Procol Harum

the Pale

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'Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes'

The Idol

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

Authors: Brooker / Reid

 Read the words

Performed: Promotionally, then at Redhill

Cover-versions: none

The Idol, slow, majestic, crowns a remarkable side of solidly-inventive music on the Exotic Birds and Fruit album. In vinyl terms it occupies a similar position to TV Ceasar on the previous album, its protracted playout delaying our flipping the record … and finding something entirely unexpected there! Some would say both these songs are overlong, permitted to sprawl in order to compensate for there being only four items to a side. However The Idol begins small, and continues to accumulate in weight as it plays on: it really does start like the thin end of a wedge; the fade-out at the end is its only musical disappointment.

Gary Brooker's comments in a 1974 UK interview, about the studio background to this recording, may be worth quoting at length: 'The Idol is a big one for me, I mean a big one for the group … We put a tremendous amount of work into this one. Originally … I just did it solo at the piano, going straight through the words in the song. And that was that. When we got into the studio, we found it worked out a lot differently with the group. It goes through a lot of build-up, a lot of voices going on, background singing as well … it was a mammoth job for Chris Thomas to do the mixing but he finally pulled it off … on this album we used for the first time the 24-track machine. Thomas was in his glory year. We would normally record stereo piano, stereo drums, that sort of thing. On this particular one we had ambient mikes all over the studio. On The Idol I played acoustic piano once, in stereo of course. Then I tracked it and then I played three tracks of electric piano as well. That was just myself. Mick must have done as many on guitar as well. A big wall of sound. We really had trouble to get it all on tape again. We finally made it.' There are indeed some strange details deep in the mix (listen to the bass voice on the left channel at 3:27) but it’s hard to hear evidence of all those instrumental overdubs. Gary's enthusiasm for the track may have waned slightly over the years: The Idol was not wheeled out for duty on 90s tours, though many less interesting songs were heard again and again.

This number begins in F minor, with a second phrase a tone lower; in written notation these keys bristle with accidentals, and they are not much-liked by guitarists, but at the piano it all sits very comfortably under the hand: the rolling, stair-climbing piano-motif between the lines has an ancestor in the between-verse fill of All This and More, and a similar descendant in Taking the Time. Gary's soulful iterations of the title are densely overdubbed: his harmony-singing has never been better; Alan Cartwright's bass accompanies the main vocal with force and restraint: BJ Wilson's dramatically syncopated drum-entry is one of his classics. As the organ joins in, E flat minor gives way to a bright E flat major, and the harmonies rejoin the beaten track: first with a couple of rounds of the well-known Brooker sequence (I, IV-of-IV, IV, I) that underpins Without a Doubt, The Piper's Tune, and many others; then a dive to G minor and up the cycle of fourths to B flat, then the same again using a G major as the springboard. The chorus starts on an A flat chord which, following a B flat, imparts a sense of anticlimax, while also implying that a full-cadence resolution is being held in reserve. Indeed it is: now all the lines of the chorus (unconventional, in that it has only three) end with perfect cadences, and carefully-arranged scales on guitar and organ link the lines. The chorus has a hymnal feel, also heard in As Strong as Samson, perhaps reminding us of Geoff Whitehorn's comment that Gary likes to play hymns when he should be rehearsing! There is no middle-eight or other harmonic material, but the verse/chorus cycle begins again: there is sufficient substance here to fill a track lasting some 6 minutes 38.

By normal Procol Harum standards, the words are straightforward. There is little richness, the contradictions are more irksome than startling, and there is no attempt at narrative development. The much-repeated title merits scrutiny: 'an idol' is a god, originally subject to totemic representation in statues or figurines made from valuable materials. The Bible, shot through with condemnations of idolatry (and, in addition, of the waste of symbolic offerings of food), is responsible for the word having a pejorative flavour (this mindset filters into Broken Barricades with its 'your idols absurd'). The Christian use of 'idol' to mean 'false god' led to its demotic broadening to include any figure who is looked up to or worshipped by others (singer William Broad subversively took the pop-star application of the word to an extreme, by adopting Billy Idol as his stage name). Procol Harum themselves, in their first flush of success, were courted to playing pop idols, being used as tools of a fascist state, in a film which eventually settled on Paul Jones [a pop idol who covered Homburg!] in this role.

However the first pop idols overshadowed the teenage years of the men who became the writers of the sixties and seventies, and their work sometimes reflects the hollowness of the popular esteem they themselves acquired (cp The Seeker by Pete Townshend, or Subterranean Homesick Blues by Bob Dylan … 'don't follow leaders …'). Writers of such lyrics sometimes found themselves in the unwarranted position of receiving fan letters asking for help in their own lives, based on truths supposedly discovered in the texts: Reid's words here in part reflect the frustration and emptiness of being on the receiving end of such expectations.

The song was first performed on 5 November 1973 in Copenhagen, and it was toured in promotion for the Exotic Birds album; despite the lack of all the studio overdubs it could be brilliantly effective in performance: on the live BBC recording the arrangement is much the same as the recording, though the vocal harmonies are taken by Cartwright and Grabham. The band had made little use of onstage harmonies earlier in their career: 'We didn't always have voices that could blend very well,' Gary told BtP here. There is some effectively violent rhythm guitar in the verses, and a scorchingly passionate solo; the drumming is perhaps a little muted, but BJ makes effective use of cymbals. But after these promotional duties The Idol went into an inexplicably long hibernation, emerging at Redhill in relatively attenuated form, with only a cursory glance at the preliminary 'Oh the idol' section before the song got going.

Thanks to Frans Steensma for additional information about this song

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