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2009 CD reissue is done no favour by modern technology
on 14 January 2010
Let's begin at the positive end: the digi-pack is appealing and Patrick Humphries' sleeve notes hit the exact right balance between introducing this album to the uninitiated and at the same time having something new to tell the long devoted fans.
Musically it is easy to criticise this album for being pompous and cold, but you have to remember that it came out at a time when popular music was at an all time low. I seem to recall the radio playing 'Tie a Yellow Ribbon' all through the summer of 1973 (or perhaps that was the year before - don't tell me, I don't want to know). So-called progressive rock ruled the other end of the musical spectrum, extremely flamboyant, pseudo-intellectual and more obsessed with playing in impossible time signatures than communicating any form of real human emotion. The nightmare seemed never ending, at least until the following year when Procol Harum released 'Exotic Birds and Fruit', by far their best effort during this period.
However, with 'Grand Hotel' we're still stuck in 1973 with a group who used to have three fine songwriters - Brooker, Fisher, Trower - but had been cut back to only one. In many ways, this incarnation of the group might more appropriately have been called the Gary Brooker Band. To make it worse, guitarist Dave Ball, who had replaced Robin Trower, was sacked immediately after the recording of the album. Instead Mick Grabham was called in to overdub nearly all the guitar parts. One of the two bonus tracks on the reissue features Ball's original part and tells us exactly why this happened. Dave Ball was and is by no means a bad guitarist, he was just desperate to kick some life into this dead dog of a record, only he couldn't find a way to do it. Fortunately, Mick Grabham could, and it is very much his effort under these impossible circumstances that lifts the record enough to makes it an interesting listening experience after all.
'Grand Hotel' did nothing to dissolve the stale image the group was developing in the UK at the time, but it suited European audiences and sold well. Over the last 20 years or so it has been reissued many times over on CD, and you may wonder which version to go for. Well, certainly not this one. It pains me to see other reviewers praise this latest reissue for being 'crispy clear' and 'super detailed'. In a sense they may be right, but then everything sounds clear and detailed if you crank the treble up to 11. The sad truth is that this release is extremely poorly remastered, keeping in line with the tradition already established by Salvo since the start of their Procol Harum reissue programme (the two first CDs were playing the music at the wrong speed, and despite complaints from customers nothing has been done to recall these faulty discs or indeed rectify the error on subsequent product). I would love to be able to tell you differently, but the sound on this disc is so flat and harsh it borders on distortion, particularly with regard to vocals and Hammond organ. It is a disgrace to the group and casts a further cold sheen over a record that wasn't exactly renown for its soulfulness in the first place. Organist Chris Copping once complained that the 1973 vinyl version was depressingly poor sounding compared to what he had heard in the studio during the mix, but even a scratched old vinyl LP will still stand head an shoulders above this. You can pick vinyl copies up second hand for chip money, and the UK version even has a large booklet with ALL the lyrics.
With the recent release of the Beatles Mono box set we have seen just how good CDs can really sound in this day and age, and the trick is simple: just copy straight from the original master tape onto digital and keep your equalizers, compressors and limiters etc. way out of sight. The engineers working for Salvo Records obviously have all the advanced computer equipment to smash and flatten and distort the sound of a brilliant 1970s analogue recording, but they don't know how to hold up a tuning fork and check that the tape machine is running at the right speed before they commence on their destructive adventure.
In other words, we are still waiting to hear what Copping heard. Perhaps we will get it the next time around.