Procol Harum

the Pale

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'Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes'

Simple Sister

Album: Broken Barricades (1971), The Symphonic Music (1995), Live at the BBC (1999)

Authors: Brooker / Reid 

 Read the words

Performed: very frequently

Cover-versions: none

Gary Brooker gives a brief introduction to this song, to camera, from his home studio, as part of the Cherry Red Records 'Artist of the Month' promotion in July 2020.

The Broken Barricades album starts, like Home before it, with Robin Trower's guitar playing an unmistakable signature phrase. This angry eruption signals the start of the song that engineer John Punter called Pimple Blister, with its cruel, some would say misogynistic lyric. Like Whisky Train, this is an enormously popular song with live audiences, specially in the USA, and since it was written all Procol's guitarists – Trower, Ball, Grabham, Renwick and Whitehorn – have played it. The five-note opening rhythm, on a repeated note, even found its way unwittingly into Mick Grabham's final bars of Beyond the Pale.

There is much repetition in the air: of rhythms, of chord-sequences (the conventional C minor, B flat, A flat, G has even been used by Procol Harum before, in Skip Softly (My Moonbeams)) and of lyrical patterns. And the middle section repeats four chords over almost a hundred bars, while various sounds and melodies – including the 'mad banjos' as Robin Trower called them – are added on the top. But there is also a lot of subtle variation: admittedly the piano relies heavily on Brooker's staple motif the 'collapsing' chord (exampled in this between-song doodle mp3): but this is played in several varieties: in the verses we hear it four times as a two-beat motif, then four times as a three-beat motif with added minor seventh preceding it; latterly the brass copy it too. Similarly the repetitions in the middle-section riff are enlivened by a variety of turn-backs, some relying on syncopated piano 'pushes', others on eight-note running figures. In the Barbican orchestral version there are varieties even of this, some of which have been imitated on the road by the five-piece band: these are all 'cunning irregularities', in Hardy's phrase, to ensure that the repetition does not stale the listener's ear.

On stage the song exists in two varieties, the mere three-verse one (a mere 3 minutes 17 seconds on the Beat Club recital of 27 November 1971), and the extended 'build-up' version, over a melodic bass-line midway. The longer version is far more dramatic – the same instinct for juxtaposing opposites resulted in the insertion of the quiet Bach Prelude into Repent Walpurgis, another thundering four-chord passacaglia. Strangely there are some fans who would prefer both songs in attenuated form. It's worth dilating on the origins of the central riff, which has borrowed the first five or six notes (and the sprightly rhythm) wholesale from the opening of The Capitols' 1966 Cool Jerk (mp3 here). But Procol do something more interesting than the Cool Jerk composers: they modulate the motif from C major up to E flat, then again to G minor and down again … it goes somewhere, rather than being just an R&B elaboration of the basic blues progression. The Cool Jerk riff starts out with bass, then adds 'some eighty-eights' (a particularly shoddy-sounding piano), then immediately the whole band, but Brooker's ensemble builds up minutely slowly, something added every time the refrain re-starts, constantly surprising the listener with melodic and rhythmic ideas, begging the question, 'how can this end'? Musically the arrangement (by Brooker, conducted by George Martin, who is not credited on the sleeve) may be one of the big anomalies in the Procol catalogue: most of their orchestral work draws on baroque or romantic European traditions, but here the layering also seems reminiscent of modern, minimalist composers like Reich and Glass. Other famous records use heavy repetition and progressive layering – for instance Hey Jude and I Want You (She's So Heavy) – but these cases have endings faded or cut, somehow leaving the effect unconsolidated in one's ear. [Matthew Fisher's great cumulo-enders, Journey's End Pt II and I'll be There, follow the Beatle pattern too]. We do hear such a throwaway technique on the Barricades album in the final minutes of the title track. But Simple Sister, like its antecedent Whaling Stories, offers remission from the build-up, finding a closure that offers emotional relief.

This unique build-up is finely structured. Bars 1 to 32 follow the Skip Softly chords, after which the guitar plays a more-or-less fixed melody over the Cool Jerk riff, heard for the first time. Bars 41 to 64 comprise another 'unit' of Skip Softly and Cool Jerk; then the guitar lets rip for an improvisation over the Skip Softly chords, running from bars 65 to 88 (at the end of which section we hear a cross-fade between two takes, using two different guitars). Bar 89 begins a Skip Softly sequence that delays its last chord, and the brief drum break at 97 begins the Cool Jerk section in earnest. Piano, bass and drums start it at 98; bar 106 adds one of the manic chattering sounds we now know to be Gary Brooker's piano, recorded while running the tape slow, and subsequently speeded up. Chris 'The Grouts' Michie describes this process in illuminating detail here: for a long time the source of this sound was a mystery, though Geoff Whitehorn's strummed guitar does a capable job of imitating it in live performance. One more piano note is added every eight bars until 146, by which time high 'chiming' notes are heard as well, and at 154 guitar and 'celli join the chattering fray, with some quiet brass. High melodic strings are added at 170, whooping brass at 178, and heavy Wagnerian brass at 186. Just when pop precedent primes us to expect a fade, the Skip Softly motif cuts in at 194, and one more verse is sung; 210 sees the speedy coda, (including a new chord!) and the long growling C minor sustain at 213 ends the song. Gary told the NME (5 June 1972) that this was 'Music from the 23rd century'.

The reversion, from the Cool Jerk section to the opening matter again, is done with a musical brutality entirely suited to the cruelty of the words. It’s a song of vitriol and abuse, continuing the Still There'll Be More vein of writing. Perhaps it was a deliberate irony, adapting the riff of a positive, life-enhancing dance tune to offset Keith Reid’s savage libretto. This piece portrays serial vindictiveness like Poor Mohammed does: but what disease merits such cruel treatment? Despite the problems of interpretation that it poses to the record-buyer, Gary told NME that the piece was 'Lyrically quite simple, but there's something very personal about it. A quick summary of a situation Keith ran into somewhere.'

Backed with Song For A Dreamer, it was released as a single (A&M 1287) in the USA in August 1971. Simple Sister (stereo / mono) was also issued as a promotional copy. It appeared on record on the bootleg The Elusive Procol Harum, recorded at the WPLJ radio show in New York in April 1971. This is the month when the song was first played on stage, and it has not left the repertoire although drummer Ian Wallace, in 1993, opined that it sounded a bit dated. It was played in an orchestrated version at the Hollywood Bowl, and at Edmonton: it didn't make it to the Live album, where it might have helped loosen some of the 'pomp-rock' prejudices that unjustly beset the band. At the Barbican it was presented in an entirely new Brooker arrangement, with a Carmina Burana-style walloping introduction, and vocal chorus which threatened to topple into self-parody with such a restricted lyric to sing. It was an extraordinary choice to play 'a heavy metal thing' with orchestra at the Barbican, as Gary pointed out, mentioning that 'it never really had any tune to it'. But if we listen to his grimly voluptuous little scherzo for the violins, pitted against raucous brass, slogging percussion, and tiny bursts from the rock instruments, (mp3 here) we get a glimpse of an arranger whose idiom is very much his own … and perhaps Berlioz's. In a 1977 interview, possibly the Old Testament's last, Brooker indicated that the band needed to move on and not just play 'Simple Sister … relying on being 'English'.' But at the Barbican he seemed to have gone back in time, asking the audience 'does anybody out there know what a guitar riff is?' The addition of a ballet-dancer to the performance was strange indeed, a development that scarcely seemed to bear any relation to the original at all, except in that it concerned a female character; and even that is open to doubt when we look at the libretto.

Thanks to Frans Steensma for additional information about this song

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