Procol Harum

the Pale

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'Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes'

The Unquiet Zone

Album: Procol's Ninth (1975)

Authors: Brooker / Reid

 Read the words

Performed: promotionally and thereafter

Cover-versions: none

The vibrant, punchy song is fundamentally an E minor blues in fast rock time: although the harmonic structure is much elaborated, the characteristic underlying twelve-bar changes may still be clearly detected. Unusual for a Brooker tune in that it relies heavily on a guitar riff, it foreshadows some of the sliding-semitone harmonies – such as the few jazzy chords just preceding the vocal entry – that will soon be heard on The Worm and the Tree – and which may, of course, have been brewing in his mind and hands at the same time.

It is one of several songs on the Procol's Ninth album that visit entirely new sound-worlds for the band – we presumably detect the influence of Leiber and Stoller in this respect – and, despite the initial surprise of hearing that funky clavinet – a sound akin to Stevie Wonder's around this time (on Superstition for instance) – and squalling brass, this was a number that Procol aficionados quickly grew to like, and which was very frequently heard on stage (it has also, astonishingly, been used as test-card music on British television!). The clarity of the production is unrivalled, and the multi-layering is somehow done without destroying the notion that there is a five-piece band in there playing their hearts out. The first guitar solo break divides the song into two parts, the first of which highlights the vocal over Barrie Wilson's drum and cowbell obbligati: the choppy chordal offbeat decorations here bear a faint resemblance to the falling figures that start Robert's Box and Nothing But the Truth, and throw a little unexpected tonal mischief into the melting pot. After the guitar break this feature disappears and the playing is more predictably 'ensemble'. It may be that we are hearing a compromise between two rival treatments that were being considered: but it's a brilliant one.

The performance on record is fresh and uninhibited, with some superb guitar soloing and, of course, remarkable chattering percussion (just after 'guts and gore' it's particularly marvellous!) and a blistering vocal performance … it's hard to believe that this is the same band who picked their weary way through The Piper's Tune a few tracks later. The album press-kit alleged that 'Mick Grabham's guitar scorcher in here won't allay the envy of other groups trying to lure him out of Procol'. The song was performed live on tours shortly after the release of Procol's Ninth and (alongside Pandora's Box, The Piper's Tune and Without A Doubt) is one of the few tracks from the album to have survived 1975. Pandora aside, it was the only piece from the album that appeared regularly on setlists in 1976 and 1977, presumably because it was so exciting to play. It was heard on stage in a number of guises, originally as a shortish piece, then with a long introduction sometimes featuring much funkily-articulated rhythm guitar, sometimes riding solely on the crude power of the riff. Following its album-promotional duties it started to stretch out as a jamming vehicle – crowd-participation was an important element, and latterly Solley's synths – and of course as a vehicle for the magic of Wilson's drum-solos, once Power Failure went into retirement (though there are several setlists that show both pieces). The song sometimes clocked in at over twelve minutes (Mannheim, 4 February 1977: a good seven minutes was drum solo): it has of course not been heard live in post-BJ days.

Some would say that the words don't quite match the class of the music. They deal vividly enough with the terrors of the battlefield, but the use of the impersonal 'they' and the indefinite 'we' tends to hold the listener at arm's length. Certainly it was not Reid's intention to emulate Owen or Sassoon: he may well in fact have retained the traditional schoolboy antipathy to such authors, whose efforts were (and are!) considered obligatory reading for the young. Gary was not taking the subject wholly serious when he introduced the song at a 1977 concert as '… some impressions gained from watching a programme on the Third World War ... sorry, hasn't come yet; First World War … when you're down there in the trenches with the gas – and this we put to a disco beat …' It may have been this danceablity of the piece that prompted its selection as the B side for a single (drawn from, remixed from, and re-titled from, the previous album): As Strong As Samson (When You’re Being Held To Ransom) (CHS 2084) was released as a single in January 1976 in the UK, but did not see active service in the charts.  

Thanks to Frans Steensma for additional information about this song


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