Procol Harum

the Pale

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Procol Harum Biography

Through the eyes of

Sam Cameron informs us that this 'is not a new or original piece of work: it is word for word from the Rough Guide to Rock, now out of print probably; a revised edition is out next year supposedly; this book was written by the 'fans' of the band but this guy is someone we never heard of ...

Formed London, 1966; disbanded 1977; re-formed 1991.

The statistics aren't very impressive: in a decade of existence Procol Harum managed a mere 56 weeks in the British singles charts, half of them with their first release, while the albums did even worse -- just eleven weeks and nothing in the Top 20. They did a little better, late in their career, in the States. But even these tallies are deceiving: few people can name more than the group's one hit -- A Whiter Shade Of Pale. Nonetheless, the group have an assured place in any rock book -- and rightly so.

The band's origins lie in the decision of Southend R&B band, The Paramounts, to call it a day in 1966. Looking for a new outlet, singer Gary Brooker was introduced by the legendary Guy Stevens, then an Island A&R man, to an as-yet-untried lyricist, Keith Reid. Quickly knocking out four songs for a Stevens-produced demo, the duo recruited some musicians (Reid never [sic] performed with the band) and signed to Decca's new 'progressive' label, Deram.

One of those songs was A Whiter Shade of Pale, which was released as a single in May 1967. Perfectly encapsulating the nascent 'Summer Of Love', it featured a melody stolen from Bach, some beautiful Hammond organ from new boy Matthew Fisher and a set of wonderfully incomprehensible lyrics that sounded like Dylan without discipline. Within two weeks it was at #1 in the UK, where it stayed for six weeks, and on its way to selling four million copies worldwide.

Unfortunately, after thirty years of constant radio and jukebox play, paint-advert and dreadful cover versions (stand up Annie Lennox), A Whiter Shade of Pale now sounds annoying rather than classic, and not even period footage of the kaftan-clad minstrels miming on Top Of The Pops can restore to the song the charm it once had.

At the time the main worry was the overnight stardom, which almost destroyed the newly formed band. The addition, however, of guitarist Robin Trower, also formerly of The Paramounts, and the release of a follow-up hit, Homburg, did much to stabilize matters. Over the next two years the group released three excellent albums: Procol Harum (1967), Shine on Brightly (1968) and A Salty Dog (1969). Though the group were irredeemably [sic] tagged as flower-power prog-rockers, these albums showed a surprisingly tough sound, dominated by Trower's metal-blues riffs and Fisher's soulful Hammond, all unmistakably derived from R&B. Reid's lyrics, especially on the yearning, string-laden A Salty Dog, were way beyond those of most of his contemporaries. The only weak spot was the interminable suite, Held 'Twas In I [sic], on the second album.

At this stage Fisher and bassist David Knights left, to be replaced by ex-Paramount Chris Copping. Completed by drummer BJ Wilson, the quartet was now effectively The Paramounts in all but name, and the next two albums, Home (1970) and Broken Barricades (1971), were heavier and bluesier, with Trower particularly making his presence felt. Then Robin Trower, too, left, just as the band were making inroads into the American market.

The self-explanatory 1972 release, Live In Concert With The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra And The De Camera Singers, went gold in America and produced a hit single in Conquistador, a reworking of a song from the first album. The follow-up, Grand Hotel (1973), was also a US success, but didn't do enough to launch the group into the real big league.

As the 70s dragged on, Procol took the bold step of drafting in rock'n'roll veterans Leiber and Stoller (writers of Poison Ivy, the first and best-selling Paramounts single) to produce Procol's Ninth in 1975, and managed their biggest British hit of the decade with Pandora's Box. But time was against them, and 1977, the year of punk, was graced by their worst album, Something Magic, after which retirement was the only option.

In 1991 Brooker decided to re-form the band, having in the interim become a champion fly-fisher, and enjoyed some success in America with Prodigal Stranger, featuring once again both Fisher and Trower.

More Procol writings A full-length book biography Another, written for this website

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