Procol Harum

the Pale 

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'Procol Harum - a different shade of pale'

Harold Feigenbaum in Syracuse New Times, 20 April 1972

Someone once remarked to Keith Reid, the mentor of Procol Harum, at a party, "You've turned a whiter shade of pale." And Reid recollects that he started to write poetry around that theme. His problem however was that he could neither read or write music and so he sought out an old friend, Gary Brooker, to put his poem to music. The two formed a words and music coalition that has since proven to have been one of the most formidable and prolific teams in rock. .
... the band perpetuates itself around the Brooker-Reid axis, and they are and always will be Procol Ha rum, regardless of who's playing the guitars.

The group Procol Harum was selected specifically to put this one tune on to vinyl [sic]. It didn't quite matter who the musicians were, since Brooker and Reid were - and planned to remain - the nucleus of the newborn band. In fact, of the four new musicians (who were selected by auditioning for Brooker and Reid) two left in the short time interval between the release of Whiter Shade of Pale and the group's first album.

Matthew Fisher had studied classical music at the Guildhall School of Music and had worked his way up to such heights as Peter Jay's Jaywalkers. But it was his quasi-Bachian organ that was the success formula for Whiter Shade of Pale and his first [sic] solo composition, Repent Walpurgis, which featured a passage from the Prelude in C Major from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. After the Salty Dog album, he left Procol Harum, which virtually forced a complete change of style. The organ parts that characterized Procol's fluid feel were absent.

Whiter Shade of Pale was the beginning and the end of Procol Harum's reign within the marble fortresses of the Top 40 charts. It was their only single to show any degree of commercial success [sic] and the sweet feeling of mass acceptance. But it was interesting that the tune had appealed to both [sic] quarters of the record buying public. It introduced the "hip" to the group's innovative sound and possibly enticed them into purchasing the first album.

Musically speaking, the music improved in huge quantum leaps, culminating with the masterful A Salty Dog album. But included in this region was In Held 'Twas In I, a pseudo-opera tracing the damnation and ressurection [sic] of a tormented person's soul. The piece is constructed of many passages and poems with almost profusive [sic] religious connotations, from the Tibetan droning at the start to the seemingly angelic recessional at the end. The song lasts 20 or so minutes and reportedly took three months to piece together.

Though some thought of the song as a series of non-sequitar [sic] phrases, it strikes this reviewer as a quasi-religious parable. The two poems interspersed with the music are delicately recited by Brooker and Fisher [sic], and reflect the narrator's search for some answer to the question, what is life? ("Life is like a bean-stalk", replies the holy Lhama [sic].)

The A Salty Dog album is a seemingly designed "concept" album creating the same sort of air as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (a self proclaimed opium user). The effect of the album as an entity serves as an anthology of sea tunes, rather than a continuing story (ie Tommy, Babbacombe Lee, S.F. Sorrow): The title tune is Procol Harum's most outstanding composition, and Fisher's haunting Pilgrim's Progress (taken from the title of the novel of the same name?) serves as an expository look at Reid's thoughts as a lyricist.

But with the critics plaudits, A Salty Dog and the next [sic] album, Shine On Brightly, was still a miss commercially. It was at this point that Dave Knights (the bassist) and Fisher parted company with the group (never to be heard from, musically, again). They were replaced by Chris Copping who took over for both.

Next came the Home album, which almost seemed like a first album for the new Procol group. The group had to establish a new raison d'être for their overall sound. The album was received with quite mixed emotions ranging from "worst album cover" to "the emergence of a new rock and roll band." The madness and sheer genius of Keith Reid was the most pervading quality of the album, and the renaissance of Robin Trower as a top quality rock and roll guitarist.

The Home group did a short American tour and were playing terrible sets [sic!] relying on the memories of the old band for the little acceptance they received at all. They were introducing some of the tunes from their Broken Barricades album, and they just weren't going over. Copping, who was new in the group and of obviously limited talent to begin with [sic!], was trying to be two musicians at once when he wasn't one at all. He was a semi-efficient organist but when he moved over to the bass, watch out. Brooker was trying to bring some seat of cohesion to the band, seemingly with great difficulty. But people began noticing Barrie Wilson hidden behind his drum-kit, now piloting the group with his powerful style of drumming. On the Broken Barricades LP, he shines on brightly.

The song Power Failure seems to be a satirical comment on the miserable state of the band at this period. It is a loud, raucous, rock and roll number that features a strange drum solo followed by the round of applause which all drum solos seem to command these days at concerts. Robin Trower's tribute to Jimi Hendrix (l don't know if it was purposeful or not), Song for a Dreamer is included, as is the lyrical title track.

Trower left after the album and the tour and the group picked up a new guitarist and new bassist (Dave Ball and Alan Cartwright). Brooker and drummer Barrie Wilson are the only two members going all the way back to the first album. The band perpetuates itself around the Brooker-Reid axis, Procol Harum, regardless of who's playing the guitars. They have mastered the art of record producing, and even if the tune is weak they can produce their way around it.

Procol Harum is five men now (excluding Reid, who in every sense is their most important musician), and have embarked on a new direction in record making. They have completed a double [sic] record set recorded live with the Edmonton (Canada) Symphony Orchestra.

The album consists mostly of old tunes like Salty Dog, Whaling Stories, Conquistador, and In Held 'Twas I In, fully arranged for the group and orchestra. Most of the songs were good the first time around but one or two had to be played again in the concert to get the right balance. The sound quality on the open air [?] concert is supposed to be extraordinarily good. The album is due out very soon.

'This is Procol Harum's sixth album, and their first attempt to do a live recording, not counting the live in the studio ambience on the macabre Home album. This is also the début of the fourth version of the Procol Harum group and if their tour this past summer is any indication of their proficiency, there may very well be a promising future for this new configuration.

It is the eclectic talent of Brooker as the helmsman that commands the group. He does all the singing and uses his piano as the lead instrument. It's his voice that adds a quality of its own to the sound. He sounds wonderfully strained almost creating the audical [sic] illusion that he is clutching for the right pitch, but it all fits so well.

Procol is more of a rock band (a quite inappropriate adjective in this case) than ever before, but their ability as a concert group (in the classical sense) makes them something special. They have that intrinsic sophistication and polish that separates them from any other group in today's teenage wasteland of rock and rollers.

(thanks, Unsteady Freddie)

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