Cantorum

penguin choir

This is the second instalment in my campaign to introduce a new term into the dictionary of musical styles: orchestral beats. That tag first appeared in my review of the Archipelago album by Hidden Orchestra in November of last year. Then last week’s Release Radar included something that sounded very similar: Cantorum by Penguin Café. As far as I know there is no connection between the two bands. That they sound so alike must be a case of convergent evolution.

musicians

Penguin Café is a continuation of the Penguin Café Orchestra project started in 1972 by the guitarist, composer and arranger Simon Jeffes. The original ensemble released 5 studio albums and two live albums between 1976 and 1995. The music on those records is difficult to categorise. Imagine a small dance orchestra that plays an assortment of folk, classical and dance pieces from various parts of the world. The PCO, however, were known for their unfettered approach to music as much as for their material. Their most well-known tune, Telephone and Rubber Band, features the simultaneous ring and engaged tones of an old-fashioned telephone when there was a fault on the line. They were not a band who would be confined by the straitjacket of musical conventions.

In 1997 Simon Jeffes died of a brain tumour and the PCO formally disbanded. Several members of the group reunited in 2007 and continued to perform the PCO’s back-catalogue, first as The Anteaters and later as The Orchestra That Fell To Earth. Then, in 2009, Simon Jeffes’ son, Arthur, formed an entirely separate group to continue his father’s project. The new band included musicians from the Royal College of Music and members of Suede and Gorillaz. It was called, simply, Penguin Café.

Crotchety Man has lent his ears to much of the PCO and Penguin Café portfolio. Generally speaking I find the early material a little too twee for my taste. But it gets better. Penguin Café‘s two albums to date, A Matter of Life (2011) and The Red Book (2014) are quite listenable although I wouldn’t describe them as stunning. The latest release is Cantorum, a single from the forthcoming album, The Imperfect Sea, due out on 5th May and to my mind it’s the best track yet.

In tone and texture Cantorum is an ambient orchestral piece but there’s enough of a beat in the background violins and the piano to unlock a sleepy grandma’s eyelids and have grandad tapping the arm of his beach chair as he absent-mindedly watches the children playing on the sand. Its 7 minutes 22 seconds pass in no time, like a breath of warm sea air. As it plays a lifetime of memories are reflected in the old man’s eyes, and the ghost of a by-gone era watermarks his wife’s contented thoughts. For Cantorum is the song that knits their lives together.

Penguin Café don’t quite reach the summits scaled by Hidden Orchestra but they are now on the same path. And two climbing parties originally from opposite sides of the style mountain must, surely, justify giving this proud peak a name. So I ask once again, what could be a more appropriate tag than “orchestral beats”?

I Believe in Father Christmas

I Believe in Father Christmas - letter

Christmas songs are always sweet. A few are sugar plum sickly. One yuletide song, though, can be savoured every year with no queasiness at all. It is Greg Lake’s I Believe in Father Christmas.

Those of you who admired Greg Lake’s music will know already, I expect, that he died of cancer on 7th December, so this post serves as both a tribute to the singer, songwriter, guitarist and bassist and as Crotchety Man’s celebration of the Christmas season.

You could be forgiven for thinking that I Believe in Father Christmas is an anti-religion song. How else can you interpret these lyrics?:

They sold me a dream of Christmas
They sold me a silent night
And they told me a fairy story
’till I believed in the Israelite

Lake himself, though, said that it was meant to be a protest at the tawdry commercialisation of Christmas, not an attack on Christianity itself. The “Father Christmas” in the title is not a jovial man in a red suit who gives presents to excited children nor is he a Christian saint. He is the embodiment of the spirit of Christmas – peace on Earth and goodwill to all men. There is no irony in the title, Greg always did believe in Father Christmas in that sense.

I Believe in Father Christmas was released as a single in November 1975. It was a strong candidate for the Christmas number one on the UK charts that year but, in the end, it was unable to dislodge Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody from the top slot. It nevertheless continues to be a favourite on many radio stations at this time of year.

