Procol Harum

the Pale

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In the Wee Small Hours of Sixpence

A Procoholic Double Review

This page presents part of a unique Procoholics' double-act: Larry Pennisi presents 'The Secrets of the Hive' and Clyde 'AJ' Johnson contributes 'Extracting the Honey' … both being detailed and personal looks, from very different perspectives, at tracks from the Westside Pandora's Box album

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The Secrets of the Hive
by Larry Pennisi / Cerdes

Extracting the Honey
by Clyde ‘AJ’ Johnson

In the Wee Small Hours of Sixpence

Filigree and Shadow - a crucial B side

Without question, this track is seminal Procol and one of the most important of the earlier tracks. Its lyrical content, compositional structure and clearly well-thought-out instrumentation and tonal choices, make this as important in its own B-sided right as Repent Walpurgis. This song screams out, "I am the essence of Procol Harum!" It is also one of the only early songs to modulate keys, in this case from C major to D major. The modulation occurs so seamlessly that Brooker appears to want to trick us into thinking that no key change has occurred at all. All of this is neatly conspired by the implementation of one of the sparsest mixes ever, utilizing the full might of the five-piece band on a non-acoustic level. This is a flat-out baroque field day with Matthew using his patented Shine On Brightly hollow tube, percussion decay registration during the verses and reverting to full organ on the declines surrounding "blunt as sharp enough."'
Many of us, myself included, seem to feel some disenchantment over the statements Matthew has made musically during the 90s. It is here, on a track like this, where his true gifts are displayed. His choice of notes is meticulously planned. Perfect from start to finish, to subtract or add anything to his selection of dots and dashes would change the entire ethos of the track. The version played on the 1971 Beat Workshop show is a hasty, hurried, messy affair that sacrifices finesse and restraint for volume and clatter. I find the live 1971 version, with the exception of some of BJ's tastier contributions, somewhat unappealing. I also find the post-Fisher period Salad Days almost equally distracting with Grabham's guitar strangling what could have been a delicately-carved organ mini-masterpiece. Well, it was that originally. This Sixpence deviates so radically from the original intonation of the track that even the powerful word-inspired images begin to decay.
There exists a 1967 live version where the song is featured in its pre-recorded state; very similar but a bit more jaunty and poppish in tempo. Also, in this live version, Trower is playing more comping chords that seem oddly out of place and rather superfluous to the matter at hand. Single sliding notes in a Pandora's Box vein might have proved more apropos. For some reason, I hear the slip-sliding notes of Todd Rundgren's I Saw the Light presenting themselves to me as an illustration of what I mean. Another stance might be a Still There'll Be More posture with comping chords and the off-beat accenting via a single note execution. Hear it in your mind's ear.
Again, Keith Reid is at his anthropormorphising best as he imbues the saddened old set of armour with human emotions. The words are written in the ambience of a bygone day and I find them extremely appealing. I place them at the upper ridge of Maslov's Hierarchy of Reids. They continue to fascinate and transport, now as they did then. This set of song thoughts really works. I enjoy just reading them or imagining that I am reading them; as I walk down various streets and technical blind alleys.
Finally, there is conjecture as to Bobby Harrison having played drums or not on one of the versions of this song. The drumming is unchallenging but there are differences in approach from version to version. It is at this juncture that I must note that I have never done the memory work as to which version is which. There is another article at BtP that addresses that very issue. So much for my attention to detail and my quest for honest journalism! … Great Ceasar's Ghost!

A 'B' side recovered

In beginning this review or account of the recording of this track I would like to draw attention to folks like Henry Scott-Irvine and others at Westside Records for bringing a very fragile tape back to life! Yes back from the DEAD as it were. It isn’t as easy as just finding an old box with an old musty tape with original tracks by our beloved Procol Harum, then taking it out hastily and running into the next room and putting it on an old vintage 4-track machine (if one were handy, <lol>) and then using an RCA cord to connect it to your PC and then just burn yourself a master copy. Forget it! You would end up probably damaging the tape just by playing it without the proper treatment. No, it involves much more.

I suspect the first thing done in the case of a 30 year-old magnetic tape would be to make sure it runs on a machine similar to the one it was recorded on and that ALL the bits of Oxide are intact. If not, then running the tape would make it disintegrate and rub off on the recording heads as a fine powder … the rare Wee Small Hours lost forever as a pile of powdered oxide from the reel. Of course you would hear the recording but it would sound horrid, and you wouldn’t be able to use it again.This can be avoided by BAKING the said tape, when found, in an oven at about 120 degrees for two to three hours as a matter of course to preserve it. YES, its sounds silly but baking tapes is done very often just to keep tapes in the vaults around the world fresh.It never hurts, but in few cases does an ancient tape retain all its zest without such a procedure. Many tapes are baked every day, not just the old ones … ten years sometimes is too long if the tape is not stored properly. The heat forces the oxide particles on the recorded side of the tape to join together and get … well, stuck back together. I’m no chemist but after the procedure the tape will have the tensile strength it had 30 years ago … and voilŕ, it will play and sound as good as new.

The next step would be to transfer the tracks to perhaps another analog source such as another 4-track or perhaps run the original tape on to a very good digital Hard disk recorder. After the four tracks go digital, to bring back the warmth of the analog tape they would use something like ‘dithering’ or digital noise, as dithering makes it feel 'warm': and then it is finally mixed to stereo and at this point the team will choose the right mixing tools, compression, panning or placing the tracks right to left as would have been done had it been done in stereo in the beginning. I do believe they did a bang-up job on this, leaving in the hiss to preserve the sound of the original sessions sonically and not messing with cleaning it up too much, lest we lose sight of the original sound … even if the bass or midrange of a bass part or organ goes astray here or there.

As for this song. It is the only one of the cuts that has appeared before as a 'B' side. I believe my colleague Larry/Cerdes has covered it well and my thoughts on it are just this. It has a mono feel to the stereo fields though it may have come from another tape and was just spliced on to this one, perhaps already mixed to the satisfaction of the original producer. We will never really know. But one thing is for sure … this track was already produced and ready for release in this condition and perhaps only took up two tracks on the reel, if my theory rings true.Whatever the case it is the punchiness of this take that makes it stand out from the other Wee Hourses. Like Wish Me Well … I believe both these numbers were slated to be singles: Wish me Well just never got used.

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