Procol Harum

the Pale

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'Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes'

Something Magic

Album: Something Magic (1976)

Authors: Brooker / Reid

 Read the words

Performed: promotionally

Cover-versions: none

This imposing song begins with an uncharacteristic Procol prelude, whose powerful octaves achieve a bombastic overkill rather than the intimations of grandeur they were perhaps striving for. The slightly distorted introduction sounds like a pastiche of Hollywood-style Entry of the Gladiators music from some toga epic, suggesting a contest between opposing forces. The up-front song- and album-title (one of several Procol songs named with the words 'Something' and 'Nothing') ushers in a suite of numbers loosely touching on esoteric matters [TWatT draws on Kabbalistic lore and vegetation resurrection myths], perhaps surprisingly making this the nearest Procol Harum got to a true concept album. From the imagery of this opening song, one has little reason to suppose that the magic the album deals with is of the white, virtuous variety.

There is something alarming about the non-diatonic relations of the chords that compose the opening, and the harmonic leap between the first and second statements of the theme is the augmented fourth or tritone, conventionally shunned as being the ugliest interval in the scale, and dubbed diabolus in musica. The two statements of the theme, unsettling in itself, are unsettlingly slightly different, and prefigure an uneasy harmonic ride: uniquely in Procoldom, every verse of this song is in a different key. Perhaps the open fifths were intended to supply an oriental effect, perhaps tallying with the slogan in some of the album publicity which invited us to 'open the gateless gate of Zen'?

Barrie Wilson's impressive drum punctuations give way to a C minor piano-figure that may have been the original seed of the song: this seed, however, is truly pianistic in its scope and idiom, and is no mere tempo-indicator such as the piano lead-ins to many of the songs, on the Grand Hotel album for instance. With its halting rhythm and ever-shifting harmonies, stepping up, stepping backwards, Something Magic works hard to keep us guessing; piano, bass and drums drive it along, but also interpolate onomatopoeic emblems (the ticking clock, the heart-beat, the little larky tra-la-la), that symbolise to a more or less literal degree the developing imagery of Reid's text. Organ provides a churchy wash; glittering synths decorate the dark backdrop with a falling pattern; guitar is reduced to a subtle accompanying role, clipping the offbeats and making dam-about-to burst noises.

A lavish orchestration by jobbing Miami arranger Mike Lewis, conductor of the session, uses a brass section on loan from the Sunshine Band, and also illustrates the words in filmic fashion, with elaborate skittering pizzicati for the demons of the night, and suitably expansive swirlings for the ends of verses (where the boldly-recorded bass guitar the first we had heard of the excellent Chris Copping in this role since the Broken Barricades album drops by a very prominent tritone again, just before 'the centre of the storm' passim).

Brooker well knows how to heighten musical tension with transpositions: the classic case must be the way verse two of Grand Hotel appears freshly, in a key apparently higher than verse one's, though that is an illusion caused by harmonic meanderings within the verses themselves. In Something Magic, however, the verses stay true to one key internally, but each is a semitone higher than the last; additional sonic elaboration distinguishes each successive verse, not least the ever-more densely layered Brooker harmony vocal. The mildly grotesque middle section maybe introduced with an eye to another Pandora-like hit? gives reign to the woodwinds and some quietly stratospheric trumpeting, but artful orchestration cannot disguise the fact that this new material its tune taken by the piano when the song was road-tested before the recording sessions is again unrelated to the verses or to the prelude. In that respect the song is like Robert's Box, a repository for heterogeneous musical ideas. The arrangement of the song, as well as the harmonic content, is about as stuffed with detail as one could reasonably imagine: the running line of quavers at the end of each verse is a particular Procol signature (perhaps originating in the turnback between sections of the Simple Sister middle episode) but other aspects seem to be freshly minted for this song which - like the opener of the previous album - seems to have had by far the most care lavished on it of the whole set. It seemed to acquire a new sheen of echo on the 'remastered' CD release; Gary Brooker recommended A / B comparison of vinyl and CD versions, in conversation with BtP (here).

Something Magic/Fools Gold (Chrysalis 11604) was released as a picture-sleeve single in the Netherlands (March 1977): significantly, the local Chrysalis picked a song from Procol's Ninth for the B side. The edited image from the album sleeve does indeed depict a magical event, impossible to achieve in real life without suspending the laws of nature; but interestingly the full sleeve, which depicts one song (Musical Fish) that never made the cut and possibly others that we know nothing of at all, shows the band as relatively-uninvolved spectators as the decapitated woman placidly confronts them and the flying fish (not out of water) sails by in its anti-gravity bowl. Themes of 'going against nature' will surface in many, if not all, of the songs on the album.

Something Magic was heard on stage before the band went to Miami to record it; most of its features were in place, though the vocal melody was not wholly evolved. The spooky string parts, to be realized by Mike Lewis, were already in Gary Brooker's mind (mp3 here) though the 'clock' effect was played by the pianist, not the drummer; Claes Johansen's Procol biography reports that the song was still faintly chaotic when the band played it though for the Albert Brothers: it came a long way subsequently. It was justly selected to be the album's title-track. "Something Magic I always thought was a really good song," said author Keith Reid in a Danish interview (2 February 1984); he later selected the words for his My Own Choice.

Something Magic was performed almost continually during the album promotion tour, with much synth-elaboration, even on occasions with a different prelude, adapting Purcell's Funeral Music for Queen Mary; it has not been played live since.

Thanks to Frans Steensma for additional information about this song

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