Procol Harum

the Pale

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PH: an Italian outlook: Part I

Enzo Caffarelli, translated by Niels-Erik Mortensen

Italian news-stands sell more than just papers, magazines and paperbacks. They also have a wide collection of records. Publishers frequently issue series of records - up to the 80s LPs, now CDs - with lengthy, new introductory essays.

In this way, all kinds of music - jazz, rock/pop, classic and opera - are offered to the public at very favourable prices. These are re-issues of original recordings licensed by the major recording companies, and the publishers are among the most recognised in the country, such as the Armando Curcio and the Mondadori S.p.A. (Milan) - the influential paperback publishers.

Sometimes these records can be bought in subscription only, but often the remainders pop up abroad (the so-called 'cut' records), but still with the significant information on the label: 'Non in vendita' - not for sale.

In the Armando Curcio series Super Star, a Greatest Hits LP by Procol Harum is also to be found. The publishing year is 1982. The following essay is the liner notes to this album by Enzo Caffarelli. This writer will be known to the BtP-readers as he has written a review of Grand Hotel. To the faithful Procoholic, only a very few new views are offered, but the essay itself carefully registers a certain 'Italian point-of-view', which is quite interesting. The Procol influence on Italian pop music might not be underrated after all, although in the rest of Europe we have heard little or nothing about it.

I have tried carefully to give the reader a faithful translation - or perhaps better: a version. However, BtP-visitors of Italian conviction in possession of this particular and rare (at least outside Italy) album are very welcome to suggest other solutions than those selected.

'I have no ego to offend, Captain - I am a Vulcan.' (Spock in Star Trek).

(Thanks to Stig Nielsen for lending me the album and to Axel Leonhardt for his suggestions.)

Milan, 1967: Procol Harum - from the left, David Knight [sic], bass, Robin Trower, guitar, Barry [sic] Wilson, drums, Gary Brooker, voice and piano and Matthew Fisher, organ - just a few months after being formed, they are on everybody's lips. Their first record, A Whiter Shade Of Pale has sold more than five million copies.

1. Super Star - Procol Harum
In the early summer of 1967 a song with a long and curious title performed by a completely unknown outfit carrying a quite strange name initiated its tour around the world: in a few weeks it became Number 1 in the American charts, the most impressing and lucrative in the world, followed by similar positions in the hit parades in England, France, Germany and so on.

By August it was also to be found at the No 1 slot on the Italian Hit Parade as a forerunner of a very long discographic season. Moreover, other singers and bands would be influenced by the song in the years to come by rediscovering melody and recovering the classic-like repertory.

The record was A Whiter Shade of Pale. Procol Harum was its interpreter. The melody was inspired in a very distinct way by Johann Sebastian Bach, a cantata of his which several other performers would take up under its real name in order to emphasise the Procol Harum plagiarism. But the general public did not know about this. The music was penned by Gary Brooker, the band's singer and pianist. The surrealist and indecipherable lyrics which should become a hallmark of the band's future repertoire were created by Keith Reid, the sixth man behind the five other Procol Harum members for the next ten years.

The group was brought together with the purpose of playing the songs, using the traditional methods of advertising in special magazines and being advised by musical friends. The significance hereof was that they had not been put to a test together, they had not earned their spurs together, they had none of this in common. This might explain at least to some extent the numerous changes of style and the frequent regroupings in order to make the different Procol Harum spirits concrete: the more elegant and sophisticated, the decidedly classical, the more violently rocking, the nearly American Country'n'Western, all these intermingled and were of different importance down through the history of the band.

In her Rock Encyclopaedia Lillian Roxon defined the band as 'the Nôtre Dame Cathedral of rock'n'roll'. More than a dozen of musicians have from time to time been members of Procol Harum which before disbanding in the late Seventies recorded ten LPs, among which some have been rightly considered among the most significant in the history of English pop music containing very celebrated pieces: apart from the above-mentioned first success the following are worth mentioning: Homburg, Shine On Brightly, A Salty Dog, Quite Rightly So, Conquistador, Boredom, Grand Hotel.

