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The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is often pointed to as one of the premier psychedelic rock albums. But let's face it - songs like Rain, Tomorrow Never Knows, and She Said, She Said were all more "psychedelic" than most of Pepper. Granted, there was Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and A Day in the Life and to a somewhat lesser extent Within You Without You and Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite!, but a lot of the Fab Four's gigantic artistic breakthrough was mainly a collection of dressed up rock songs. Damn fine rock songs, mind you, but they weren't necessarily "psychedelic" as much as say something like Strawberry Fields Forever or I Am The Walrus was.
1967 was a banner year for psychedelic rock, San Francisco, and Haight-Ashbury. This is textbook rock history, but an important thing to note here is that so many bands were either following The Beatles' lead as usual, or following the kinds of musical trends being banged out in California by the likes of Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, and others of the acid washed variety. Back in England, the Rolling Stones were trying their best stab at psychedelic fecundity with Their Satanic Majesties Request, an album that was doomed out of the gate when it originally went up against Pepper, but isn't half as shitty nowadays as it was once thought to be. Likewise, numerous albums have come and gone that have been infinitely better than Pepper.
One such an album to be considered in that light should be Procol Harum's début. There was nothing Beatley in its proceedings, there was not even a hint of the LSD-inspired bullshit that drenched so many of the hippie bands in Frisco. There was, however, a man named Keith Reid who wrote stunningly surreal lyrics, that did work equally as beautiful poetry (the likes of With A Little Help From My Friends and Good Morning, Good Morning don't really seem too profound when recited). Reid, in turn, was the lyricist for Procol Harum, a band that had funky R&B roots and a sincerely classical sense of music that reached far beyond the strings of Sgt Pepper and even the blues of the Stones.
Known best for (and re-titled as such after the song was tagged on to it shortly after its initial release) A Whiter Shade of Pale, Procol Harum is a collection of soulful music, wonderful lyricism, and a true sense of the surreal that was missing in so much of the other popular psychedelic rock of the time. The band featured Gary Brooker on vocals and piano, BJ Wilson on drums, Robin Trower on guitar, Matthew Fisher on organ, and David Knights on bass. Together, these men created a wholly unique sound and flavor of English rock that grew less psychedelic as years rolled on, but no less important.
There's so much to be found within the layers of the songs here. The melancholy and beautiful Something Following Me centers around the inevitability of death, while Conquistador is both lyrically rich and directly rocking. And in such memorable songs as Cerdes (Outside the Gates of) and A Christmas Camel, Keith Reid's pen burns with bright fire that seldom surrounded his contemporaries, save for possibly Dylan, but even he had begun to "settle down" in his Nashville mode at around this time.
Unicorns, mermaids lacing carnations, crème de menthe being drunk from terra cotta cups, and exhaled menthol breath are just some of the subjects covered alone in Cerdes, while A Christmas Camel sports "mad men in tall [sic] hats and tails impale themselves on six-inch nails" for starters. All the while, Brooker and Fisher work with each other on their respective keyboards, creating a hypnotic swirl of musical dementia and bluesy grandiosity. Trower, a skilled guitarist, always cuts loose tastefully and knows when to stop. His solos are perfect and have a dark, gritty tone to them.
And then there's the staggering She Wandered Through the Garden Fence that was as explicit as anything could have been at the time without turning into a pile of derogatory nonsense. "She wandered through the garden fence / And said, 'I brought a [sic] great expense / Of [sic] potion guaranteed to bring / Relief from all your suffering' / Although I said, "You don't exist" / She grasped me firmly by the wrist / And threw me down upon my back / And strapped me to her torture rack". More than a little disturbing, but so fantastically fascinating when sung by the wonderful Brooker, who's pinpointed by Fisher's organ notes the whole way through. Stately and strange.
That same kind of surreal taste would embed itself into the tough rocking Kaleidoscope that ends in a huge dramatic swirl, with Fisher's organ going into an overloaded rumble. But the guys had time to play it up for fun as well, as found in the whimsy of Mabel ("Don't eat green meat, it ain't good for you / Killed your brother, killed your sister, too") and Good Captain Clack that effectively out performs every character found on Revolver or Sgt. Pepper, and owed maybe a little to Ray Davies' genius.
And well, there's no denying the sparkling majesty of Salad Days (Are Here Again), or the closing instrumental Repent Walpurgis, filled with Trower's blues-hued guitar work. Procol Harum is a fantastic piece of strange psychedelia that holds up so much stronger than its peers, partially because it didn't try so hard to be over reaching or orchestral or larger than life. A true classic
Procol Harum…Plus! features ten bonus tracks. Included in these are the original single version of A Whiter Shade of Pale, the funky Lime Street Blues, the single version of Homburg, and alternate versions of a few of the début album's tracks, like Mabel, Cerdes, and Something Following Me. Also included are notable early takes of Quite Rightly So, and Shine On Brightly, plus Magdalene (My Regal Zonophone). All of these are nice additions to the original album, and make for a great import purchase.
Procol Harum is a one of kind album from its time period. Nothing here sounds dated, as if it were caught in some odd little bubble of frozen time that kept its contents pristine. As stated earlier, the band continued on to make some exceptionally fine recordings, continuing on at their own pace, in their own original sound. But this début album is a joy to behold, with beautiful, solid music and a set of imaginative and surreal lyrics that still enthrals many a fan, both new and old. If you only know Procol Harum for the song A Whiter Shade of Pale, then it's time you heard their whole story from 1967.