I Believe in Father Christmas - troika

The original guitar tune sounds quite Christmasy on its own but the addition of a counter-melody by Prokofiev propels it deep into a frosty Winter Wonderland. The Prokofiev tune is the troika passage from the Lieutenant Kijé suite written for a film of the same name. It was suggested by Keith Emerson, Greg Lake’s bandmate in Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and it takes us on a breathless sleigh ride through the snowy Russian countryside.

In the story on which the film is based a military clerk makes a mistake in writing an order promoting several ensigns to the rank of second lieutenant. Wikipedia tells us that instead of “praporshchiki zh … – v podporuchiki” (“as to Ensigns (names), [they are promoted to] Second Lieutenants”, he writes “praporshchik Kizh, … – v podporuchiki” (“Ensigns Kizh, (other names) [are promoted to] Second Lieutenants”. In later versions of the story the name Kizh is spelled Kizhé or Kijé.

Ensign Kijé, of course, did not exist but after his promotion he comes to the notice of the Tsar. To hide the mistake the officials invent a fictitious life for Lieutenant Kijé who rises quickly through the ranks to become a General. Eventually, the Tsar decides to honour General Kijé as a war hero and his script writers are forced to kill him off. The whole story is a gritty satire on bureaucracy.

I Believe in Father Christmas - greg lake

Greg Lake, 1947 – 2016

Somehow Greg Lake’s guitar tune, the Prokofiev theme and the story of Lieutenant Kijé all come together to create a worthy addition to the traditional canon of Christmas songs. And it makes a fitting memorial to an exceptional musician, too.

Archipelago

Archipelago - rocks

In my last post I gave you a glimpse of ten islands strung out like opalescent pearls across a monochrome ocean, the Archipelago album by Hidden Orchestra. It was a deliberately tantalising glimpse and, before we go off to explore the rocks in that necklace, I’d like to take a moment to examine what made a simple listing of track titles and personnel so intriguing.

First, there’s a certain mystery in the titles themselves – just one or two words suggestive of a mood or taken from a strange language. ‘Vainamoinen’ sounds as if it might be Scandinavian; ‘Vorka’ could be Orcish, Klingon or Vogon. But we also have the quite conventional ‘Hushed’ and the downright prosaic ‘Overture’. There is oddness here, but not everything is weird in this new land.

The name of the band presents another puzzle. Why is the orchestra hidden? What hides it from our view? Perhaps it doesn’t really exist. After all, there are only four musicians listed; that’s surely not enough for an orchestra. And yet those four individuals play a bewildering array of instruments – everything from the traditional (violin, piano) through the unlikely (ukulele, zither) to the barminess of the didgeridoo and the obscurity of the kantele (described in the album notes as a zither-harp). Nor must we forget the ‘field recordings’ credited to Joe Acheson. Does that mean we will be treated to bird song or the wind in the willows? Or are we, perhaps, going to hear the grass grow?

If we let our eyes drift over to the list of guest artists on the starboard side we find the album contains “performances and improvisations” by a further ten musicians. This suggests we may be sailing far too close to the treacherous waters of the avant-garde classical composers like John Cage or at least encroaching on some of the freer outposts of jazz. The first entry in that column does nothing to alleviate our nervousness. It says, simply, “Su-a Lee, cello and saw”. We can but hope that that refers to the sound of a large handsaw singing under the caress of the cellist’s bow rather than the grating rasp of sharp metal teeth on the naked wooden body of her fragile instrument. It’s an unsettling item.

Fortunately, next on the guest list is the Scottish harpist and folk singer Mary MacMaster who was already known to Crotchety Man. That she is listed as playing the clarsach and electro-harp is no great surprise as they are simply regional and modern forms of the traditional harp. Then come several ordinary-sounding instrumentalists bringing brass and woodwind into the mix: trumpet, saxophones, clarinet and French horn. One player has a kaval to his name, which turns out to be a type of flute common in Turkey and the Balkans, but flutes are not uncommon in an orchestra. It seems we haven’t ventured too far from familiar waters.

Finally, at the bottom of the “also featuring” list we find George Gillespie who “tap dances on Reminder”. That short note opens our eyes like a slap across the face with a wet fish and sends a shiver of electric fear slithering down our spines. We are all at sea and there seems to be a madman in our midst. Heaven only knows what kind of music this crew creates.

archipelago-collage

It is the questions that the sleeve notes raise that tickle and tease. But, like a dissonant chord, a teaser is only good when it is resolved. Here, then, are some answers to those perplexing questions.

