Procol Harum

the Pale

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'Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes'

Nothing But The Truth

Album: Exotic Birds and Fruit (1974), Live at the BBC (1999)

Authors: Brooker / Reid

 Read the words

Performed: promotionally and thereafter

Cover-versions: none

The mighty Nothing But the Truth, Procol hit single that never was: its commercial failure more than anything must have been a turning point for the morale of the band. Fluently inventive, all its musical elements well-integrated, catchy, intriguing, played with real power, and endorsed by a top DJ and by Elton John, it must have seemed to have every reason to be successful. Backed with Drunk Again it was released as a single (CHS 2032) on 6 April 1974 in the UK, and was favourably reviewed (John Peel in Sounds: 'Often the impression of restrained power is more exciting than vulgar demonstration of that power. Such is the case here'; Rosemary Nobide in Disc: 'Now here is a nice classy piece of music – instantly recognisable as Procol Harum'; Melody Maker: 'The organ, piano and guitar chords hint at some hymn or carol recalled from schooldays. It’s a beautiful concept brilliantly performed and recorded'; New Musical Express: 'Now you’re talking. One of the great misunderstood bands of our time press on expertly …'). Sadly it didn’t chart.

It is often remarked that the production of Exotic Birds and Fruit is muddy – tape-operator Chris 'the Grouts' Michie describes (here) the laborious multi-tracking and studio shenanigans that underlay its reverberant sound – but this single came over beautifully on the radio, just like a Phil Spector production does. However the Paper Lace-buying public must have wanted more of an old grey whistle-tune, which of course they got when Procol fought back with a change of producer and Pandora's Box. No wonder NME (here) found Gary Brooker like 'a frosty and cagey wolverine' at the time. The paper's Andrew Tyler asked why 'a band that produced one of the most mesmeric 45s in rock'n'roll history now edge[s] away from the noble task of turning out hit 45s?' and quoted Mick Grabham's shrugging conclusion, 'If it happens, it happens. I mean Keith and Gary don't write specifically to come up with a single if the record company want to release one.' Tyler credited the band with 'a sense of strategic intelligence that is barely more than cretinous'.

However there's every sign that Nothing But the Truth was crafted for hit-hood. Cash Box (June 1974) revealed that 'Gary’s and Keith’s choice for the initial LP single is Nothing But the Truth. Both believe the singles market is very important for the future of the group.' Like subsequent album-openers Pandora's Box and Something Magic, it is packed with sonic detail. It has light and shade, and strong harmonic architecture (though some would argue that it lacks in the melodic department). Its title is a common-parlance, easy to remember. Unusually for Brooker, it features a middle-section (sixteen bars). Its string overdub is highly-condensed in sound, not so much symphonic as poppy; its beat is Tamla-like. Interesting percussion effects, including the ass's jawbone, add appeal to the texture. Brooker contributes his appetising 'oohs' amid a startling quantity of vocal overdubs – his slowed-down bass voice (first heard on Skip Softly My Moonbeams)) alongside more 'normal' mid range harmony, even a 'stage whisper', on top of the main vocal line (and an inexplicable bassy grunt at 2:30!). But it all counted for nothing.

Nothingness: maybe this was the problem … were Reid's words too downbeat for the era? Or maybe they were simply too difficult to hear? Fine as this song is, it does highlight the occasional difficulties inherent in the Procol writing method, which brings together finished words and finished music. 'Nothing', 'common' and 'harder' are stretched to four syllables, making the sense hard to grasp, and tune too abstruse for milkman to sing on his morning round. Nothing(ness) as a concept has a strong literary pedigree: it's arguably a major theme of Shakespeare's King Lear; 'emptiness' is a staple of Beckett; Jean Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness had come out in 1943. Reid's usage, however, is probably more down-to-earth, being a piece of rhetorical hyperbole about how very bad a bad situation has become: 'this is nothing but the truth, and that's the way it is'. But perhaps this misery is not the stuff of a hit single, any more than the indeterminate Kafkaesque punitive 'they' is, which was later to appear in downbeat pieces such as The Piper's Tune. Furthermore the song is shot through with archaic wording, though this does not conceal the fact that, just as much as Butterfly Boys, it could be construed as emblematic of the band's discontent with Chrysalis, and also possibly each other: it was probably just too uneasy for the charts.