A 'Latin cat'
Gary Brooker, musical mind of the group, was born on 29 May 1945. His musical career dates back to a band formed in Southend - 150,000 inhabitants - situated in the South of England. This band was called The Paramounts, a band with lots of love for rhythm'n'blues, one of the keywords for any 18-year-old Englishman who looked towards the predominant Black American music of the early 60s. Playing the James Brown-style repertoire and perfectly imitating the Ray Charles style, the band members were Robin Trower on guitar, BJ Wilson on drums and bassist Chris Copping (and at one point Diz Derrick), three musicians later to be picked up by Brooker and introduced to the big Procol Harum family (a bit similar to the way the leader Ian Anderson of another British band, Jethro Tull, one by one has substituted his co-members by calling in old friends and school-mates).

The Paramounts recorded for Parlophone, The Beatles' label, publishing half a dozen singles and an EP. In the press the Rolling Stones hailed the band - perhaps reflecting some advertisement campaign - as 'the best rhythm'n'blues group seen in Britain'. But in spite of these judgements, The Paramounts did not achieve stardom. Save Little Bitty Pretty One which was a minor success and followed by the old Coasters' warhorse Poison Ivy, written by their idols Leiber & Stoller, whom Procol Harum would encounter much later down the road. No trace remains [sic] of their other recordings (I'm The One Who Loves You, Bat [sic] Blood, Blue Ribbons, You Never Had It So Good). After having accompanied American singer Marty Wilde on tour in Southend, in order to survive the band decided to play as backing group to English stars, the first one being Sandie Shaw, the famous barefoot singer, and later Chris Andrews.

The disbanding became the logical solution in 1966, just as the sun seemed to set over the beat music, while the Black American rhythm'n'blues seemed to have gained momentum in Europe, too. Gary Brooker is acquainted with Keith Reid, born on 11 October 1946. Together they write A Whiter Shade of Pale, then they set up the band to give the public image of the outfit. With the leader at the piano, the following people were summoned in the winter of 1967: Matthew Fisher, born on 7 March 1946, an organist of classical skills and an ex-conservatory student, bassist Dave Knights, born on 28 June 1945, guitar player Ray Rowyer [sic], born on 8 October 1945 and the eldest, drummer Bobby Harrison, born 28 June 1943 (nevertheless, even he hadn't reached his 24th birthday). For the record it is worth mentioning that for studio purposes a session drummer one Bill Eyden was called in.

Procol Harum on the Sanremo [sic] Beach in 1969. The year of A Salty Dog, an album that achieved maximal applause mainly in the US and in Canada, thus bringing them upwards at a breakneck speed.

The song achieved this incredible international success and around the band all sorts of stories, anecdotes, hearsay and myths flourished. One of these concerns Eyden's statements. According to him, he was not the only session musician to be called in by the profit-mongers of the recording. All in all, Procol Harum was just a phantom group. This created quite a scandal back then. Another topic was the more or less outspoken affinity with the work of Bach: was the imitation conscious or not? A third issue was the curious name. Keith Reid stated that it was the name of a cat, belonging to some friend of his. Instead the American press pointed to its Latin origin, according to which Procol Harum signified something like 'beyond all these', implying 'these things'. As a consequence, Procol was in the US frequently referred to in dictionaries a.o. pedantically 'Procul' with an 'u', thus following the Latin language (the quotation nevertheless being a grammatical error, as the preposition governs the ablative and not the genitive ...).

It really does not matter whether the name had its origin in the domestic passion of the poet's associates or in the ignorance of Latin matters, copied intentionally or not. The result is that AWSoP sold more than five million copies in its first few months and was translated to a number of languages. The introductory organ theme, the enchanting singing voice - Brooker's potent and personal effort with clear traces of black influences - these elements make the song a classic. The Italian version is by the band Dik Dik in a translation by Mogol. Reid's surrealism (the first English verse reads, 'We skipped the light fandango', where fandango signifies the old and vital Andalusian dance) is substituted by the confessions of a lonely, intoxicated man [Here, Caffarelli quotes from the Mogol lyrics, being more outspoken than the Reid original]: 'They've already turned out the light / Here I am sitting alone / I am feeling seasick / However the glass is mine...' And in the Italian charts, the version by the Dik Dik climbed up to No 1 in September.

A vast number of bands in our country picked up the inspiration from this type of song: among the first were the Pooh. Under the influence of Brooker and friends as well as Aphrodite's Child's Rain And Tears and The Bee Gees' Massachusetts from this rich Autumn of '67, leaving the beat music to found a very successful career in the years to come.

