Most groups would kill for a hit song that would define them and
last the ages. But what about the hit songs that end up being the death of you?
Procol Harum's 1967 milestone A Whiter Shade of Pale, as seismic for its
time as The Beatles' Sgt Pepper was in that same year, is one such tune.
With its elliptical images of "skipping the light fandango" and "vestal
virgins," people have kept this song alive for years. It has been the choice to
wed couples and it has graced funerals as well as appearing in dozens of movies.
But the irony for Procol Harum remains that despite a long career of great,
memorable records (Shine on Brightly, A Salty Dog, Grand Hotel),
they can't seem to get beyond the pale.
For over forty years, Procol Harum possessed a varied history that wedded rock, classical and blues-based arrangements. With that classical baroque sound, their succession of albums were filled with cryptic tales of sea journeys, death knells and conquistadors. Being one of the few groups that had an in-house lyricist (Keith Reid), who wrote with keyboardist and singer Gary Brooker, Procol Harum shaped their music along the piano/Hammond organ tandem that Bob Dylan introduced into rock with both his Highway 61 Revisited (1965) and Blonde on Blonde (1966) albums. (The Band would also continue that trend beginning with Music From Big Pink in 1968.) But Procol Harum remained more of a cult band throughout the Seventies and early Eighties (including when they reformed in the Nineties). The group has now become the subject of a fascinating book, Procol Harum: The Ghosts of A Whiter Shade of Pale, written by Henry Scott-Irvine, where he examines the strange, troubled history of a band that began life as a short-lived R&B outfit (The Paramounts) during the British Invasion, and would go on to lose some of their members right after A Whiter Shade of Pale became a massive hit, and eventually would find themselves in 2008 in court in a lengthy law suit launched by the original organist Matthew Fisher who claimed that he should be considered a co-writer of this famous track.
Writing in the book's foreword, film director Martin Scorsese (who used A Whiter Shade of Pale and Conquistador in his 1989 short film, Life Lessons, from New York Stories) describes Procol Harum's music as a rich mystery. "The point was not so much what the songs were saying, specifically, as what they were suggesting to each of us, individually, where all those sounds and images would lead us, and leave us," he writes. "Procol Harum's music drew from so many deep wells – classical music, 19th Century literature, rhythm and blues, seaman's logs, concretist poetry – that each tune became a cross-cultural whirligig, a road trip through the pop subconscious."
Henry Scott-Irvine, who has written and produced his own weekly radio show on the 24-hour Music & Arts radio station, Resonance FM 104.4 in London, has been a long-time fan of the group. In his book, he provides a clear definition of that trip Procol Harum took through the pop subconscious. We spoke recently about the fascinating genesis of this veteran ensemble.
The tale of this band is one of the most unusual in rock history. One song, A Whiter Shade of Pale seems to overshadow - in a variety of ways - a long career filled with a number of great songs. But many people who are not fans think of them as 'one-hit' wonders. Or maybe 'two-hit' wonders due to Conquistador with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra in the early Seventies. What was so compelling about the story of Procol Harum that it attracted you to writing a book about them?
The parallel with Orson Welles is overwhelming. He spent his whole life making films and starring in great roles across the decades. Yet he was always remembered for his first movie Citizen Kane above all of his many undertakings. In Britain it was always like that with Procol Harum and A Whiter Shade of Pale. This scenario fascinated me. In America, during the 1960s, it was an altogether different story. Procol were seen as British rock heroes and rated as ‘Division 1’ with Pink Floyd and The Who. Yet by the mid 1970s the group were scorned by their former American champions – most notably Rolling Stone who turned on them, deriding nearly all of their later albums after 1971 when their guitarist Robin Trower departed to be replaced by Dave Ball and then Mick Grabham, respectively. When Brit Pop peaked in the mid 1990s I was working on Channel 4 TV’s series The White Room in London. I was fortunate enough to chat to Teenage Fanclub and Kula Shaker and asked them if they admired Procol? It was a gleeful response, "Without A Doubt." A new open-minded generation had come along with without the prejudices of the previous one. In 1995 Procol were touring England again for the first time since 1977 and received unanimously good press in the British broadsheets. Procol it seemed were ripe for reappraisal. But no book publisher was interested! In 2011 David Barraclough of Omnibus Press approached me with a view to commissioning me to write the biography that we are discussing here now. Progressive rock is fashionable again in 2013. We even have a UK based music magazine called Classic Rock Presents PROG. The landscape of our collective past has been duly reappraised.
