Why You Should Listen To Procol Harum Again
Procol Harum's first release, A Whiter Shade of Pale, went No 1 in eleven countries, sold over ten million copies worldwide and ranks as the single most played song in public places in the UK of the last seventy-five years. Small wonder this organ-driven classic tends to trounce every other song the band ever issued. While it's cool that the band created a piece that potent, it's sad that it has so overshadowed the many inventive, grand, and fetching pieces they created in its wake.
This May will mark fifty years since Procol Harum issued the single that, through its surging mix of Bach and R&B, helped pioneer prog-rock. To mark that milestone, the band will release their first album of brand new studio material in fourteen years, Novum, at the end of April.
To toast the breadth, and longevity of their legacy I've highlighted twenty fantastic Procol Harum songs that aren't A Whiter Shade of Pale. For the list, I delved below the band's second tier FM staples, like Conquistador, A Salty Dog and Shine On Brightly, to detail songs that deserve to be heralded on their own.
The final cut on Procol Harum's self-titled debut album closed things out with an instrumental flourish. Countering the band's usual songwriting team of Brooker (music) and Keith Reid (lyrics), Walpurgis was written by keyboardist Matthew Fischer [sic], the same guy who provided that courtly, Bach-inspired riff for Pale. (He didn't receive a co-writing credit for his crucial contribution, however, until 2009). Though Fischer based his music for Walpurgis on the work of 19th Century French composer Charles-Marie Widor [!], the result sounds more like rock's answer to Edvard Greig's sinister In The Hall of the Mountain King. In that spirit, it ideally balances adventure with dread.
PH left this track left off their début album yet they gave it a crucial role as the follow-up single to Pale. Released four months after their smash, it was considered by many to be a simple rehash. While it does boast equally trippy lyrics and a similarly stately organ, the melody by Brooker has its own, august allure.
Quite Rightly So
For Procol Harum's second album, Shine On Brightly, they went whole hog into prog-rock, allowing a seventeen-minute, preciously titled suite, In Held 'Twas In I, to eat up all [sic] of side two. Still, their 1968 album eased listeners in with a single that boasted a melody as compelling as an early Traffic hit, pumped by organ lines as colorful as a carnival.
The Devil Came From Kansas
A psychedelic sense of exploration informs this cut from the band's third album, A Salty Dog, released in March 1969. Fired by BJ Wilson's heavy drumming and Robin Trower's tremolo'd guitar, the melody evolves through several sections (one of them clearly evokes Leonard Cohen's Suzanne). As proof of the song's adaptability, Cat Stevens (aka Yusuf Islam) cut an excellent cover on his second return-to-pop album in 2014.
There has never been a Procol Harum song quite like this one. In contrast to the band's usual dense rhythms and broad soundscapes, this time they went for the light and tipsy cadences of the Caribbean, using fruity whistles and bright marimbas to seal the scene. The song also features a rare lead vocal from Fischer, who produced the album but then ditched the band directly after it came out.
All This and More
One of the most erudite melodies in the band's early canon can be found in this elegant track. Its tune luxuriates in Brooker's sonata-like [!] piano.
The Milk of Human Kindness
Behind the scenes, key members of the band began to butt-heads during by this time. But, musically, they were in perfect synch, finely integrating Brooker's prickly piano, Fischer's rich organ and Trower's shimmering guitar.
Long Gone Geek
It's not surprising that Geek didn't make the initial version of A Salty Dog. It rocks harder than anything else on that disc. Thankfully, it did surface on a 2009 reissue, where it showcased Trower's shivering guitar and Wilson's barrelling drum volleys.
You won't find a finer example of Procol Harum's hard rocking side than this rebuke to demon alcohol. To kick off their 1970, barn-burner of an album, Home, Trower fashioned one of classic-rock's most coiled guitar riffs. He elaborated it with a solo that kicked and glistened. The hard new focus of Home reflected both the defection of Fischer and the ascent of Trower. But the topper on the track comes from drummer Wilson, who bangs a cow bell for all its worth.
About To Die
The other key, Trower-penned track on Home fits more snugly into the band's formula, only to up the urgency. The tsunami of organ on the track will grip you, while a jazzy piano solo from Brooker runs rings around it.
The nautical lyrics in Whaling Stories suggest it may have been a left-over from A Salty Dog. But it's hard to imagine the band not putting out a piece this great as soon as they could. Its seven-minute expanse has sweep but not an ounce of pretence. And the gorgeous melody offers the perfect setting for Trower's burning blues guitar.
Here's another track ready-made for the next instalment of Guitar Hero. Sister hinges on two great moves from Trower—first, a pummelling intro cadenza [sic], then a vibrato extension that peels out of each verse. As a capper, there's Brooker's piano which fires mad triplets over the song's final, cataclysmic riffs.
Wilson's drums get a full work-out on this track from 1971's seminal Broken Barricades album. Wilson gallops through the opening verses before breaking down into a cow-bell-anointed solo that's one of the most surprising percussive showcases ever housed in a pop song. It's also one of the speediest.
The boogieing riff here may sound like something from ZZ Top or Foghat, but it came from the rocking influence of Trower. With Memorial Drive, he created an ideal chaser to his earlier hard-rock classic, Whisky Train.
Song for a Dreamer
Shocked by the death of Jimi Hendrix in 1970, Trower fashioned an aching, and informed, salute to his hero five months later. Dreamer answers the spaciness of Hendrix tracks like Third Stone from the Sun with its own airiness. It also presages the style Trower would more fully explore with the solo band he started right after this release.
True to its snooty name, Grand Hotel offers the band's deepest dive into European classical romanticism. In a sense, it's full of hooey. But PH countered the artifice with a self-satirising wit and a winning melody.
Bringing Home the Bacon
Here's a cut for those who can't get enough cowbell. This one clangs relentlessly over both Brooker's chugging piano and the boogie guitar of new axeman Mick Grabham (who replaced Trower). In case that makes you forget what band you're listening to, a pomp-rock riff chases every verse.
Nothing But the Truth
After the fanciful flights of Grand Hotel, Procol Harum got back down to earth on their follow-up work, Exotic Birds and Fruit. The first track off that 1974 release announced its goal with the pile-driving organ riff, punched by Wilson's drums.
In a daring move, the band hired to produce their eighth album the classic team of Leiber and Stoller. They're the ones who, in their collaborations with everyone form [sic] Elvis to The Drifters, helped cross over R&B and Latin music to pop. Who better, then, to open the band's sound wide? The vibes [sic] and flute in the song bring a splash of salsa to this very British group, in the process awarding them an entirely new theatrical flair.
Last Chance Motel
After seventy-one years of wear and tear, Brooker's voice remains unchanged. It still graces this cheating song, found on the band's new album, with a deep R&B edge. It's that quality which, from the start, has given even Procol Harum's most high-falutin' tracks an earthy resolve.
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