The 'classical' element in songs was neither a novelty nor a rarity. It would be quite sufficient to think of abbot Pachelbel's canon that inspired recordings by Aphrodite's Child (with Demis Roussos and Vangelis Papathanassiou), by Colosseum who, besides their interpretation of the said cantata leading to Shade Of Pale, introduced Ravel's Bolero; virtually thousands of versions including disco music can be found of Beethoven's Ode To Joy, among the greatest chart successes we find Mozart-concerts performed by Waldo de los Rios or Beethoven romances performed by James Last's Orchestra.

But to be sincere, the role of Shade Of Pale is more important in the field of common practice than that of artistic authenticity. As half the world was flirting with that sort of solemn dancing tunes, this caused younger people, otherwise unprepared for classical influences, to approach the matter, less to learn about Bach or what a church organ may sound like, but the song neither suggested a working method, an authentic system of reviving or recreating the classics, nor was it new means of expression (on the contrary, The Nice, Deep Purple and Colosseum adopted this better).

Though clearly being of European extractions, the band still scored many points from its similarities with the American Country rock [sic!!]

An alternative 'Fortune'
For the record, the flipside of the first 45 pays homage to Brooker & Co.'s blues period, the unpretentious Lime Street Blues. But after booming with A Whiter Shade Of Pale, published by Deram, a little sister to the distinguished Decca label, Procol Harum is facing a double challenge: repeating the incredible triumph and recording the first album. The band seems however to be rather unprepared for this sudden success.

The first indication hereof is the line-up change: Rowyer [sic] and Harrison leave to form Freedom, a group of a very limited life span, until every trace of this project is lost. They are substituted by two ex-Paramounts, Robin Trower, born on 9 March 1945, and BJ (Barrie) Wilson, born 18 March 1947, respectively on guitar and drums, both of Southend [sic]. The following single, in stores by November, is titled Homburg, also being a surrealistic song in semi-classical appearance, stately and with subtle lyrics. Also this time an Italian 'ex'-beat group picked up the record, leading it into the Hit Parade (the first for some ten years, three-and-a-half year later followed by Pensieri, lyrics by Lucio Battisti) - the Camaleonti. The song was rebaptised Time Of Love by wordsmith Daniele Pace, keeping much closer to the original ('For a long time / this room has had closed blinds / light is not piercing anymore / the sun being a stranger ...').

Abroad, the first LP is called A Whiter Shade Of Pale. In Italy, where the album market is still limited, the record is not published until 1968. The band is deprived of the great success with the LP, simply called Procol Harum. Its successor is the group's third single, Shine On Brightly. But the important fact is that this song was recorded by the band itself in an Italian version entitled Il Tuo Diamante, whereas the song abroad gives the title to their second album.

Gary Brooker was urged to wrestle with our language according to the traditions of the RCA distribution company of Italy, persuading major and minor stars of the international firmament from Paul Anka and Diana Ross to Stevie Wonder and Neil Sedaka [and the Rolling Stones and The Move, Enzo might have added]. Usually, their efforts were less than satisfying, bearing an impress of both awkwardness and predictable difficulties. However, Brooker managed tolerably ('I would have let you into my heart...', but it was to be his last experiment with our language.

Another tune was to have an Italian title: Repent Walpurgis became Fortuna, an instrumental piece and the first contribution by organist Fisher. The tune indeed shows traces of further inspiration from Bach and interlaced with Gounod's Ave Maria and was received by the Italian public with enthusiasm by our local audiences, thirsting for experimental music - '68 was the year of Jimi Hendrix, The Cream, Pink Floyd and Keith Emerson's The Nice - but at the same time, well-known formulas were still satisfying. Clearly, the European classical music was the frame of reference more than the American Country rock or the Black blues music. It is no coincidence that New York underground band Vanilla Fudge, having recorded Some Velvet Morning, could triumph at the Venice festival of Gondola d'Oro (The Golden Gondola) the following year.

Apart from Il Tuo Diamante and Fortuna, both later substituted by their English originals in succeeding editions of the record, the first Procol Harum album offers typical tracks from Mabel to Conquistador, from Kaleidoscope to Salad Days (theme from the film Separation). The second official LP, Shine On Brightly, makes use of Tony Visconti as producer, who went on to record with Marc Bolan, David Bowie and Gentle Giant, and the LP presents on the second side a complete 20-minute-suite, Magdalene (subtitled My Regal Zonophone [sic], also the band's new label). The suite is a merger of recitative, inspired melodies, violent marches, heavenly choirs and festive circus rhythms in a bizarre and spicy collage, a bit like their contemporaries, The Moody Blues. Other interesting titles are Skip Softly which closes with a nod from Fisher towards Khachaturian's Sabre Dance, and Quite Rightly So, another potent and fascinating single.

