Procol Harum

the Pale

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'Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes'

Strangers in Space

Album: Something Magic (1976) and The Symphonic Music (1995)

Authors: Brooker / Reid

 Read the words

Performed: repeatedly

Cover-versions: none

Among the most personal and tender items in the Procol canon, Strangers in Space seemed something of a departure for the band, though it has many textural similarities with the often-overlooked Song for a Dreamer. The song is taken in a languid four-four time, its bluesy verses in A minor, though the predominant chord there is the subdominant, D minor, which then becomes the home key for the more 'classically' inspired chorus section. The harmonic world of the verses, with its dropping semitonal extensions, is unusual for Procol Harum; the arrangement too breaks new ground with prominent use of electric piano (an apparatus Brooker toured for use on this one song), the echoing synth-layers, a mildly-phased vocal, and very high 'lead' bass guitar work. These factors, with BJ's muted drumming with its delicate rimshots to the fore, all contribute to the impression of a Procol 'torch' song, and Gary Brooker did indeed announce it, at a 1977 concert, as being '... about some chance meeting that one may have with somebody when ... maybe you'll never see them again anyway ... but there's a spark ...'. One could imagine a smoochy cabaret singer travestying the muscular delicacy of his recorded version, in which the vocal style recalls that of Gary's early hero, Ray Charles.

Strangers in Space was tried out on tour (here for example) before the band went to Miami in mid-October 1976 to record: audiences were treated to an almost horizontal early version of the verse melody (mp3 here), and a long guitar solo for the playout; the chorus was already mature at this stage. The song was cut down from about eight minutes for the record, and once the album came out it was heavily featured on the promotional tour. On certain dates an enigmatic slide-show accompanied it: a green image of a solitary human head (not the disembodied one from the album-cover) appeared unvarying, yet had mutated when one looked at it again later. The spacey synth sketch on the record (its opening figure, unusually chaining three open fourth-intervals, is reminiscent of a passage of TWatT: compare via mp3) was hugely elaborated on stage, such that the harmony was at times in danger of being excitingly submerged: on the very last Procol gig of the 'Old Testament' Solley's keyboard rig also emitted echoing cascades of organ very much in the style of Rainbow in Curved Air Terry Riley, and Dee Murray took Chris Copping's bassline and ran with it.

This song has claims to being among the most appealing of late Brooker / Reid. Significantly it is the only Something Magic track to have been performed since 1977 (at Redhill 1997) and its chorus tune was recycled in the unpublished Last Train to Niagara. It took its place among the Procol standards on The Symphonic Music, and features on the authoritative compilation Homburg And Other Hats (1995).

Thanks to Frans Steensma for additional information about this song

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