The hiddenorchestra.com website provides the following definition:

Hidden Orchestra is an imagined orchestra created by composer/producer Joe Acheson.

The releases feature a wide variety of guest musicians from different musical backgrounds, recorded separately, and combined by Joe in his studio to create an ‘imaginary orchestra’ that doesn’t really exist.

Dark orchestral textures, with field recordings, bass, and layers of drums and percussion.

And that sums up the project nicely. But it still doesn’t tell us much about the waters we are in. If we were to climb into the crow’s nest and look around would we see the smooth white beaches of classical symphonies, the foaming surf of modern jazz or thunderous waves breaking on heavy rocks? Does our tillerman have a steady hand or does our captain have a wild and beefy heart?

The answer to all those questions is “No”. Archipelago is an album of 5-minute portions of orchestral sound liberally seasoned with fresh sea-salt beats. Sometimes it carries soft flecks of jazzy foam or the cry of seagulls but we are miles from Davis and the Charlie bird flies over a different sea. Our ship rolls a little on the waves and heaves with the swell but there are no sharp rocky outcrops to imperil the passengers or crew. Our course changes frequently but never abruptly as the helmsman guides us deftly round beautiful headlands of melody and into quiet bays of harmony.

I would classify Archipelago as 21st century classical music but Joe Acheson’s compositions make no concessions to common popular music styles whatsoever. In an attempt to define their genre Wikipedia calls it IDM, world music, Electronica, Reggae, Dub, Post-Rock, hip-hop, DnB and jazz. Crotchety Man would remove the reggae, dub and hip-hop from that list, downplay the DnB and add classical at the front. I’m even tempted to coin a new term for it: orchestral beats.

The Hidden Orchestra has all the variety of texture and timbre of a traditional large orchestra – it has strings, woodwind, brass and percussion – but the composer uses them sparingly. There are no massed strings, no ranks of woodwind, no tiers of brass. Each individual instrument has a unique and separate voice. There are also a few sprinklings of electronic effects and natural sounds. There’s no need for extensive use of synthesisers if you can call on someone who plays the saw.

Archipelago - flight

I can’t recommend Archipelago highly enough. It is utterly exquisite and I make no apology for the teaser trick. If I should die tomorrow I would like something from Archipelago to be played at my funeral. Flight would be appropriate, I think. Celestial harp and plaintive cello combine with the round hollow sound of a clarinet and the profound notes of a double bass to create a sense of calm contemplation while a light tune both remembers the sunny days  of the past and looks forward to a still brighter hereafter.

And, if that doesn’t float your boat, try this mesmerising live version of Seven Hunters.

Familiar

Familiar - cat

The ‘classical’ tag appears in these posts from time to time. Sometimes it refers to music from the years 1600 – 1900 but more often it indicates modern music in a style that owes a substantial debt to that period. Familiar is one of those more recent compositions. It is a single taken from Agnes Obel’s forthcoming album Citizen of Glass which is due to be released on 21st October 2016.

Old Man Crotchety had never heard of Agnes Obel until a few days ago when Familiar was played on the BBC’s 6 Music radio station. In my ignorance I was able to listen without any preconceptions, entirely free of expectations that might have coloured my judgement. If I had known that Agnes Obel is a Danish singer/songwriter/pianist known in Denmark and a few neighbouring countries for her ambient piano pieces I might have hit the mental mute button. If you had told me that her first album was entirely composed of pieces for voice and piano inspired by the likes of Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel and Eric Satie I might have stopped for a coffee break. It wasn’t that I dislike those composers (I don’t) it was just that I wasn’t in the mood for something in a late classical style.

Familiar - owl

The track was introduced simply as “This is Agnes Obel and Familiar“; there was no clue to what might be coming. A gentle, slightly echoey piano introduction leads into some ethereal singing. Agnes’ voice is firm and natural. It doesn’t have the power of Shirley Bassey but neither does it suffer the debilitating weakness of the vocals in the average girl band. The overall effect was rather pleasant and the first line was intriguing.

Can you walk on the water …?

