Henry Scott-Irvine has written a superb account of the origin, success and excess with all sundry trials, triumphs and tribulations associated with the rapid rise in the charts of a rock band with a truly unique sound. If The Ghosts of A Whiter Shade of Pale: Procol Harum would have been turned into a mystery novel it might have been titled The Case of the Missing Acetate. For there are mysterious threads that run throughout this book and the careers of those associated with the band. The more a fan, like myself, discovers about Procol Harum, falsehood or truth, the more questions arise about those salad days. The author has deftly surveyed the landscape surrounding Procol Harum and presented us with a rich array of band history, anecdotes from band members and insight into the devilish machinations of the music industry. With his vast experience of research into documenting the recordings of the swinging 1960s and the psychedelic 1970s, Scott-Irvine was dutifully poised to use his many contacts in the music business to enhance his portrait of the band that defies description and labelling.
How was he to do this? A big fan of the band himself, Scott-Irvine chose to arrange his book chronologically. Writing mostly in the third person, he starts by introducing the reader to the music scene in Britain in the early 60s and the pre-Procol R&B band called The Paramounts. Early on we get the feeling that guitarist Robin Trower would eventually start his own band and pianist Gary Brooker would evolve into one of the best singers to come out of that era. For six years The Paramounts played on the same stage as some of the biggest acts going, including The Rolling Stones, but they were almost exclusively a cover band influenced by American Soul and Rhythm and Blues artists. After giving up the paramount ghost of stardom, Gary Brooker thought he would write songs for other people. How he got together with lyricist Keith Reid and how they worked together is one of the most intriguing facets of the book.
Of course, the leading lady in this tale is the mega-hit A Whiter Shade of Pale. Penned by Keith Reid and put to music by Gary Brooker, it featured the sweeping organ of Matthew Fisher and Brooker’s soulful voice. Both Brooker and Fisher were inspired by Bach but the authorship of the song’s music was to be contested by Fisher in a long drawn-out court case 38 years after it reached number 1 in the UK singles charts. A telling paragraph from page 44 puts the song’s publication in perspective:
‘Beyond the extraordinary success that A Whiter Shade of Pale achieved in the summer of 1967 was the inescapable fact that, although – with the exception of drummer Bill Eyden – not strictly the work of session musicians, it had been recorded by a group assembled for the recording session at which it was produced. The six musicians on the record had no history together, none of the experiences that The Paramounts had shared, none of the fraternity, understanding and sympathy that comes from long nights spent in the back of a van traipsing home after an unmemorable gig 150 miles away.’
The genesis for the recording of AWSoP was the songwriting collaboration of Brooker/Reid. They had a hit before they were a band. They had a hit and they and everyone around them were scrambling. All hands on deck! A few fell overboard but Fisher and bass player, David Knights remained and ex-Paramounts bandmates – drummer BJ Wilson and Robin Trower – were recruited. The author gives a stunning blow-by-blow of the waters of fame and keeps an objective viewpoint while letting Fisher, Brooker, Trower and Reid explain the course they were taking on the first three albums. Though Matthew Fisher disliked touring and quit the band after producing A Salty Dog he later joined the band during their resurgence in the 90s, and then later in the new millennium.
Both Brooker and Fisher come across as sincere in their stance on authorship of AWSoP. It is a shame that the case ever went to court. They made great music together but in the end Scott-Irvine had to address the situation and he does so with aplomb.
Each recording and line-up change is explained both in creative and technical terms. Procol went through changes, as most bands did, but they were able to redefine their group within the epic voyage that their idea of artistic creation entailed. The marvellous drumming of BJ Wilson was a constant during their original run through 1977. Robin Trower set the precedent on bluesy, soulful guitar. Gary Brooker’s piano and voice, along with Keith Reid’s words, still define the essence of Procol. Chris Copping, another former member of The Paramounts, took over on organ while also playing bass and kick-started the band when it needed it most. Dave Ball played ably on the ‘live’ recording with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. Mick Grabham was the perfect choice to succeed Ball on guitar and played on some of Procol’s finest classical pieces, The Blue Danube and Adagio de Albinoni, as well as rocking out on such numbers as Toujours L’Amour and Drunk Again. At no time are there dead spots in this biography of a band. The addition/subtraction of other various members involved stories and titbits of information only a master documentarian could assemble. Hard to believe that the excellent Geoff Whitehorn on guitar and Matt Pegg on bass have been with the band 21 and 19 years respectively.
A truly fine bit of writing that also covers the solo efforts of these great musicians and the charity work of Gary Brooker and friends. But I do have a few minor disagreements with the author. On pages 140–141 we find the description of Procol’s appearance on the TV show, The Midnight Special.... ‘five songs – four from Grand Hotel – and Conquistador …’ No mention of Drunk Again, but I saw the show and that was the first time I heard the song which was excluded from their next album. To make matters worse, the author states on page 150 that ‘it was not a strong song’. I must protest. Strong song and Grabham rocks. And, on page 157, ‘Procol’s worst ever song in the shape of The Final Thrust ...’ Henry, what has become of third person impartiality? The author can be excused because it is impossible for a fan not to be passionate about this music. I would agree that The Final Thrust was a poor choice for a single but personally love the song and think that it fits a certain Procol profile perfectly. I agree with Chris Copping on the merits of So Far Behind. Great arrangement on The Well’s on Fire. The Albert Bros.’ production of Something Magic notwithstanding, that album is under-appreciated. A lot of good stuff there. The song, No More Fear of Flying could have been a hit for Procol. Two Fools in Love holds a special place in my heart and to call it ‘insipid’ should be a crime. All meant to be taken in the spirit in which it was written.
I thoroughly enjoyed gorging myself on Procol Harum love and lore while reading this book. It is a serious and in-depth appraisal of all the various ghosts that haunt Harum Land. At one point I found myself laughing out loud. Twice I was brought to tears. Many times I was illuminated. If there is one thing to stress amidst the controversy it is this: Procol Harum, most notably Gary Brooker, never sold out his perfectionism or professionalism. The music stands paramount to any hurdles the industry has to offer. Well done, Henry!
Satch Dobrey – 13 November 2012
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