Procol Harum

the Pale

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'Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes'

The Hand that Rocks the Cradle

Album: The Prodigal Stranger (1991)

Authors: Brooker / Reid / Thompson

 Read the words

Performed: initially

Cover-versions: none

This song is a musically straightforward, medium-paced basher in the guitarists' key of E, though it does shift up a tone for the instrumental break, obliging the organ to take a solo in F sharp major, a key that would defeat many players who like to let their fingers do the thinking. The glissando at the end sounds as if it's all white notes, suggesting that the solo was played in a 'comfortable' key and perhaps transposed via MIDI to the pitch we hear: in which case the instrument used cannot be a vrai Hammond.

The piano has little to do after its ostentatious introduction and the ensemble cruises along on pounding drums and seething keyboards, with the guitar confined, but for one wah-wah howl (on 'push too hard'), to a scratchy back-up role. Acoustic rhythm guitar, sounding like a twelve-string, injects some jangling excitement. Densely layered vocals characterise the chorus, but there is some deft harmony singing in the verses too. The straining 'woah-woah' style of the singing, and the antiphonal 'hand that rocks' in the backing voices, are not found elsewhere in Procol Harum music, and could perhaps be associated with the one-off collaborating composer, Chris Thompson, of Manfred Mann's Earth Band, who wrote with Keith Reid before the Prodigal Stranger album was made. Maybe the multiple authorship is also reflected in the mismatch of sentiments between verse and chorus. The verses seem to belong to the Procol canon ('right or wrong', 'looking-glass', 'wheel turns' ... the band have even played I'll be satisfied) but the chorus diverts the subject from right-living to good fortune. It's also an atypical Procol song in that it uses barely any rhyme.

It was performed regularly in 1991–2 and a fair bit afterwards, but not, so far, since 1995; stage versions have corresponded closely to the recorded performance, as far as the personnel has permitted. Gary Brooker makes out that the physical effort of singing it is enough almost to finish him off: ‘it’s a very taxing one to sing’, he says here.

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