"Iíll blacken your Christmas and piss on your door, youíll cry out for mercy, still thereíll be more Ö waylay your daughter and kidnap your wife, savage her sexless and burn out her eyes."
Still Thereíll Be More
"I thought all the songs on the first album were fantastic," Keith Reid says of the 1967 album simply called Procol Harum. "It was the worst recorded album, but I like the excitement of it." Originally released by Deram and now re-released by A&M, the album contains A Whiter Shade of Pale, the song that sold 2Ĺ million copies in a few summer months. As with all their albums, this first one stands up excellently. The line-up featured Brooker, Fisher, Trower and Wilson as the core. How many bands could boast of such talent on vocals, organ, lead guitar and drums?
Despite its empty mono sound, Procol Harum remains a sentimental favorite for many. Fisherís classical organ dominates, A Christmas Camel demonstrates Brookerís pounding piano and vocal capacities. Most of the songs are portraits of youthful insecurity and depression Ė subjects befitting band members whose average age was 18. Death obsessions reach bizarre proportions in Something Following Me," but the grapplings with the unknown and the verbalization of fear yields comfort. On Salad Days it finds a simile in peaches 'snuggled closer down into the clotted cream'.
The album immediately placed the group in the vanguard of the new move toward literate rock. The lyrics were challenging, the music a blend of classical (Whiter Shade was suggested by a theme in Bach), R&B and progressive rock. Favorably compared to another album of the period, Sgt. Pepper, critics anxiously waited for the follow-up.
Shine On Brightly was the groupís first stereo album, recorded over a long period of time and with great care. Reidís lyrics continued to dwell on the unseen, describing a level of optimism obtainable from acknowledging mystery and helplessness ('my befuddled brain shines on brightly, quite insane'). Trowerís screaming guitar became a potent force while BJ Wilson emerged as one of rockís most imaginative drummers. In Held 'Twas In I was an innovation for its time, a brilliant suite of interconnected songs simmering with gothic bass, bursts of guitar, smoldering organ and mystical recitation, vocals and sound effects.
"I must spend my life among the dead who spend their lives in fear. Of a death that theyíre not sure of, of a life they canít control. Itís all so simple really, if you just look to your soul."
In Held 'Twas In I
According to Brooker, "All the ideas were there, but the suite wasnít complete when recording started. We didnít know what was going to happen. When it was finally finished we listened to it for the first time at night in the studio. It was tremendous."
"Sometimes our own creativity seems to be a stumbling block," Reid adds. "Shine On Brightly came out at a time when no one understood or appreciated it. Yet now I have people talking to me about it like we had just released it."
A Salty Dog, the third album, turned out to be one of the groupís most accessible, best-selling efforts. The title cut came not from the sea, but from Cleveland. The inspiration was a wood carving in a bar with the words 'Great God, Skipper, we done run aground'. Like Dylan, Reid has the habit of forcing a rhyme here and there. On Salty Dog he actually rhymed "moon" and "June" and got away with it.
"Almond eyes, my Turkish pearl, burn me up sweet oyster girl. Shove me in your steaming vat. Make me spit like chicken fat."
After the album was completed, producer-writer-singer Matthew Fisher went off on his own. He produced a band called Prairie Madness for Columbia, and then in 1972-73 recorded two solo albums for RCA, filled with beautiful organ solos and lyrics loaded with bruised feelings. Some songs dealt bitterly with backstabbers ('Once I thought I had good friends but now I know they lied') and the past ('donít make me sing that song again') and others described a painful search for direction.
There were a number of wistful, sad ballads of lingering love for women who no longer felt a similar need. The sweetness turned sour, the warmth turned cold, the only question to be asked was "Where did I go wrong, you know I loved you for so long." There was a tasteful balance between the slow, sad songs, the vengeful rockers and the instrumentals. Some lines indicated that Fisher would take up the challenges once more.
