Procol Harum

the Pale

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'Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes'

Skating on Thin Ice

Album: Something Magic (1976)

Authors: Brooker / Reid

 Read the words

Performed: promotionally

Cover-versions: none

'The album's piece de resistance is Skating On Thin Ice,' said the NME here. The song's immediate appeal undoubtedly lies in its consummate orchestration, and in the way the simple, melodious answering-phrases that make up its verse contrast with the contrasting saw-tooth leaps of its chorus (reminiscent of the piano introduction of Fires Which Burnt Brightly, and the chorus-end of As Strong as Samson). This song, however, is in three-four time, and we know from Gary Brooker's song-introductions in concert that he is fond of the occasional waltz (his Blue Danube adaptation confirms this; work even began on a track for The Symphonic Music that was reported to be a compilation of various Procol Waltzes).

The song is structurally unconventional, in that it consists of just two verse-plus-chorus units book-ending a middle section; the verses have thirty-one (10+10+11) and the chorus twenty. the introductory two-bar piano motif, attractively reminiscent of a musical box, proves to be a unifying element when it re-appears as a countermelody in the middle section. Its reiteration in the verses after only one couplet has been sung is also unusual, and the resulting phrase-lengths are unsettling: perhaps some spacing was needed to allow the singer to draw breath after a long, slow phrase. It may, however, be an indication that this song came about through the meeting of ready-made words and a ready-made tune that do not quite match: why else would we find that unwanted emphasis in the chorus ('playing on the wrong side', an infelicity not heard in a Procol song since 'and hurriedly be ... gin to quote' in A Christmas Camel)?

The verses start in D major and turn to D minor half way through, mimicking the stand-out chord-change in the harmonically adventurous chorus, where a D chord collapses to D minor between 'dice' and 'swimming': this change, and the subsequent slump to an A minor, signals the defeated tone of the song, in tandem with the unfulfilled feeling we get when the bright B major conclusion to the first half of the chorus leads – not into an expected E minor – but illogically back into the melancholy D minor of the second half. Gary Brooker's unconventional harmonies – they migrate home to the key of the verse with Rum Talesque ingenuity – underpin a tune that demands very careful pitching from the singer.

A further distinction lies in the fact that the orchestral arrangement is Chris Copping's only credited contribution to any Procol Harum track, except conceivably Well I : 'Gary got me off my slothful derriθre,' Chris told BtP, 'and said something about a woodwind ensemble with a euphonium ... Professor Solley pointed me in the right direction {Pete is a string player} ... I feel guilty that I hadn't lent a hand previously as the hapless Commander had to do it all on his Jack Jones.' The brass and woodwind arrangements are sweetly appropriate, and the strings, initially unobtrusive, make a glorious entry with their verse two counter-melody. 'Such a capable musician, Chris Copping,' Gary told BtP, going on to reveal that Chris had come back with the instrumental parts the very next day after being invited to 'get off his f*cking butt and do something for the damn band'! The acoustic guitar is a very unusual feature in late Harum, and the female voices occur hitherto only on Grand Finale, Grand Hotel, and Fires (Which Burnt Brightly). BJ's snare rolls take us back to the waltzing glories of Magdalene: the tempo rises and falls in pleasingly organic fashion, no doubt to the frustration of the Albert Brothers, who had wanted Barrie Wilson, like KC and the Sunshine Band, to play to a click-track! A minute hiatus in the rhythmic pulse just before the second verse remains unexplained.

The idea of a skaters' waltz is a musical commonplace: Johann Strauss and Waldteufel contributed pieces of this title to the popular repertoire. The synthesiser is used here counterfeit the literal swoosh of a skate cleaving ice, though Reid's lyric has nothing literally to do with winter games. This is a trait of the album, however: on Something Magic, for instance, the drums imitate a ticking clock, the guitar a flexing dam, and so forth: The Mark of the Claw uses taped effects to the same end: this album is also the heaviest user of imitative sounds since the days of In Held 'Twas in I. Some have heard traces of similarity in the Skating melody to the opening of the well-known waltz, Some Day my Prince Will Come, from Walt Disney's Snow White, but this tune is in fact somewhat more chromatically-coloured than Brooker's melody.

The song was heard quite frequently on album-promotion tours, with the synthesiser recreating its skating noises and parts of the Copping orchestration. We cannot find any sign that it featured on the US leg of the Something Magic tour, once Dee Murray had replaced bassist (and backing-vocalist …) Copping. It has not surfaced since.

Thanks to Frans Steensma for additional information about this song

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