“It’s a tricky one to play.”
Were my ears deceiving me? Here was the voice behind one of the most frequently heard-and-covered songs of all time, a voice that sometimes sounds like Bryan Ferry with a working soul, at others like Lowell George after a year off the sauce and needles, but mostly like nothing else. Now, naked and wintry, it was utterly Southend, and just a bit unsettling.
Buttonholing a hero is seldom the wisest move. Knowing you’ll probably be lucky to get in one line before an uneasy, twitching silence sets in is apt to send the brain into a right old tizzy. One question; one sentence: that’s all. Better make it a doozy. Thus it was, outside the National Film Theatre last November, that Gary Brooker, Mr Whiter Shade of Pale himself, was subjected to one of the more cringeworthy slices of fandom of his career.
He had been in the audience for a screening of a collection of Procol Harum videos, sitting at the back and taking a shy bow. When I spotted him outside the entrance afterwards I knew I had to shake his hand and, well, express something. In the end I plumped for gratitude. “I just wanted to thank you for A Rum Tale, which is one of the greatest songs I’ve ever heard.”
The answer was quick and soft: “It’s a tricky one to play.”
Cue another nervy spasm of flattery and thanks and the blinkingly brief encounter was over. Nothing like meeting a relic from one’s youth to make you feel 16 again.
A Rum Tale is the grievously neglected centrepiece of Grand Hotel, 40 years old this month. While no masterpiece (handicapped by a lineup in perpetual flux, the Proculs never quite pulled off the album they threatened to), the combination of r’n’b-infused baroque pop, Keith Reid’s poetic lyrics and Brooker’s huskily unique vocals (not to mention some extremely persuasive-but-tricky chords) made it the only challenger to Dark Side of the Moon for my affections in the spring of 1973.
How apt that these two records should have been released in the same month. The Procols and Pink Floyd, along with The Nice, had been prog rock’s trailblazers, and it was AWSOP, released a month before See Emily Play and just as The Nice embarked on their first gigs, that flung open the door. There’d been nothing remotely like it before: Bach, Chaucer and Dylan share an LSD trip serenaded by an Essex boy yearning to sing the blues, and succeeding.
But for all that song’s enduring allure, never mind that of soundalike follow-up Homburg and the gentle seafaring majesty of A Salty Dog, let alone the similarly serene beauty of Broken Barricades or the sheer glorious Englishness of Quite Rightly So, it’s A Rum Tale that defines the Procols for me.
It’s a waltz by any other name, propelled by Brooker’s jaunty piano and lifted orbitwards by Chris Copping’s organ solo (ripped off expertly by The dBs and June and The Exit Wounds in decades to come). Leavened as Reid’s words are with the barbed, self-mocking humour one all but expects of someone whose grandparents fell foul of the Holocaust, they nail lovestruckness as succinctly as one could possibly wish. As Brooker told Chris Welch in 2000, “I think Keith must have been going through a bad spell.”
She’s fuddled my fancy
She’s muddled me good
I’ve taken to drinking
And given up food
I’m buying an island
Somewhere in the sun
I’ll hide from the natives
Live only on rum
I’m selling my memoirs
I’m writing it down
If no one will pay me
I’ll burn down the town
I’ll rent out an aircraft
And print on the sky
If God likes my story
Then maybe he’ll buy
I’m buying a ticket
For places unknown
It’s only a one-way
I’m not coming home
She’s swallowed my secrets
And taken my name
To follow my footsteps
And knobble me lame
Not the least intriguing aspect of all this is that A Rum Tale is preceded on Grand Hotel by Toujours L’Amour, its spiritual doppelganger and tonal opposite (not one but two screechingly exhilarating solos from a guitarist by the vaguely onomatopoeic name of Mick Grabham):
She took all the pleasure and none of the pain
All of the credit and none of the blame
I came home to an empty flat
She’d left me a note and taken the cat
Sounds like a bad year all round for Mr Reid: oh, how one person’s pain can so translate so effortlessly into musical gold. Brooker and Reid’s oeuvre may not quite match Bacharach and David’s, I grant you, but on occasion they swum in that same celestial cesspit of a romantic pool. And never more winningly than on A Rum Tale.