Procol Harum – Beyond These Things
The Last Three Chrysalis albums
Phil Jackson's Procol Harum retrospective was intended to introduce newcomers to the band's music following the elaborate cover of In Held 'Twas In I by TransAtlantic.
‘Let’s get back to rock, boys’, said Gary Brooker recalling the making of Exotic Birds and Fruit (1974) in an interview with Record Collector.
There was a certain inevitability about the departure from a symphonic to a more basic musical approach (with producer Chris Thomas playing a crucial role in the re-shaping of the band’s sound.). The album took its name from the cover oil painting by Jakob Bogdani and was played ‘live’ in the studio [sic] with no elaborate orchestral backing.
Side one of the LP was described by Will Birch in MOJO as ‘sensational’. It opens with Nothing But The Truth (another singles hit [sic] in the UK) and ends with The Idol, a touching song that has proved to be an enduring classic. A Music Scene reviewer commented that anyone who could fail to be moved by the final part of The Idol deserves pity!
Side two lets the album down unfortunately. Monsieur R Monde was a rearrangement of a ‘left over’ from the very early days and the humorous track Fresh Fruit is rather stale. Certainly the rocker Butterfly Boys has become a regular in sporadic public performances but the only outstanding track on side two is the closer New Lamps for Old with an impassioned vocal from Gary Brooker.
Rating- 6/10 (Side one 8/10)
Producers Leiber and Stoller were imported to produce Procol’s Ninth. The album is generously described in Record Collector as ‘a very pleasant return to basics, consisting of short songs which admirably displayed the group’s R&B roots’ but the alliance between the band and the famous American producers was not exactly a marriage made in heaven. Pandora’s Box, a left-over from 1967, is the strongest track on the album with its memorable marimba and overdubbed horns. Also the rendition of the Chuck Jackson song I Keep Forgetting is spirited. The Final Thrust is a reasonable song recalling once again Magdalene (my Regal Zonophone) from 1968’s Shine on Brightly. Mick Grabham’s guitar on Fool’s Gold is incisive but for me the lyrics on that track sum up Procol’s disillusionment (metaphorically speaking):
Fool’s gold broke my heart
Shone so brightly, fell apart.
For once I agree with Bud Scoppa in Rolling Stone that while there are some excellent performances on the LP the material is deficient. I would also add that the weakness of the synthesised strings and sounds available at the time are cruelly exposed no more so than on The Piper’s Tune when, as Gary Brooker has attested in numerous interviews, real bagpipes were needed! Gary can’t understand to this day why a limp cover of The Beatles' Eight Days A Week appears on the album. It is also clear that Keith Reid is suffering from real ‘typewriter torment’ as the song title suggests. I still vividly remember my sense of disappointment on purchasing the LP as a student and thinking that this was the beginning of the end for Procol.
Opening like an overture of sorts, the heavily orchestrated Something Magic doesn’t fulfil its early potential, ending up sounding forced. Chris Copping takes a turn at the orchestrations on Skating on Thin Ice and again the melody does not realize the conception and Reid’s lyrics lack impact and are indeed ‘skating on thin ice’ and ‘swimming against the tide’.
The drawing of the band on the mythical ship that is in danger of sinking and the image of the goldfish trapped in a bowl seems to sum up Procol at this period in time. Wizard Man is included as an additional track, a commercial number that could have been left over from Procol’s Ninth. The only track for me that has any real ‘bite’ on side one is Mark of the Claw – this lives up to its name with Mick Grabham in good form on guitar. But even this manages to sound laboured with its false endings. Strangers in Space is better, taking us back to earlier days with a soulful, reflective Ray Charles Brooker vocal and some nice echo-laden guitar by Grabham and interesting synth sounds from Pete Solley. This track is in the tradition of the New Lamps for Old album closer.
The suite The Worm and the Tree was presumably an attempt to recreate another In Held 'Twas In I. There is one promising theme on it that deserves revisiting but on the whole is devoid of ideas or inspiration. The choppy organ and piano chord sequence on Ennervation for example is total cliché. Wilson’s drumming sounds tired and Brooker sounds like he’s trying to keep a straight face when he sings [sic], "Now down in the forest a young man went riding’. Indeed his singing throughout this sorry album sounds anaemic and lacking in conviction. A spirited Grabham guitar break over a laboured orchestration lifts the mood only momentarily. The third movement is better with the piano sounding like a track from an old Charlie Chaplin movie but again the corny monologue ruins the piece. The Hammond [sic] organ on the 1977 ‘grand finale’ is like most of the rest of the LP – limp. I’m afraid I cannot be any more positive about an album that should have been Procol Harum’s swan song but instead ended up more like a ‘dying swan’.
Brooker admits in an interview with Claes Johansen that Procol’s ‘final’ album was put together in a rush and an album that ten years earlier would have ended with an epic flourish instead had some terrible lyrics to which he never had a chance to work out the tune.
Were only Procol Harum affected by this strange lethargy and lack of direction in 1977 or were others working within the broad church of progressive music becoming spent creative forces? Well the formidable Wind and Wuthering (completed in late ’76) was released by Genesis, Yes were to release Going for the One proving that a lengthy concept piece could still work (Awaken) and Rush was doing a sci-fi concept album Farewell to Kings.
Jethro Tull gave us the excellent Songs from the Wood (not one of their more progressive works admittedly) while Camel had moved completely from a progressive direction with the mediocre collection of songs that comprised Rain Dances. However, Kansas were going to The Point of Know Return, a successful mixture of commercial and progressive. PFM produced the inventive Jet Lag, Triumvirat released the Pompeii concept and Finch, the Dutch rivals to Focus, were also producing good albums. ELP had split asunder with Works so there were signs in one of the major artists that all was not well.
Procol had indeed shown the way for many progressive rock bands albeit with a personality split between ‘symphonic’ and ‘rock ‘n’ roll. Something Magic, though, really was an album too far.