Procol Harum

the Pale 

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'Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes'

Grand Hotel

Album: Grand Hotel (1973) and The Symphonic Music 1995), Live at the BBC (1999), One More Time (2000), Procol Harum Live (DVD)

Brooker / Reid 

 Read the words

Performed: consistently

Cover-versions: none

Gary Brooker gives a brief introduction to this song, to camera, from his home studio, as part of the Cherry Red Records 'Artist of the Month' promotion in July 2020.

Whereas the Broken Barricades album seemed to break new ground with the length of its opening track, Grand Hotel begins with a song seventeen seconds longer, clocking in at over six minutes, and structurally their most ambitious piece since Whaling Stories. Moving from a slow four into a stately waltz, and encompassing a burst of hysterical silent-film or circus music, a gypsy lament, and a mighty electric guitar solo, and laden with soupy orchestration and celestial choir, this is as far from the format of 'pop' music as the band had so far ventured.

Despite the orchestra (and evening-dress!) that adorned the Grand Hotel album, its title-tune owes little to European classical music. We may treat the first eight bars as one long elaboration of a characteristic Brooker motif, a root-position C alternating with a last-inversion G, over a pedal G note: effectively a long C chord. By the same token the next chord is a long G, then a long F, and we have reached the end of the verse using only the simplest pop-song resources. The song's grandeur and majesty partly derive from this harmonic restraint which Gary, evidently fascinated by the whole business of chord-changes, did not often choose to exploit. The verse ends with an instrumental passage repeating three notes, another 'cell' that we hear at the end of A Rum Tale, and doing link-work in TV Ceasar. This passage, however, is far more integral to the whole piece than its cousin in Ceasar is: here it provisionally establishes a G minor tonal centre that will be important in the long instrumental passage, and uses an augmented fifth or 'plus' chord that ushers in a world of vaudeville which is also an important contributor to the song's effect.

Before this G minor section, however, the music breaks into waltz time, and slips up a luscious semitone: now hear the I, IV and V chords that sustained the verse re-used in D flat, before the advent of the second verse. The music having modulated, we return to the original key of C with a sense of real freshness, and this harmonic double-take is a trick we see Brooker returning to many times in later songs. At the end of the second verse the music comes to a dead halt and the piano begins a very eccentric accelerating passage, pounding its way up the keyboard, shifting up the cycle of fourths with banal inevitability, in an increasingly hysterical retake of the 'serenade and sarabande' melody. It's as if the diners are whisking each other on to the floor for some dancing until dawn ... which the band and orchestra then proceeds to deliver in truly sumptuous fashion. Barrie Wilson's twenty-two mandolins may seem like overkill here... but there's a frisson about this section suggesting that whatever efforts went into it were well spent.

This subtle melody - again floating on very few chords - is said to quote closely from Otchi chyornije (one of the few well-known Russian gypsy songs) though Brooker does not know the tune by this name. 'Never heard of it,' Gary told BtP. 'I always owned up when something was purposely lifted, but of course when you're trying to characterise something one's ears are unconsciously open to everything, and your imagination also.' His ears may have caught it as a genre piece played by a hotel orchestra, or by an ensemble sharing a bill with his father's Hawaiian Serenaders: in fact a jazz version of it was recorded in January 1958 by the Wynton Kelly Quartet, and released as Dark eyes (Trad). Whatever it is 'trying to characterise', the melody allows him to show off some fine piano-playing and delightful orchestration - and either showcases or stretches a solo violinist - and it provides a musical watershed between the two verses devoted to eating / gambling / dancing, and the final copulatory stanza. The great explosion of music generated by this narrative dichotomy was deemed an inexplicable detour by novelist and Procol fan Douglas Adams, who invented The Restaurant at the End of the Universe as a suitable setting for its apocalyptic eruption. However some have seen the middle sections as a foreshadowing of events in the final verse, the rising accelerandi as acts of penetration, the violin theme as a female element, first tentative then lushly at ease, and the orgasmic guitar as the male eruption.

The eccentric accelerating music returns, a semitone lower than before and orchestrated in a more circus-like way (this is the edit-point in the single version of the song, incidentally: the present accelerando in D occurs where we expected the first in E flat (so that all the instrumental middle is omitted) and the shock of the 'wrong' key always grates on the aficionado's ear (mp3 here)). A simmering guitar now boils up into a great, short solo, and the song makes two successive full-tone upward transpositions, to emerge glittering in E, and to conclude, waltzing, in a gentle, post-coital F. The enduring live success of this song may be partly attributable to the way both music and words tell stories and - as with Whaling Stories - these elements are uncommonly well-integrated.

