Procol Harum

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Procol Harum 'prog-rock' or not?

Randy Whitaker


Randy Whitaker's very interesting article first appeared at The Beanstalk, the interactive message board at 'Beyond the Pale': to subscribe and/or participate, visit this page now.


The ranting lamp is now lit....

My recollection is that the term 'progressive rock' didn't surface until the early 70s (at the earliest). I first recall it being used as a vague category to encompass anyone who tried to infuse the rock format with more 'artsy' elements. At that point in time, the label was applied to (eg) King Crimson, Roxy Music, and even Genesis. Some of the features apparently associated with 'prog rock' were: storyline lyrics; exotic ambience (motifs; phrasing; allusions); novel instrumentation / effects; and experimental / avant garde improvisation (not otherwise lumped into existing genres like, say, blues la Cream).

More cynically, one might say this loose category encompassed anyone who didn't play straight-up rock but projected aspirations to artistic grandeur. Even more cynically, one could say almost anything that would shake up your acid trip (as opposed to making you shake your ass) fell under this umbrella ... ;-)

In any case, the label came up after the late 60s heyday of those groups who'd actually initiated the sort of experimentation or ornamentation which came to be associated with the term. This after-the-fact labeling is the main reason (IMHO) why the most cutting-edge rock experimenters of the 60s are not often mentioned with regard to 'progressive rock'.

In the 60s themselves, there really wasn't any coherent taxonomy for sorting out different forms of novelty. Anything displaying oddball attributes (ranging from 6+ chords to background sitar) might be labeled 'psychedelic' (though this term mainly referred to those things sounding like they came out of San Francisco). Anything with deep lyrics or intricate motif might be labeled 'art rock'. Anything too funny or satirical among the 'art rock' entries might be re-labeled 'Dada rock' or 'surreal rock' ( la Mothers, Beefheart, and Bonzo Dog Band). Anything invoking classical themes or instrumentation (remember the harpsichord frenzy circa 19651966?) might be labeled 'classical rock', 'orchestral rock', 'Bach rock', or 'symphonic rock'. Anything with a driving or 'heavy' beat might get labeled 'hard rock' ('heavy metal' not arriving 'til the mid-70s). And so on and so forth.....

Oh yes one more thing if you managed to assemble at least one full album side that was titularly (if not thematically) 'whole', you were claimed to be doing 'operatic rock' or 'rock opera'.

A lot of the British bands began experimenting with strange and novel things after Rubber Soul turned them on to the fact that a rock / pop group could actually write and arrange their own original material to nice effect. By the time of Revolver, all bets were off, and all the hep bands were 'off to the races'. It didn't take the American groups long to follow suit, but in general this was something the Brits really started ...

My personal list of 'early' groups most critical to this experimental breakout includes:

OK so what about Procol Harum?

When AWSoP hit, it came across as a blues song with undecipherable lyrics. This wasn't new (try figuring out what Stevie Winwood's wailing on the early Spencer Davis 45s). Upon pulling over by the side of the highway to listen to it the first time I immediately raced to my friends and asked if they'd heard that new soulful blues with the great organ backing by somebody named something like 'Poco Harriman'. (Yes, true to my shame ...)

There was that sorta classical concert hall ambience with the 'big organ sound', but this was more novel as a counterbalance to all the guitar-centric offerings than as a harbinger of something 'new'. The first album wasn't all that ubiquitous, and once you finally tracked it down you discovered what sounded like a basically blues band with two classically-trained keyboardists and the world's most savage guitar-strangler, all of whom seemed to have dropped acid.

Between being wrapped up in their own aura and getting miserable airplay opportunities (even among the 'underground' FM stations), PH didn't make all that much an impression. By '69, the Summer of Love was history, people were taking to the streets, and much of the 'counterculture' had been co-opted for commercial resale. This was the year Rolling Stone (? or was it Crawdaddy?) exhibited rare honesty in declaring the two best albums of the year were ones almost no one in the USA had even heard of, much less heard Salty Dog and the Kinks' Victoria. That's been the story ever since ....

Remember things were chaotic and fast-paced in the Olde Daze, and no one was taking any time to try and sort out what the hell was going on ... This wouldn't happen until the 70s, when some rock critic had to generate the term 'progressive rock' for the second (or nth) generation of would-be rock artiste(s). It would have to wait until even later for anyone to try and project that label backwards to try and cover the real pioneers ... 

Ranting lamp extinguished....


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