The eagerly-awaited, much-debated Procol Harum ... Plus! is a very nicely presented CD, a promising augury for the future series of Westside PH ... Plus! releases. Nevertheless it harbours a fair share of bewildering surprises, as I hope this review will make apparent.
Graphic design, by Jon Storey, is stylish and intelligent throughout. Dickinson's 1967 'Beardsley' artwork is reproduced on the front ('courtesy of Henry Scott-Irvine': lucky man if he owns the original!) while the obverse of the original LP sleeve may be read through the transparent plastic under the CD, itself pictorial. The eight-page booklet is pleasant and interesting though the shots of the different line-ups are not captioned: these 'new pix' are not earth-shattering, being mostly variants of poses we have seen before, but they're nonetheless welcome. It's intriguing to observe (from Barrie's Paisley shirt and Gary's scarlet smoking jacket, for instance) that the band didn't dress à la mode solely for Top of the Pops. Sadly there's no picture of Keith Reid.
The first ten tracks offer a fine, clear reproduction of the UK running-order of the original album. Mono, yes, not the longed-for stereo: but at this quality it nonetheless makes exciting and dramatic listening. In a blind test there was no doubt that this version eclipsed the quality of various former CD releases.
A thumping bassline opens Conquistador, and it takes a while to get used to the fact that the organ backing sounds quiet by comparison with weedier, less bassy masterings: nonetheless Fisher's solo (the original) shines through. She Wandered Through The Garden Fence sounds good and strong, but the tambourine and rhythm guitar do not approach the clarity of the stereo version on disc three of the 30th Anniversary Anthology.
Something Following Me is distinguished by its busy cymbalry and the restoration of Trower's ominous guitar sound. Enhanced clarity, however, makes it all the harder to ignore Dave Knights's unconventional note on the penultimate chord! This mastering of Mabel is the first I've heard in which the violin (Ray Royer, I wonder?) doesn't sound more like some kind of oddly-recorded harmonica. The fade-out seems to linger a few seconds longer over that pandemoniac party.
In Cerdes (Outside The Gates Of) one again senses that the organ is rather far back, except for the fills (after 'terra cotta cups' for example) that could be overdubs or might have been played simultaneously on another manual with a more penetrating registration. This song builds up superbly, bass mistakes and all; Gary's curious pronunciation of 'pewter' has never been clearer: more of this below! On A Christmas Camel I began to hear things I'd never heard before, even before I wore my vinyl LP out: these included some unexpectedly mischievous runs from Dave Knights under the savage conclusion of Trower's great solo.
On Kaleidoscope one can revel in the full glory of Fisher's celestial smithery: unlike some re-releases down the years this cut holds that long final chord for a suitably respectful length. In Salad Days (Are Here Again) the enhanced clarity of this release is especially noticeable in the vocal nuances: an 'audible grin' (as Ian MacDonald puts it in the excellent Revolution In The Head) is evident several times on the record.
Good Captain Clack's impudent gong is harmonically richer, and one can now hear individual voices in the backing chorus, including one slightly disturbing growler; and finally Repent Walpurgis sounds just as good as you'd hoped, from the ropily-edited count-in, through the hovering organ in the Bach prelude, to the tumultuous finale. Here perhaps more than elsewhere there's a sense of the drums being clearer: no doubt the lack of a vocal on this number left an extra channel for Barrie.
Thus far, then, the CD is marvellous: its enhanced sound alone is worth the price, however many versions one already possesses! Anything else is a bonus, and there's no better bonus than the familiar version of A Whiter Shade of Pale appearing in this unexpected post-Walpurgis position. After thirty-one years my ear still gravitates straight to that organ counterpoint.
Lime Street Blues is the familiar B-side, that odd dead-end street in terms of PH style. The beefy bass sounds fine until its out-of-tuneness at the end starts to grate. I still can't work out what Gary is singing after 'including me!' in the fade-out: can it really be 'Oh pits rap Swede'? The liner note tells us that this track features session drummer Bill Eyden 'who acted for Procol in this capacity on these two tracks only': I must say that I don't recall any previous printed mention of Eyden's having played on the AWSoP 'B' side as well. Oddly enough the drum fill just before 'County Court' has a BJ-like syncopation. Homburg here is the familiar single, though the voice seems to have additional presence, and the bass more bite. It lasts a little longer than the 45 rpm version did, allowing us to hear Gary insisting that your trouser-cuffs are dirty, before the fade carries him away.
Crazily enough, although these first 13 tracks have a sound-quality one has merely dreamt of all these years, listening through them has been something of a dutiful delight, since it is the promised trove of rarities, including the Royer / Harrison cuts, that have been keeping my musical saliva flowing for the last few weeks. Imagine my delight, then, when an engineering-type voice finally sounds in my headphones, 'This will be take five'.
The alternate version of Salad Days (Are Here Again) is as alternate as one could wish for. Ragged time-keeping, blurred and wandering guitar, pubby, ill-recorded piano: it sounds extraordinarily amateurish, more like Blonde on Blonde than any other PH I have ever heard. The song is taken at a hasty 98 bpm, about 25% faster than we are used to. It's sung a tone lower, too, lending Brooker's voice an uncharacteristically relaxed, even conversational, timbre: many of his notes lack sustain. Nothing about this throwaway performance respects the nocturnal tenor of Reid's fine words.
