Procol Harum

the Pale

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'Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes'

Fires (Which Burnt Brightly)

Album: Grand Hotel (1973), Procol Harum Live (DVD)

Authors: Brooker / Reid 

 Read the words

Performed: promotionally, then orchestrally

Cover-versions: sadly none

'I don’t know what sort of mood he was in,' said Gary Brooker, introducing Fires (Which Burnt Brightly) at a Texas concert, where he had called his writing partner Keith Reid onstage to take a bow. 'I suspect … maybe the milkman had exposed himself or something.' (mp3 here). Later in the year, in the UK, he name-checked Keith again before this song, adding that he 'writes all the words. I like this particular lot. I don't know what they're about ... President Nixon, I think.' In Copenhagen, in 1972, it had been 'Fires (Which Burnt Brightly) – from the hideous Mr Reid'. It may be that the evident beauty and gravity of this song prompted him to such pre-emptive flippancy.

It is one of the pieces Gary referred to in April 1972 when he told Melody Maker 'I’ve written about five or six tunes.' It was first recorded with Dave Ball on guitar, and re-recorded with Mick Grabham, at which stage the guitar's decorative role (live mp3 here) had been largely taken over by harpsichord. In other respects the 1972 live version was very much as we hear it on the record, five moderate and stately verses in a nominal C minor, which in fact moves all over the harmonic shop: the bass makes a series of semitonal climbs, playing alternately roots and third-notes, so that the tonal centre soon lifts to a B major, in a manner faintly reminiscent of the chorus of Homburg. The ear is denied the expected E major for four more bars, however, while the harmonies subside through a series of 'classical' inversions; and further resignation is conveyed when the E turns to an E minor, and the song winds its way home up the circle of fourths. Even 'home' is relative, however: the little Bach-like see-sawing figure that prefaces every verse starts on a final inversion, the most unstable manifestation of a chord, and takes its elegant time to achieve equilibrium; even then, it leaves the piano restlessly arpeggiating, except at the end when it pounds out block chords in anticipation of the second instrumental, or vocal solo.

The inclusion of such a boldly-featured female voice is unique in a Procol song (until The Prodigal Stranger ODs on them, female backing voices are heard only on Grand Finale and Skating on Thin Ice). 'Have you heard of the Swingle Singers?' Keith Reid asked Circus in May 1973. 'They're a French choral group who are pretty famous in Europe, and we've long been admirers of theirs. We thought it would be nice on that track to have … a female voice not singing the song but the backing. We got in touch with the woman who is the featured voice of the Swingle Singers, Christianne Legrand, in Paris, and she accepted.'

Christine Legrand makes an unforgettable mark on this song. Her warm, sophisticated 'Oo-la-lah' makes a lovely contrast to the soulful Brooker larynx, and its counterpoint (occasionally multitracked) loops round the verbal melody, pointing and highlighting significant chord-changes, in a manner reminiscent of the Fisher organ-melody in A Whiter Shade of Pale. Chris Copping told BtP (April 2001) that Legrand had improvised the scat solo herself: nevertheless it harks back to the shapely splendour of Fisher's break in Shine on Brightly – and there are those who consider that this is no coincidence, as we shall show below. There seems to be little doubt that the band were thrilled to work with Legrand, since Gary had been a Swingle Singers fan in pre-Procol days, and their work had 'influenced A Whiter Shade of Pale in some way'. 'She was everything we hoped for as a vocalist,' he told Chris Welch (2000), adding that her solo was 'absolutely marvellous'. Her work punctuates a long track which – though its verses are beautifully constructed – offers no variety by way of a middle section or chorus, none of the 'schizophrenic' elements Brooker had noted in his own song-writing of the period. It also spares us the two consecutive organ-solos … the key and the harmonies do not lend themselves to a guitar break … that have usually been heard on the road. Fans who were at the Lyric Theatre in Baltimore when Steeleye Span supported Procol Harum (1972?) report that Maddy Prior came on stage to sing the Legrand parts: in more recent times, though the song has been played with choirs, no soloist has been found to emulate Legrand's scatting [the honourable exception being that of the Palers' Band!].

