A Whiter Shade …

A Whiter Shade of Pale - peacock

Southend-on-Sea lies on the north side of the Thames estuary to the east of London. It’s a seaside resort with all the usual tourist trappings: a beach, gift shops, an amusement park, a few hotels and lots of guest houses. But Southend is most famous for its pier, the longest pleasure pier in the world at a little over 2km. In the world of popular music, though, Southend is known as the town where Gary Brooker and Robin Trower grew up.

Brooker and Trower had formed a group called The Paramounts around 1962 (Wikipedia has conflicting information on the date) and that band had a hit in 1964 with a cover of Poison Ivy by The Coasters. Further chart success eluded them and in 1966 The Paramounts split up. The following year Gary Brooker formed a new band called Procol Harum. The original line-up was Brooker (vocals, piano), Matthew Fisher (Hammond organ), Ray Royer (guitar), David Knights (bass) and Keith Reid (lyrics). With two keyboard players, a specialist lyricist and no drummer that was an unusual combination.

A Whiter Shade of Pale - band

Procol Harum

Procol Harum‘s first release was the single, A Whiter Shade of Pale. It sounds a lot like one of Bach’s organ works – moderately slow and with a Baroque style. If there is any guitar work on the recording my ears can’t hear it. The pure electronic tones of the organ give the song a dreamy feel but the steady descending bass part keeps it moving. Gary Brooker delivers the melody with a sweetly soulful voice and Matthew Fisher adds unobtrusive embellishments on the Hammond. But what makes the track for me is the way the parts fit together, seamlessly, like pieces of a jigsaw, nothing out of place. It’s not quite Air on a G String, but it could almost be a long lost snippet of Bach.

When A Whiter Shade of Pale was released in 1967 Crotchety Man struggled to hear the words. In those days even professionally recorded music lacked the detail we expect in the 21st century and our radios and record players added their own mushiness to the sound. The room was humming “hodder”? Was that “as the miller told his tale” or “… mirror …”? And, surely, he can’t be singing “vessel virgins”? It seemed the meaning of the lyrics would be lost to me unless I could find them in print. Nowadays, of course, lyrics are usually somewhere on the Internet and those for aWSoP are no exception.

The Procol Harum website provides the definitive lyrics for A Whiter Shade of Pale. To those only familiar with the original single (and most cover versions) it comes as quite a surprise to see that there are four verses, not just two. The last two verses were unceremoniously dropped to reduce the single to the radio-friendly length of 4 minutes.

Most people find the words bafflingly mysterious. In fact, pretty much everyone but their author seems to struggle with them. The consensus is that the song describes an uncertain, but ultimately successful, attempt at seduction fuelled by copious amounts of alcohol. Does that knowledge add to the enjoyment of the song? No, not really. The evocative phrases scattered throughout the song, like fragments of gold glinting in the prospector’s pan, are quite enough to create a sense of nervous anticipation. That there may be a story behind them, too, doesn’t add all that much.

A Whiter Shade of Pale - snake

According to Wikipedia, A Whiter Shade of Pale is “one of fewer than 30 singles to have sold over 10 million copies worldwide”. That same website also provides a list of the best selling singles in a physical form with aWSoP at 28= along with 13 other songs putting it somewhere between the 28th and 41st best selling vinyl/CD single. Then there are another 42 digital download tracks that have sold 10 million or more copies. Make of that what you will.

Perhaps a more telling statistic is that in 2009 the organisation responsible for collecting royalties for public performances of recorded music in the UK (Phonographic Performance Ltd.) listed A Whiter Shade of Pale as the most played song in public places since the company was formed in 1934. Not one of the top 100, not one of the top 10, the most played song of all since records began. I don’t know how the data was collected and I’m sure it can be challenged on all sorts of technical grounds but there can be absolutely no doubt that A Whiter Shade of Pale is one of the most popular songs there has ever been. And deservedly so.

