Procol Harum

the Pale

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'Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes'

(You Can't) Turn Back the Page

Album: The Prodigal Stranger (1991) and The Symphonic Music (1995)

Authors: Brooker / Reid / Noble

 Read the words

Performed: from time to time

Cover-versions: none

This is a big four-four rock ballad wringing a moody atmosphere from the switch between major and minor tonalities: the verse in G minor, the chorus in G major, though it shifts into B flat for its final phrases; it's an unusual Procol song in that it has a middle-'eight', and it harks back to the Brooker compositional methods of the earliest albums, in that the dominant chord is rarely used (in the verse the dominant appears as a minor chord the first time we hear it, not the expected major; then the second time it resolves not into the tonic but into the sixth of the scale: all this imparts freshness and interest, a very opposite approach to that used in for instance The Truth Won't Fade Away.)

The treated piano of the introduction might recall For Liquorice John, written in response to the death of an associate of the band. Some fans were perplexed that Procol Harum did not pen a song specifically about the loss of their drummer, BJ Wilson, who died in 1990; others saw (You Can't) Turn Back the Page as exactly that. The text does not particularly support such a reading, and it's surely worth pointing out that since 1990 A Salty Dog, reportedly BJ's favourite Procol song, has very frequently been played 'for those that have gone before' ... and Brooker's terse dedications, before that highly emotional song, probably commemorate his feelings better than any purpose-built song would do. (You Can't) Turn Back the Page was one of two songs Fisher rated as favourites from the Prodigal Stranger album, according to Mike Ober in Then Play On (1992): The Truth Won't Fade Away was the other. "They're great songs," he said.

Various bits of electric guitar are heard in the mix, but the impression is of mixing-desk as main instrument, rather than of human musicians at work. Similarly the wash of synth strings, the meandering solo Spanish guitar, and the odd touches of tambourine are all contrived to emphasise the lonely thoughts of the lyric, in the way that film scores do, but there isn't the direct emotional connection here that we find in earlier Procol songs. At 2.37 the backward Spanish guitar part, something of a musical irony, does not appear to quote any other Procol music, unlike the backward vocal in In Held 'Twas in I.

The song has had several memorable performances. During the 1995 UK tour, a suitable emptiness replaced the acoustic guitar fills; backing vocals by Geoff Whitehorn assisted by Matt Pegg were an unusual and impressive feature (mp3 here). At the Barbican 1996, the orchestral arrangement accentuated the song's filmic qualities, though the choral arrangement was more mannered. Gary left the piano to showcase his vocal at the front of the stage; and the song may have been treated as a vocal showcase for Jerry Hadley at some preliminary stage on the Symphonic recording, since Hadley's tenor obtrudes through Brooker's for one phrase, presumably the judge's verdict, in the middle section: it seems unlikely that he would have been asked to sing this one line only. This 'middle eight', which is in fact stretched to an unusual nine bars, is slightly ponderous and seems to bear kinship to the middle sections of Something Magic and of Taking the Time.

Thanks to Frans Steensma for additional information about this song

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