Thursday, 5 November 2009

PROCOL HARUM: Pandora's Box



Caught this on the radio the other night. Lena hadn’t heard it before and was blown away by it. It’s a curious record to be sure, and an even curiouser single to go Top 20 (only just) in 1975. While the video squeals “1975!” nothing in this record sounds remotely like anything happening in 1975, not even the 1975 of “I’m Not In Love” or “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

I have it on one of those old school no-frills double compilations called The Collection which I bought for about 10p donkey’s years ago. I miss those compilations of old; I’ve been going through a number of them for TPL of late – the Four Tops, the Supremes, the Hollies, the Seekers; somebody in EMI marketing knew what the time was in 1968 – and all you got were track listings, a couple of photos, and that was it. No liner notes, scholarly or otherwise; the artists were a mystery and as the listener it was up to you to formulate a story out of their music if you didn’t know them already. I don’t have its parent album since Procol’s Ninth was a bit of a stinker, though I thoroughly recommend going out and getting their first four albums plus the live album they did with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra plus 1974’s Exotic Birds And Fruit which may well be their masterpiece. Grand Hotel from 1973 isn’t bad either if you’ve never heard John Cale’s Paris 1919.

Procol were definitely in a bit of a quandary by 1975 and it’s unsurprising that Gary Brooker blew the whistle a couple of years later; Leiber and Stoller had been drafted in to produce Procol’s Ninth and it seems to have been a botched back-to-basics type move with a couple of odd cover versions (tackling “Eight Days A Week” was, to put it mildly, misguided). Moreover, “Pandora’s Box,” the album’s only decent track, seems to have been laid down much earlier and rescued from the shelf.

It really is a strange piece of work. Keith Reid’s free association historical namechecks, ranging from Handel to Morse, get their typical airing, and there is the overall “Salty Dog” feeling of being marooned in the middle of nowhere, groping to find treasure, or revelation, in strange lands, as evinced by the Paul Bowles-like “marble staircased plain” which materialises so ghostily at the end of each verse (there isn’t really a chorus). The song stops and starts and there are elements of both 1969 and 1981 at work; the Harrison-esque Leslie cabinet guitar solo, the general still-can’t-find-our-way-home aura of fuggy mystique, but also a serene cleanliness in the pronounced marimba strikes, the petrol station synthesisers (Korg string?), the peculiarly cheery flute solo and Spanish main-brushing slow samba beat, as though the mystery is cleaning itself up clinically in preparation for an airily brushed future. And that weird, where-did-my-hands-go guitar delay throb which lurks as though wanting to blow the song up. Ah, the title's forewarning of the selfish, unthinking Westerner come to fuck up the East with their stupid sixteenth century ambitions.

Its principal factor, though, is Brooker’s voice – this is a less clearcut journey through jazzy towpaths than Traffic’s, though Brooker and Winwood do tend to get bracketed together as countrified white soul psychouts. At least I do, and maybe Kate Bush does too, given Brooker’s key contributions to her (comparatively) recent albums. But look at him on the video clip, and swim in his strangely upturned eyebrow of “plain” – am I the only one considering the subtle influence of Bill Fay?

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