Procol Harum

the Pale

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The Long Goodbye revisited (2)

Ian Hockley for BtP

Read Part One of this interesting article here

The odd packaging contains an interesting recording. It is by no means perfect and there is a good deal that isn’t quite right about it. The Long Goodbye was part of a projected series of albums on the RCA label of symphonic versions of classic rock bands’ material. They probably had an A&R man at the time who thought it was an good project in uncertain times! The first outing was The Symphonic Music of Yes in 1993/4, followed by The Symphonic Music of the Rolling Stones. The Long Goodbye must have been the third. The Symphonic of Music of Asia was to have followed the Procol Harum one, and was to have featured John Wetton and Carl Palmer – I think I am remembering correctly here, having heard Mr Wetton talking about it on a radio interview around 1997. Apparently indifferent sales of the Procol Harum disc led to the cancellation of the Asia one. A pity, as that would have certainly been interesting.

I remember wandering into a hi-fi shop in York, around the time of the album’s release, where it was being used as a demonstration recording. Sonically, at the time it appeared, it was by far and away the best recording of Procol Harum music, and mixed in the then state-of-the-art Dolby Surround Sound process giving a wonderful sound picture right across the aural spectrum. It would be great to hear the album remastered and issued on vinyl. It is a very expensive sounding record; it can’t have been cheap to use the London orchestras, even if their tracks were done in single takes in one or two sessions.

Personnel-wise the album is a mixed affair. It contains six bona fide Procols: Gary Brooker inevitably dominates proceedings and appears on seven out of the twelve tracks; Matthew Fisher and Robin Trower make lone cursory appearances, Geoff Whitehorn and Mark Brzezicki feature on several tracks and bass duties, where required, are covered by Dave Bronze. There are several other guests who contribute; but the effect is of a “half-way house” approach. Arguably it would have been more successful if there had been a decision to make it a proper Procol Harum record; curiously, at no point do you get a line-up of a standard five-piece Harum playing together.

Musically, I feel there are more hits than misses among the twelve tracks. A couple are really outstanding; the luxury of the orchestra (especially the London Symphony Orchestra, still one of the classiest string sounds in the world) seems to make it appropriate for occasional evening listening with a large glass of wine! Definitely not a CD for the car.

Conquistador opens proceedings (it also opened the Barbican concert): it was a hit in live form in the early 70s and here the Brooker orchestration from that first outing is superbly retouched and fleshed out by Nicholas Dodd. Brooker’s stylised inflection of the title, Iberian brass flourishes, castanets and a touch of flamenco guitar in the mix create a real Spanish flavour that would not disgrace Manuel de Falla. The LSO play superbly here, completely outclassing the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra in every way. For my money this is the finest Conquistador on record. The final orchestral swoop is virtuosic and exciting.

After such a promising start, the version of Homburg that follows is execrable and the album’s biggest accident; the Disneyesque orchestral prelude that Nicholas Dodd tacks on at the beginning is sugary in extremis and one doesn’t really feel that the orchestration adds anything to a song that was definitively recorded first time out in 1967 and could hardly have been bettered. The added bass and drums sound ploddy and uninvolved.

Grand Hotel is a totally different beast, surely conceived as a classical number with orchestra from the start. I know some fans who hate this version of it: another Dodd orchestration, it is classically straight with no involvement from GB; it is totally over-the-top, camp, overblown – and for those reasons I love it. Again, the LSO are beyond praise here; the delicious waltz rhythms are perfectly executed and exude class, transporting one back to Central Europe at the turn of the twentieth century. The LSO brass are absolutely wonderful in the middle sections: it sounds like the long-running principal trumpeter Maurice Murphy, here and in Conquistador, with superbly stylised playing; note also the clarinet flourishes in the background, very difficult to play and executed with effortless virtuosity. Use of the clarinets as a texture colour is a Dodd fingerprint that crops up frequently in his orchestrations, but with a clarinettist of Andrew Marriner’s stature in the LSO one would certainly have wanted to use him. The orchestral sound picture is massive during this grandest of Grand Hotels, as are guest vocalist Jerry Hadley’s vocals. His diction is perfect and the voice roars up to the top of the range at “one more toast” with the force of a heat-seeking missile. Buried somewhere in the mix is some bouzouki playing by Mario Constantinou. The late Jerry Hadley once appeared in a contemporary opera in the mid-1990s: it was called The Conquistador … I have often wondered at that strange coincidence.

Track 4 is Simple Sister, orchestrated by Gary Brooker and sung by none other than the great Tom Jones; as one would expect, he makes an excellent job of it and the integration of the orchestra and the band is more unified than on Homburg. Some very prominent guitar work from Geoff Whitehorn gives the track a distinctive cutting edge. Brooker’s orchestration is interesting, clean of limb and line, and he doesn’t always do what is expected: the exploration of some of the exotica in the orchestra’s percussion department creates some unusual timbres, with a lot of space. It’s a great, unfussy orchestration and the final, downward choral glissando has a disturbing quality to it which segues nicely into A Salty Dog.

