraught with problems, limited in its rehearsal time and helmed by a conductor so difficult and unsympathetic his name didn’t make it on to the LP release. But somehow it all fell together, the results were truly exceptional and the band had a smash hit.

I think Procol Harum with orchestra works better than most attempts at this kind of combination for two reasons. Firstly an orchestra cannot rock and roll and has to play in a different kind of time stricture to a rock band, yet Procol’s piano basis (and that instrument’s role as maid-of-all-work for every classical composer (except Berlioz!) since its invention) instils into their writing and subsequent execution a formality that might not necessarily be there in a guitar-based band. Secondly, the approach to orchestration is fundamentally correct in that the songs are not “orchestrated” so much as “texturised” or thickened. There are some unusual peculiarities to the Procol Harum sound-world and I think the critical factor is the way in which the vocals, piano, organ, drums, bass and guitar are layered. The six parts usually end up having more linear melody than filler block harmony, so that in many Procol Harum songs even the drums play the tune and are one of the more prominent “melodic” features in the band. Vitally, with so many strands going on, the musical texture is perfect for beefing up with a full orchestra, and the lines complement the band beautifully rather than sounding like an orchestra piled on the top and struggling to find something to play. Another factor is Keith Reid’s lyrics which are absolutely right for instrumental metaphor and word play: a perfect and very simple example is the violin “scratch” at the “stinging like fleas” point in the Brooker orchestration of Butterfly Boys, on the recording under discussion.

It is hard to remember life before 'Beyond the Pale' got off the ground in October 1997; John Grayson’s postal newsletter, Shine On, was a true lifeline in the mid-1990s, in the absence of much press coverage, and I first remember reading about the forthcoming album in an interview in Record Collector some time in 1995. At that time The Prodigal Stranger album and subsequent tours were long since past (I missed them, as I didn’t even know the band had regrouped) and the music industry seemed to be going through one of its periodic spasms of chronic insecurity. I can only really speak for the UK, but I seem to recall the pop charts being dominated by dance music in the early 1990s and crucially, around the middle of the decade, BBC Radio 1 appointed new management, stopped playing classic and contemporary rock music and sacked their best rock DJ, Alan Freeman. At that point Radio 2 had yet to pick up the mainstream core rock audience that it now has, and find its present identity. This might explain the emergence of covers albums around this time from artists from whom one might not have expected them (Paul McCartney, Status Quo and Brian Ferry come immediately to mind); perhaps in 1995 an album of symphonic covers of their own material was the only thing that would interest a major record label in what was clearly a one-off deal for some new Procol Harum product. Such speculation – in 2009 – could be well-wide of the mark but it makes a certain amount of sense at a time when the music industry was desperately playing safe and before the superb Eagle Records came into existence to sign and breathe new life into core rock acts (including Procol Harum) who lacked record company support to produce new product.

That said, The Long Goodbye appeared at the beginning of 1996 to almost total indifference in the wider world and seemed to drift into the shops almost by mistake, with little or no promotion by RCA. No singles were lifted from it and I think there are at least two tracks that could have met with some success in the singles market had they been given a fair shot of airplay (Conquistador and Butterfly Boys). The cover, title and artwork didn’t help. No one was sure if it was really a Procol Harum record, and although it was promoted as such, the band’s name does not appear on the CD sleeve, only on the spine and on the red sticker that was affixed to the front of the jewel case. I spent many hours down the subsequent years trying to work out what the bizarre cover was about and I don’t think it did the album any favours at all. I thought it was something like a phallic cigarette lighter; in fact it is a purely abstract image of potentially varying things by one Eric Dinyer which could have fitted on the front of a CD of lift muzak.

Part Two of this article follows here

More about this album | The Barbican Concert

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