Procol Harum

the Pale

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'Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes'

A Souvenir of London

Album: Grand Hotel (1973)

Authors: Brooker / Reid 

 Read the words

Performed: as a novelty

Cover-versions: Danish and French

There is a comical mismatch between cover and content on the picture-sleeve of Souvenir of London [sic … where did the 'A' get to?]. The record sounds like a bunch of jangly ruffians busking outside a grand hotel, the people on the cover are obviously the sort of toffs who can afford to spend their nights inside. What's the story?

When BBC Radio 1's Annie Nightingale reviewed the Grand Hotel album she played A Souvenir of London as a teaser, asking 'I wonder who can guess who this is?'. Only the Brooker voice could possibly have given away the answer, one imagines, since the Procol hallmark piano, organ, drumming, dramatic lead guitar, and flights of verbal fancy are all missing. So maybe Chrysalis felt it was helpful to dress the single up in the livery of the successful album, so that the public would have a 'handle' of some sort on the music inside.

Backed with Toujours L’Amour, Souvenir Of London (CHS 2015) was released as a UK single in August 1973. It was also a single in France (CHA 109), Portugal (6155 012) and Germany (6155 012), and it spawned two cover versions. In the UK it was banned (for alleged VD references) by the BBC (who nonetheless gaily promoted Lou Reed's Walk on the Wild Side) yet the ban didn't confer any great notoriety or sales. It's interesting to wonder what would have happened to Procol's 'maestros of dicky-bow rock' tag if, by some chance, this record had soared to the top of the charts. To some, it might not have seemed unlikely. Melody Maker referred to the track as sounding like 'Lennon jamming with Mungo Jerry' (17 March 1973) and the said Jerry were at No 3 in the singles chart the month before Souvenir came out.

It's a jaunty ditty, marking a return to the Procol novelty-song last found in Boredom in 1969. The genres it embraces did not sound typical of the band, but are perhaps not surprising in retrospect given what we know of the breadth of Gary Brooker's taste. It spanned the worlds of the Lovin' Spoonful-style 'jugband' and UK skiffle-star Lonnie Donegan. Donegan, who had spent 321 weeks on the UK chart from 1956-62, and was one of the major influences on the Brooker generation of British rockers: Gary guested on his later albums. Donegan retailed cleaned-up versions of blues songs (such as the coke anthem Take a Whiff on Me, changed into Have a Drink on Me) and mildly risquι comic tunes in Souvenir mode such as Does Your Chewing Gum Lose its Flavour on the Bedpost Overnight? These are part of a British tradition stretching back to Procol's fellow-Zonophonist George Formby, who recorded numbers saucily-not-quite-revealing what he saw When I'm Cleaning Windows. It's a mild oddity that this very English tradition attracted covers by overseas bands.

However the adapted titles of the overseas covers perhaps reveal something of these artists' rationale: the French title is Souvenir d'Amsterdam, the Danish one En souvenir fra Malmψ. Malmo is in Sweden, not necessarily favourite terrain of the Dane, and Amsterdam as a destination is considered racy even by the French. In both cases, then, the song is about picking up a nasty foreign infection, a jingoistic comic dimension entirely missing from the original, in which a Londoner seemingly refers to the venereal infections that are rife in his own town. The two Grand Hotel songs in which the narrator contemplates French girls apparently carry no suspicion that they will infect him … it seems to be writing that will do this, in Typewriter Torment where the narrator claims 'it eats up your life like a dose of the clap'. But an interview did reveal some mischievous nationalism … 'It's a song about VD. It's about American tourists coming to London and going home with a souvenir they didn't expect,' Reid claimed in Circus (May 1973). It looks possible that there was some trace of chauvinism in Keith's thoughts – Americans come over here, take our girls, pick up the pox – though the song doesn't actually refer to our transAtlantic 'neighbors' in any discernible way: in fact an American would presumably not have used the word 'Mum' at all. We guess that the narrator lives overseas, or he would not have to face 'the customs' on his way home: but the song is no more explicit than that. Perhaps Keith just alleged that he had Americans in mind to amuse, or needle, a Circus journalist. In a radio interview in 2002 he declared that the idea for the song had sprung from the phrase 'A Souvenir of London' printed on a pencil – designed for the tourist market – that he had been using at the time.

Venereal disease is an established theme of contemporary music, of course. The Paramounts had sung Poison Ivy and Bad Blood themselves, and it's not easy to see why Reid was so evasive talking to the British magazine, ZigZag, in April 1973: 'Who told you that it's about VD? It's certainly about tourism. I think I can safely say that. Certainly about young men abroad, or broad young men. I can say no more, my lips are sealed.' But the quotation is interesting for the light it sheds both on a wryly secretive mindset, and an instinctive capacity for wordplay – whose 'unpacking' is part of the point of this series of articles.

