Procol Harum

the Pale

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'Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes'

A Rum Tale


Album: Grand Hotel (1973)

Authors: Brooker / Reid 

 Read the words

Performed: promotionally, then 1995; also as GB solo piece

Cover-versions: Finnish and Italian

Gary Brooker introduced the song in his series of short pieces, to camera, for Cherry Red Records in 2020

A Rum Tale is one of the most fluent and lyrical pieces anywhere in the Procol Harum canon, unashamedly melodic on classic songwriting lines, with four neatly-related rising phrases answered by a set that are predominantly falling. The opening phrase is unusual in that it spans more than an octave, and its apogee remains the high-point of the song until the tune stretches up, over four syllables, to reach 'sun'. Its range has not deterred cover-artists: the Italian version stays faithful to the fundamentals of Reid's text (though denying him a writing-credit!). However a glance at the punning title ('Ha - Rum Tale') suggests that much will be lost in translation, and indeed that fans who search for 'band-biographical' detail in every Reid song may on this occasion expect to be rewarded.

The Repertoire liner note tells how this is a personal favourite of Gary Brooker's: 'I was quite proud of having composed it and take great pleasure in trying to play it, ha ha! It's incredibly difficult, with very unusual chords.' Although the melody is clear-cut and natural, the harmonies are indeed unpredictable rum, even and Gary has from time to time tripped himself up momentarily when performing the piece on his own, on Danish television, at the Barbican in 1999 (collage mp3 here), and at the Palers' Convention; its brevity and superficially-innocuous words do mark it as a likely solo party-piece, but its difficulties are compounded by a transposed instrumental verse (one of its most ingenious features), obliging the pianist to learn all the changes in two different keys. This can be nerve-wracking when there is no possibility of dropping out and letting other instruments carry the accompaniment.

The song was performed promotionally, though not often, and then faded from view until European dates of the 1995 tour, when it was strongly featured (and when the second chord of the first verse was usually commuted to a C major, first inversion). It was probably written by early 1972: scraps of it were heard onstage in Gary's between-songs doodlings before even the Live album came out. Gary told Douglas Adams at the Barbican (1999) that the chords had 'just sprung out, as quite a few songs do'; elsewhere he tells how it 'came out naturally and quickly' and he 'banged it down on a cassette'; Chris Thomas always preferred this to the finished product, on which he had striven to match the feel of the original. His production is full and lush, to the extent that it sounds like another orchestrated track; but that illusion is accomplished by Copping's very careful organ registration and the deft layering of his playing. Piano and bass achieve a very warm sound at the start, and the celestial organ makes a surreptitious appearance half way through verse one; the many suspended chords resolving, and the gentle minor-seventh interplay between piano and organ, deserve the space they are given, and the drums don't appear until the key-shift verse, which is bookended by a swirl of concert harp, the only interloper on the track. In the final verse there's an oddly-recorded cymbal sound in the centre of the stereo, but BJ's fine touch on the snare drum is otherwise the main decoration, and the ending has a delicate rubato. It would be interesting to hear the cassette demo, if its 'feel' eclipses all this.

On the compositional front: after an opening in F major, firmly established by the waltzing piano preliminaries, A Rum Tale steps to an E minor 7th (unpredictable, if you haven't ever played Yesterday!) which then descends to a D minor; some fourth-stepping and a delayed imperfect cadence leave us poised on the dominant at the end of the second phrase; he kicks off the next on the subdominant, and more conventional chords take us home to F again. The bombshell comes with an E (major this time) which ushers in its relations, G# minor and C# minor, and establishes itself as the home key with IV, V and I. Yet Gary brings us back to F within two bars, using a diminished chord on the fifth of the new key to step up on to a C, and thence logically home.

Even more remarkable is the end of the transposed instrumental in D major (which is handsomely played on the record by Prof Copping at the organ oddly it fell to Matthew Fisher at Redhill, where Copping was the song's dedicatee). When it gets to the point where the words would be 'knobbled me', one would naturally anticipate a change from D flat to an A flat diminished, and home through A to D. However a musical scale spans only twelve semitones, and a 'diminished' chord consists of four notes, symmetrically-spaced with each a minor-third from its neighbour. There are thus effectively only three diminished chords, and Gary exploits this by re-construing the A flat diminished as B diminished (it has the same notes) and using it as a pivot to swing back, via a C major, into the verse key of F. It sounds natural, but it's 'incredibly ingenious' in Adams's words. Extraordinarily Perpetual Motion also has a transposed instrumental section followed by an imperceptible reversion to the original verse key, but it's not accomplished with such bare-faced magic.

Keith Reid selected the words for his book, My Own Choice. He may have been led to 'rum' primarily by a liking for title-puns (cf Beyond the Pale, For Liquorice John, Juicy John Pink etc), but he develops the maudlin escapism of the disillusioned drunkard as his main material. 'Rum' means suspicious or peculiar as in 'a rum cove' or 'a rum affair'; 'tale' is a synonym for 'story', a word he also favours; 'tale' occurs in 'the miller told his tale' (A Whiter Shade of Pale); 'how the tale unfolds' (Piggy Pig Pig); 'There's no-one here to tell the tale' (Robert's Box); 'years may have passed since the tale I have told' (The Worm and The Tree). In a contemporary interview Keith admitted 'This is another song about love gone wrong', yet in another (Circus, May 1973) he called it ' a real drinking song. Well, not a drinking song as such, but a song from the bottom of the bottle! The music is actually quite romantic.' Reading A Rum Tale 'cold' alongside Toujours l'Amour, for example, one would be hard put to guess which was the hard-riffing rocker and which the pretty waltz. The gentleness of the setting Brooker chose may have helped Phonograph Magazine (April 1973) to conclude that the words 'contribute[d] a whimsical alienation to the lyrical array' but Gary Brooker acknowledges a blacker side to them: 'I think Keith must have been going through a bad spell,' he told Chris Welch in 2000.

 Thanks to Frans Steensma for additional information about this song 


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