The song bristles with chord-changes. The opening is reminiscent of the falling figure which starts Robert's Box (the band's previous track, in chronological terms), but this time the changes ride over an intriguing boogie left-hand. Its sequence contains four similar phrases, of which only two are actually identical: the first runs from E minor to C, the second and fourth from D minor to A minor, the third E minor to B minor; this music is also the accompaniment for the chorus, so we hear it a good many times: its falling contour may be intended to signify the plummeting of Icarus. Under each of the falling melodic phrases, the scalar bassline rises, and it is the power of this opposition that gives the song much of its punch, especially at its abrupt beginning and end. The A minor, on which this sequence ends, serves as a double jumping-off point: on to a G minor for the verses, on to a D major for the middle section; neither is predictable and the effect throughout is of concentrated harmonic brightness. The busy harmonic rhythm stands still for the start of each verse, and for the irregular six-beat pause in the middle of each. The verses are in C minor, but the G minor start, effectively a minor dominant, runs parallel to the sound-world of Beyond the Pale, with which song there are many lyrical parallels as well.

A glance at Brooker's studio 'lead sheet' for this 'Nothin' But da Truth' (click here for larger version) shows how the bassline is an integral part of the composition for the start, and also for the end of the middle-section (where we clearly see a very characteristic piano 'cell' of Gary's writing notated). Elsewhere, chord symbols suffice, as the bassline follows the roots of the chords (the second chord in bar 20 is not heard on the record) It is interesting that the cycle of fourths, a well-trodden Brooker route, is followed downwards in this song, from B flat to G minor (exactly the same four chords are heard, cycling upwards, under 'he could see no point in diving in' on The Idol): the effect of this leftward cycle is often deadening and passive, as suits the words 'So sad to hear …', though the frantic pace somewhat offsets that emotion. The middle section juxtaposes some unrelated major chords, and makes dramatic uses of silence (in which we hear exotic percussion, and something very close to the piano introduction of Monsieur R Monde and of Butterfly Boys).

The overall pitching of the lines of the verse, especially their last notes, gradually edges upward as the song progresses towards the chorus, and Brooker's voice flies clear over the whole ensemble. The only instrument that is not playing flat-out on the record is the guitar, though Grabham – a very skilful ensemble player – found much to do in live versions of the song: his contributions often enhanced the impression that this was nothing but a Tamla steal. The drums, though not specially clearly recorded, give a good impression of the latter-day BJ, and the goofy bass voice is another trick repeated from Robert's Box, but this time more integral to the whole arrangement.

The song was first played live during the eight-date UK university tour that started on 28 February 1974 at Exeter, and has been in and out of the band's repertoire ever since. Though very chord-intensive, it is great fun to play; it is certainly one of the most-performed numbers from this album. By 1975 the band had begun to preface it with snatches (various length, sometimes as much as a minute: mp3 here) of I Can't Help Myself, so as to establish the Motown groove before crunching, synchronised, into the Brooker introduction. The arrangement otherwise has evolved little, except on the 1991 tour where the whole of the middle section was played as a shuffle on alternating chords of D and G, starting with an instrumental break (mp3 here) – a backward move as far as fans of Brooker drama are concerned. It was a definite plus for 1993 Whitehorn fans, however, when the instrumental insert grew to almost two minutes of two-chord guitar work-out before the middle section resumed, sung over its original chords. The 1991 incarnation, on the other hand, featured an attractive six-beat respite after the middle section (mp3 here), which contributed a lot to its light and shade, and this was retained in the 1995 touring version, which was otherwise structurally back to normal, though it enjoyed a slight harmonic spring-cleaning involving some descending bass notes (mp3 here) where there were formerly clean rhythmical breaks on the G minor chord.

This feature was retained when the song entered the repertoire of the Gary Brooker Ensemble (it features on their 1996 record), and the post-Icarus hiatus was increased to a more predictable sixteen beats (mp3 here). With its nihilistic theme it was perhaps a curious choice for these church concerts, but it came equipped with a new string prelude, rhythmically free and varied, concluding very attractively in waltz time (mp3 here). The fact that Gary has been able to edit this cleanly out of the official CD, however, emphasises that it's merely grafted on to the song, whereas his Bernard Herman Psycho string-writing in the middle section seemed thoroughly integral. The choir was given some shrilling descending lines to sing as Icarus falls.

Thanks to Frans Steensma for additional information about this song 


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