When I was in junior high, there was a kid named John Kelly who I really bonded with over music. We would talk about our favorite bands and songs and album covers. One day he showed me his writings about music. He would describe in florid, accurate, detail songs that he’d heard with his ears or in his head. For instance, he would describe the musical introduction to a song like: “a ripple of horns burst forth and give way to a lead guitar that sounds like Leslie West on ‘Nantucket Sleighride.’” So, he was using the non-technical language at his disposal to describe the magic he heard with his ears. He also would do the same thing with songs he made up himself. I thought this was incredibly cool and creative and started doing it myself. I thought I might be remembering the guy and the whole thing wrong, so I broke out my Merrill Jr. High Yearbooks from the early 70’s and there was his picture, just like I remembered him. He had signed it “See Ya Kid-J.K.” I wonder what happened to him? Anyway, we started going over to each other’s houses after school and listening to records. We turned each other on to tons of records that are still among my favorites. The one that stands out the most for me though is Procol Harum’s majestic Grand Hotel.
I had their greatest hits LP, knew their big songs, and always really liked how different they sounded from pretty much every other rock band I had listened to. They had biting, intelligent lyrics, great guitar solos, a huge keyboard sound and a lead singer who sent chills up your spine the minute he opened his mouth. John Kelly showed me his written description of Grand Hotel at school, and at his house one day I asked him to play the one where he described a female, classical singer duetting with the regular vocalist. He put on the song “Fires (Which Burn Brightly)” and my jaw immediately hit the floor. There, after a brief piano intro, came a heavenly voice I was totally familiar with. It was Christiane Legrand of the Swingle Singers, a sophisticated jazz vocal group who became very popular in the era for rearranging classical masterpieces as poppy, scat confections. My dad, a total classical snob, loved them and played them around the house all the time. In the 5:09 minutes it took for this song to run out, my mind was completely changed about a lot of things. Two seemingly incongruous things in my 13-year old life - my taste (rock music) and my dad’s taste (classical music - albeit a light form of it here) - came crashing together in a beautiful moment of happy revelation. I said to John, “Let me borrow this record so I can play it for my dad.” We used to lend each other records back then and he gladly handed it over. As I recall, my father was nonplussed by this (and all) rock music. While I didn’t exactly have the meeting of the minds I was hoping for with him, it had an enormous, lasting effect on me. It was the first time I started to see that musicians of wildly different disciplines could meet in the song and make perfect sense. This was one of the major locks to be opened for me: that real musicians dug each other simply based on the fact that they both spoke the same artistic language. I started listening to Grand Hotel obsessively. I was greatly rewarded.
“Fires (Which Burn Brightly)” remains a high water mark for me. Christiane Legrand’s vocal at the end soars like few things in rock and it still makes me totally weak in the knees to hear it. But the rest of this album is equally wonderful. It might be the album where you can best hear the mesh of Procol Harum’s sound: the elegant grand piano and Hammond organ playing at the same time, B.J. Wilson’s fantastic, understated drumming, Brooker’s soulful growl and grand orchestrations (including strings, choirs, and the aforementioned Legrand), and most importantly on this album, the mysteriously intelligent words lyricist Keith Reid offered up for Procol’s sixth album. Covering economic disparity, alcohol, drugs, T.V. addiction, immoral officials, love, work, venereal disease and everything else relevant in 1973, Reid does it gently and with a Baroque sense of humor that is equal parts Lord Byron and Bob Dylan. He is truly one of the most underappreciated lyricists in rock.
Every single cut on this album is a monster, with special attention going to the first two songs. The title song “Grand Hotel” is indeed grand with a classic Procol Harum opening of piano and Hammond organ which soon gives way to a huge production, including a sweeping orchestra and choir mixing with the band as Brooker describes an opulent stay at the fanciest hotel in the world. The music feels like the greatest ballroom entry of all time. The second song, “Toujours L’Amour,” returns the band to familiar Procol territory as a propulsive drum kicks the guitar-driven song forward. By the time Mick Grabham wrenches his second great solo out of his guitar the song has reached a delirious frenzy.
Each song builds upon the last leaving this as possibly Procol Harum’s best overall album. I miss Robin Trower’s guitar and Matthew Fisher’s memorable organ playing, but their replacements perform admirably, and they really sound like the same band they were in the beginning, but with much better production. Grand Hotel was an enormously influential album in my musical development, and every single time I hear it I am further impressed with its excellence. It surprises me that I liked it as a junior high school kid. Often when I revisit many albums I loved as a kid, I am embarrassed by what I hear. It wasn’t until high school that I actually started developing an ear. I really have to thank John Kelly. That kid had a good ear early on.
- Paul Epstein