Procol Harum – Beyond These Things
'Procol Harum' 1967
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. Read his introduction and his comments on the first Procol album below, and follow the numerous links to other regions of BtP that you may not have visited in quite a while!
Beyond the Pale – the first album – ‘Procol Harum’
Ronald L Smith points out in his history on the 'Beyond the Pale' web site that the band were still teenagers [sic] at the time of recording their debut album and that most of the songs were ‘portraits of youthful insecurity, mortality fears and depression’.
M C Strong in his Rock Discographies (Canongate Press) described their style as ‘gothic rock’ and certainly the preoccupation with Edgar Allen Poe / HP Lovecraft horror is there for all to hear:
The man looks inside my mouth and screams
This boy is insane!
Some of the lyrics positively reek of things grotesque: Try this for size!
Marble staring up at me
Imagine my surprise
I thought I’d left it at home
But there’s no doubt about it
I’m staring at my own tombstone.
(Something Following Me)
Is this the beginning of new music form – graveyard R & B?
It’s not all serious though:
Oh Mabel, Mabel
You know I love you girl but I’m not able
Oh Mabel, Mabel
Please get off the kitchen table!
This humorous, infectious piece of vaudeville was the first of many ‘tongue in cheek’ tracks that would litter Procol albums down the years.
(Good Captain Clack is side two’s fun number – this was the track that A Whiter Shade of Pale replaced on non-UK issues of the LP.)
Procol Harum is a precocious debut – so many musical styles and references are encompassed on the album -blues – Outside the Gates of Cerdes; R & B – She Wandered Through the Garden Fence; symphonic – Conquistador; classical Repent Walpurgis. And then there’s Keith Reid’s often obtuse lyrics but somehow it all marries together beautifully – As an interesting aside, Reid’s lyrics were actually offered to an embryonic Traffic so it could have been Winwood /Reid rather than Brooker / Reid had history taken a different path!
The album opens with Conquistador, surely one of the classic pop songs and certainly way ahead of its time. Paul Williams in his brilliant Crawdaddy article described this song as ‘a lovely bit of romanticism invaded and enriched by modern anxiety.’
Every track has merit but special mention must go to the brilliant Something Following Me, a slower blues-inflected ‘gothic horror’ of a track with its prominent piano and fuzzed guitar. This was one of the earliest Brooker / Reid tracks with Ray Charles cited by Brooker as an inspiration.
Outside the Gates of Cerdes also gets universal accord from critics. I once wrote – ‘David Knights's bass leads in, Brooker’s swirling Hammond [sic] conjures up the ethos, the emotion, the drama. Robin Trower’s chording is broody, his guitar playing mature beyond his years.’ The track still affects me in the same way today.
A Christmas Camel with its ‘majestic piano chords, fuzzy guitar and tricky organ’ (So said a reviewer of the time in Zabadak) opens side two. The most striking thing about this track though is the lyric. Impersonating watering cans indeed! Also, as with so much of Procol Harum’s music it lends itself to orchestral treatment – note, for example the wonderful rendition of the song at the Hollywood Bowl in 1973 (captured for posterity by KBFH FM)
Kaleidoscope is described by Henry Scott-Irvine as ‘a psychedelic minor masterpiece’ in his sleeve notes to the excellent remastered 30th anniversary box set on West Side Records. He suggests Kula Shaker might do worse than record a new version!
Repent Walpurgis, Roine’s favourite and the album’s suitably dramatic closer, is ‘probably the most brilliant thing that Procol ever did’ (Zabadak) and Trower’s work on this track is ‘shattering, brilliant’. (Crawdaddy)
It is Matthew Fisher’s only composition and the crowning glory of an outstanding début album. As one would expect there are some Bach references but the track is so dramatic as to be almost Wagnerian in scope.
‘It will shake you mercilessly and leave you aching to hear it again’.
It is well documented that this album, influenced in turn by Bob Dylan returned the compliment by providing inspiration for The Band to realize the wonderful Music from Big Pink.
Rating – 9 out of 10.
Before I go any further I should really explain the points system for the albums – 10 out of 10 is an elevated form of art rarely achieved by anyone – it implies a flawless album musically, lyrically and performance / production-wise without a weak track. This is probably practically unattainable on an album of any length but is often achieved on singles, of course!
So 8 and 9 out of 10 are very good scores indeed while even a 7 will have great merit. 6 is good but 5 and below are descending from fair to dire!
There are undoubtedly flaws on Procol’s albums but the effect on the listener is so intense that I must admit to departing ever so slightly from the above criteria when appraising this great band.
|More Features at BtP||Index page to the other sections of Phil Jackson's piece|