Who knew Robin Trower was such a hot guitarist in the mold of Jimi Hendrix? His work was buried in the art rock of Procol Harum until…
I’ll admit to loving the title track of Shine on Brightly, Procol Harum’s second LP, I even taped it off the radio, but this was not my band, despite the great reviews for A Salty Dog, until Home.
Most people know Procol Harum for A Whiter Shade Of Pale, with the exquisite keyboard work of Matthew Fisher, who left the band and suddenly a new star emerged, Mr. Trower. Dropping the needle on Home’s opening cut was revelatory …it was the same band in name only. That track, of course, was Whisky Train.
1. Whisky Train
Gary Brooker’s still got the pipes. He may look like your granddad, but he can still sing. But unlike with what came before, Brooker’s vocal was now down in the mix, which is dominated by buzzsaw guitar and percussion.
It’s like the entire group said screw it, got on a train with a case of booze and started rocking out, solely for themselves.
This is the sound that Foghat perfected to platinum, but done years before.
On one hand it’s generic.
But maybe that’s because it was imitated so much thereafter.
But on the other, it’s the essence of rock and roll, it gets your head boppin’, your body moving.
From the initial moment, the song takes off on a tear. I’m surprised Whisky Train has not been sampled, that it’s not woven into electronic sets.
I never owned a copy of Home. This was the pre-Internet era, when you had to buy albums to hear them, and money was precious. But every time I saw the record in a pile at someone’s house, I immediately put it on. To experience the magic of Whisky Train.
2. Simple Sister
Broken Barricades, the follow-up to Home, was not as good.
But it contained two mindblowing tracks.
This was one of them.
First there’s the riff. Maybe not as memorable as Sunshine of Your Love, but anyone paying attention in 1971 knew it. Airplay might have been limited, but one listen was enough to addict you.
This time, Gary Brooker’s way up in the mix. And once again, you cannot help but nod your head.
Then, not quite a minute in, the adventure begins. There’s a short solo. And after Brooker does his thing, half a minute later, the instrumental section begins in earnest. It’s like someone grabs you by the collar and insists you follow. And when you see what’s in store, you don’t mind.
Then, two and half minutes in, the track breaks down. The piano dominates. And slowly, over time, more and more instruments are added and the intensity builds, especially when Trower starts to wail at around the four minute mark. It’s like they’re preparing for a rocket launch, getting all systems ready and igniting fuel. Strings are added and it’s not until just after the five minute point that blastoff is achieved. Brooker comes back in with horns. The track explodes, it’s like something out of a porno movie.
Sure, classic rock is a fixture in the firmament, kids know every Zeppelin riff.
But they don’t know this.
They’ve got something to look forward to.
3. Power Failure
And this, the second side opener, is just as good. The track sounds like a fireworks display, with all the little explosions.
Then, at 1:19, it’s like everybody leaves the room but the players and they start working out the kinks, experimenting, finding the groove and locking on. It’s like a Ginger Baker drum solo or the extended break of In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, but compact, sans boredom, you’re infected and at 2:47, the band comes back in.
The track has got a sexual feel, despite not being about coupling, it’s the pure adrenaline, the way the track has got no sense of contemplation, it’s just completely ON.
4. Shine on Brightly
In case you’re unfamiliar with what came before, here’s my perennial favorite. It’s majestic, it’s art rock, it’s all about the lyrics, the vocal is by the same person, but it doesn’t even sound like it’s the same band.
5. A Salty Dog
The follow-up to Shine on Brightly, the title track from Procol Harum’s third album, this has faded away and has not radiated. But it’s a quiet masterpiece from an era where having a hit was secondary to making a statement.
The descending structure adds gravitas. Listen to this instead of reading Moby Dick.
6. I Can’t Wait Much Longer
My favorite song off Trower’s debut is Hannah, and then Twice Removed From Yesterday.
But I include the album’s opening cut to demonstrate that when Trower left Procol Harum his palette went from black and white to color. No longer constricted, he could play slow and soulful as well as fast with a rock groove.
You don’t need drugs to enjoy this, but do not listen without noting that it was co-written with Trower by Frankie Miller, the unsung talent who never quite broke through in America and then self-destructed. Trower and Miller and Tull’s former drummer Clive Bunker joined with bass player James Dewar in the band Jude before Trower decided to go out on his own.
Procol Harum went on to have a hit after Trower departed, with a live version of Conquistador, and the originals reunited with the surprisingly strong Prodigal Stranger in 1991, but today the band’s legacy has been distilled to that one initial single and despite becoming an arena rock hero, Trower has come back to earth too. But it’s time to resurrect these gems.
Furthermore, who knew Trower was so great before Home? It was like
Mick Ralphs in Mott the Hoople…who knew he could create those riffs in Bad