Postscript

After A Whiter Shade of Pale was recorded Robin Trower rejoined his old bandmate Gary Brooker, replacing Ray Royer as the guitarist with Procol Harum. He remained with them until 1971 and features on their first five albums.

The Seldom Seen Kid

Seldom Seen Kid - CD

The five members of Elbow played their first gig together in 1990 at the Corner Pin pub in Ramsbottom, a market town on the northern edge of Greater Manchester. At the time they were called Mr Soft (or just Soft); it wasn’t until 1997 that they changed the name of the band to Elbow (“the loveliest word in the English language”). That year they signed to Island Records and recorded their first album. Island was then bought by the Universal Music Group and during the subsequent restructuring the band was dropped. Sadly, after seven years of writing and performing their particular brand of alternative rock music, Elbow‘s first recording was destined never to be released.

Undeterrred, Elbow switched to the independent Ugly Man Records label and released three EPs: NoiseboxNewborn and Any Day Now. By 2001 the band had come to the attention of V2 Records who issued Elbow‘s first full album, Asleep in the Back, which contained most of the tracks from the earlier EPs together with some new material. More than 10 years after the band was formed Elbow were beginning to make a name for themselves. Asleep in the Back was shortlisted for the Mercury Music Prize that year and, ironically, the band was nominated in the Best New British Band category at the BRIT Awards.

Elbow made another two albums on V2 Records: Cast of Thousands and Leaders of the Free World. The latter reached number 12 on the UK album chart when it was released in 2005. Puzzlingly, though, Elbow parted company with V2 Records after that. Their fourth album, The Seldom Seen Kid, was released by Fiction Records in 2008. It immediately entered the UK album chart at number 5; it won the Mercury Music Prize; by 2011 it had sold over 860,000 copies; and it has been in the top 100 on the UK albums chart for a total of 144 weeks spanning a period from March 2008 to November 2012.

Seldom Seen Kid - elbow

The success of The Seldom Seen Kid surprised a lot of people. The music wasn’t radically different from Elbow‘s earlier albums and it hadn’t been heavily promoted. Dorian Lynskey of The Guardian speculated that Elbow‘s appearance at the Glastonbury Festival just as the sun came out from behind the clouds for the first time might have been a factor. Or it could be that Guy Garvey’s warmth and charm as a radio presenter had brought the band to the attention of many more of BBC 6 Music’s listeners. Or, perhaps, it was just that Elbow‘s time for recognition had finally come.

What Dorian doesn’t mention is that The Seldom Seen Kid carries the unmistakable stamp of a songwriter who has just fallen in love. The first track, Starlings, is as poetic a love song as you could ever hope to hear. Guy Garvey’s lyrics are not stolen from Shakespeare nor do they rely on tired old clichés. Where most of us would say “I’m head over heels” Starlings ends like this:

The violets explode inside me when I meet your eyes.
Them I’m spinning and I’m diving like a cloud of starlings.
Darling is this love?

Five of the eleven tracks on the album are unashamed love poems. I would gladly quote them all here but this isn’t a poetry blog and, anyway, the music behind the words makes an even bigger contribution to the album’s appeal.

The very first thing we hear is a rapid dull chiming as if a child is repeatedly running his hand along the railings in the park. It is an unmistakable statement of intent. This is a band that will not be confined to any particular style, a band that refuses to pander to fashion. The tuneful rattling of the railings is soon joined by the hollow sound of loosely stretched skins over a big kettle drum, or (more likely) its electronic equivalent, and then a dreamy voice sings, “Ah ah, Ah ah, Ah ah”. Electric piano chords answer the voice inviting the vocalist to continue, which he does with the first line of an ode to his new love. Everything about this song says that the world is a perfect place – a place where the sun always shines and a small boy can have endless fun just by running his hand along some railings.