Unfortunately, too many of the words are indistinct to extract much meaning on a first listen. Looking up the lyrics on the Internet afterwards I found two or three different versions, none of them terribly enlightening and some definitely wrong. It’s hard to tell whether Agnes’ command of English is imperfect or whether her poetic language has just been lost on me.

While trying to make some sense of the words Crotchety Man’s ears missed the strings in the background until the prominent rasp of a cello takes up the theme and the subtle sigh of a violin adds delicate harmonies. The song has developed a lovely soft, velvety underbelly. Then, out of the blue, airy male voices swoop down and blend with earthy plucked strings for the chorus.

And our love is a ghost that the others can’t see.
It’s a danger.

I was reminded of Mogwai and of Gotye at his most inventive. This is ambient alternative music that demands to be listened to. Agnes Obel is not just another girl singer. She is also a talented composer and pianist, as her two previous albums (Philharmonics, Aventine) have demonstrated. Judging by Familiar she is now becoming an accomplished arranger, too. If she can just find some English words that can be understood without a supplementary explanation she will have the full complement of song-writing skills. Crotchety Man will watch her future output with considerable interest.

Scheherazade …

Scheherazade - herself

The trouble with classical music is that it has no punch. The notes have no attack; melodies wander aimlessly; movements stagnate. Where is the zing of a plucked metal string, or the thwack from a flick of a hickory stick on a taut sheet of calfskin?

The trouble with rock music is that it’s all Punch and no Judy. Riffs pile on riffs; axe confronts truncheon; sausages are stolen and the violence never stops. Where is the calm at the eye of the storm, a rest for the singer, a break for the horns?

Too often it seems there’s a great chasm between classical music and rock but Renaissance, like no other band, show that it is not as wide as you might imagine. Scheherazade And Other Stories is, I think, the most spectacular bridge across those two great continents of the musical world.

On the first side of the 1975 vinyl release of Scheherazade And Other Stories there are three songs. As far as genre goes they sit somewhere around the progressive rock and symphonic rock areas – rock music with the elegance and grace of a symphony. The second side is one 24 minute track that really belongs on the other side of the bridge, in the classical lands. It’s a piano concerto and choral work performed with an orchestra, a choir and amplified electric instruments – classical music with a punch.

Scheherazade - waltzer

The long opening track tells of a scarily disorienting Trip to the Fair. A piano étude leads into a stirring march, an electric bass calling “left, right, left, right, …” in double quick time. Ghostly voices cry on the wind and echo above our heads as we tramp forward; a blood-curdling cackle rips through the air and swiftly fades away. We were promised a night at the funfair but this is no joy ride. The drummer rattles out a military beat as the platoon marches on.

Three and a half minutes in we take a break. All is quiet except for a clockwork glockenspiel that tinkles soothingly in the darkness. Then, just when most pop songs are finishing, the light contralto voice of a wide-eyed girl begins to sing:

I took a trip down to look at the fair,
When I arrived I found nobody there.

The rides are deserted. All is quiet. Everything is still. Nervously she looks around and suddenly the silence is shattered by the screech of the dodgems, the rumble of the waltzers, the wheezing drone of the fairground organs. Lights blaze and the fair is full of people, all staring at her. She screams and closes her eyes to shut out the chaos and cacophony. As she struggles to control her rising panic the gentle glockenspiel theme returns and is accompanied by a delicate jazzy piano interlude. In her mind the girl tries to make sense of what she has seen. She went to the fair, but nobody was there. Nobody was there …

Scheherazade - vultureTrack two is a majestic prog rock song about how people in high places look down on the rest of us, waiting for any chance to profit from the misfortunes of their underlings. It’s called The Vultures Fly High. This is a composition for a 5-piece rock band. No orchestra, no choir; just the usual keyboards, guitars, bass, drums and vocals. It’s a song for a large theatre or open-air arena. Keyboards and bass fill the space with energy, the vocals urge the audience to sing along and the indignant sentiment is one everybody can share. But take heart. Those at the top today will be toppled tomorrow and the once mighty will feel the sharp beak and talons of the new vultures tearing into their soft white flesh.

Sometimes it looks as though we lose,
But then in time the finger points at them,
The next in line.

