Prog rock isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Admittedly, there are many more bands
who fall victim to its excess and ambition than who use it in any functional
way, but occasionally, you’ll come across a band whose music owes more to their
own sense of creative direction than to any of the overtly theatrical and often
distractingly fey aspects inherent to the genre.
But that doesn’t mean that the genre isn’t without its innovators—artists who
take these prescribed rhythms and fashion something completely unique and
utterly captivating. Although they’re generally relegated to soundtrack fodder
based on the strength of just one song, British rock group Procol Harum was
among the first progressive rock bands to expand and break down the borders of
The history of the band extends all the way back to 1964, when English band The
Paramounts, led by Gary Brooker and Robin Trower and including musicians Chris
Copping and B.J. Wilson, had some small success with their version of Jerry
Leiber and Mike Stoller’s hit song Poison Ivy. They were subsequently called
The Pinewoods for a very brief time, but as the band had no further success
after Poison Ivy, they disbanded in ’66. But the members would not forget
their time together and would find themselves thrown back into the mix a short
In April 1967, Brooker began working as a singer-songwriter and eventually
formed Procol Harum to début his new material. He brought on poet/sound engineer
Keith Reid, organist Matthew Fisher, guitarist Ray Royer and bassist David
Knights. Their original manager, Guy Stevens, named the band
after a friend’s
pet cat. And from this simple explanation, the name took on numerous
interpretations and analyses—most of them dealing with the variations of its
Latin meaning (which was a derivation of "beyond these things").
The band’s first major hit was A Whiter Shade of Pale, their début single that
was released 12 May 1967. Backed by session drummer Bill Eyden and Fisher on
organ, Brooker sang Reid’s otherworldly lyrics, and Procol Harum’s lineage was
established with just one song. After this initial success, the band decided
that they’d tour and began their time on the road by opening for Jimi Hendrix.
After a lineup change brought in former Paramounts members Wilson and Trower,
the band released their follow-up single, Homburg. The track would go on to
chart in the UK, Canada and the US. During the time between these two
singles, the band recorded their self-titled début record—although it was held
back from release until 1968.
With this album, Procol Harum began the move away from the foundations that prog
rock was built upon and started to incorporate a more varied stylistic approach.
The airy melodies, bursts of guitar and subtle folk tendencies were still there,
but they had been subtly altered, making them capable of change and sudden
adaptation. Songs like album opener Conquistador and Cerdes (Outside
the Gates Of) showcased the band’s ability to work within these melodic confines
while still adding their own distinctive musical touches. You could hear the prog underpinnings, but it wasn’t as clear-cut as it was on many other records
of the time.
Even the psych rock aspect of the music was muted a bit, giving the songs a
chance to breathe and expand at their own pace. These songs needed time to
reveal themselves. Prog music has always been shrouded in mystical stereotypes
and a bloated sense of self-importance, but on their début, Procol Harum never
had to rely on these genre touchstones to make a connection with their
listeners. The music felt alive and vulnerable, even approachable in way that
had not been explored by previous bands who shared the same rhythmic
inclinations. It was a curious amalgam of genres, drawing from pop, prog rock,
folk and psych to create something that sounded of its time but also somewhat
removed from that same time—a curiosity of tone and execution that felt genuine
and refreshing in a genre that’s generally notable for a having a lack of both.
As for A Whiter Shade of Pale, most people associate it with their début
record, but the song wasn’t actually on the original pressing. It was only added
later on the US version. Granted, it is a graceful and subdued piece of '60s
pop nostalgia, but it shouldn't define the record to the degree in which it does
for most people. With that being said, if it does bring more people to recognise
the impact and creative ingenuity that Procol Harum explored on this release,
maybe the song's instant recognition isn't such a bad thing after all.
Procol Harum will continue to be well-known for their greatest success—but if
you look a little deeper into these songs, you’ll find an album steeped in the
history of a handful of genres. You’ll find a band who weren’t limited by the
confines of any particular set of musical guidelines. They took the reins of
their own rhythmic direction and carved a new path, one that would be followed
by countless other musicians over the next five decades. You can call them prog,
even symphonic rock, but Procol Harum was the influence—they weren’t standing on
the shoulders of past artists. Listen to this record and you’ll hear the sound
of thousands of musicians suddenly becoming interested in making music.