The voluptuous female presence on the track of course draws attention to the love-gone-wrong interpretation of the text, which was the aspect Keith Reid talked up on his uncharacteristic promotional spree in 1973: 'Let me put it this way: our affair's all over and then my partner says, "But it's not. We're still together." What I'm saying is that we're waging a war that's already lost … All we have left in us is the habit, - the habit of fighting with each other.' (Circus). However this view undersells a rich song that continues a Chrysalis-era tradition – begun with Broken Barricades – of setting a lachrymose fin de siècle atmosphere that simultaneously explores themes of the futility of war, the end of civilisations, the decay of personal relationships (possibly including those with the record company), and the 'fire' going out of the band in particular. As noted above, some have sought to identify the particular 'fire' with the group's former organist, noting the similar letters in 'fires' and 'Fisher', the presence of the Fisher-keyword 'brightly', and the background of Matthew's mysteriously re-joining, then re-quitting, the group at the time this song was brewing. The 'fires' image, however, is a standard symbol of romantic song from Smoke gets in your eyes ('when a lovely flame dies') through We'll Sweep Out the Ashes in the Morning by Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons, right up to The Cure's latest album Bloodflowers, where we find 'the fire is almost gone and I've nothing left to burn': it seems perverse to assume that the word was chosen by 'the hideous Mr Reid' for its overlap with a former band-member's name, even one who is part of the 'cast' that has sailed away, was once reputedly at odds with the band over financial matters, and played the harpsichord the last time it featured on a Procol record (Look to Your Soul). Fans who need the song to refer to something 'real', rather than being an autonomous artistic creation, would be best advised to consider the relation between this text and the content of other, more evidently personal, songs on the album.

The song does have a curious relationship to For Liquorice John, which precedes it on the album. In the original LP's illustrated booklet, the songs are presented in the opposite order (perhaps pride was meant to come before the fall?); on the Chrysalis CD re-issue, a banding error makes Fires begin with the final dolorous chord of John. More significantly, both are songs bemoaning a fall from grace (there are several others in the Reid songbook, of course, particularly Wreck of the Hesperus and The Idol. The opposite principle is perhaps heard in No More Fear of Flying, while Harlequin (recorded by the Hollies) appears to embody both fall and resurgence.) The Spencer Zahn illustration in the Grand Hotel booklet appears to show flames assailing an arcaded building, or possibly a billowing curtain; it is one of the more oblique pictures in the set and does not pick up the idea that the once-flaming energies are 'spent'. Reid's text is presented in LP booklet and CD liner with a stop at the end of every line, unlike its two neighbouring songs, which have no punctuation whatsoever; in his book, My Own Choice, Fires is similarly endstopped, though every line ends with a period, whereas the other texts use a comma after 'bent'. Whether this signifies that Keith is actually interested in the niceties of punctuation, however, remains arguable.

The song was often performed from May 1972 until the end of the promotional rounds for Grand Hotel: it was mysteriously introduced at Osaka as having been 'influenced by the great Pahene Ensemble' (who are later credited with recorder-playing on Bringing Home the Bacon), and the present compilers would like to hear from anyone who can interpret this remark, presumably some sort of in-joke. On stage, as on the record, piano and organ melded in an ensemble of great solidity, and the drums, and piano, took responsibility for achieving differentiation between the verses – some military percussion effects were notable in the lead-out from the middle passage. Having been successfully premièred with choir and orchestra at The Rainbow, Fires went in that arrangement across Germany in October 1972 and to the Hollywood Bowl (September 1973). It featured (in a different vocal arrangement), on the 1993 'Rock Meets Classic' tour, when Gary was accompanied by Procolers Whitehorn, Cottle and Spinetti, who did a grand job on the drums. This programme was largely revisited at the Procol Harum Barbican recital, where the mischievous introductions continued with 'this is one of our trilogy of war songs – there's only two of them, this is the first'. Gary played the introduction an octave higher than usual; the first instrumental break featured an unusually febrile Hammond; some of the most attractively intricate details of the original recording were realised orchestrally (mp3 here); but the first part of the Legrand solo was taken reflectively, even ruefully, at the piano, before the ensemble took over. It was lovely; it might have sounded well from Fisher's fingers too.

  Thanks to Frans Steensma for additional information about this song

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