Procol Harum

the Pale

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'Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes'

New Lamps for Old

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

Authors: Brooker / Reid

 Read the words

Performed: promotionally, and latterly

Cover-versions: none

This languorous offering stands apart from most of the high-energy material on Exotic Birds and Fruit, the band's rocking re-emergence from the more studied arrangements heard on Grand Hotel (1973). Its verbal theme of disillusioned resignation has much in common with the rest of the album but musically it is distinct, having a much lighter texture than the rest, sounding, with its high-profile organ, like the set's most deliberate attempt to perpetuate the traditional Procol sound: this may because of its near-live creation. Gary Brooker, in a 1974 UK interview about the album, talked about the relative merits of being prepared and being unprepared when going in to record an album. The band had had 'a pretty busy year' and 'there’s also a lot happens if you prepare one [song] in there. You never tried it before, never seen it in any particular light, it takes on a certain atmosphere … [New Lamps for Old] was the last song we did on the album. I wrote it in one day. Never played it before. It was late at night … we just played it straight through and that was that. We didn’t add anything on, we didn’t do anything. It made a nice ending to the album'. It must be said that this is the approach that great numbers of fans would like if and when Procol Harum make their first record of the new millennium.

Unusually, the song starts without any sort of instrumental prelude, in a slow four with the organ counting out the quavers, and piano nowhere to be heard. Muted drums, and a tinkle of tambourine, maintain the forward pulse; guitar and organ undertake a delicate balancing act with organ providing the high decorations, and guitar (Grabham's typically unobtrusive but crucial ensemble-work) filling in the midtones. The song is in F, and stays in that key despite visiting some unusual chords on the way (F seems to be a favourite Brooker key for shifting out of … A Rum Tale is the classic case). The verse starts with a phrase that falls with a variety of vocal melismas, then rises again; this is repeated for the second phrase, then answered in much more horizontal fashion. Chordally, the opening phrase wanders away into the relative minor, imparting a delicate hopelessness that nicely matches the words; the horizontal melody is matched by a sequence of chords that is in effect a protracted perfect cadence. The chorus is more adventurous, quickly passing through an A minor to E flat (a slightly jarring transition, on first hearing): from here on it's home again by the Drunk Again method, down the fourths. A second iteration of this sequence stops on the B flat, and then a walking scalar bass takes us down to A flat, where the music rests a moment before diving back into F. This is a very bright, shiny harmonic effect, and the long play-out simply alternates these two chords, with varying dynamics and vocal ad libs, while the bassline becomes a very sleepy version of something Little Richard might have come up with.

The speedy writing and minimal gestation of this piece may account for harmonic and structural straightforwardness, and also for the palpably emotional performance that comes though in the recording; Messrs Copping and Cartwright take the opportunity to shine: however, listeners should decide for themselves whether there really are no overdubs, bearing in mind the deft variations in organ registration, and the tambourine and cymbal-work … octopus or no octopus, it's hard to visualise what limb of BJ's is playing what by the end. The BBC 1974 concert version is similar to the record except insofar as the rhythmic pulse at the start is given by piano, not organ, and there are some transpositions of lyrical lines; Mick Grabham's guitar (which contributes some rhythmical chops not found on the record) sounds as though it is going through a Leslie speaker, and Chris Copping appears to be going for a neo-Garth Hudson Lowrey-silver sound at times. BJ eschews the rapid quaver cymballing that he favoured in the play-out on the record. Interviewed for the liner-notes of this CD, Keith Reid told BtP (see here), 'New Lamps was certainly very unusual for us to play live; that's intriguing!' but in fact it was performed quite steadily in promotion of the album. It made its stage début during the eight-date UK university tour that started 28 February 1974); it was heard at Golders Green Hippodrome (22 March 1974) and was also part of the setlist during the one-month US tour (April–May 1974).

It re-emerged in 1995, but sounded rather unfamiliar to the band (Brooker could be heard crooning 'some exotic birds and some exotic fruit' … possibly he had forgotten the words). The song was on the setlist for Redhill 1997, but was either dropped or overlooked. It was revived at Guildford 2000, conceivably as a tie-in with the programme note which concluded with a line from the song, 'Stand by for some truly unique entertainment': this performance, with two guitars, was obviously well- prepared and suitably timed late in the set as darkness overtook the outdoor audience.

Thanks to Frans Steensma for additional information about this song


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