Tracks 2, 3, 5 and 10 are all songs that, like the opener, could only have been written by a lyricist in love. And, to complement the words, there’s an undeniable exuberance in the tunes, the textures and the arrangements. Elbow delight in variety. Soft, loud; sparse, full; mellow, harsh; steady, off-beat. And they use it to full effect on all these tracks.

Of the remaining songs there’s one that seems to be a tribute to a friend who died (the seldom seen kid that gives the album its title), another that pokes fun at the unquenchable optimism of gamblers (The Fix), and four slower pieces. As the album plays the joy of the first few tracks gradually subsides to be replaced by more contemplative songs and even a touch of sadness. Every composition is lovingly assembled from the individual contributions of the members of the band, each one essential to the whole. One or two of the slow pieces wouldn’t stand up on their own but, in the context of the album, they make perfect sense.

Seldom Seen Kid - DVD

Elbow was a five-piece band – guitars, keyboards, bass, drums and vocals – but The Seldom Seen Kid also makes extensive use of strings, brass and a choir. It is ideally suited to an orchestral treatment; and that’s exactly what Elbow did in 2009. A live performance of the album with the BBC Concert Orchestra was recorded at Abbey Road Studios and released as a limited edition CD+DVD package. This is, of course, a collector’s special but it’s a brilliant example of the art.

The DVD is a straightforward film of the concert and the CD is just the audio from it. The sound is excellent; if it wasn’t for the applause (and occasional whoop) from the audience between songs it might have been a conventional studio recording. Sometimes an orchestral instrument draws your attention – a piccolo here or a French horn there – reminding you that the original mix was slightly different. The cameras move unobtrusively around the musicians, picking out moments of concentration or enjoyment on their faces, adding a little seasoning to the overall experience. It’s very much a piece of aural art with visual embellishments, rather than a film with incidental music.

As a rule Crotchety Man prefers studio albums to live ones but when it comes to The Seldom Seen Kid he is glad to have both. And the DVD.

There have been two more studio albums from Elbow with completely new material (Build a Rocket Boys and The Take Off And Landing Of Everything) and one compilation containing tracks previously only released on singles (Dead In The Boot). Excluding the compilation, the Crotchety Collection contains five of the six studio albums in Elbow‘s discography. Of those, The Seldom Seen Kid is still my favourite. It’s my favourite, I think, because it oozes the frabjous joy of life seen through the eyes of love.

I sat you down and told you how the truest love that’s ever found is for oneself.
You pulled apart my theory with a weary and disinterested sigh.

Darling is this love?

Believe

Believe - cher, coy

Cher was 70 on Friday and in recognition of her achievements as a singer I’ve chosen Believe as my Track of the Week. Cher, of course, is not just a singer. Among her many occupations Wikipedia lists actress, author, dancer, songwriter and record producer. She has won an Academy Award, a Grammy, an Emmy, three Golden Globes, and a Cannes Film Festival Award. She is the only artist to have had a number one single in the US in every decade from the 1960s to the 2010s.

Believe - typeface

Believe is the title track from Cher’s twenty-second album released in 1998. It’s a song for singing and dancing to, the second entry on the wedding disco playlist after ABBA’s Dancing Queen. It has a beat that defines ‘infectious’, a funky groove that will pull even the most reluctant shrinking violet onto the dance floor. Cher’s vocals deliver the mixture of pain and defiance of a break-up with such heartfelt passion that you reach out to comfort her and the warble of the auto-tune wrings sorrow from your own heart.

It’s so sa-a-ad that you’re leaving,
It takes ti-i-ime to believe it,
But after all is said and done
You’re gonna be the lonely one.

And then the beat kicks in again and suddenly you understand why something like 10 million physical copies of the single have been sold.

Believe - cossack hat

Crotchety Man wishes Cher a belated Happy Birthday and salutes her barely believable talent.