Thanks, Barry Sinclair

It has been pointed out that the lyric booklet, which opens with 'Welcome to the Grand Hotel', presents the possibility that the songs it contains are linked by some concept. The thoroughly-integrated album artwork continues this feel, as did the invitation to the album-release party at the Plaza Hotel, NYC, which effectively invited guests to become part of the show: 'The grandeur of your grace is expected at the place / The essence of your presence can never be replaced / so come in style, stay a while and get properly spaced'.

Keith Reid has denied this: '... it isn't a concept album, it was just for the first time we echoed the particular song in the artwork and everything and I guess in the promotion of the album in relation to the song'. The song was probably written in the first half of 1972 and first recorded with Dave Ball on lead. 'I just originally thought Grand Hotel would be a great title for an album, and it immediately gave me an idea for a song, ' said Reid. 'Actually, I had the title before I wrote the song.' The title may have come from Edmund Goulding's 1932 film Grand Hotel (see right), co-written by novelist Vicki Baum, in which 'people come, people go. Nothing ever happens' and in which Greta Garbo famously declares 'I want to be alone'. (This was remade as Weekend at the Waldorf in 1945, with the same four threaded stories revamped: other 'Hotel' films include Hotel du Nord (1938), Hotel Berlin (1945), and Hotel (1967), all using the concept of the hotel as a 'container' for the unfolding lives and crises of guests in transit). The Procol Hotel might have buskers outside (Souvenir of London), people eating in their rooms with the television on (TV Ceasar), and mothers angrily feeding their offspring (Bringing Home the Bacon), while Toujours l'Amour, A Rum Tale, and Fires reflect the sad lives and broken dreams of other, more Garboesque guests ... it's a strained analogy, but it's probably where the Brooker/Reid equivalent of the Abba West-End hit musical would have to start.

Despite many jocular introductions from Gary Brooker, claiming that 'The Grand' in question is just round the corner from the venue of the evening's concert, the hotel of the title remains a generic one. (The cover art does not show a hotel at all: it was famously shot at a Malibu mansion in the days before Dave Ball left the band, and the head of Mick Grabham was superimposed on the Ball physique because a return trip would have broken the budget. Gary has said that '... you could say Grand Hotel is one end of the touring and Bringing Home The Bacon is the opposite end' (Rock, December 1972) but Reid asserts that it is '... a bit of a fantasy, a bit of wishful thinking. I'm all for staying in grand hotels and sleeping in silken sheets - none of this 'out in the country' for me, I'm afraid, it's the Ritz.' (ZigZag, April 1973). The Ritz Hotel in London is real, of course, and was established in 1906 by Swiss hotelier César Ritz. This, or another Ritz, is the setting of the middle verse of the song, but the rest takes place at an 'Hotel Grande' which could be anywhere in the world.

The single received suitably wide promotion: Grand Hotel / Fires (Which Burnt Brightly) (Chrysalis CHS 2013) was released in the USA in July 1973. Promotional copies contained only Grand Hotel (one side the edited version 4:18, the other side the album version). Grand Hotel was also released as a single in France (CHA 113), Netherlands (5C 006-94 347), Germany (6155 010) - this has the 4:18 edited version and a cover featuring Dave Ball - and Portugal (6155 023). The song can also be found in a 7:50 version on the Over The Rainbow album (recorded 16 March 1975) and a 6:43 version on The Long Goodbye album (July 1995) sung, not to every fan's taste, by Jerry Hadley. Two excellent versions were broadcast in TV specials: Welcome To Grand Hotel (Belgian TV, July 1973) and Musikladen Live (1974), which is available on video and DVD (Pioneer Artists) and is thought by many fans to be the best Procol footage ever!

Grand Hotel was probably played on stage for the first time during a short British tour in May/June 1972. Gary announced in Plymouth (4 June 1972) that the band was playing it 'for the second time'. It was played with an orchestra at the Rainbow (September 1972), on the German tour (October 1972) and Hollywood Bowl (September 1973). It has been a virtual constant in set-lists since May 1972, and must rank among the most-played of all Procol Harum songs. It has not always been played straight ...

