Classic Rock Review

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Procol Harum Grand Hotel (1973)


You know, I’m slowly becoming convinced that Gary Brooker is one of the greatest songwriters in the whole art rock genre, even if I still don’t really appreciate his voice. This is their sixth studio album in a row of constant tens, nines and eights. I remember when I first heard it I didn’t like it all – pompous, keyboard-drenched symphonic garbage, I thought, but I’ve been a fool. The album rules mercilessly – I just listened to it four times in a row and couldn’t get enough of it.

Trower’s departure made a significant impact on the sound, and yet they didn’t exactly return to base. New guitarist Mick Grabham is competent but not too prominent on the album; more significant is Chris Copping’s relegation to organ with the addition of a new bass player. This means that keyboards again fully dominate the band, and the sound is deep and full once again, based on piano/organ interplay. But this hardly sounds like Salty Dog or Shine On Brightly.

In fact, if I might permit myself the audacity of inventing the term ‘barocco rock’ (of course, if it hasn’t been invented already – I don’t want to steal anybody’s terminology), this is one of the few, if not the only, rock album in the world that would share the epithet. Everything about it, from the title to the album cover to the lush strings/choirs/piano arrangements, suggests that this is a fine example of barocco art. And I like barocco art.

The ultra-pompous title track says it all, in fact: a beautiful, romantic keyboard intro, grandiose lyrics (‘tonight we sleep on silken sheets’ and suchlike), orchestrated arrangements and quotations from waltzes and ‘Otchi chyornije’ (one of the few well-known Russian gypsy songs, if you’re not familiar). The quotations might seem somewhat banal and out of place, but the melody itself, along the lines of ‘A Salty Dog’ but still somewhat different, is gorgeous – nobody could pull off such pomp and totally get away with it like good old Procol. Everybody knows how hard it is to write a bombastic, orchestrated ode and make it impressive as well. But these guys were really really talented, and Brooker has an amazing talent of dealing with classical music without any special education.

Another fascinating example of baroque classicism on the album is the flabbergastingly great ‘Fires (Which Burn Brightly)’, based on the by now traditionally gloomy Reid lyrics and a heavenly piano phrase. Of course it has nothing to do with rock music, but why should it? We all know rock music as such does not exist, don’t we? Rock songs probably do, but rock albums don’t. And this isn’t a rock song, it’s a beautiful, sad lament highlighted by some generic, but pleasant female background singing. B. J. Wilson also swings out on this one, demonstrating his ample drumming talents, but it’s the keyboard line that really makes the song, as well as the swirling organ in the more “energetic” solo passage..

The rest of the album seems to almost be built around these two principal pillars: none of the other tracks are as grandiose, but most of them are still extremely well written, not always concentrating on the same grandiose style to allow some breathing space, but practically always containing some tasty hooks and nice moods. There’s only one obviously bad tune on the album, in fact – the dorky anti-television pamphlet ‘TV Caesar’; its ugliness doesn’t have as much to do with the straightforward silly lyrics (‘TV Caesar mighty mouse/Shares a bed in every house’) as with the painfully simple and nursery-style melody. It might have been less painful if the horrible refrain weren’t repeated for at least a million times throughout the six-minute long song. I hate the song utterly and deprive the album of the ten for exactly that reason. It’s one of the few examples where Brooker’s combination of ‘high art’ with ‘memorable hooks’ really does the man a disfavour.

But apart from that problem, the album’s reputation is immaculate. There are amusing, lazy shuffles with puzzling pseudo-autobiographical stories (‘A Rum Tale’ – with hilarious lyrics like ‘I’m buying an island, somewhere in the sun/I’ll hide from the natives, live only on rum’), some of them based on prominent sad and majestic piano (‘For Liquorice John’, a song that might seem repetitive to some but is completely redeemed by the subtle melancholic atmosphere so niftily created by these minimalistic piano lines). And if you want to have some reminiscence of why Procol Harum were actually called a ‘rock band’ with all that endless classical piano pop, they include a couple of convincing, er, symph rockers (‘Toujours L’Amour’ and ‘Bringing Home The Bacon’, with the best guitar on the album), that chug along with enough force and power to convince even the most venomous sceptics.

And finally, just so as for you to have some lightweight relief for your soul, there are two obscene ditties on the album, one about veneral diseases (‘A Souvenir Of London’), one about drug smuggling (‘Roberts Box’); the first one was even banned on the radio, although it ain’t that easy to discover what ’em lyrics are about. ‘Got a souvenir in London, gotta hide it from my mom’. That dirty old Keith! The songs are nice.

Thus, please don’t carry on the mistake that some critics and reviewers have made – namely, that Procol lost it entirely with the departure of Trower. It was certainly a big loss for the band (even if some of the fans only thought they’d gained from it, disliking Robin for his pushing the band back to the ‘roots’ on the previous albums), but Trower’s guitar never really lied at the very heart of Procol’s sound, rather serving as a powerful and very useful embellishment. And Trower didn’t carry away even a single bit of the band’s songwriting talents, nor did his departure influence the usual wittiness of Keith Reid’s lyrics. Anyway, chronologically speaking, this might just as well be the last great Procol Harum album. Dang it, how many great albums might one band have? They’ll soon beat out the Stones in the average rating if I keep giving them high marks such as these!

March 18, 2013 Posted by | Procol Harum Grand Hotel | | Leave a comment