Procol Harum

the Pale

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An obscure but delightful Brooker / Reid song

Harlequin was first released by the Hollies on their 1979 album, Five Three One-Double Seven O Four: you can watch them mime to it (live vocal) here. In 1998 it re-emerged on the third Hollies album in EMI's splendid 'At Abbey Road' series: The Hollies At Abbey Road 1973 - 1989 (CD 7243 4 96434 2 0) with liner notes by Uli Twelker:


After a number of self-produced albums, the Hollies returned to the EMI St Johns Wood studios celebrated in this package, to record again with their long-time producer Ron Richards. It was to be Ron's last project before retiring, and with its melancholic, rich melody vaults, it became known as 'the ballad album'. This sad clown song was written by the Brooker / Reid team of the then freshly-disbanded Procol Harum, who the Hollies have liked enough to include their Whiter Shade Of Pale in their Nineties stage set. For this rare Sylvester lead vocal, Gary Brooker himself entered Abbey Road to supply his distinctive, rough & ready background vocals. When Bob Elliott became ill and couldn't make the session, Gary called his Procol-drummer, the late, great BJ Wilson, to dep for Bob.

The page referring to Harlequin (above) doesn't explain why the Hollies were recording a Brooker / Reid song: but earlier in the liner-booklet Twelker refers to the Hollies, 'trained as they were by their patient, fatherly advisor and sound-conscious producer, Ron Richards, a legendary George Martin contestant and friend ...' - Procol Harum fans will need no reminding that Richards had produced the Paramounts records, and that his name appears on the boxes for some of Salty Dog master-tapes, though how much he actually assisted Matthew Fisher is not known. It has been said that Richards approached Gary Brooker to sing with the Hollies, whom he had produced for many years, in 1978 when Allan Clarke announced his plan to quit the band. [More about this here]

It would be nice to know whether Harlequin was written specially for the Hollies, or whether it was a number that Gary and Keith had left over from Something Magic. It doesn't really sound like it! Even with Barrie Wilson on drums and Gary taking the lead vocal (as can be heard on a widely-circulated demo outtake) the song sounds rather bland and lifeless, though the vocal harmonies are very appealing.

As we know, Gary didn't join the Hollies; yet it wasn't Allan Clarke who took the vocal in the released version, but the relatively unconvincing Terry Sylvester, who doesn't sound entirely happy with the tune, and whose reading of the melody lacks the Brooker ornaments as well as the characteristic earthy edge of his voice (rough & ready indeed!). It's odd that Richards left Brooker's counterpoint at the end of the final Hollies mix, because it doesn't really blend: it just highlights the smoothness of the foregoing vocal. Maybe it had already been bounced down into the harmony track, and couldn't be removed?

It's nice to have another BJ Wilson performance on record of course, but the prime reason for PH die-hards to acquire the Hollies' Harlequin is that it has the complete Reid words (though the track-listing strangely credits the song to Brooker only). Owners of the Brooker-demoed out-take must have noticed that there's a line missing, where a glitch in the smuggled tape has been made good by artful patching; musically it's been accomplished very neatly, but the verbal discontinuity has always been an irritation. Here, then, are the words Terry Sylvester sings:


Harlequin has lost his crown
'Look!' they say, 'A broken clown!'
Yesterday he ruled the world
Now he's crying to be heard

Yesterday he called the tune
Now he's howling at the moon
Harlequin has broken down
Harlequin, Harlequin has lost his crown

Harlequin has broken loose
Slipped the knot and skipped the noose
Can those bloodhounds find his trail?
Will they send him back to gaol?

Can those bloodhounds find his scent?
Will they find out where he went?
Harlequin cannot be found
Harlequin, Harlequin has gone to ground.

Harlequin is back on top
Now his fame will never stop
See him shown from coast to coast
He's the one they love the most

See them slap him on the back
How they love his every crack
Harlequin we knew you'd do it
Harlequin, Harlequin

They thought you blew it ...
We knew you'd do it ...

Surely this is a good set of late Reid words? The fulsomeness of the happy ending reflects a distrust that pervades many of the late songs; and knots, nooses and gaols are not far from the territory of The Mark of the Claw. There is something here of the flavour of No More Fear of Flying, too - a narrative of fame lapsed and regained, perhaps crossed with some nuance from The Idol or even Ghost Train?

I know the song doesn't have to be about anything in particular, but it was recently pointed out to me that Nirvana had recorded a piece called Indiscreet Harlequin about Guy Stevens, legendary cat-owner who brought Brooker and Reid together: so if 'Harlequin' was a nickname for Stevens, might he not be the subject of this song also?

His well-known spell in gaol would seem to be hinted at, and perhaps (in the final verse) his return to celebrity as producer of the Clash's London Calling. Frans Steensma, however, pointed out that 'from my memory [Stevens's] comeback with The Clash wasn't widely publicised and words like 'See him shown from coast to coast / he's the one they love the most' don't sound to me like words you say about a producer.'

The Stevens theory is clinchingly confuted, however, when Frans points out that the song was definitely written between 1977 and very early 1979, whereas London Calling became a success later in 1979. One might equally claim that the song foresaw the Harlequin Theatre in Redhill where the Magnum Harum were 'back on top' in 1997! The apparent Stevens-Harlequin connection may just be another of those curious Procoloid half-coincidences.

Commenting on the song's authorship, Frans notes that Harlequin was certainly written by Brooker / Reid: '... the punctilious Germans didn't make an error on the Hollies LP: in those credits it says 'Brooker / Reid', while on the English pressing it says merely 'Brooker', and adds that, from his connections with Hollies fans, he always had the impression that 'the song was written especially for the Hollies. In that respect, how about the song being about Graham Nash? He was 'shown from coast to coast' and was 'the one they loved the most ...)' ...

What do other people think? [RC]

Charlie Allison spotted this snippet on the Hollies' Website, September 2003, when a 6CD Hollies set was announced:

"Harlequin was written by Gary Brooker the singer, and songwriter (with Keith Reid), of Procol Harum. For the recording of this song he did a guide vocal which was meant to be removed at the mix but (to his surprise when hearing the released record) his voice can be heard at the end of the song."

Warning about copyright

Another recorded version of the same song

Procol Harum première this song at Croydon, 25 May 2002

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