'It's got a kind of middle section to it, an instrumental section where we roam quite madly,' Keith Reid told Circus (May 1973). But in May 1973 the only real roaming was into the territory of the borrowed gypsy violin theme. Copping's synthesiser had started inserting the violin line in April 1973; as time went by, and the song became more familiar to audiences, the band started taking it further from the magical seriousness of its recorded form. First, BJ and Alan Cartwright began to imbue it with a light tango feel, still suitably hotel-like in its decorum. By the autumn BJ was playing his mandolin on stage, and the accelerando was attracting vigorous clapping-participation from the audience; by the following May, Gary could be heard inserting The Lambeth Walk at the piano; later in the year a stridently pubby Bye Bye Blackbird (mp3 here) was part of the routine, as well as the Dark Eyes theme played as a tango. At the closing of the Rainbow Theatre, this tradition of 'stowaway' tunes was put to good use with a bluesily-sung version of Somewhere Over The Rainbow from The Wizard of Oz, before the comic tango resumed (mp3 here). By the summer, faced with a restless crowd at the Orange Festival, Gary inserted Sur (or Sous) le Pont d'Avignon (mp3 here ... Avignon is not far from Orange), which led into a wordless Hernando's Hideaway (mp3 here). This song, written by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross for the Broadway Musical The Pajama Game (a 1957 film hit with Doris Day), is lyrically apposite: it concerns a hotel where 'all you see are silhouettes, and all you hear are castanets': you can even sing the words of its opening to Brooker's Grand Hotel tune: 'I know a dark secluded place, a place where no-one knows your face; a glass of wine, a fast embrace ...'

Strangely the critics liked these inserts: 'the mid-section of Grand Hotel was considerably lightened by the inclusion of some tinkly seaside carnival music and a lurching refrain from Hernando's Hideaway. Olé.' wrote Rolling Stone about the Santa Monica gig in September 1975. The 'tinkly seaside' music was Gary, catching his fellow musicians out with a bit of I Do Like to be Beside the Seaside (obviously unplanned, as none of them knew it properly: mp3 here); later that autumn Hernando began to mutate into La Cumparsita, the quintessential Uruguayan tango, with which it shares most of its harmonies. This was written by Gerardo Matos Rodriguez in Montevideo in 1916, and may be - like Dark Eyes - one of the tunes Gary would have heard on the UK hotel-restaurant-music scene in the fifties; the Ray Conniff orchestra, and others as well perhaps, have recorded combined La Cumparsita / Hernando's Hideaway as medleys. Though the best-known versions of La Cumparsita are instrumental, it does have Spanish lyrics, but - as the 'stowaway' episodes became more and more like in-jokes to amuse the band - Gary began to sing words (presumably of his own, rather than Keith Reid's) about Humphrey Bogart, which some fans feel relate to the movie, Casablanca. By the time of the RockPalast show a few words of Bogart patter had been worked up into a full verse of tongue-in-cheek homage ['Humphrey Bogart we love you madly / Humphrey Bogart, you and your long white mac, Oh Bogey, woh-oh we love you so / The way you sound your s's / the way you straighten your hat / I said Humphrey Bogart we love you madly] (mp3 here). The 'we love you madly' tag is part of a jazz piece recorded in August 1968 by Stan Tracey, now irrevocably associated with the remembrance concerts following Duke Ellington's death; the phrase is also used in Was it all Worth it on Queen's 1989 The Miracle album.

The RockPalast gig also saw a parody of a joke lifted from Mel Brooks's 1974 Young Frankenstein, and a burst of the film's theme tune, which is closely-related to Dark Eyes (mp3 here): this was played at various 1976 German gigs. The Bogart words developed surreally ['the way you tip your hat / the way your scratch your back'] and the gypsy melody increasingly became a send-up of cheap restaurant music, with the melody in the tenor area of the piano (mp3 here); ensemble playing also got rather sloppy (mp3 here); Gary's elaborations of the gypsy tune became ever more curious (mp3 here). The influx of Pete Solley on keyboards did nothing to restore order: in early 1977 Gary was singing snatches of Cockney tunes (mp3 here), and The Peanut Vendor (El Manisero - yet another Latin-American standard) had started to rear its head. Even after Chris Copping retired, this tune remained in the middle of Grand Hotel, sometimes accompanied by caterwauling (mp3 here) from the band. Dark Eyes was introduced either by a shout of 'well my son' or by a peremptory 'Let's tango!'. By the time of the New Testament band, however, Gary Brooker seemed to regret these good-natured self-indulgences, and the song - which has been heard at the great majority of Procol gigs since 1992 - has been played very straight since (except when the Palers' Band inserted Mabel in the middle ... another ditty about food and sex).


Thanks to Frans Steensma for additional information about this song



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