'Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes'
Strangers in Space
Among the most personal and tender items in the Procol canon, Strangers in Space seemed something of a departure for the band, though it has many textural similarities with the often-overlooked Song for a Dreamer. The song is taken in a languid four-four time, its bluesy verses in A minor, though the predominant chord there is the subdominant, D minor, which then becomes the home key for the more 'classically' inspired chorus section. The harmonic world of the verses, with its dropping semitonal extensions, is unusual for Procol Harum; the arrangement too breaks new ground with prominent use of electric piano (an apparatus Brooker toured for use on this one song), the echoing synth-layers, a mildly-phased vocal, and very high 'lead' bass guitar work. These factors, with BJ's muted drumming with its delicate rimshots to the fore, all contribute to the impression of a Procol 'torch' song, and Gary Brooker did indeed announce it, at a 1977 concert, as being '... about some chance meeting that one may have with somebody when ... maybe you'll never see them again anyway ... but there's a spark ...'. One could imagine a smoochy cabaret singer travestying the muscular delicacy of his recorded version, in which the vocal style recalls that of Gary's early hero, Ray Charles.
Strangers in Space was tried out on tour (here for example) before the band went to Miami in mid-October 1976 to record: audiences were treated to an almost horizontal early version of the verse melody (mp3 here), and a long guitar solo for the playout; the chorus was already mature at this stage. The song was cut down from about eight minutes for the record, and once the album came out it was heavily featured on the promotional tour. On certain dates an enigmatic slide-show accompanied it: a green image of a solitary human head (not the disembodied one from the album-cover) appeared unvarying, yet had mutated when one looked at it again later. The spacey synth sketch on the record (its opening figure, unusually chaining three open fourth-intervals, is reminiscent of a passage of TWatT: compare via mp3) was hugely elaborated on stage, such that the harmony was at times in danger of being excitingly submerged: on the very last Procol gig of the 'Old Testament' Solley's keyboard rig also emitted echoing cascades of organ very much in the style of Rainbow in Curved Air Terry Riley, and Dee Murray took Chris Copping's bassline and ran with it.
This song has claims to being among the most appealing of late Brooker / Reid. Significantly it is the only Something Magic track to have been performed since 1977 (at Redhill 1997) and its chorus tune was recycled in the unpublished Last Train to Niagara. It took its place among the Procol standards on The Symphonic Music, and features on the authoritative compilation Homburg And Other Hats (1995).
- 'Strangers in space': though 'space' has a variety of meanings, the space suggested by the synthesiser effects (which sounded so 'modern' at the time) is the domain of spaceships; this literal ornamenting, through music, of metaphorical and allusive lyrics is a characteristic late-Procol ploy, which may in fact blur the fact that the space in the words is rather the space between people as relationships fall apart, or as 'something magic' between two people drifts into the irretrievable past.
- 'Strangers ...' Reid uses 'strange' and 'stranger' throughout his Procol-writing career, naming an album The Prodigal Stranger, and in song-words for Quite Rightly So, Glimpses of Nirvana, Crucifiction Lane, Dead Man's Dream, Skating on Thin Ice and The King of Hearts: the promotion of the Something Magic album also involved a curious notion about the self as a stranger: see illustration ...
- 'Passing through time': again, although we are all 'passing through time' (the idea is poignantly expressed by Shakespeare in Hamlet: 'all that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity') the sci-fi soundscape invites us to contemplate time-travel. In this context, the sense of longing that pervades the song is paradoxical, since time-travellers (unless their ticket is 'only a one-way') are the one group who can revisit a poignant or significant moment. The longing, however, is not so much for the moment itself, but for the feeling that accompanied it, and this too is paradoxical: it is 'hard to remember' and also 'hard to forget'.
- 'Partners in crime': this popular expression is often jocularly used to denote unlikely couples engaged in non-criminal enterprises; here some would argue that the partners are Brooker and Reid, their crime songwriting (elsewhere similarly denigrated by Reid as a 'dreadful disease', of course). Other references to 'crime' occur in Look to Your Soul, The Piper's Tune and Into the Flood; 'Partners in crime' occurs in the Jagger /Richards Tumblin' Dice (1972), and is the title of a song by Roger McGuinn on his Cardiff Rose album.
- 'Hard to remember, hard to forget': in addition to the comment above, it must be noted that this memorable phrase is in the very best tradition of Reidly paradoxes (cf 'Just a pinch to ease the pain'): its sense depends on how we choose to construe 'hard', which could mean 'difficult' or, equally, 'painful'. The word is repeated (and vocally much striven-for on each occasion), and nothing obliges us to take it in the same sense twice: so there are four possible meanings: painful to remember, painful to forget / painful to remember, difficult to forget / difficult to remember, painful to forget / difficult to remember, difficult to forget. Of these four, the last resonates most truthfully with our common experience of nostalgia, and with the wistful nature of the voice, melody and arrangement here.
- 'Something uncovered': an unpublished, earlier Brooker / Reid song, You Better Wait, appears to comment on the ungovernable nature of the song-writing Muse: 'you don't invent it, say that you've been sent it'. As with the later 'fruits of discovery', the present phrase may also hint at a belief that the best songs are not 'worked for' but simply 'arrive'. Gary Brooker has certainly intimated this, from his side, when he has spoken of songs like A Salty Dog that seemed almost to write themselves. As Without a Doubt poignantly reveals, just a thought is needed to sow the seed.
- 'Something unsaid': almost ten years earlier Reid has assured us that 'nothing's better left unsaid ... only sometimes ...' Here again an appropriate vagueness suffuses his considerations of the inexpressible. The phrase may call to mind the title, Something Unspoken, of a 1955 one-act play by Tennessee Williams, which was picked up in a 1997 song by Lennie Gallant and Chris LeDrew whose words broadly share the nostalgic, poignant spirit of Strangers in Space.
- 'Strangely repeated': the word 'repeated' will be repeated below; despite a lot of internal repetition, musical and verbal, few listeners would claim that this song palls.
- 'Passing in haste, partners in crime': though Brooker appears to say 'grime' that is clearly not what is intended. 'Passing in haste' carries a faint sense of the romantic metaphor that might here be rendered as 'spaceships that pass in the night'.
- 'some distant form': it may be this enigmatic line that made the projected images of the floating head (as described above) seem so very fitting.
- 'Something repeated / Something reborn': 'something', like 'nothing', is a word favoured by Reid, and the nebulous sense it seems to have here is mimicked by the uncertain melody to which Brooker has set it.
- 'Something reborn': it sounds as though the optimism of the opening song of the album has dissipated; whereas 'something magic' was being born with vim and vigour, the rebirth noted here is succeeded by a mood more muted, resigned and regretful. Incidentally the words echo the fundamentals of TWaTT's story, as well as referring to the title of the album.
- There seems to be a mighty deal of soul in Gary's 'yeah' before the final chorus, and few would dispute that this song is one of the most feeling from the Brooker / Reid partnership ... those who believe the authors are, themselves, the eponymous 'strangers' must feel it entirely appropriate that the song presents one of the pair's outstanding matches of music and words.
Thanks to Frans Steensma for additional information about this song