Dave Knight [sic], a melodic bass in the tradition of The Beatles. In 1970 [sic], he and Matthew Fisher decided to leave the group. Their places were filled out by Chris Copping, alternating on the bass and the organ.


Thus it would be unnecessary to believe that Procol Harum could live by their interest. Just one year after AWSoP Procol's star is already (...) declining for at least two reasons. The first one: they did not succeed in penning other songs of the same high quality as their very first, which is quite common, but the audiences already having been spoilt, would demand more. The second one: to some extent the classic-like wave in England - where the group went on living - fades during '68 to be replaced by the great Blues revival boom with names as John Mayall, Eric Clapton, Fleetwood Mac, Ten Years After. This remains very much a paradox, as the Blues music was exactly the kind of music played by Brooker and Trower in their Paramount years. In fact, it should be America to save the band, securing it longevity in the decades to come.

In fact, in the US the third LP, A Salty Dog - the story of an old jack tar - is met with maximal approval. Perhaps this leads to the misconception of the band as an American group or at least an 'adopted' band. Not true at all. The third album comprises the sweet and intimate ballad Too Much Between Us with its close affinity to the British Folk music revival, including the early Genesis; the scholastic rock-blues Juicy John Pink, All This And More, which displays a melody-line underlined by a descriptive guitar, thus emphasising the band's desire to perfect the same style, in this case that of Homburg.

However, the balance after these first recordings is successful. Penetrating melodies, exquisite taste that even utilises silence, the rest as highly sensible musical moments. The musicians are still unable to perform the extreme technical acrobatic acts which is a limitation in the era of a Keith Emerson, but both keyboard-players perform wisely and functionally well. On the contrary, one of the outstanding features is the double-keyboard: the piano and organ had been found in the distinctive sound of Bob Dylan's first electric group (featuring the famous Al Kooper on organ and Dylan himself on the piano); from 1968 another group very close to Dylan used the same set-up, namely The Band with Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson on the keyboards. As the liner notes of Shine On Brightly ask: 'Have you noticed how much the first Procol album (which was so influenced by Blonde on Blonde) influenced Music From Big Pink?' [PH + The Band: see here ]

Thus, Procol Harum in some way has taken advantage of the numerous similarities to the American Country rock music (in Italy, the twin keyboard set-up was successfully used by the band Banco del Mutuo Soccorso ('Bank of the Sick-Benefit Association')). Brooker's voice is among the best in Europe: it is quite similar to the sound of the 'White Negroes' such as Eric Burdon, Joe Cocker and above all Steve Winwood of Traffic. His piano is played with a genuine rhythmic feel as in Conquistador where it plays a descriptive rôle, changing with the organ. In other cases the bass-line is determining the overall perception and the instrument is a melodic bass in the tradition of The Beatles, the Tamla Motown and the Folk rock of Roxy Music [sic] and others. On the first recordings Trower's guitar has been slightly distorted and used at intervals, often in surroundings that lead you to think of the rôle of the saxophone in Rhythm'n'blues bands. Finally, Harrison's [sic] drums - himself being an admirer of the Rock'n'roll percussionists - never really come through, but they provide a nifty and economic back-up.

And then there is Keith Reid, the bespectacled poet with one leg inside and one outside the outfit, the author of extravagant, nightmarish, surrealistic and imaginative lyrics which Brooker's voice renders with strength and with excitement. Reid is considered an inspired writer of autobiographic lyrics. It would do him less than justice to denounce him as mystifying, aristocratic and ambitious. The creation of words and music - the signature 'Brooker / Reid' being a classic - is two different processes: Generally speaking, the lyricist hands in the words to a colleague thus implying that the music is of secondary importance, making a supreme effort to seek refuge in the smallest possible number of corrections and tampering. Reid's prime sorrow is perhaps that - besides Shade Of Pale - no-one [sic] has re-interpreted his songs, which could have been suitable for a Rod Stewart or a Joe Cocker.

Part II of this article More features at BtP

PH on stage | PH on record | PH in print | BtP features | What's new | Interact with BtP | For sale | Site search | Home