Procol Harum

the Pale

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'Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes'

Holding On

Album: The Prodigal Stranger (1991), Procol Harum Live (DVD)

Authors: Brooker / Reid

 Read the words

Performed: prestigiously

Cover-versions: Gary Brooker Ensemble

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.

This imposing, swiftly-moving song starts with syncopated drums echoingly inviting us to play 'spot-the-downbeat', while three distinct 'World Music' elements – the high female voices, the Khoisan mouth-noises, and the men's sibilant exhalation – contribute to the impressionistic sound-painting. Despite these supposed echoes of the Serengeti (the 'Serendipity Plain' as Gary self-mockingly called it at the Barbican in 1996) the introduction is completed by classic churchy Procol Harum harmonies, the organ ringing out over a pedal note which resolves upwards in a faint, slow echo (at about 30 seconds) of the openings of Nothing but the Truth and Robert's Box. The latter's uncharacteristic rhythmical looseness is another shared feature once Holding On gets going.

The song is in a sturdy D major, though the presence of the 'Salty Dog' chord (under 'Gods of war' etc) lends plangency to the harmonies, and there are some very attractive chord-inversions. A curious feature is the short second verse, whose premature jump to the 'Salty Dog' chord always comes as a surprise. Despite the presence of some well-known Brooker motifs, there is also a sense of real harmonic originality: the sudden, warm G major on 'strong', where a B minor would ordinarily follow the first-inversion F sharp seventh, recalls the instinctive felicities of Shine on Brightly or Salad Days. It was extraordinary to open the seal on this CD in 1991 and to find it contained a single song written only by Brooker / Reid; but some commentators, such as Douglas Adams ('one of the three best tracks they ever made': see here) have elevated this piece into the pantheon of Procol classics. Certainly it is 'up there' among the songs Gary has aired with pickup bands, such as Conquistador and A Salty Dog, alongside which Holding On was played at the 'Lilies of the Field' Bosnia Benefit in 1995, and A Whiter Shade of Pale, with which he played it on Dutch TV in 1998.

The song has featured in other arrangements: the haunting orchestral touches heard at Procol Harum orchestral gigs of 1996 and 2000 were first heard on the 1993 'Rock Meets Classic' German tour under the baton of Christian Kabitz, and the song was played in a pared-down orchestration live, three times, by the Gary Brooker Ensemble: it features very attractively on their 1996 record. The Hottentot (or Khoisan) clicks have not featured live: successive choirs have had enough problems pitching the opening note, even singing it at the right time: at Guildford Gary gives them a stern cue at the piano. The sole Procol-only rendition appears to have been an unscheduled insertion of it in the setlist for a radio performance at Vejle, Denmark, February 1996, when the orchestral / choral introduction is replaced by some distinctly Latino busking at the piano, and in which there are no backing voices at all.

Written in New York 'about the war that was going on it in the deserts', Holding On shares an atypical political focus with As Strong as Samson, (which might appear to harbour another hostage reference, but its 'being held to ransom' is metaphorical, in the context of labour-relations): however the message is entirely opposite in that the former bewailed the helplessness of the individual in a harsh war-torn world, while Holding On surges into an optimistic chorus reassuring us that we will one day be free. Keith Reid selected the words for his book, My Own Choice.

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