In 1973, Procol Harum released its seventh album, Grand Hotel. This was the same year Paul McCartney’s Band on the Run and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon hit the record shops. Because of this, Grand Hotel got lost in the shuffle, although it did peak on the U.S. and U.K. charts at number 21. But it was a stellar effort in its own right and an unusual one, filled with tales of decadence, suicide, lost love, and drunken reverie.
It was not, however, a concept album in the strictest sense of the word, even though such albums were the musical fashion of the day. The concept, Keith Reid maintains in the new liner notes that come with the 2009 remastered version of the album on Salvo, remains only within the title track. If there is a running thread here, it is a staunch sense of melancholy mixed with grandeur, of a time of ballrooms, sweeping skirts, tuxedos and waxed mustaches.
The album is Procol Harum’s shining moment, musically sophisticated but never heavy-handed. Humor hides in corners, winking out behind the orchestral pomp. “Where’s my continental bride/We’ll continental slip and slide/Early morning pinch and bite/These French girls always like to fight,” goes some of the lyrics on “Grand Hotel.”
The songs at times start with wistful romanticism and end up in a sad, drunken heap on the floor. In “A Rum Tale,” the story begins on a note of optimism as the enamored suitor sings: “She’s fuddled my fancy/She’s muddled me good” and ends with the lovelorn simp bemoaning his fate: “I’m buying a ticket/For places unknown/It’s only a one-way/I’m not coming home/She’s swallowed my secret, and taken my name/To follow my footsteps/And knobble me lame.”
There are moments of sheer beauty. “Fires (Which Burnt Brightly),” for one, is among the greatest songs Procol Harum has ever recorded. Its melody reflects the despair of the lyrics, yet there is majesty in the piece, like an ousted leader walking off into the sunset with his back straight and his head held high. This song also marks one of the only times the group used a guest singer to augment the track: Christianne Legrand from the Swingle Sisters.