It's worth remembering that the AIR studios were hard by the tourist Mecca of London's Oxford Street, where postcards, tee-shirts and gewgaws of every description proclaim themselves to be 'A Souvenir of London'. Preying on the same customers are the buskers, whose brash sound the present record purports to imitate. The song, which was written in the first half of 1972, features Brooker and Copping on banjos, Cartwright on rhythm guitar, and BJ on mandolin, bass drum and cymbal; some say that Mick Grabham re-recorded Dave Ball's original guitar tracks, but Mick himself told BtP that he was not on the track at all: so maybe we hear Dave Ball's guitar in the mix. The guitar lines are unusual in that – as part and parcel of the album's interest in unusual, semitonal intervals – they place a lot of emphasis on the flattened seventh, which Brooker's 'lot of it about' melody line also ends on. We also hear quasi-barrel-organ sounds, and of course the spoons, played by Ball with roadie Denny Brown. This is a traditional Cockney speciality, descended from the ancient practice of percussing with two bones, and involves one hand clutching the stems of two bowl-to-bowl pudding-spoons, which are clattered between the other hand and a knee or thigh. The song bowls along briskly in G, and its slow chord changes follow some well-worn Procol grooves: G to C, A to D is a similar pattern to the basis of Homburg's chorus; while the G, F, C, G pattern of the Souvenir chorus is found in numerous songs such as The Piper's Tune, The Idol, and Long Gone Geek. Gary's lead vocal is suitably pitched and delivered to carry above street-noise: he has played up the 'busking' image in performance by wearing a cap during this song and holding it out afterwards for coins. The joke ending, 'I'd not finished man' gives a great feeling of spontaneity to the recording, and Gary continued to enjoy extemporising vocally in the playout when the song was heard live (mp3 here).

When Brooker had to migrate from his piano to play this song front-centre, other members of the band sometimes took the unusual opportunity to make stage announcements (mp3 here: the first voice is Mick's). In one concert Gary covered the tuning of the banjo (as he would later have to do before Beyond the Pale too) with a curious remark which his Germanic-speaking audience applauded, possibly without understanding: he advises them, if visiting London, to go to 'Charlotte Street … that's where you go when you've got a souvenir'. Charlotte Street, just off Sunny Goodge Street, is a thriving centre of London clinics, specially those with a research bias, and Brooker's particular reference is to James Pringle House, at No 73, which in the 70s was the leading centre for the treatment of Sexually Transmitted Infections, or 'Venereal Diseases' as they were then called. [James Pringle House is now at University College and Middlesex School of Medicine, W1N 8AA, should you need it]. The tone of this announcement, at once smutty and coy, is typical of the genre to which the song belongs. Other curious announcements during these banjo-tunings included the claim that Copping's grandfather invented the drawing pin, the stool and the easy-open beer-can: the song was generally treated as an occasion for lightening the mood and, in Gary's case, greeting the audience face to face. 'The boys said to me, why don't I do a little bit more than just squat behind the piano there turning purple … so I said, well I'll pull out my Dad's guitar, which he left me in his will, and strum along.' He certainly did play a handsome National guitar at several concerts.

A Souvenir of London was probably first played as early as January 1972, when Procol undertook a short British tour with Amazing Blondel supporting. It was featured in the Rainbow orchestral concert in September 1972, when a lone clarinettist stood up in the wind section and delivered a wailing solo over some increasingly chaotic band accompaniment. It was heard on the German tour (October 1972) and at the Hollywood Bowl orchestral show in September 1973, where the photograph to the left was taken. It was featured, either as a mid-set mood-lifter, or as an encore, throughout 1972 and 1973; at the Orange Festival in 1975 it came in after the middle of the set in order to placate a somewhat unruly audience, but didn't entirely succeed. By the time of the Rockpalast German TV show in 1976 (when Mick Grabham's treated guitar was sounding very like the record) BJ had abandoned his one-man band mini-percussion act, and was giving it some thorough cowbell! (mp3 here). The song has been heard from the New Testament band too; in 1995 at Clacton, very close to Paramount-land, the last two encores were both VD tunes: Leiber and Stoller's Poison Ivy (the Paramounts' biggest success on record) and Souvenir, this time played on the normal five-piece rock instruments, with Fisher's keyboard imitating a squeezebox, and Gary's piano seemingly imitating The Mixtures' Pushbike Song, a sub-Mungo Jerry No 2 hit from January 1971 (mp3 here). Gary also used the song – as he had formerly used Grand Hotel – as a setting for playful bursts of traditionally 'London' tunes: Bye Bye Blackbird and The Lambeth Walk (mp3 here).

Thanks to Frans Steensma for additional information about this song


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