Procol Harum

the Pale

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Procol mentions in The Times

William Mann in The Times 29 May 1967

This is the famous article by Times music critic William Mann, who was one of the first establishment figures to accord to pop records the respectful attention and scholarly language habitually reserved for 'serious' music. Nice to see how he cites Procol Harum, whose record must have been fire-new from the mint while Mann was penning this piece.

A few Saturdays ago on Juke Box Jury Paul Jones let fall a remark about the depressing state of pop music; the programme’s compère, David Jacobs, countered, a trace primly, that some people considered the pop scene to be in unusually healthy condition.  My sympathies at the time were firmly with Mr. Jones.  The quantity of nondescript songs then figuring in the hit parade was sad even when one admits that dozens of boring creations have to be sifted, in every field of art always, before something of real quality is discovered.  The picture looks much more gay now that the Beatles have produced their new L.P., Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  In fact it has not looked so cheerful since their last L.P. Revolver.  After listening to Sergeant Pepper, & c., I have been reflecting what happened to pop music in the meantime, and some not unhealthy and quite interesting trends do emerge; if they are connected with these two LPs and with the excellent intervening Beatles single, Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields, that is hardly to be wondered at. 

Thanks, JohnPop music in the last few months, as for the last 12 years or more, has been dominated by ballads and beat music, and not all are or have been potboilers.  There has also been a progressive broadening of interest in genres that could appeal without necessarily dragging pop through the artistic mire:  oriental sounds, folk music, creative revivals of pop classis, novelty numbers and in particular vaudeville as a style, creative raids on classical styles and idioms, and looting (not always just vulture-like) of earlier experiments by the most progressive groups.  Spurring these varied developments is the recognition that popularity has many faces.

The young teenagers of 1963 who fell like hungry travelers upon the Mersey-side Beat are now much older and more sophisticated, and more experienced in adult ways.  Pop music still has to cater for them and for the distinctive characteristics they have by now assumed.  Mod, rocker, intellectual, rebel, permissive, careerist, all get comfort or inspiration from different music, and the Beatles have held their supremacy because they can dip into all these inkwells with equally eloquent results.  There is still a faithful pop following among the generations who cut their teeth on Tommy Steele, Alma Cogan, Vera Lynn, Bing Crosby and George Formby, to go no farther back.  And since 1963 a new generation of young people has arrived, demanding (or maybe only enthusiastically accepting) the pop music appropriate to its own age.

One can imagine a new pop group deciding cold-bloodedly to concentrate commercially on appealing to one of these age-groups.  The creators of the Monkees do not deny having done so and even virtuoso pop musicians are galled by the success of a group that was brought, Frankenstein-fashion, into being without reference to musical talents.  Their songs are carefully modeled on early-Beatle style uncreatively but skilfully manipulated.  Their first single, Last Train to Clarksville, flopped in Britain at first but zoomed up the charts as soon as the Monkees began to appear in weekly short films on television (the manner of presentation heavily indebted to A Hard Day’s Night).  Just now the Monkees are idols of the pre-teenage generation and are not quite despised by those approaching O-Levels.  This has been their year, in the absence of anything more remarkable, and the

Showmanship involved has to be admired, if not the musical artistry.  I suspect that their songs were written by a computer fed with the first two Beatle LPs and The Oxford Book of Nursery Rhymes.

It has also been a period of nursery lyrics.  The Lennon-McCartney Yellow Submarine set the ball rolling and of late we have had no end of songs whose words bring out the delayed adolescence in all of us:  the Alan Price Set’s Simon Smith and his Dancing Bear, Manfred Mann’s Haha said the clown, Sandie Shaw’s Puppet on a String (which alarmingly, though to the delight of unmusical patriots, won the Eurovision Song Contest), the Hollies’ Lullaby for Tim, Dave Clark’s Tabitha Twitchit.  All these encourage separatists in their belief that pop music is strictly for the pre-adolescent – not to mention a heavy-handedly facetious number about a laughing gnome which was ecstatically plugged for several weeks by the pirate stations but steadfastly remained the flop it deserved to be.

The words of songs are as important as the music:  Monteverdi, Schumann, Wolf, Britten have all accepted this belief to their advantage, and pop music has benefited whenever composers have done likewise.  The Moon-June syndrome is nowadays frowned on.  There were skilful, imaginative lyrics in the 1930s (think of Ira Gershwin and, earlier, of St James’s Infirmary Blues).  But the importance of the lyric in modern pop songs owes more to Bob Dylan than to anybody.  Dylan was part of the protest folksong movement, and though nowadays this is in abeyance and Dylan a sick man slowly on the mend, with only a very pop number about a leopardskin hat to keep his laurels green, his influence on the content of pop lyrics is still strong:  think of the Bee Gees’ New York Mining Disaster 1941 (music essentially early Beatles), and the Animals’ When I was Young, and Cat Stevens’s Matthew and Son of a while back.  Social comment is helpful to a pop song, and some of these have deservedly done well in the charts.  The sneering lazy Dylan voice, and the folksong ballad type of tune he favours, are still much copied.  Folksong is very much a part of pop, as is testified by the success of the Dubliners’ Seven Drunken Nights (a favourite Irish closing-time number)  and, on a slightly different wavelength, the Russian-derived OK of Dave, Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich.

