Procol Harum – Beyond These Things
Shine on Brightly
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 the comments on Shine on Brightly below, and follow the numerous links to other regions of BtP that you may not have visited in quite a while!
Shine on Brightly the second album
Denny Cordell was, by now, more preoccupied by the prodigious emerging talent of Joe Cocker, also signed to Regal Zonophone. (Cocker’s first two albums are, in my opinion, darned close to the elusive 10 / 10 rating just discussed – Darn it, they are 10 / 10 albums!
And Procol’s organist Matthew Fisher and drummer BJ Wilson were recruited by Cocker to play as session men, notably on his brilliant interpretation of Lennon and McCartney’s With A Little Help From My Friends)
So, much of the production work on this album was done by Tony Visconti, later to become David Bowie’s producer.
The link between Procol Harum and The Band was emphasised by Jim Miller writing in Rolling Stone in 1968, on the album’s release. Of course, he would say that Procol suffered in the comparison. (Take note – It is actually possible to love Procol’s first couple of albums and also The Band’s Music From Big Pink and eponymous second album (as I do) without having to compare them!)
The idea of comparing Richard Manuel and Gary Brooker is particularly absurd. Not to mention comparing Robin Trower and Robbie Robertson (Guess who won?)
I don’t take Rolling Stone Rock Guides that seriously – certainly their attitude to prog rock is positively Neanderthal! Anyway, Joan May does a pretty good demolition job on the Miller review in her comments submitted to the ‘Beyond The Pale’ web site in December, 1998. As she says Procol are more a ‘seamless fusion of classical with rock and blues’ than a Band clone!
Paul Williams again in Crawdaddy had this to say in his sleeve notes to my mono copy of the album:
"This is a wonderful record, kind of a letter from a friend I guess, or an expression of an eight month moment. Have you noticed how much the first Procol album (which was so influenced by Blonde on Blonde) influenced Music From Big Pink? This album here will affect so many of us so deeply that I wonder that you’re not just bursting with pride at your involvement with it. I know I am. Procol Harum is a cornerstone of my existence, something I would have a craving need for were it not there."
International Times wrote:
"Procol Harum are the all-time anomaly, a band who’ve had a multi-million seller, who boast an obscenely good guitarist, an immediately recognisable sound and a talented song writing team. Yet they are only really appreciated in America."
"The production is superb – efficient without being overpowering, it allows that curious combination of organ, piano and stinging guitar to emphasise and project the beautifully controlled schiozoid lyrics. A Bosch-like picture of a private hell that just might be paradise courses with frightening optimism from speaker to speaker."
The opening track Quite Rightly So, a Brooker-Fisher-Reid composition was perhaps a strange choice for a single (But then again as The Doors these were ‘strange days’)
The rolling Hammond organ chords, the inspired opening lyrics:
For you (whose eyes were open wide
Whilst mine refused to see
I’m sore in need of saving grace
Be kind and humour me.
Brooker’s increasingly choppy organ [sic] backed by piano, Trower coming in with repetitive fuzzed notes in his own inimitable way - so much packed into such a short track.
The title track is a masterpiece, very tight rhythmically, Brooker’s vocal becoming oddly isolated in the mix as he sings of his befuddled brain shining on brightly quite insane – a sort of Homburg feel but quite different, of course!
Even Jim Miller had to concede that it was a ‘beautifully constructed little song, an effective wedding of lyrics and music.’
Skip Softly My Moonbeams is another amazing track with its descending scale leading to an unforgettable piano / staccato bass / screaming guitar solo with swirling fairground organ, Trower’s repeated notes leading to an amazing ‘Cossack’ dance type ending. (Jim Miller reckoned the middle section included an absurd quote from Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez)
Wish Me Well is a return to the bluesy / R & B feel of the early days, a subtle restrained piece with Trower teasing every ounce of emotion from his guitar without reaching any particular heights.
Rambling On is, apparently (like AWSOP, not about a bad trip) – so Keith Reid told Rob Chapman (ever so slightly tongue in cheek?) in Mojo. If taken literally, as Reid suggests, it is probably about a suicide. (‘I went down hit the ground at the speed of sound. Luckily I broke no bones only tore my underclothes’) Suicide? No, maybe not!
It fades out and then in again as side one ends.
Side two opens with Magdalene My Regal Zonophone, a short introduction to what IT described as a ‘mini operetta’ (and Miller less kindly as ‘an electric mass of sorts’) the aforementioned multi movement suite In Held 'Twas In I recently revived by prog rock supergroup Transatlantic.(Stolt, Morse, Portnoy, Trewavas)
In Held 'Twas In I is a 17 minute epic described by Nigel Smithers in a Record Collector from 1982 as ‘very much a production of the psychedelic era with all the tricks of the trade such as reversed tapes, droning sitars, wailing feedback, Strawberry Fields type fade-outs and fade-ins.’
It begins with a narrative by Brooker to the accompaniment of drones and sitar-self deprecatingly - ‘Even though the words I use are pretentious and make you cringe with embarrassment’ to ‘Life is just a beanstalk isn’t it?
Matthew Fisher [sic] takes over the narrative to a piano accompaniment then bells, fairground organ and drum rolls usher in the very psychedelic 'Twas Tea Time At The Circus (Listen for this approach on some of The Flower Kings' work)
In The Autumn of My Madness is the third movement with Matthew on vocals and the unforgettable lines, ‘Bring all my friends before me and I’ll strangle them with words’.
Ship foghorns and ambulance sirens appear amidst the ascending organ. There are people screaming then a positively sinister passage where plodding ‘giant footsteps’ are played on piano to a background of Hammond chords then Trower’s guitar repeats the theme to a quieter reflective ‘I know if I’d been wiser this would never have occurred’ section.
Brooker strains to reach the highly emotive notes on Look To Your Soul but that just adds to the ‘tortured’ feel. The harpsichord merely serves to accentuate the ‘Addams Family’ Gothic horror of it all and once again Trower’s guitar playing is economical but so, so effective.
Bass notes then piano open he crowning glory on the album – the aptly named Grand Finale.
Gary Brooker said in Record Collector magazine that he was almost in tears when playing this piece with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra – "To hear it played for the first time with a great choir and orchestra belting out, rising to a tremendous crescendo…I thought it was bloody marvellous."
And it is bloody marvellous. Listening to that choir again still moves me close to tears – it certainly makes the hairs at the back of my neck stand up. Although Trower didn’t have a great deal to do (and this was a source of friction within the band) the overall effect of this finale was at least as momentous as Repent Walpurgis.
Ron Cooper writing in Zabadak (1993) commented:
"The steadily rising instrumentation joined by a dozen voices – a 4-part harmony with 3 voices filling each harmony." (Fisher’s sister and a friend of his from school did the backing vocals on to the 8-track tape.)
And the final word goes to Ron Smith:
"A brilliant suite simmering with gothic bass, stinging guitar, smouldering organ, mystical recitation and a smattering of sound effects."
Rating – 10 out of 10
|More Features at BtP||Index page to the other sections of Phil Jackson's piece|