It’s been a busy year so far for Esoteric Recordings. They’ve reissued albums from Curved Air, Chris Squire, Seventh Wave, and Procol Harum. Since reissuing the first four Procol albums three years ago I’ve wanted to see the label release some of the band’s classic ’70s albums, and the Still There’ll Be More anthology box set appeared in March this year, now followed by an expanded edition of Grand Hotel.
Originally released on the Chrysalis label in March 1973, Grand Hotel is considered one of the band’s finest works. The album went to number 4 in Denmark and number 21 on the Billboard album charts, the title-track inspiring Douglas Adams to write The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, the second book in his The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, published in 1980.
After the release of the adventurous live album Procol Harum Live: In Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra in April 1972, the time was right to take the orchestral vibes a gigantic step further. Grand Hotel was recorded at London’s AIR Studios that same year with Chris Thomas in the production chair, after working with the band on their fourth studio album, Home, released in the summer of 1970, but by September 1972 guitarist Dave Ball had left the band to form Bedlam with his brother Dennis and Cozy Powell on drums.
The album was originally going to be released in October but was delayed until early Spring of 1973, so the decision was taken to scrap about 90% and re-record replacing Ball’s guitar playing. Scheduled gigs were cancelled to allow them to return to AIR in November to undertake more recordings.
Grand Hotel is not just Procol Harum’s masterpiece, it’s an album that is like a flaming fire that will never, ever burn out. Toujours L’Amour (‘Always Love’ in French) is a break-up song with a dark comedic twist, Keith Reid’s lyrics describing a woman leaving her husband to start a new chapter in her life, he comes home to find the house empty and that she has taken their pet cat as well. Gary Brooker’s waltz turned rocking piano intro, B.J. Wilson’s intensive drum work, and Mick Grabham’s guitar delve into the man’s stunned reaction, giving the listener insights as his thoughts of starting a family fly away into the sky.
T.V. Caesar was inspired by the late-night talk show hosts like Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, and David Frost who almost wanted to hypnotise their guests while talking to them, giving viewers insights on their secret fears, and it is still happening many years later with Jimmy Kimmel, Stephen Colbert, and Jimmy Fallon, to name a few. There are incredible lines describing the host getting details of the celebrity’s private life, the guests not wanting to talk about areas that reveal the skeletons in the closet they’ve hidden for a long time:
“T.V. Caesar, Mighty Mouse
Gets the news in every house.
Who’s been doing what with who
How they do it when they do
Every fact, and every sinner
Every fact, and every figure.”
The choir, orchestra, Chris Copping’s incredible organ work, Brooker giving details on what the hosts are doing along with little spoofs of Frost’s “Oooh” vocal characteristics and, reminiscent of The Beatles’ Abbey Road side 2 medley, showing that the hosts have a darker side that they hide behind the mask they wear to please the audience.
The title-track, as I mentioned in the Still There’ll Be More box set review, features waltz piano and Wilson’s drums dancing from a slow to a mid-fast tempo rhythm, followed by the string section and the romantic beauty of the choir in a roaring ‘20s invitation to the Hotel, to dine, drink and spend the night. Bringing Home the Bacon is a song about hamburger joints, through the booming bass and snare drum, the soulful organs, romantic waltz piano, and Alan Cartwright’s bass the band take you on a roller-coaster ride, up, down, and through a spiralling loop.
The haunting beauty of Fires (Which Burnt Brightly) is again a waltz with beautiful vocalisations by Christiane Legrand. Reid’s lyrical context is dystopian in that this once beautiful place is now just piles of rubble and ashes. Legrand’s voice sets some of the background near the end section as the band gives her centre stage to hit the notes perfectly. For Liquorice John tackles the subject of suicide and is dedicated to Gary Brooker’s friend Dave Mundy, one of the early supporters of Procol forerunners The Paramounts. He loved the band, but hated the name and wanted them to change it to ‘Liquorice John and his All Stars’. He took his own life in the early ‘70s. This elegiac song moves through a haunting and mournful piano, Chris Thomas’ production gives an ‘underwater’ sound that makes it ominous and strange. The technology was so ahead of its times to create that surreal beauty.