Folksong as an ingredient of pop is an exhumation of the past (paralleled in straight music by the new popularity among concertgoers of pre-classical music, and in art by the resurgence of Art nouveau), and in the past 12 months there has been an even more prevalent revival of the 1920s vaudeville number, Winchester Cathedral, by the New Vaudeville Band, set it going last September.  Since then we have had Peek-a-boo and Finchley Central; and the Kinks, who had already moved into the contemporary satire sphere, have lately jumped into a vaudeville with their very likable Waterloo Sunset (part of a place-names cult, connected with Penny Lane, perhaps with A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square and even Let’s all go Sown the Strand or Basin Street Blues).

The idea of reviving vaudeville is rather artificial, not to say escapist, but it accords with a certain camp trend in fashions and in decorative art.  It may be thought by some people no more odd than the revitalized honky-tonk and boogie-woogie of some Rolling Stones’ numbers in their recent turncoat L.P. Between the Buttons (which includes one ultra-camp song, A Strange  Thing Happened to me yesterday).  And there is the rare but often appealing grope back to classical or baroque musical language, as in the Alberti string figuration of the Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby (another song with a powerful lyric) and the new, distinctly Bach-derived Whiter Shade of Pale by the Procol Harum (whose name is supposedly Latin, even if it should be “procul”) which has its pop parentage in some Animals’ numbers and is very beautiful indeed.  There is the growing allure of oriental, at present chiefly Indian, music initiated by George Harrison of the Beatles, taken up by the Rolling Stone and nowadays quite common as an accompanying texture (like the revival of the harpsichord a few years ago).  From the Beatles also came the current preoccupation with more or less disciplined sworls of electronically manipulated clusters of sound, famous through Tomorrow Never Knows, but audible on all sides, and adopted in concerts by several groups spectacularly as well as audibly.  In some records by the Righteous Brothers and the Walker Brothers, and in some of Jimi Hendrix’s songs, it is just an all-too generalized effect.  But in Strawberry Fields, and the Stones’ Paint it Black, it was poetically and precisely applied.  The vogue word for this is psychedelic music.

There remain the beat-songs and ballads.  Beat-music has, by natural evolution, become more varied and occasionally more subtle than it used to be.  It is no longer fettered to unchanging two or four in a bar, nor need it be harmonized entirely diatonically in root positions; the bass line can be vivid, like the words, but usually is not.  Most groups are content to put over something enthusiastic and with a big, noisy sound, though the Rolling Stones, the Hollies, the Moody Blues, Manfred Mann, the Who (these last two groups for the moment less actively) have shown, like the Beatles, that beat music can be as diverse as any other sort.  Ballads are the despair of forward-looking pop students.  Not that they are irredeemable: there are cool ballads, and ballads with a vital pulse, and ballads with distinctive tunes or interesting words.  But again and monotonously again the sticky, sweaty, vacuous ballad reaches to the melting hearts of housewives who prefer the lowest when they hear it, and accordingly it soars to the top like a jetplane made of golden syrup.

There is hope for all these pop genres, and Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heats Club Band provides it in abundance.  Two of the tracks are quasi-ballad: Fixing a hole is cool, anti-romantic, harmonically a little like the earlier Yesterday and Michelle; She’s Leaving Home is a slow waltz reminiscent of old musical comedy but with a classically slanted accompaniment for harp and string quartet, and with ironical words about a minor domestic tragedy (the texts, which are of consistently lively poetic interest, are printed in full on the back cover).  There is a neat vaudeville number, When I’m 64, which comments pointedly on this old-time vogue and its relevance for modern beat song.  George Harrison’s Within you without you carries the manner of Indian music farther into pop than ever before though the tune of the song is recognizably mixolydian; there are hints of Indian atmosphere in some of the other songs (which are all by Lennon and McCartney).

Psychedelia can be diagnosed in the fanciful lyric and intriguing asymmetrical music of Lucy in the Sky, as well as in the sound effects of Lovely Rita (she is a parking meter warden), and the hurricane glissandi of A Day in the Life which has been banned by the BBC for its ambivalent references to drug-taking – though if anything on the record is going to encourage dope it surely is the “tangerine trees and marmalade skies” and the “girl with kaleidoscope eyes” in Lucy in the Sky which contains none of these whoosh noises.  I greatly enjoy the five-bar phrases of Good Morning Good Morning which is something like a novelty number; and the tidy simplicity and shapely bass-line of A Little Help from my Friends, the only track that would have been conceivable in pop songs five years ago.

Any of these songs is more genuinely creative than anything currently to be hears on pop radio stations, but in relationship to what other groups have been doing lately Sergeant Pepper  is chiefly significant as constructive criticism, a sort of pop music master class examining trends and correcting or tidying up inconsistencies and undisciplined work, here and there suggesting a line worth following.  The one new exploration is the showband manner of the title-song, its reprise, and its interval song, Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite.  These three give a certain shape and integrity to the two sides, and if the unity is slightly specious the idea is, I think, new to popsong LPs, which are usually unconnected anthologies, and it is worth pursuing.  Sooner or later some group will take the next logical step and produce an LP which is a popsong-cycle, a Tin Pan Alley Dichterliebe.  Whether or not the remains of Schumann and Heine turn in their graves at this description depends on the artistry of the compiler.

Thanks to John Lock for locating this article, Jill McMahon for typing it all out!

More mentions of Procol Harum in The Times

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