Procol Harum

Beyond
the Pale

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'Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes'

Backgammon


Album: B side only (1976), and on the triple CD of A and B sides

Author: Brooker

 Read the words

Performed: never

Cover-versions: none

This is the only Procol Harum track with a solo Brooker writing-credit [or it was until 2017, when the final track of the Novum album had the same attribution]. The title is said to have been derived from the band's penchant for this game at the time, and to be a pun on the title of Chinese Checkers (Jones / Cropper / Steinberg / Jackson) by Booker T and the MGs, released in June 1963. While the present song owes little to the brass-bolstered Stax sound, its lurching syncopated bassline (mp3 here) and its home-key (C major) remain firmly reminiscent of Booker T's bluesy original [Compare this with the way that the bass melody in the central section of Simple Sister derives from 1966's Cool Jerk by The Capitols]. Brooker's tune, however, doesn't stay in C, but makes a precipitous modulation at the end of the 'verse' section into G (with the 'Hendrix' major+minor seventh). The 'chorus' section then stepping-stones up the cycle of fourths from C through to B flat, ending with a descending cadence through A flat to G and home: in this sliding closure, with sizzling synths, it bears relation to the 'riding' theme in The Worm and the Tree.

Wizard Man / Backgammon was released as a UK single (Chrysalis CHS 2138) on 18 February 1977: it's a collector's item because, unlike most other Procol singles, the release was not mirrored in other countries, excepting the USA and Italy. In the USA (CRS 2115) Warner Brothers selected Something Magic for the 'B' side (though the promotional copy featured Wizard Man (mono and stereo) on both sides); in Italy (Chrysalis CHN 2138) they again used Backgammon as the 'B' side, a 3'22" version identical to the English one.

The meaty title [gammon is a popular porcine cut in the UK] forms a specious sort of trio with Piggy Pig Pig and Bringing Home the Bacon; a more significant parallel to the former could be drawn in the fact that the title of each seems to tally neatly with the fundamental underlying rhythm. The latter shares a much more specific rhythmical quirk with the present track: the instruments come in bit by bit, drums and bass tricking us into thinking they are playing on the beat and when the melodic riff seems to cut in prematurely, we realise we've been listening to bass notes on all four beats of the bar except the first. A similar ruse wrong-foots the listener to Brooker's solo (No More) Fear of Flying.

The game of backgammon itself, which Procol Harum played while recording in Miami, is said to be one of the oldest in existence, dating back possibly as far as the ancient Egyptian civilisation: it's effectively an obstacle race between two armies of fifteen 'men', moving around a track characteristically divided into two dozen wedge-like divisions. Dice are thrown to determine moves, and a more contemporary innovation, the 'doubling cube', specifies the gambling stakes. A 'gammon' is a double game won, 'backgammon' a triple. Despite the aleatoric element, it's a strategic game on a par with chess and Go, whose adepts exploit probability and psychology to outwit their opponents.

Backgammon chiefly has the cheerful character of TV theme music, though Gary Brooker declares that such a use was never in his thoughts; nor have the present compilers ever heard it used in such a connection, though Procol Harum have not been overlooked by such programmers: the central instrumental section from The Unquiet Zone has seen action as 'continuity music' on BBC2.

Procol Harum's instrumentals Repent Walpurgis, Grand Finale, Stoke Poges, Albinoni's Adagio, and The Blue Danube are chiefly of a solid, ponderous and triumphal character, quite unlike Backgammon; Backgammon nevertheless fulfils a typical instrumental's function of giving scope to the band's soloists, albeit not to the drummer in this instance

BJ's chattering, treated drums are widely separated in the mix suggesting that, as in his Power Failure solo, they have been recorded in a variety of dubs; piano, organ and a chorus of guitars then offer an uncharacteristic unison section with a characteristic Grabham squawk at the end of the phrase whose solid effect gives way to the makeweight passage featuring glittering synthesiser, perhaps reminiscent of the scalar piano-passage behind the major-key chorus in The Final Thrust ... another song not known to have been played live by the band.

The guitar solo starts with two Mick Grabhams (Brooker and the MGs ): further evidence alongside the triple-tracked synthesisers that this is not a record of something performable, but a work created in the studio. Peter Solley's deft Hammond-toned solo reminds us what a skilled improviser he was; Gary Brooker's cool piano remains content to restate the theme. Some claim that the word 'Backgammon' was hollered at some point in the song while the number was being demoed in Miami for the Albert Brothers, producers of the Something Magic album. If so, the piece would not presumably have counted as an instrumental, and Gary Brooker would have had his first Procol credit as a lyricist. [In this connection it is interesting to note that Repent Walpurgis, when it appeared on an Italian single, was retitled Fortuna, and one Dossena, who contributed this single word, was listed as co-composer and therefore fellow royalty-recipient with Matthew Fisher; and that some copyright-registries list Brooker as the sole composer of Simple Sister (an opinion he refutes) while Procol folklore suggests he contributed the scurrilous chorus to Mabel: there are also occasions in concert when he offers, of various songs, 'I wrote this one myself'.]

Why the Alberts overlooked some of the tried-and-tested new Brooker / Reid songs (listed here) in favour of this slight piece must remain one of Procoldom's many minor mysteries.

Thanks to Frans Steensma for additional information about this number


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