The strange story of this group though actually begins during the days of the British Invasion when they were known as The Paramounts. What kind of band were they and why didn't they become more successful?
The Paramounts were a Beat Group who were a ‘covers band’ from a British seaside resort called Southend in Essex. They were indeed fortunate to come from a coastal location, namely the Thames Estuary. Merchant seamen were bringing-in rare grooves [then] unavailable in record shops nationally and these were supplied to a club called Shades where The Paramounts had a residency. Much of this American soul-r&b crossover became the band’s exclusive mainstay until 1965. Why were The Paramounts not more successful? This has to be down to bad luck and the world not being very fair. They should have been successful. Championed by The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, whom they supported, they also backed Sandie Shaw. By 1966 the ‘Beat Scene’ became littered with a thousand ‘covers’ bands. But, hey, the guys they were only teenagers back then ...
What then distinguished Procol Harum from The Paramounts?
Procol Harum came along a year later in 1967. As Gary Brooker said to me, ‘The Paramounts was like being at school. We had done our homework. Recorded covers. And now it was time to do something serious!’ Entirely different to The Paramounts, Procol Harum’s template was that of The Band whom they had seen back Bob Dylan at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in 1966. Their early ads in the Melody Maker for ‘musicians wanted’ cited The Young Rascals as an influence. The dual keyboards sound of a Hammond organ and a piano with a fully-integrated blues guitar and soulful rhythm section, saw Procol including classical references and shades of Bob Dylan. This unique recipe set them apart from the rest. By April 1967 Procol Harum were quite simply ahead of the pack!
When singer/pianist Gary Brooker met up with lyricist Keith Reid to compose A Whiter Shade of Pale you would think that would destine the group to a long successful career, but some of the band members left shortly after the song became huge in 1967 - How did they recover and carry on?
Procol’s follow-up single Homburg was a UK million seller and a UK ‘Top Ten’ hit, which charted across Europe in the autumn of 1967. This set Procol in good spirits prior to their American debut in November 1967 where they shared billing with Pink Floyd and The Doors. When America beckoned Procol never looked back.
On their first few albums, it was pretty clear that they had done a marvellous job of fusing a classical concept with a blues core in the person of guitarist Robin Trower – How deliberate was that choice, and how did it set their particular sound in place?
Trower maintains that he had insisted on retaining his blues influences, having spent six months in 1966 in a power trio called The Jam who covered BB King and Buddy Guy. Is this where Paul Weller got the name for his band in 1976? Homage, theft, or symbiosis? Trower’s solos were concise and very deliberate. In his review for Television’s Marquee Moon in NME in 1977 Nick Kent likened Torn Curtain to "Trower and Procol in excelsis." This was the very point of Trower’s role. Listen to Repent Walpurgis  Shine on Brightly’s Grand Finale  or Home’s Whaling Stories  and you have the quintessential Harum in their full magnificent flight. Nothing in rock had sounded like this before!
In the foreword to your book, Martin Scorsese talks about the enigmatic quality of their songs, especially on their third album, A Salty Dog, what do you think made Procol Harum so distinct from other late Sixties groups?
The fusion of highly cinematic and often surreal lyrics provided powerfully melodic and evocative soundscapes which, if ‘the Pop Promo era’ had been around to capitalise on Procol back then, as opposed its heyday in the mid 1980s, then maybe we could have seen Procol as a vastly successful and hugely financial rock outfit during the late 1960s. I think Procol’s particular marriage of lyrics and music also made them quite unique. Asides that? Their musical variance! This is always overlooked by the press!
Right after their third album, there was more turmoil when organist Matthew Fisher leaves the band and then Robin Trower follows him after their fifth, Broken Barricades. Since Procol Harum was a solid musical outfit why was there such discord in the ranks?
