Procol Harum

Beyond
the Pale

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Procol Harum brings classical-rock sound to A.C.

Cherry Hill, NJ 11June 2010 online here


It was the musical equivalent of a rookie baseball player smacking a grand-slam home run on the first pitch in his first at-bat in the major leagues.

Yet, recording a global hit that would become one of the most iconic songs in the history of popular music was the furthest thing on [sic] the minds of the newly-formed band Procol Harum when it went into a studio and laid down its first tune in 1967.

"We believed what we were doing was different and good," group founder, pianist and composer Gary Brooker says. Brooker, who was knighted  [sic] by Queen Elizabeth several years ago, is the only original member still performing with Procol Harum. He'll lead the latest version of the band onto the stage of the Tropicana on Saturday with special guests Renaissance opening the show.

"We believed if we liked it, then everybody else would like it. But we certainly didn't think that just a few weeks after we put the record out it would be number one in England or number five in the United States."

The song was A Whiter Shade of Pale, one of the earliest rock tunes that fused elements of classical and baroque music borrowed from Johann Sebastian Bach with soulful and mysterious lyrics that hinted of  [sic] a sexual encounter. Over the decades, the song has been covered by dozens of artists, ranging from Willie Nelson and Annie Lennox to Southside Johnny and Riot.

"We were just thinking of (a hit in) England, really, and maybe Scotland," Brooker says with a laugh during a recent chat from his home outside of London. "It really wasn't a global world back then, if you know what I mean. The market just didn't flash like it does today."

From the moment the song was released, it seemed to take on a life of its own. In less than a month, it rocketed up the charts to capture the top position in Great Britain and France and crossed the ocean to become a top 10 hit in America.

Brooker, who co-wrote the song with Matthew Fisher and Keith Reid, acknowledges the song drew its musical influence from Bach compositions such as Air On a G String and Sleepers Wake! and even from the Percy Sledge classic When a Man Loves a Woman.

"JS Bach was the inspiration, of course, with the descending chords and all that," says Brooker, 65. "We had written some interesting words which fit in with my idea for the music and it all just kind of came together. The Hammond organ gave it a sort of haunting sound. I guess everyone must have been waiting for it, because it was so successful and it's lasted all this time."

With more than 900 recorded versions of the song over the past 43 years, A Whiter Shade of Pale ranks right up there with the Beatles' songs Yesterday and Michelle as the most covered songs of all time.

Headlining the Tropicana show is a switch for Procol Harum. The group has just begun touring as the opening act for another legendary British rock band, Jethro Tull, which ironically is headlining at Caesars Atlantic City while Procol Harum is performing down the Boardwalk.

Procol Harum was one of the first bands from the progressive rock era to work with symphony orchestras when it toured. Brooker admits it was something of a risk to combine classical music with rock in live performance.

"I suppose it was a risk in that the rock fans could have said 'We don't like violins' and classical musicians and audience could have said 'We hate rock,' " he offers.

One of the first times the band performed live with an orchestra was in 1971, when the group shared a concert with the Edmonton Symphony in Canada. Brooker says he never had doubts that the combination of the rock band and the classical orchestra would sound great.

"We just didn't know what the effect on the audience would be," he recalls. "But in the auditorium on that night it was absolutely electric in there. People didn't just enjoy it; they were dumbfounded because a lot of those rock people had never heard anything that big and I don't suppose the classical people had ever heard anything that loud."
 


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