Most of the following review first appeared in Goldmine #455, with the portions printed in green omitted through oversight. The review, in its entirety, was (re)printed in Goldmine #459, 27 February 1998
It's been just over three decades since Procol Harum's classic hit single A Whiter Shade of Pale first hit the airwaves. Thus, the title of this three CD set. The designation 'Anthology' implies an overview of the band's career. But it's not. The three discs here (packaged nicely in a colorful cardboard slipcase), include the band's first four albums and a disc of A and B sides, alternate (often stereo) versions, and even an acetate recording (Magdalene (My Regal Zonophone)) from their second album.
Though these four albums were recently released separately by another label with bonus tracks, this collection includes all but one rare track (the instrumental [sic] Il Tuo Diamante, also a second album outtake) and much more. Everything here is nicely remastered and, at 52 tracks and three and a half hours' playing time, for around $30 it's a real bargain.
Procol Harum (retitled A Whiter Shade of Pale after the single took off) is a combination of surreal lyrics, Bach, Dylan, the Band and Ray Charles (check out Gary Brooker's bluesy voice) rolled into one. Keith Reid, a non-playing member, was the lyricist. And to this day fans still can't figure out what their debut single was remotely about ('the room was humming hotter [sic] as the ceiling flew away / when we called out for another drink, the waiter brought a tray'). Reid said once that the lyrics were mostly non-sequiturs to fit Brooker's music. Some people, (as they often did in the 60s) immediately pegged it an 'acid trip' tune. Ironically, it wasn't on the first UK edition of the album. This was corrected in time Stateside, but brought their debut album little success in their home country.
With the mercurial Hendrix disciple Robin Trower on guitar, organist (occasional singer-songwriter ) Matthew Fisher on Hammond organ, Brooker on grand piano, and arguably the best finesse drummer in rock, B.J.Wilson, on drums (bassist David Knights was the weak link and was replaced on Home, their fourth album), musically the band was magnificent (Whiter Shade and Lime Street Blues were recorded before Trower and Wilson were in the band).The major riffs on standout tracks like A Christmas Camel lean heavily on Dylan's Ballad of a Thin Man; lyrically, it takes on religion in Reid's patented oblique manner. Conquistador (later to be a hit off their live album) and Fisher's classically-based instrumental Repent Walpurgis (which includes searing guitar work by Trower) are purely superb. Mabel sounds like Levon Helm and the Band, kind of a twisted Up On Cripple Creek. Every track is exceptional. Many consider it their best ever (once Whiter Shade was added, of course). But the next three are almost as good.
Shine On Brightly came next (neither album include the hit Homburg, inexplicably) and was a different twist entirely. Side one included five tunes. Side two started out with the short ballad Magdalene, followed by a 15-minute suite, In Held 'Twas in I (Pete Townsend once admitted that it was a partial influence on Tommy). The single Quite Rightly So, led by Fisher's swirling organ, was a mid-tempo rocker. The title track was a bluesy-cum-classical rocker with more of Reid's bizarre wording ('My Prussian blue electric clock / no longer rings it will not stop' [sic]). 'Rambling On' tells the tale of a troubled modern Icarus who likes old Batman movies. The suite, consisting of five movements, mixes Eastern, classical, and rock music with lyrics that hit on Eastern mysticism, the Dalai Lama, Faustian images, and Christianity cut with madness and the human search for life's meaning. Sung by Brooker with Fisher (partly spoken word), it's one hell of a bite out of God's apple (I hope he approved). Fisher's In The Autumn of My Madness was his first lead vocal (a glimpse of his two vocals and production on the next album), and the closest thing here to a 'song', with great tension-building organ riffs. A great follow-up.
A Salty Dog, produced by Fisher, would be the last with the original line-up. An eclectic assortment of tracks, it opens with the title track, the now well-known sailor's lament. Here (as with Whiter Shade), it's relegated to disc three (in the context of its single release) for time constraints. Trower writes the music to two tracks, Juicy John Pink, and Crucifixion Lane. The latter he sings. This was a very popular album on FM radio in the 60s and 70s. Many consider it better than their debut. Others think it's a bit spotty. I take the latter view. It does have some great tunes: Dog, All This and More (a beautiful ballad that just bursts with energy), the acoustic Too Much Between Us, and Fisher's closer Pilgrim's Progress (a much-overlooked song , and after Whiter Shade arguably the most enchantingly melodic song in their catalog). Other standouts The Devil Came From Kansas, Fisher's Wreck of the Hesperus, and the opener The Milk of Human Kindness, are all vintage Procol Harum, but largely less classically tossed off when stuck beside the aforementioned numbers. Sticking the raw blues of Juicy John Pink right before the layered, classically-based tune Hesperus wrecks the flow. It was still a solid album, just a bit choppy.
On Home the band turned a few corners. Knights and Fisher departed (the latter after a failed attempt to continue on as producer). Chris Copping replaced them both on bass and keyboards. The pre-Procol R&B band, the Paramounts, was now reunited. But this was a rock band, now more than ever. Trower wrote the music to two tunes once again (the opener, Whisky Train, being their rockingest tune to date). Reid's lyrical mood was darker than ever. Just some of the titles, The Dead Man's Dream and About To Die, are fuel for the argument that this fourth album was lyrically an allegory [sic] on death. Even the seemingly 'up' tunes were often betrayed by their content ('I'll blacken your Christmas and piss on your door / You'll cry out for mercy but still they'll by more' [sic] from Still They'll Be More [sic]). There was definitely a dark cloud hanging over the majority of Home. But song per song it worked magically. Was it a concept album (as suggested by the boardgame depicted on the cover) or just a collection of songs? No matter. These nine tracks, burgeoning with sex, death, nightmares and life's struggles, stuck together like glue. The seven-minute Whaling Stories, a sea shanty, was a mini- In Held 'Twas In I in that it had movements within its basic verse structure (no chorus), but waxed as an early progressive rocker until the glorious finale. Though thoughtfully sequenced, Home should have ended with this tune (instead of the up-tempo Your Own Choice). Perhaps the last few lines sum up the album's intentions the best: 'Those alive will meet the prophets / those of peace shall see their wake'. [sic]
Disc three, labelled 'Singles A&B Sides / Outtakes / Alternative Takes', is a collector's dream. The first ten of these 17 tracks save one (the UK single version of Quite Rightly So with a different arrangement and lyrics) can readily be found, they're just four singles and a pair of already available outtakes from Whiter Shade. But the last seven include stereo versions of Whiter Shade, Homburg, Conquistador and She Wandered Through the Garden Fence. They even came up with a dub version (no vocals) of Whiter Shade and a rare acetate version of Magdalene (My Regal Zonophone). In some cases, these stereo takes are radically different, Whiter Shade is a few minutes longer, with a different vocal take and cleaner sound as well as a different ending. Too bad, however, that this slightly shorter disc (about ten minutes shorter than the first two) didn't include the aforementioned Il Tuo Diamante, an Italian single available on the Shine On Brightly reissue. But there's no real cause for complaint as it probably came down to licensing rights.
One should realize, however, that the band kept on sailing for six more albums (only the last two were weak in any sense of the word) before hitting ground (they reunited briefly for The Prodigal Stranger in 1991). So this box sums up the majority of their recorded work over less than the first half of their career. Translated from the Latin, Procol Harum means 'beyond these things'. They were a truly different band, breaking a handful of musical molds through the years. As Gary Brooker sings, 'Shine on Brightly'.
Thanks to Larry Pennisi and Joan May for sending this to BtP
Read Joan May's inimitable commentary on this review
Read Joan's follow-up letter to Goldmine