Scheherazade - ocean gypsy

The first side of the album closes with Ocean Gypsy, a heart-wrenching lament for a lost soul. The words are poetic with all the allure and ambiguity that comes from allusions to older literature. I like the interpretation by Waffles McCoy (on song meanings.com) in which he says “this song tells the tale of someone who gives so much of herself to another that her own essence is eventually lost”. The lyrics remind us of ancient myths in which the sun and moon would be lovers but are doomed never to feel each other’s touch, one trapped in the night, the other confined to the day. As befits such a tragic tale the music is full of synthesiser chords lapping on a sandy beach, guitar runs rippling over pebbles and vocal harmonies whispering with the wind. It is a truly beautiful song.

Scheherazade - song of

On the album’s second side there is the Song of Scheherazade in which Renaissance tell the framing story for the collection of middle-eastern folk tales, One Thousand And One Nights. Set in an unspecified country centuries past it tells of a Sultan who discovers that his wife has been unfaithful to him. In his fury and humiliation he has her executed and, believing that all women are equally deceitful, he vows to take a new wife every day. The Sultan instructs his vizier to select a virgin from among his people for each new bride and, having spent the night with her, he has her beheaded before she can dishonour him, as his first wife had done.

This continues until the only marriageable woman left is the vizier’s own daughter Scheherazade. In spite of the vizier’s pleas to spare his daughter the Sultan insists that Scheherazade should be his next bride. Scheherazade consoles her distraught father, telling him that she is not afraid and hinting that she will not die when the dawn comes the morning after the wedding.

The wedding ceremony takes place, as arranged, and that night Scheherazade draws on her knowledge of myths, legends and traditional stories to entertain her king and pass the long hours until daybreak. The Sultan is utterly enthralled by Scheherazade’s tale of great princes, precious talismans and magical rings. When dawn breaks and the story is still unfinished the king postpones Scheherazade’s execution for one day so that he may hear how it ends. The next night Scheherazade finishes the tale and starts another. The Sultan finds the new story just as fascinating as the last and it, too, remains unfinished when the sun comes up again. So the Sultan postpones the execution one more day.

Scheherazade continues telling her exotic tales, the ending untold at dawn, for a thousand nights. Finally, when the Sultan asks for another bedtime story, Scheherazade tells him that she has no more. By this time, though, the Sultan has fallen deeply in love with the vizier’s daughter and he publicly recants his pledge to execute his wives.

Scheherazade - faces

It is an epic tale and ideally suited to the symphonic rock format that Renaissance do so well. For this track the band is augmented by a full orchestra and they use it to transform their rock opera into a classical choral work. It could have been done with synthesisers but, in 1975 when the album was recorded, an orchestra provided more scope for variety of sound and texture.

Although Song of Scheherazade is divided into nine sections it is really a single piece of music. Of those nine sections four are songs and five are instrumentals. One of the songs is a story within a story – a love poem that Scheherazade told to the Sultan – echoing the multi-layered structure of the original One Thousand And One Nights collection. That short song stands out as exceptionally warm and life-affirming. The other songs tell of the Sultan’s bitterness, Scheherazade’s courage and story-telling skill, and the people’s joy when the Sultan announces an end to the killings. The instrumental passages tie the songs together seamlessly and build a tapestry into which the fabulous tale is woven.

Scheherazade bewitched him with songs of jewelled keys …
Told him tales of sultans and talismans and rings.
A thousand and one nights she sang to entertain her king.

Scheherazade, Scheherazade, Scheherazade!

In the end, is Scheherazade and Other Stories classical or rock? Perhaps it is neither. Perhaps it is both. It certainly has the power and punch of a rock music track. And it has the elegance and grace of classical works, too. So, who cares how we label it. It’s rollicking great music; let’s just enjoy it.

I Vow To Thee …

I Vow To Thee - pledge

Last Saturday Crotchety Man went back to school.

It was the first time I had visited my old school, St. Dunstan’s College, in more than 45 years. My father, who also went to St. Dunstan’s, had visited a couple of years ago when they celebrated the 125th anniversary of moving to their present site in south London. This time they had invited former pupils who would have been in their final year between 1930 and 1970 for lunch and a tour around the school buildings. Having left in 1970 I was one of the youngest; my father, who left in 1949, was one of the oldest.

