Procol Harum

the Pale

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'Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes'

Man with a Mission

Album: The Prodigal Stranger (1991), One More Time (2000)

Authors: Brooker / Reid / Noble

 Read the words

Performed: not infrequently

Cover-versions: none

This stomping song presents an artfully mature soundscape elaborated from extremely simple musical resources: a three-chord introduction in E major (but coming to rest on the dominant chord, building a sense of anticipation); a verse simply alternating E minor and A major; and a chorus mutating to E major and using only the other two classic guitar-rock chords, A and B. Keith Reid said he "wouldn't call it typically Procol Harum at all, and yet when I've played the record to people they've … heard that song and they said: 'God, that's really Procol Harum.'" (see more here).

The opening is ambitious and unusual, with synthesised string and bass sounds pitched against some more traditional guitar racket and roaring Hammond, woven in with the muted voices of a muttering crowd, which we have not succeeded in deciphering. The strutting (synth?) bass work ideally suits the declamatory, forthright words; and many self-conscious sonic details speak of careful manufacturing of the track at the sound-desk. In that respect it is perhaps surprising that the song works well in live performance, though underlying the fussy sounds one can hear a real band enjoying itself: not least in the oddly jazzy middle section.

An alternative version, found on a Japanese CD, has a Trower guitar solo in place of the Brooker piano solo in the middle; it is track 13 on The Prodigal Stranger (RCA BVCP-158), and is labelled 'alternative version': there's a very high chance that this version predates the 'regular' one: the Japanese liner notes by Kaz Akaiwa may reveal something, if someone would like to send us a translation! The song shares with Typewriter Torment the unusual device of a false start to the final chorus: Gary Brooker is in fine voice as the vocal line fades out and in again as the band ploughs on. His see-sawing melody – an upbeat cousin to the reflective ending of As Strong as Samson – is very strong, but the upper notes require a lot of breath to be pitched accurately and Gary sometimes favours an almost-spoken delivery for some of them.

Man with a Mission is probably the most-regularly performed of the Prodigal Stranger songs, having found its way into most tours and one-off performances. However it appears to have started life as a Brooker solo piece (like the unpublished Heartbreaker, it appears to stem from a 1989 resumption of Brooker / Reid writing); it has a macho quality reminiscent of Brooker's own Mineral Man. "You couldn't possibly sing those words to the chords without it being a triumphant march," said Gary (here). But it was very different in its 1989 outing with Brooker's No Stiletto Shoes, when Gary didn't sing, but talked the lyric through in rap fashion, as befits its quick-fire series of heterogeneous snapshots; it was also played by the No Heels Band at Castle Ashby in November 1989. It seems that this spoken version lacked the words of verse three, used the couplets in a different order, and had a couple of later-excised extras too. Before Matt Noble came along 'man with a mission' was not a hook, but appeared in the middle of a verse; and the only melodic component (mp3 here) was a riff reminiscent of Saw the Fire from Gary's third solo album.

On One More Time the Prodigal arrangement is – as with other songs from the album – fairly faithfully adhered to. The song has been aired at prestigious gigs (oddly enough, in view of its unpretentious construction, it works well with orchestra and sharp-shouting chorus, and has been heard thus at the Barbican, and at Guildford) and the words – despite defying rationalisation, they combine intriguingly – were selected by Keith Reid for his book, My Own Choice.

Thanks to Frans Steensma for additional information about this song

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