This version of A Salty Dog is very fine indeed and again might possibly be the best one committed to disc. Freshly orchestrated by Darryl Way, it has a new, short orchestral prelude, nautical and chilly in atmosphere: the seafaring touches are appropriate and excellently scored. The opening piano chords from the original are played on the pipe organ (it sounds like a small chamber organ with a single, wide-scaled Stopped Flute), very moving and appropriate: I cannot remember how this was executed at the pipe-organless Barbican Hall. The orchestration is very different to those by Nicholas Dodd, which are excellent in a generic way, and sometimes a bit predictable. Darryl Way's scoring is more like for a stage work for a grand musical, illustrating that Brooker and Reid could compose a theatrical work if they wanted to. Nautical effects à la Sibelius (check out his wonderful tone-poem, The Oceanides) abound and the way the song winds down, with the final line played by a melancholy-sounding accordion, sums up a grey day in the harbour of some misty Northern port. With an expansive and measured vocal delivery, this Salty Dog is just beautiful and exquisite.

The seafaring mood continues with Nicholas Dodd’s orchestration of Pandora’s Box; again I like this track and think it successful. The scoring seems to suggest a spirit of adventure, the “crossing seas” is illustrated with some very clever writing for the clarinets and lower strings, and what sounds like a geophone (a small drum filled with sand) to create the swooshing, watery noise in the middle of the texture. The peerless James Galway, grandmaster of the flute, contributes his golden pipe in place of the vocal line, simple but effective.

Next up is the most famous song of all, A Whiter Shade of Pale in a very baroque-influenced Darryl Way orchestration. The organ prelude is transmuted into C minor with an expanded introduction and effective use of the ’celli and oboe which contribute a plaintive quality. Gary’s vocals are placed over plucked lower strings – clearly with the influence of Air on a G String not far away – with some counter melody from the harpsichord. The rendition of this song is nostalgic and moving and perfectly sets up the album’s biggest curate’s egg, Repent Walpurgis.

Repent is ably orchestrated by Christian Kabitz: the problem is in the execution of a passacaglia for rock band. Robin Trower and Matthew Fisher both contribute to this track. Matthew plays the remotely-recorded organ at the church of All Saint’s Margaret Street in London. He expands the original lines considerably, playing some lovely Bach-influenced countermelody; the old pneumatic action of this 65 stop Harrison and Harrison instrument, built in 1910 and rebuilt in 1957, was considerably worn by the time of recording and Matthew sounds as if he had a bit of a struggle to make it work. At times the organ is behind everyone else and at one point (around 4.20) sounds as if it will come adrift completely. It’s a great pity that it wasn’t possible to record this entire track live: it never works recording pipe organs remotely (witness Karajan's disastrous final recording of Saint-Saëns 3rd Symphony), and the layering process doesn’t work here, leading to very sloppy-sounding ensemble and a set of parts which don't quite fit jammed together. Such a shame as it could have been an outstanding track and a wonderful piece of Gothickry. Robin Trower’s contribution is extremely disappointing, the wrong kind of sound and an almost quaintly-elementary solo that sounds completely out of place. In spite of these caveats the middle of this CD is well paced, and strangely, indefinably moody with a run of four tracks, this being the last, with rich orchestration and some emotional moments dotted throughout their textures. The best of all of this is the Bach C major Prelude section of Repent, given over to the harp rather than the piano; organ colours the background and the wordless chorus intone the melody of Gounod’s Ave Maria over the top, seamlessly woven into the texture. For me this is one of the highpoints of the entire album and is absolutely, exquisitely beautiful and moving. A pity that the rest of the track is a bit of a mess.

The rest of the album is a mixed bag; (You Can’t) Turn Back the Page is too resigned a song, lyrically and musically, to work with the overblown orchestration and a frustratingly mannered Brooker vocal: I think he may have been trying to do a Frank Sinatra. Jerry Hadley suddenly appears in the mix to deliver one line, making one wonder if he originally was to have sung the whole song. Likewise, Strangers in Space doesn’t really gel either, with a too-obvious attempt to recreate the sound-world of Holst’s The Planets with a distant chorus. This is another intimate song that doesn’t really need, nor lend itself to, orchestration.

Butterfly Boys on the other hand is terrific; not the most obvious song for the orchestral treatment, in fact it works stunningly well. With a muscular Gary Brooker orchestration with some idiosyncratic little touches, and the chorus going for it full tilt, the sound picture is absolutely massive; it’s great for annoying the neighbours with. The chorus and orchestra sound as if they were recorded live; Andy Fairweather-Low is the album’s final guest and contributes some tasty guitar. Finally the title-track rounds the album off, with another Brooker orchestration. Nothing can beat The Long Goodbye’s sensational debut on 1985’s Brooker solo album, Echoes in the Night, but the sound-world in this subtle retread is delicate and profoundly moving. Although the metre is altered from the original irregular one, there is a profound sense of sadness and loss as the song – and the album as a whole – quietly fades away. In 1996 we perhaps thought that was that … The Long Goodbye really did seem to indicate the end of the line; barring Redhill in 1997, the band slumbered for nearly four years following the release of this album.

Gary Brooker remarked in an interview with Mojo magazine before the album’s release that The Long Goodbye was “putting these songs to bed, I’ll never be able to play Grand Hotel again, it’s become a classical number”. Providence and sense proved him wrong, and thirteen years on there will be a new Procol Harum release sitting on the shelf in a few week’s time. For that we must surely be thankful, as our lives continue to be enriched by this “unique entertainment”. In the meantime, the exhumation of its neglected predecessor in the catalogue has been a rewarding exercise and a reminder of just how good Procol Harum is when firing on all cylinders, even better when decorated with the sumptuous finery of a full-blown symphony orchestra.

Thanks, Ian

Part One of this article is here

More about this album | The Barbican Concert


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