Procol Harum

the Pale

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'Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes'

Playmate of the Mouth

Album: Broken Barricades (1971)

Authors: Brooker / Reid 

 Read the words

Performed: rarely

Cover-versions: none

An out-of-tune piano, with its overtones of cheerful neglect, can be used to signify either upbeat country pastiche (the Beatles' Rocky Raccoon) or downbeat, boozy sleaze as in the present number. Procol Harum made little use of non-standard piano-sounds – Brooker seems to have loved the concert Steinway aura – but Playmate of the Mouth is atypical in several other ways too: the growling brass arrangement had not been tried before, no previous song – not even Boredom – had been built on such unrelieved repetition of a non-blues chord sequence. And no other vocal had been committed to tape with the singer apparently suffering a cold.

The piano was an upright, and one string of each trichord was detuned, as if in search of the sound of Dylan's Ballad of a Thin Man. It seems oddly gutless in the mix, lurking to one side of the stereo field as if squeezed out by the rasping New Orleans-style pickup band. Playmate of the Mouth is one of the first batch of three songs recorded in late 1970 at the brand new AIR Studios (fourth floor, 214 Oxford Street) in London, and the master-reel was compiled on 29 December. Though Playmate was played on tour, during the April 1971 dates in the USA and Canada, it did not survive promotional duties, and no concert recordings have come to our attention. Tape-operator Chris 'The Grouts' Michie describes the Barricades sessions here, and refutes BJ's claim (here) that the present track was recorded live. The band obviously didn't tour with a brass section for this one song; nor did they take a treated piano on the road; BJ's recollection may have been of a basic track being laid down by simultaneous ensemble playing, as had happened with Whisky Train on the previous album; or the journalist may have misunderstood remarks about the live applause on Power Failure.

Any drummer might well recall a session that required him to decorate the same four-chord pattern as it cycled no fewer than twenty-four times (including the comical rubato of the conclusion), offering none of the dynamic rise-and-fall for which his band was renowned. Though it is a Brooker composition, it is evidently designed as a vehicle for soulful lead guitar, and Trower fans do not complain about the length, or quality of the soloing. The imitation of voice by guitar at 3:42 is specially effective: Mick Grabham's guitar would later take up the Brooker vocal on The Unquiet Zone. Brooker's composing is almost as minimal as Trower's in the next song, though his harmonies are a good deal more engaging: using his very familiar 'collapsing' chord technique – perhaps in this instance recalling Wish Me Well's opening – he starts unusually on the submediant E flat, descends by a tone, then another, rounding off with a couple of plagal cadences in G flat. The key doesn't seem to have been chosen for anyone's particular convenience, not even the horns', not that they seem inhibited: their lawless riffing, in A flat, contributes a lot to the sense of louche revelry that the words seem to be peddling.

The text is rich and reads well – this is one of the four songs written out on the album-sleeve, and it was selected by Keith Reid for his book, My Own Choice – but it confirms the lack of musical variety by rhyming repeatedly on an '-all' sound; the setting also gives us the third verse twice, albeit with a slightly changed melody. The song's title is a pun on 'Playmate of the Month', the nude model spotlighted in each issue of Playboy Magazine. The misreading of an 'n' as a 'u' is known to handwriting scholars as 'minim error'. The term 'jazz mag' for a porno magazine apparently post-dates this song, so there is not another pun involved in the choice of 'horny' backing. The delivery of the words is oddly varying, as if Brooker is unsure quite what role he is playing: we hear gruff sounds, and then impassioned yelps, but no clear reason for this gear-shifting emerges. It doesn't seem impossible that gentlemanly Gary was mildly uneasy with the subject matter. Certainly BJ reported that the song could be regarded as obscene: 'When I sent a copy to my mother I damaged this track!'. Gary's take on the Reid text was, 'Keith writes the lyrics and whatever he’s into the group just follows along … This year it’s sex ... sex and violence … Last year he was a bit gloomy.' It is hard to imagine that Brooker was entirely serious, if he was advancing the present lyric as evidence of a recovery from melancholia.

Thanks to Frans Steensma for additional information about this song

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