Fisher hated touring and had the bug to produce after taking the helm on Procol’s third album A Salty Dog in 1969. He went on to produce albums for Trower. Trower got to the point that he had to reach out and do his own thing. Having seen what Jimi Hendrix did with ‘The Power Trio’ he knew he could follow suit. And with three Billboard ‘Top Ten’ albums in the mid 1970s he certainly proved that point!
It seems inevitable they would eventually work with a symphony orchestra, but the album with the Edmonton Symphony brought them back into the mainstream audience thanks to Conquistador. Why do you think that song and that album had the impact that it did?
The song was finely scored by Gary Brooker. It seemed to echo the spirit of Ennio Morricone’s soundtracks to spaghetti westerns. A Fistful Of Dynamite would have been a contemporary of this recording – albeit totally different. Having already departed from Procol Harum, Matthew Fisher called this album, "Classical pop music for Sunday supplement readers." It is certainly epic. Chris Thomas’s production was ahead of the rest back then and the marriage of orchestra and band better than any on record. It was a US Billboard at #5 in 1972.
You said a moment ago that the press overlooked Procol Harum. But they also weren't very kind to them in the years to follow despite some fine records. How would you account for this?
After the aforementioned Edmonton Symphony album, Procol tended to concentrate more on Europe once again to the detriment of American promotion. This despite the might of Chrysalis Records’ heavy plugging of their great and solidly reliable UK act on profile US network TV and radio, across shows such as Midnight Special, The King Biscuit Hour and In Concert, as well as noteworthy American tours with support from the likes of The Eagles! But in spite of this, as Brooker said to me, “Procol suddenly became unfashionable ...”
The band would eventually break up after their late Seventies' album, Something Magic, and then return in the Nineties with The Prodigal Stranger (which brought back Matthew Fisher and Robin Trower) and later in the 2000s with The Well's on Fire. But the story that brought the band back into the public eye was the legal storm over the authorship of A Whiter Shade of Pale. Fisher claimed he was one of the uncredited writers who contributed to the sound of that hit. How would you characterize his case?
I reported the whole matter as it was quoted in the UK national press. The irony is of course that it seemed to be like a bookend to Procol’s career in 2004–2009. There were double page spreads in every UK national paper. Procol were front-page news during the High Court case, The Appeal and the House of Lords resolution. This really was 'The Ghosts Of A Whiter Shade Of Pale' coming back to haunt all parties. I reported it all in the biography in the third person in an endeavour not to take sides. This was also an Omnibus Press ‘house style’ prerequisite, I might add. What is my personal take on all this? Well that is for the birds with a handful of grain.
Fair enough. But wouldn't you say it's quite ironic that a song that people get married to and have such lasting fond memories of would be the cornerstone of such discord among the band members who recorded it?
Yes! This was just like divorce. Some fans have taken Fisher’s stance, whilst many share Brooker’s. The rest of the band will almost certainly never speak to Fisher again. And Fisher says he would happily return to play in Procol once more. How ironic!
Over their long career, what do you think was Procol Harum's largest contribution to popular music?
Without Procol, progressive rock would have been entirely different. The Who’s Pete Townshend cited Shine on Brightly as an influence on Tommy and Brian May cited Grand Hotel as an influence on Queen. Procol certainly paved the way for the excesses of Keith Emerson in The Nice and ELP as well as Rick Wakeman’s epic undertakings after departing from Yes. Yet Procol were like none of those bands really. And most Procol fans loathe those prog acts. What a dilemma ... Procol’s largest contribution to music has to be the songs and the strength of those songs. Procol’s timeless numbers are definitely due for a second or a third airing. And ‘Quite Rightly So’... Meanwhile, Procol’s current line-up, which has been consistent for seven years, is due to tour Denmark in March with The National Danish Orchestra & Choir, concluding in Wuppertal, Germany on April 5 and 6 where the show will include a ballet, possibly recalling Jethro Tull’s A Passion Play (?!)
Reproduced here by kind permission of the author, Kevin Courrier, a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Courrier is currently conducting a five-part lecture series called Woody Allen: Past and Present (with film clips) at the JCC Miles Nadal Centre in Toronto each Monday until February 11 from 7–9pm. Thanks, Kevin
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