If this does turn out to be the same basic recording as is heard in the film Separation (whose theme, incidentally, is on Journey's End, not on 'Fisher's eponymously-titled solo début') it is just as well that the film is so difficult to get hold of! Harrison's drumming lacks subtlety: climaxes are missed, conventional fills failing to fit the odd seven-bar gap between verses. If this is the sort of treatment he and Royer were giving to such delicate material it's no surprise they were invited to leave the band in July 1967 (the cut can scarcely date from 'late summer 1967' as the sleeve-note claims).
Okay, it's only the fifth take. Yet Fisher has already worked out an inventive and interesting part, much more than a sketch for the later version: he keeps it up until the second statement of the third verse (all three are sung before the instrumental break), then, obviously sensing that it's a hopeless take, resorts to recycling a bored three-chord trick. Brooker relaxes into a bit of Jerry Lee at the end. Fascinating to hear the germ of 'Twas Teatime at the end of this shambles, which Matthew aborts with a quotation from the Circus March; Gary's piano gamely tries to mimic it ... without success.
Mabel, on the other hand, presents the bones of the version that was released on the album: if it truly comes from the same session, we have always been listening to Harrison on drums here: the good-time feel of the track of course suits him much better. It's interesting to find that the brief Celeste flourish that opens the familiar version was not an overdub, but the residue of a whole track, presumably played by Fisher, and wiped to provide space for quasi-drunken sound effects. I was never at a party where quite so much glass was smashed: I haven't lived! The tack piano here is really good and clear, as is the voice: oddly, the loud percussive effect – not unlike a soda-syphon or sandpaper – is present throughout: possibly Royer's contribution. Incidentally though 'Procol stopped playing this Lovin' Spoonful-styled number shortly after Harrison and Royer quit', it did come back into the repertoire in the 1970s.
So far so good. But now the 'earlier version' of Cerdes (Outside The Gates Of) presents a problem: without a doubt this is the same fundamental performance that we have been listening to since 1967, though the mix and the length may not be quite identical! Numerous tiny evidences could be adduced (wrong note in the bass (2.39 on this version), intricate drum-fill before 'Down technical blind alleys', same mispronunciation of 'pewter') but there's honestly no need: any fan will agree that this guitar solo is so familiar, so inspired: either it is Royer and Harrison on the 1967 album, or this must be Trower and Wilson now.
Why then have the compilers, learned and honourable Procoholics, apparently chosen to trust the documentation on an Abbey Road tape-box (of which one is illustrated in the insert) above the evidence of their ears? I hope to discuss this with Henry Scott-Irvine shortly (upshot here). Even if the aural evidence were not so compelling, his own liner-note seems to go against him. It says that the track 'features the Brooker / Fisher / Knights / Harrison / Royer line-up ... on August 1st 1967'; but Harrison and Royer had in fact left the band before 15th July, when NME reported 'Two of the group’s original members have left the Harum and have been replaced by newcomers' and 'Procol resumed work this week with recording sessions, during which it completed its next single and first LP. Half the album had already been recorded by the original group, but these tracks have been scrapped. They were re-recorded this week with the two new members taking part.' (I am indebted to Yan Friis for this information).
Something Following Me presents something of the same problem. Here the mix is undeniably a variant – a different sheen on piano, hollower vocal timbre – but the arrangement is identical and I cannot believe that the performances here are by different musicians from the famous version. Were the tapes labelled wrongly in 1967? Forgetfully or wilfully? Or has there been some mix-up during the ... Plus! Mastering? We are plunged into befuddlement of a rare order.
Magdalene (My Regal Zonophone) is the same muzzy acetate version that was released on the rarities CD last year: now we learn that this was to have been the band's second single, until the engineer wiped the master tape. This was no bad thing: the vocal lacks poise, the second-verse guitar seems inelegant, and the want of a gap before the playout saps drama from the song.
Quite Rightly So (1967 version) is another disappointment in that, when that familiar organ rolls / fades in, we realize we are listening to the very same music that opens the Shine On Brightly album. More piano is audible under the organ solo, but this is down to the variant mix, and indeed the liner does not claim it's a different performance. I listened in vain for the variant words that Keith Reid disavows, but ... no such luck! But this version does play for longer, so we hear more screaming guitar and extempore vocalisations.
'A real find,' says Henry of the final track, Shine on Brightly (1967 version). It's certainly more of a variant than many of the foregoing offerings: the vocal (and the melody) is less-evolved, there's no Morse-code guitar and less organ-chording, though all the gloriously-inventive Fisher frillery is intact. It's mono, so needless to say there's no jiggery-pokery in the panning department. The song sounds curiously lame now, without the fade-out vocalisations: it was a wise move to hold this number over for the second album.
And there we have it: despite the bewildering problems presented by the variant or non-variant tracks, and the slips in the liner-note, these are 70 minutes of very fascinating music at an excellent price and I can't imagine that any fan will want to be without them. I would be tempted by the early Salad Days alone! And it certainly whets my appetite for Shine on Brightly ... Plus!, though I do hope that the documentation on that package will provoke fewer questions.
Incidentally, two URLs are quoted on the back of the package: the first lets you browse the catalogue of Westside and its associates (though you find few mentions of Procol Harum); the other is something calling itself the ultimate fan website (where you will find nothing else).