Procol Harum

the Pale

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'Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes'

The Piper's Tune

Album: Procol's Ninth (1975)

Authors: Brooker / Reid

 Read the words

Performed: very rarely

Cover-versions: none

The Piper's Tune – its lyric burdened with existential guilt, its musical darkness walled in by sombre piano and organ – ought to be a classic of Procoldom, yet few fans number it anywhere on their list of favourites. 'As stately as anything the band has done …' claimed the press-kit for Procol's Ninth: but the treatment of the song on the record lacks drama, and the singing sounds rather tired, even ragged. Procol Harum were unhappy that Leiber and Stoller didn't work rock-and-roll hours, choosing to shut up shop in the early evening: yet somehow this song sounds as if it was recorded at the lowest ebb of the night, perhaps even without their producers' commercial touch.

It seems probable that The Piper's Tune set out to some extent to revisit a technique that distinguishes Grand Hotel, whose verse and chorus accomplish a natural-sounding harmonic journey from an opening C major to D flat major at the end, with the consequence that each new verse sounds as though it has started in a fresh key, though the musicians are repeating the notes they played before. In the present song the start of each verse does present some harmonic drama, but this is achieved at the price of arbitrary, wandering changes in the long lead-up, during which a rock-listener's ear, accustomed to a strong tonal centre, tends to lose interest. A Rum Tale is similarly bold in its harmonic architecture, but there the ear is entranced by lively leaps and a well-balanced melody: here there is some relatively lacklustre stepwise movement.

We start in E major, in a slow, slow 4, and the instrumental hook tumbles engagingly enough from piano and organ, underpinned by unusual harmonic rhythm from the groaning ensemble. Influences of the Beatles' Norwegian Wood are clear in the contour of the line, its key, and its use of a drone. The vocal pits a new tune over the same three strong chords – they bear the same inter-relation as those under the first line of Without a Doubt – and after that we find an E major slipping to E minor (exactly as Norwegian Wood does at this point too). This device – demonstrated under 'how strange the change from major to minor' by Cole Porter in Every Time We Say Goodbye – can give a delicate, submissive feel (it is specially effective in Skating on Thin Ice) but it is weakened by over-use: here we immediately hear the same trick again on a A, and the key shifts into A minor, cadencing on a G seventh and requiring a piece of instrumental sellotape (an impetus-sapping C7 bar) to join it on to the chorus starting on an F minor. This is an odd place to find ourselves in a song that started in E, and it's an oddly lethargic chorus, unpredictably repeating an already-sounded chord (under 'you'll hear his music'), and following a chapel-hymn chord (G in the melody, B flat 7th underneath) with an extended 'Amen' plagal cadence in E flat. Apart from the ponderous double-arpeggio that brings in the last chorus reprise there is no other material: the instrumental middle, which features some interesting drumming, uses the same chords, striving for our interest by playing slightly louder and slightly faster.

The phrase that gives the song its title – as well as being pitched very high even for Brooker's famously elastic voice – is intriguingly off-kilter. The common phrase, 'he who pays the piper calls the tune' (thought to originated in a letter of 1792 by Lord Chesterfield concerning seagoing warfare), means that the worker is at the behest of the employer, and might here indicate weariness at being under the yoke of a record label – a state of affairs fully explicated in the album's next track. But in Reid's text 'they say the Piper calls the tune' … which is exactly the opposite of the common phrase. While one would like to be able to find a reason for this reversal, the text, although bristling with entry-points, doesn't seem to lead us to any definite conclusion. It could be, as with '… a whiter shade of pale', that Reid seeks to get mileage from a reversal of the expected. Is this also the case with the title, The Prodigal Stranger?

Whatever the reasoning, 'piper' seems to have led Brooker and the band to think of the Highland Pipes, usually known as 'bagpipes'. Panpipes, or recorders, could equally have been the starting point for an arrangement: but the present semi-Caledonian sound-world (imitated by the droning, sustained accompaniment and skittish drumming patterns, and by the assumed Scots accent) tallies with the guilt-laden flavour of the text thanks to a widely-held stereotype that Scottish culture, largely thanks to its religious heritage, is prey to above-average levels of sexual Puritanism and consequent repression.

Did the band want to book a piper, as successfully used in a pop context by Paul McCartney, Roy Wood and others? Claes Johansen's Procol biography, which considers that the track is 'yelling out for bagpipes to be added', quotes Gary Brooker saying, 'Try telling Leiber and Stoller that. I mean, there's gotta be, hasn't there? I mean, we're almost playing the pipes …'; yet in a Danish interview (1984) Gary says 'Leiber and Stoller wanted bagpipes on it'. Later in the interview he refers to another 'pipe tune' that Procol Harum used to do, the officially-unpublished McGreggor. Some fans took this to mean that The Piper's Tune had grown from the ashes of the abandoned song, and it took Westside's 1999 exhumation of a half-finished McGreggor to prove that the songs were not musically related.

Real pipes and marching drums might have added some vibrancy, which The Piper's Tune lacks. The track seems under-produced, and the sounds indistinct by comparison with the rest of the album. We have no idea whether the still small voice (sounding like Keith Reid) which says 'hi' from deep in the mix at 2.29 is a deliberate embellishment or a mixing oversight. Some wonder why, if it's Reid, he chooses to greet us in this particular song, and wonder if his middle names are actually as Scottish as they seem; but there's no more reason to associate this song with his personal life, about which little is known, than there is with any other.

The Piper's Tune was released as the B side of the UK Pandora’s Box single (CHS 2073) single in July 1975. It was played live as early as March 1975 (at the Rainbow), and had acquired much more robustness, largely thanks to heavier guitar and more syncopated percussion, by the time it was heard in Mannheim (mp3 here: 'one, two, three for a Scotsman!), Munich and Vienna in January of the 1976 promotional tour; it would surely have gone on developing on the road, but it is doubtful if it has been heard since February 1976.

Thanks to Frans Steensma for additional information about this song

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