Procol Harum

the Pale

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'Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes'

Power Failure

Album: Broken Barricades (1971)

Authors: Brooker / Reid 

 Read the words

Performed: 1971 – 1974, then occasionally until 1976

Cover-versions: Leo Kottke

With this simple number, heavily-featured in live stage shows over the years, Procol Harum succumbed to the prog-rock ritual of the mandatory drum solo in every gig. Live, BJ's work could be riveting: on record, where the solo is a compilation of overdubs in an awkward time-signature, it is possibly less so. The ancestry of this feature could be traced right back to the first Procol album: BJ's fills between the final chords of Repent Walpurgis grew into a feature of their own on stage; its descendant is clearly The Unquiet Zone, whose intermittent structure means that its drum solo, in live performance, sounds more like the outgrowth of something integral to the song.

But this may be exactly the point of Power Failure. 'It's all about touring on the road and the situation when electricity is somehow cut off,' Gary Brooker told NME (5 June 1971), 'and we leave it to BJ and his drum solo to keep things going until we get the power back on.' Guitar and bass do cut out oddly at the start of the drum solo, but the track does not attempt to imitate the distorted decay when valve gear loses its mains feed; nor do the instruments fail at the same time, rather playing a very interesting little Baroque-like game of question and answer before ceding place to the percussion. Tape-operator Chris 'The Grouts' Michie tells (here) how Power Failure originally had only two verses before the drum solo; a copy of the third verse was spliced in before the solo, resulting in a noticeable acceleration of the pulse at that point. This may be why the percussion overdubs begin there, to divert attention from the cloned backing; it's certainly why the organ is heard before BJ's solo. When the 'power comes back' after a minute and 23 seconds of BJ, Copping's organ is mixed higher than before: this change foreshadows what would become standard stage-practice once Procol reverted to a five-piece, and Chris would play rhythm guitar until the drum solo, and organ thereafter.

Power Failure is one of the tracks whose title is not exactly heard in the song. When 'power' is alluded to in pop music it is generally in terms of 'the power of love' or, more lately, as the rallying 'I've got the power ...' cry on dance records. The word 'power' occurs nowhere else in Procol Harum, and 'fail' is found only in 'I failed the test' (Skating on Thin Ice). It may be that the song refers to a real gig at which the power failed, and some of the images do relate to the problems of a touring band, but overall the text depicts energy-loss at a human level, following exposure to 'a sea of troubles'. It is one of the four songs featured on the album-sleeve and selected by Keith Reid for his book, My Own Choice: the album text is heavily stopped, whereas (uniquely) the book prints the whole piece and its title in lower-case, and there is no punctuation whatever. The first verse rhymes abab (if we grant 'windows/cinders') but after that reduces to abcb: even the power to rhyme is failing. It has been observed – by the kind of wordplaying fan who likes to think of the author as 'Keats Wreath' – that the title sounds like a morbid spoonerism of the words 'flower power'.

The text presents a litany of images of lost potency, but shares a 'flatness' problem with Nothing But the Truth: there is little narrative drama, and Brooker responds to this deficiency with the device of the drum interlude, and with the pervasively downward contour of melody and harmonies: this seemingly accords with Brooker/Thomas methodology of finding a musical correlative for one main verbal feature per text, in the quest for a style of musical or production colour. The typical Brooker 'collapsing' chord cell is well-suited to these images of falling, stumbling and so forth. Musically it's a number closely-related to Toujours l'Amour, with which it shares its pianistic key of B flat and its heavy rock feel; both are constructed on a piano riff that repeats itself at a lower pitch, both pick out the piano chords with 'aah' backing-vocals. The chords of Toujours are more sophisticated, but there's a strong constructional parallel in the use of a pedal note under groups of chords a fourth apart: Toujours uses a pedal A flat under falling cycle G flat, D flat, A flat, whereas the present song uses falling fourths of E flat, B flat and F over a pedal B flat: here the bass misrelates to the final chord, in Toujours it misrelates to the first. Both songs restart verses in B flat following an illogical lead-in chord of D7. That's not to say these features are clichés: they are pretty individual to Brooker, whose way with Procol chords is much admired by musicians he chooses to play in the band. Beat Instrumental (August 1971) noted that 'Power Failure opens side two and is a live track which seems to avoid every riff and cliché around.'

But it is not live, of course: 'It was intended to fox people,' Gary told NME. 'We dubbed the applause at the end of the solo in from one of our concerts. The sound was much too clean for a live track, but when you hear it you're convinced for two seconds, and that's what we wanted.' Also dubbed in was a cry of 'Rubbish!', hollered by Barrie Wilson himself. It would be interesting to know whether he was actually ambivalent about his multitracked rhythmic collage. Numerous concert tapes exist in which he cultivates a swinging intensity and drama that are absent from this curious essay in 5/4 time. Here he strains for some quasi-World Music effects in the dubbed shakers (coffee cans) and tabla, which are heard at opposite sides of the stereo spectrum. However the burst of cowbell is characteristic of his live work, as are the subtly-shifting accents, and the last ten seconds are full of surprises. Very probably the dead-halt, a characteristic Brooker compositional motif, evolved in order to highlight BJ's facility for decoration; his ensemble work in this song brilliantly complements the tumbling, low-level piano work, which is almost playing a cha-cha rhythm, and the stereo-panned guitar chords. Chris Michie believes that 'Robin played six-string electric bass on this track … it was a Fender. It looked like a Stratocaster on steroids'; there's no particular sign of those six strings on the record, but a concert introduction, from the Dave Ball era, states that 'this one features the dynamic Chris Copping on six-string bass' so it seems that the instrument – which apparently belonged to Brooker – was identified with this song. Chris is pictured with a six-string on the Barricades inner sleeve, but it's an Ampeg: further identification will have to wait.

Power Failure was first played live during the April 1971 tour of the USA, and it was released as a B side to Broken Barricades there. It became a tremendously popular showcase for BJ and was heard until 1976; it was seen on various 1970s European TV shows, with Chris Copping stepping up front to sing harmony vocal. When the band first toured with their protégé Leo Kottke, he would play rhythm on this song, and he later covered it on a record of his own (see here). In the 1990s the extended Whisky Train became the drum-solo number, and Power Failure has remained in the drawer.

Thanks to Frans Steensma for additional information about this song


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