The Sound of Silence

Sound of Silence - chairs

The Sound of Silence is Paul Simon’s vision of a nightmare. It describes a horror that goes far beyond that of a musician who can no longer hear. After all, Beethoven and Evelyn Glennie both overcame profound deafness to reach the pinnacle of musical achievement. No, this is a fate worse than deafness. It is a world of complete silence, a world in which people have lost the ability to communicate using sound, where they are so terrified of making a noise that they dare not speak.

The Sound of Silence is a folk song that became popular when Simon and Garfunkel‘s acoustic version was given an electric remix in 1965. Like all great songs it has been recorded by many different artists. Wikipedia lists around three dozen versions, including those by The Batchelors (predictably anodyne pop), Hugh Masekela (slow jazz trumpet instrumental), Gregorian (pop in a cathedral), Bananarama (pleasant enough but unexceptional) and Pat Metheny (sleepy guitar instrumental ). None of those are a patch on Paul Simon’s solo version or the Simon and Garfunkel folk/rock single; they all miss the dystopian chill sparked by seeing thousands of people suffocating in a blanket of silence as they worship their neon God.

“Fools”, said I, “You do not know,
Silence like a cancer grows.
Hear my words that I might teach you;
Take my arms that I might reach you”.
But my words like silent raindrops fell
And echoed
In the wells of silence.

Sound of Silence - stave

Leaving aside all those versions that miss the point there are two that Crotchety Man can recommend. First, there’s a nice version by Kina Grannis (whoever she is) that echoes the subtle harmonies of the Simon and Garfunkel release. And then there’s one by the heavy metal band Disturbed. Now, I don’t like heavy metal and I nearly skipped over that entry when I came across it in one of the other music blogs I follow. But curiosity got the better of me, I hit the ‘play’ button and prepared to be assaulted by screaming guitars, crashing cymbals and snarling vocals.

What I heard astonished me. Slow broken piano chords. Lush orchestral strings. A deep, resonant voice reminiscent of Chad Kroeger. Here was a fresh take on an old favourite that truly deserved recognition. As I listened the sound slowly grew, building in volume and tension. Gone was the folk song; in its stead was an epic, theatre-filling wall of sound and a voice of inconsolable anguish. Paul Simon’s cold, dark night had been replaced by the fires of Hell.

It’s not ‘metal’ – how could it be? – but only die-hard metal fans would begrudge Disturbed this excursion into the gentle world of folk music.

Sound of Silence - notes

Burn the Witch

Burn the Witch - maiden

There’s a lot wrong with the world, I’m sure you agree. And it’s always other people’s fault, isn’t it? Those nasty foreigners take our jobs. Terrorists come to our country, bomb our streets and shoot our innocent citizens. Immigrants sponge off the state and we, the tax payers, see our hard-earned beer money wasted on those undeserving layabouts. It’s about time the government did something about it.

See that woman with a long nose? She has a cat, you know. And that house she lives in has a strange, old-fashioned door. I bet she’s a witch. She shouldn’t be allowed here; this is a nice neighbourhood. We should do something about it. Let’s knock on her door and run away. Let’s paint graffiti on her garage. Let’s burn down her garden shed. Yeah! Burn it! Burn her! Burn the witch!

Burn the Witch - bird

Burn the Witch is a warning about intolerance. It is taken from Radiohead‘s imminent new album due to be released within hours and with a title that has yet to be announced. There’s a delightful promotional video on YouTube to go with it. The video is set in the idyllic toy-town village of Trumpton where the firemen can solve any problem, except (possibly) a fire. Here is a self-contained community in which only outsiders could ever be a threat.

In the video a bird sings sweetly in the trees as a chauffeur-driven car delivers a bowler-hatted man with a clipboard. He is met in the town square by the mayor of Trumpton. The sound of strings struck with the wooden part of the bow inject tension into the tranquil scene. Will the outsider be a problem? One that the firemen cannot solve? As the visitor is escorted around the town we pass a man painting a red cross on someone’s door; there’s a maiden tied to a tree; there’s a gallows on the green. This is a place with its own idiosyncratic customs – customs that trouble the man with the clipboard deeply.