We had been told we would be interviewed by one of the prefects about our memories of our school days and subsequent careers. The conversation was to be videoed and added to the College’s ever growing archives. Needless to say this prompted some extensive archaeology within Crotchety Man’s personal memory banks in search of historical facts, anecdotes and, if possible, skeletons in the hope of providing something interesting, amusing or shocking for the official record.

Several artefacts came to light. There was the time Mr. Jeffries, a diminutive but perfectly formed example of the teaching profession (affectionately nicknamed ‘Peanut’), came into the classroom where we were expecting to have a German lesson. He hoisted himself into a sitting position on the big table at the front of the room and announced, “I don’t feel like doing any work today. Someone tell me a joke”. But I am not Tom Brown and this is a music blog not an autobiography covering my less Crotchety school days, so I won’t go into that.

I Vow To Thee - building

St. Dunstan’s College

One memory, though, that is appropriate for these pages is of a hymn we used to sing occasionally in the school assemblies. Although I loved some of the hymns I sang as a choirboy in our local church, I Vow To Thee My Country was always my favourite and it was only in those school assemblies that I had a chance to hear it and sing it. It is a highly patriotic song, excessively patriotic in my opinion. Perhaps that’s why it was never on the board in St. Bartholomew’s church. Or perhaps it just wasn’t in the hymn book used there. I don’t know. What I do know is that this hymn, with its Thaxted tune, was given to me by St. Dunstan’s College and for that I am very grateful.

I Vow To Thee My Country started as a poem by Sir Cecil Spring Rice, British Ambassador to the United States of America from 1912 to 1918. The poem was set to music in 1921 by the English composer Gustav Holst. Holst cheated a bit. Instead of writing a new piece to accompany the poem he took the music from his orchestral suite, The Planets. It is, in fact, the middle section of the fourth movement, Jupiter.

I Vow To Thee - jupiter

Jupiter is supposed to be the Bringer of Jollity, as Holst titled it, but it doesn’t feel jolly to me. Perhaps ‘playful’ is a better description for the main theme of the movement but neither ‘jolly’ nor ‘playful’ fit the tone of the bit in the middle that became the patriotic hymn in praise of dear old England. I prefer to think of I Vow as a sober but stirring folk song arranged for a full orchestra and choir. The instrumental parts sound to me more determined than frivolous, more hopeful than carefree. The words, though, express a somewhat different sentiment.

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
Entire and whole and perfect the service of my love.

The writer is pledging to serve his country with all his strength and courage, to fight for the motherland even if it means he has to make the final sacrifice and lay down his life. It’s all a bit over the top. I mean, it’s OK to support your national football team but a blind allegiance to your flag, whatever colour it may be, smacks of rampant nationalism – the kind of nationalism, in fact, that had led to the Great War and prompted Cecil Spring Rice to write a rarely used second verse lamenting the terrible loss of life in that conflict.

The link I gave above is to a version of I Vow To Thee My Country by Helena Blackman and the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. It’s a tad slower than most but it’s a good recording and the various textures of the strings, woodwind and brass come across really well. Enjoy the music, sing along with it if you like, but don’t think too much about the words. There’s a subtle difference between a love of one’s own country (patriotism) and  a belief that all other nations are inferior to your own (nationalism).

I Vow To Thee - leaver

The school reunion was scheduled to run from 12 noon to 3 pm. Mr. and Mrs. Crotchety had made full use of their Senior Railcards and the advanced booking rules to get cheap train tickets and we had to leave promptly at 3 o’clock to catch the train for the return journey. As the lunch progressed it became obvious that we would not have time for a tour of the school or to recount any memories for a prefect wielding a video camera. So, sadly, I never had a chance to entertain one of the current pupils with my wit and humour. To be honest, although she was polite and welcoming she didn’t really seem to be that interested in the old fogeys who surrounded her. And I’m just a Crotchety Old Man these days.

Afterword

This post was prompted by the school reunion but, in the wake of the British EU Referendum result, it seems to have taken on a slightly political slant. I think our decision to leave the EU highlights a disturbing rise of nationalism within the UK and I worry that this might ignite the fuse of nationalist tendencies elsewhere in Europe. We shall see.

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.