Meanwhile, back at the turn of the 70s, Chris Copping came in to replace both Fisher on organ and David Knights on bass. Copping played with Gary Brooker when the two were members of the Paramounts in 1966. The groupís sound shifted immediately from the organ/piano axis to Robin Trowerís lead guitar. He had been gaining confidence and stepped into the spotlight for the next two albums, Home and Broken Barricades.
Home featured hard rockers like Whisky Train and the vicious Still Thereíll Be More. ("Iíll blacken your Christmas and piss on your door Ö kidnap your daughter, waylay your wife, savage her sexless, burn out her eyes.") The mini-epic Whaling Stories was aboard an album flooded with images of water. There were 'streets awash with blood and pus', 'boiling oil and shrieking steam', the fear of losing faith and drowning in an unswimmable river (Your Own Choice) and the demand 'wash yourself and see your sorrow' in ritual cleansing.
"The town clock in the market square stands waiting for the hour when its hands, they both turn backwards, And on meeting will devour both themselves and also any fool who dares to tell the time. And sun and moon will shudder, and the signposts cease to sign."
But in the end, all that was left was described in Broken Barricades: 'The oceans have ravished and strangled the land. Waste fills the temples. Dead daughters are born. The presses are empty. The editors torn.' Sandwiched in between sparks of fury in the decay, power failures and Simple Sister were necrophiliac [sic!] love songs like Playmate of the Mouth and Luskus Delph, which Brooker often introduced as 'a bit of sultry, underhanded smut', with lyrics viscously bubbling with heated sexual imagery.
About this time Keith Reid defended what some critics took to be an excessively morbid outlook by saying "I have no bleak attitude. Iím not on a death trip. Itís realism. The thing is, it doesnít matter how horrific anything is Ė that doesnít make it negative. Anything thatís truthfully happening is positive." He stressed truth in art, as so many serious poets have done before him.
Broken Barricades sold 150,000 copies. In the wake of the triumph, Trower chose to leave. The situation may have been amicable but it was still a strain. 'When you get a situation where one person wants to be everything,' a band member said, 'or he thinks heís great at everything because heís great at one thing Ė well, some people donít want to be just as good as they are. They want to be as good as someone Ė and wind up being someone else.'
"You wear down your fingers and churn out your pap, it eats up your life like a dose of the clap Ö You curse and discurse but youíre damned all the time, the moment your fingers give birth to a rhyme."
Trower successfully became Jimi Hendrix. His first two Chrysalis albums were acclaimed big sellers, but after a while critics were charging repetition and many critics started writing him off. Around this time Gary Brooker demonstrated his own independence by joining the stars who sat in on George Harrisonís All Things Must Pass set. Later he appeared on a rock version of Peter and the Wolf for Polydor.
Musically, Procol Harum has always been split between hard rock and classical rock. Although the two can often be combined into a brilliant fusion, the albums seem to lean toward one extreme or the other in concept. After Trowerís departure, Procol Harum turned around completely with the Live at Edmonton album, a full-blown symphonic exercise released in the winter of 1972. Five years since Whiter Shade of Pale, the group had an unexpected hit with Conquistador (ironically first recorded in 1967). With bold brass and violiníd percussion, the album went gold and Procol Harumís new-found mass appeal allowed them the leverage to join Warner Brothers/Chrysalis and get a bigger budget to explore their classical rock sound.
The result was a peak triumph, Grand Hotel. An exquisite blend of elegant classicism wired with the gut of rock, it drew instant acclaim. The album was in Billboardís Top 100 for five months. The groupís lineup had undergone a shift that was not immediately felt. Dave Ball, who had duped Robin Trowerís style for the live album, was replaced by Mick Grabham, formerly of Cochise.
In a letter to writer Bruce Pollack, Keith Reid explained his method of writing: "Itís something like the construction of a jigsaw puzzle without knowing what the finished picture will be. I start off with one or two pieces, ie a phrase ('Grand Hotel') or fragments of a concept (love which has burnt itself out and turned into fending and bitterness, as in Fires (Which Burn Brightly)). Then, by interlocking pieces, I build up a picture that makes sense and conveys my thoughts and meaning."