Burn the Witch - radiohead

The audio track mixes orchestral strings, bowed and struck, with pulsing electronic sounds. It creates an atmosphere that is both utterly innocent and menacingly mysterious. The vocals add an unsettling half-tune and lyrics that demand a personal interpretation from the listener. Radiohead have created a sublime cross between a nursery rhyme and a horror story.

As the video plays out it becomes obvious that it is the story of the Wicker Man in the setting of a children’s TV programme. The message is as disturbing as ever but this new packaging is quite delightful. Crotchety Man is not very familiar with Radiohead‘s music but this track is well worth the asking price and the video is essential viewing. There are a lot of things wrong with the world but Burn the Witch isn’t one of them.

I’d Rather Go Blind

I'd rather go blind - blindfold

Sometimes there’s a moment when everything falls into place. You’ve been searching high and low for the beautiful lady you danced with yesterday. Hundreds of women have tried on the glass slipper but it fits none of them. Then, just when you think you will never find her, a grubby servant girl in ragged clothes slips her foot into the slipper and it fits perfectly. As she stands and turns around you recognise her delicate face and, under the dirt and the rags, you see before you the princess you fell in love with last night.

I’d Rather Go Blind describes a moment like that. It’s an R&B song originally recorded by Etta James in 1967. But, for Etta, it’s a cruel parody of the Cinderella story; she hasn’t found her Prince Charming, she is about to lose him.

Something told me it was over
When I saw you and her talkin’.
Something deep down in my soul said, ‘Cry, girl’
When I saw you and that girl walkin’.

I’d Rather Go Blind was the B-side of Etta James‘ single Tell Mama, which reached number 10 in the Billboard R&B charts and 23 in the pop charts in 1968. That version didn’t chart here in the UK but a cover by the blues band Chicken Shack peaked at 14 in 1969 and stayed in the top 100 for 13 weeks. There have also been versions by Rod StewartMick Hucknall, Paul Weller, Beyoncé Knowles (playing Etta James in the film Cadillac Records) and about a dozen other artists.

I'd rather go blind - chicken shack

Chicken Shack

All the artists I’ve listened to have done straightforward renditions of the song so there’s not a lot to choose between them but, for me, the Chicken Shack version is still the definitive one. It has a slow, bluesy feel supplied by a twangy, early sixties guitar over an organ, bass and drums rhythm section. This is a song for a late night in a sleepy bar, a time and a place to ponder our own personal triumphs and tragedies. Here we can escape from the pestering buzz of the real world and let ourselves be soothed by a smooth malt and soft music.

The singer’s words shake you out of your reverie. Christine Perfect (as she then was) delivers the lyrics with such pathos that you can’t help but feel for her. A horn section hidden in the shadows at the back of the stage wail with her. Whatever troubles you may have this girl’s woes are far greater.

I would rather, I would rather go blind, boy
Than to see you walk away from me
.

“Yes”, you think to yourself, “I remember a time like that”. And, as the song fades away, you slip back into your memories.

I'd rather go blind - christine perfect

Christine Perfect

Christine Perfect married John McVie, the bassist with Fleetwood Mac, the same year that I’d Rather Go Blind was released and not long after that she left Chicken Shack to join her husband’s band. As a member of Fleetwood Mac she contributed vocals, keyboards and song writing for some of the band’s most successful albums and as an artist in her own right she received the British Academy’s Ivor Novello Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Crotchety Man is a fan of Fleetwood Mac from the Peter Green era, before Christine McVie was with them. Although there are some great tracks on Rumours those songs, several written by Ms. McVie, seem just a little bit too easy on the ear. I like them a lot but it’s a slightly guilty pleasure. I can’t help feeling that it was when she recorded I’d Rather Go Blind that Christine was, like Cinderella, just about Perfect.