The five bonus tracks on this reissue contains the raw version of the title track without the choir and the orchestra, plus four of the tracks recorded with Dave Ball during the original sessions. You can hear Dave bring some of the emotions through the mid-section of Toujours L’amour before Grabham delivered the goods on the album version. The raunchy slowed down blues rocker version of Bringing Home the Bacon features the concerto sections, Brooker going to town, getting the listener’s stomach growling for some of those juicy hamburgers to make their mouths watery. Fires (Which Burnt Brightly) is quite similar to the album version, but features a harpsichord that opens the introduction, giving some details of a work-in-progress. Copping’s organ is more exuberant than on the album version.
Now onto the DVD which is a full-length TV appearance that originally appeared on RTBF TV in Belgium on 25th November 1973, entitled Procol Harum – Face Au Public. Without an orchestra, the band are having an amazing blast, not just hammering the classics, including the sobering sail to death on A Salty Dog, the sing-along of the roaring ‘20s/early ‘30s that Brooker’s clothing designs suggest on the romantic waltz of A Rum Tale, the stormy thunders of Conquistador, and Power Failure, featuring the late great B.J. Wilson’s incredible work on the drums; he doesn’t simply pound but shows his jazz chops, the band giving him centre stage. This song is their moment of fun with added humour, the DVD closing with the folky sing-along march of A Souvenir of London, Gary wearing a coat and hat and playing a six-string banjo. It beats out side 2 of the acoustic side of Led Zeppelin’s third album, the band having a blast, ending with Brooker taking his hat off and saying good bye, just before bassist Alan Cartwright throws his pick to land in Brooker’s hat.
Grand Hotel is not just Procol Harum’s magnum opus, it’s also an album that refuses to die. The 28-page booklet contains liner notes by Procol Harum expert Roland Clare, detailing the history of the album and the DVD. There are photos of their performance at the Hollywood Bowl in 1973, behind-the-scenes at the album cover shoot, and a poster for their performance at the College Park Auditorium, plus the illustrated lyrics.
When you think of albums that came out of 1973, you might think of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, The Who’s Quadrophenia, David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane, Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy, and Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, but Procol Harum’s Grand Hotel is quite often not included in the list. It has flown under the radar, but after nearly 45 years it’s time to re-open the doors to spend another night at Hotel Grande:
“One more toast to greet the morn
The wine and dine have danced till dawn
Where’s my Continental Bride?
We’ll Continental slip and slide
An early morning pinch and bite (These French girls always like to fight)
It’s serenade and Sarabande
The nights we stay at Hotel Grande.”
01. Grand Hotel (6:09)
02. Toujours L’Amour (3:32)
03. A Rum Tale (3:21)
04. T.V. Caesar (5:54)
05. A Souvenir of London (3:21)
06. Bringing Home the Bacon (4:18)
07. For Liquorice John (4:26)
08. Fires (Which Burnt Brightly) (5:09)
09. Robert’s Box (4:46)
~ Bonus tracks:
10. Grand Hotel (Without Orchestra or Choir) (6:09)
11. Bringing Home the Bacon (Dave Bell-era Recording) (6:07)
12. Toujours L’Amour (Dave Ball-era Recording) (3:40)
13. Fires (Which Burnt Brightly (Dave Ball-era Recording) (5:04)
14. Robert’s Box (Dave Ball-era Recording) (4:39)
Total Time – 66:43
Disc Two – DVD (Procol Harum – Face Au Public, 25th November 1973)
01. Bringing Home the Bacon
02. Grand Hotel
03. Fires (Which Burnt Brightly)
04. A Salty Dog
05. A Rum Tale
07. For Liquorice John
08. Power Failure
09. A Souvenir of London
Gary Brooker – Lead Vocals, Piano, Harpischord, Six-String Banjo
Alan Cartwright – Bass Guitar
Dave Ball – Guitar (tracks 11-14)
Mick Grabham – Guitar
Chris Copping – Organ
B.J. Wilson – Drums, Percussion, Mandolin
Keith Reid – Lyrics
Christine Legrand – Vocals (track 8)
Record Label: Esoteric Recordings
Catalogue Number: ECLEC 22632
Date of Release: 29th June 2018