Procol Harum

the Pale

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'Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes'

The Thin End of the Wedge

Album: Exotic Birds and Fruit (1974)

Authors: Brooker / Reid

 Read the words

Performed: promotionally; then rarely

Cover-versions: none

This wonderfully alarming and unexpected song presents a miraculous marriage of words and music. It could surely not be mistaken for the work of any other artists, yet at the same time paradoxically it presents a developmental cul-de-sac in the Brooker / Reid canon. Astonishingly it seems to have attracted almost no critical attention, and, where it has, this has not been favourable, for example the slightly-mystifying 'There remains still a tendency to use music as an intensifying experience within Procol’s sound as evidenced by the neurotic, squirrel-paced jibberings of The Thin End of the Wedge.' (Michael Sajecki in Shakin' Street Gazette).

Verbally this must be Keith Reid's sparsest recorded piece, so impressionistic and pared-down that it is hard to conceive of his writing it in isolation and mailing it to Gary 'in a packet' to be set to music. One suspects that The Thin End of the Wedge may have arisen when he was pressed to come up with words 'to order' in the studio, perhaps to fit a piece of music that was developing while other numbers (maybe The Poet / Without a Doubt) failed to work out. In any event the text is fascinating in its starkness, and the nightmarishly heavy performance it receives (its weight oddly not compromised by the virtual absence of BJ) is entirely fitting.

This song has a harmonic kinsman in A Salty Dog, inasmuch as it ventures where surely no pop music has gone before. Its piano/guitar parallel-octave quaver-runs carve a contour seemingly related to be-bop, especially where the penultimate bass note is a semitone above the root; above this we hear heavy note-clusters inflected with jazz discords, but thundered out with a most unswinging gravity. When the four-bar phrase transposes upward for its reiteration, it's not by the blues interval of a fourth, but by a bizarre and unsettling tritone, regarded in the 'serious' world as the ugliest interval, sometimes called diabolus in musica – the devil-interval. Gary Brooker manages to make the transition from C minor into F sharp minor sound 'right', and its mirror-image back into C minor likewise: whereupon he throws in a handful of transitional chords, topped with uneasy instrumental seesawings, before launching into a chorus of sweeter harmonies, unpredictable and melody-led in his 'naive' style such as we find in the middle of Broken Barricades. This chorus is marked by a transition to diatonic chords, with 'classical' non-root bass notes; shining organ suffuses the upper range, guitar offers us counter-melodies, and vocal harmonies break out: but none of this lasts long, and soon the mogadon bebop gets going again – in yet another key – while Copping's brooding organ squats unchanging above it … then the whole nightmare begins afresh.

This track is radical in that it has no conventional drumming. Far back in the mix lies an intermittent, industrially-treated offbeat that probably emanates from a ride cymbal, and in the playout, amid the tumult of electric piano and the vocal screaming, we hear the patter of a muted tom-tom. But everything else is working overtime to compensate: the guitar sound achieves terrific saturation, the bass is played and recorded with incisive force (Alan Cartwright evidently plays his Fender Jazz bass with a pick!) and the vocal performance is fantastic – as is the simple conception of the rising tessitura as the 'got the' lines pile up too. The final chord is an E flat over an F bass, hanging unresolved until Monsieur R Monde clears the air with a fresh start … but then that song is left hanging too. Unquestionably Chris Thomas's debt to Phil Spector pays off in The Wedge, in the sheer sonic weight of the ensemble; the song is so unconventionally voiced that we really don't expect to hear clear separation of instruments. If this is the way his work with Procol Harum was going, it seems a shame that 'Tommy' was not retained to lend some substance to the likes of The Final Thrust, and some due drama to The Piper's Tune.

Could the heavy sound of the record, and its multiple vocal parts, possibly be reproduced live? Certainly the song was part of the setlist during the one-month American tour (April – May 1974), but it did not long survive the promotion of the Exotic Birds album. In Copenhagen on 28 November (where Gary declared he'd written the song 'specially for Denmark') it almost went with a swing, propelled by BJ's full-fledged drumming, and had grown an exciting, even more dramatic interpolation (mp3 here) and gathered some alternating C minor and F chords amid the riffing. These new features were also heard two days later in Oslo, where there were effective vocal harmonies and some onstage screams too. It would be fair to say that The Thin End of the Wedge underwent more development than other songs from the album, and this may be because the band felt so confident with the quality of the composition: 'I love that Thin End of the Wedge,' Mick Grabham told BtP, '… It's always been one of my favourites.' This may have been partly why the song was resurrected for the faithful when the nine-man Harum played for fans at Redhill in 1997: here the antiphonal vocal saw some unexpected variation, and the beginning presented some problems of unfamiliarity: Gary introduced it (mp3 here) as 'probably the most horrible' of all the songs the band had ever done, though once it was played successfully he admitted he had always thought that was 'quite a pretty little song'. After the gig it was said that Procol had taken a while to rediscover a particular chord (Chris Copping had FAXed a preliminary MIDI score of it up from Australia) … but they had been even less prepared five years earlier, when they had tried out The Wedge at the New York's Academy of Music on 19 May 1992: Gary began, 'I don't know what's gonna happen with this. This is one we haven't actually played ... just run it up the flagpole in rehearsal'. New boys Whitehorn, Bronze and Snow coped well with the arcane changes, but Mark Brzezicki started out with Carmina Burana drum-bashery which gave way to a somewhat metronomic slog throughout. The words did not come to mind easily, especially in the chorus, and the 'picture-story' shout-ins eventually gave way to soul-man declamations of the title-phrase (mp3 here); the stand-out feature was Geoff Whitehorn's unprecedented solo (mp3 here). It's certainly a demanding song to play: there's nothing conventional here, no hope of allowing finger-memory to help out if concentration slips; the demanding ensemble riffs, though not fast, will expose any anomaly instantly – as was revealed in Guildford by the (admittedly amateur) Palers' Band, surely the only ensemble ever to attempt to cover The Wedge – while the vestigial narrative must make the words among the hardest in Procoldom to recall.

These words are quite radical in Reid terms. A great proportion of the lines begin with 'Got the …' and seem to add up to a litany of 'desirables' for a fan of B movies; however the 'got the' lines in the chorus shift their focus to 'undesirables', listing what seem to be the uncomfortable or 'wrong' upshots of some maladroit, though indirectly specified, decision. What precedes each verse is an antiphonal recital of the rhymes from its first four lines (faintly recalling the way that initial words of opening lines contributed the cumulative title of In Held 'Twas in I). Both voices are Brooker's – it would be wonderful to hear this verbal tennis played between Brooker (full voice) and Reid (whispered responses). The lines that follow appear to concern the world of cinema, with a bias to the cheap and lurid 1960s' variety [as commemorated by Kate Bush in Hammer Horror]. However there is no actual film entitled The Thin End of the Wedge, and on examination the words prove to be involved in an elaborate game of 'tag' in which the tangential associations of each line resonate obliquely with those of neighbouring lines, further to unsettle the thoughtful listener. Many of the words have meanings in the world of drug slang too: the shortness of the lines does not in any way diminish their richness (it's surprising not to find the word 'shot' in here somewhere). Taken together, these images hint at a nightmare experienced cinematically, and in this sense the song tallies with other numbers on this album such as Nothing But the Truth and Monsieur R Monde, as well as with the epic sweep of Whaling Stories and The Dead Man's Dream elsewhere.

Thanks to Frans Steensma for additional information about this song


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