"Originally I made a pattern Ė a theme of work, or a story, but over the years I have come to reject the use of words for themselves alone. Theme and story line have become simplified. I cut away as much of the fat as possible and try to leave the bare bones."
The paring down of lyrics can be seen, in perfect textbook example, in Toujours líAmour. The harried logic of a bewildered, pained lover is caught in quick flashes: 'She took all the pleasure and none of the pain. All of the credit and none of the blame'. The short, gut punches build: 'She grew thin Ė and I grew fat. She left me and that was that'. It reaches what appears to be a logical conclusion: 'Maybe Iíll take an excursion to Spain. Buy a revolver. Blow out my brain'.
Bringing Home the Bacon was full-powered rock, as grisly and hateful a nursery rhyme as Simple Sister" was. Fires (Which Burnt Brightly) and the title cut were powerful classical rock fusions.
Despite the 17th century artwork on the cover, 1974ís Exotic Birds and Fruit represented a sudden shift back to hard rock. 'The Edmonton album was just an attempt to try something different and we carried it over to Grand Hotel,' Keith Reid explained. 'On this album we tried to dispel that symphonic image.' As a return to roots, the album is almost a mirror of their very first release. The musical patterns match when Fresh Fruit is compared to Mabel, New Lamps for Old to Whiter Shade of Pale, Butterfly Boys to Kaleidoscope. No lyric booklet appeared [sic] with this or the subsequent hard rocker, Procolís Ninth, but Reidís lyrics were nevertheless deserving of the royal treatment. His lyrics on Nothing But The Truth and Strong as Samson were more universal than introspective. More fierce than resigned, they railed against the oppression of spirit, caused more by political and social evils than any personal imp of the perverse.
Procolís Ninth, released in April of 1975, was their hardest rock album. Produced by Leiber and Stoller, the disc gave Brooker a chance to show his R&B roots on the oldie I Keep Forgetting. If there was any theme running through the album, it was Reidís reappraisal of his writing. Heroic self-pity was raised to a fine art on Foolís Gold ('I was trying hard to win, save the world and be the king Ö I was locked in bitter strife, fighting monsters all of my life.') The battle to put words on paper (Without a Doubt) led to Typewriter Torment ('it eats up your life like a dose of the clap.') The album ended with a lifeless rendition of Eight Days a Week, which seemed to have been done purposely Ė resigned to easy robot-rock instead of difficult, gut-wrenching originals, the band mocked a lyrically vacuous hit song, the easy way out. The ironic juxtaposition of Typewriter Torment to Eight Days a Week didnít mean that Reid was giving up. But for Procol Harum, there were warning signs that the end was near.
When I visited the rehearsal before Procol Harumís last New York appearance, there were several changes. Pete Solley was now on organ and synthesizer replacing Chris Copping. I asked Keith Reid if this was permanent. It was, but there was the chance he would still be retained on bass. For the tour, Dee Murray was handling that duty. In honor of their tenth anniversary, the band produced a brilliant concert, the rock numbers coming off with thunderous power, the slower ones with full triumphant majesty. They went through a repertoire of both early hits, R&B oldies, and recent numbers from their Something Magic album. Nobody knew that this was a farewell.
Something Magic, the splintered last album of Procol Harum, attempted to hearken [sic] back to the days of old. But the side-long Worm and the Tree didnít have the power or even the enthusiasm of In Held 'Twas In I or Whaling Stories. It was a simplistic fable that was slightly embarrassing. Pete Solley tried to give Procol Harum a fresh touch with synthesizers, and it did work to some effect on the moody Strangers in Space and on Mark of the Claw, which Brooker described as 'a dreadful obscenity Ė a fateful miscarriage of justice.' Wizard Man was up-tempo and Skating on Thin Ice seemed to sum things up. Something was wrong. And rather like something that went bump in the night, or mysteriously disappeared like a vapor, Procol Harum was no longer thought of as a band. The members were all heading on to appointments elsewhere. They left behind ten albums of Procol Harum Ė ten albums beyond these things.
Thanks, Jill, for the typing
More Procol Harum history in print