Procol Harum

the Pale

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Chapter One: Turning Back the Page 1967 -- 1991

Zoo BMG : ZP 17029-2 : 1991

The CD is presented in a tough, board digipak, with 10-page integral booklet. The liner note, below, is well-worth reading: the links in our page are well-worth following!

Zoo went to town with this presentation. What a shame that they didn't keep Procol Harum on for a proper crack at Chapter Two.

A Whiter Shade of Pale

Quite Rightly So

Shine on Brightly

A Salty Dog

The Devil Came from Kansas

The Milk of Human Kindness

Whiskey Train

Simple Sister

Power Failure

Conquistador (Live)

Bringing Home the Bacon

Nothing but the Truth

As Strong as Sampson [sic]

Pandora's Box

Repent Walpurgis

All our Dreams are Sold

Songs compiled by John Guarnieri; art direction Lee Hammond; photography David Perry; project co-ordination Bud Scoppa; liner notes John Mendelssohn:

Tales of the Purple Horrors

At the beginning, in the extremely early 60s, there were The Paramounts from Southend-on-Sea, sort of a miniature British version of Atlantic City, known for its beaches and boardwalk and festive atmosphere. Comprising singer and pianist Gary Brooker, drummer Barrie (later BJ) Wilson, and guitarist Robin Trower, among others, the band wore matching striped sports jackets and specialized in obscure American R&B by the likes of Bobby Bland and James Brown, much of which they first heard courtesy of the celebrated club DJ Guy Stevens. When most of the group's membership was 17, they were offered a record deal, which soon produced versions of Little Bitty Pretty One and Poison Ivy of sufficient popularity to keep the group working.

By 1966, though, American R&B was anything but obscure in Britain. Otis Redding and Sam and Dave had come over to show British youth how it was really done, and scores of home-grown groups were performing it. With "the real guys coming over," Brooker recalls, "we suddenly weren't unique anymore. Just prior to losing interest totally, we took some jobs just for the money." One of them was backing Sandie Shaw, who was famous for performing barefoot, and whose signature slow tremolo Chrissie Hynde would later echo with a vengeance.

By the following spring, The Paramounts had long since broken up, and Brooker had begun writing songs with lyricist Keith Reid, to whom Guy Stevens had introduced him. Brooker and Reid had no lofty ambitions and nothing to prove; their sole interest was in seeing what they might be able to come up with together.

When producer Denny Cordell pronounced himself sufficiently impressed by their songs and Brooker's voice to book studio time, Brooker and Reid set about assembling a recording group. Aside from Wilson, it hardly even occurred to Brooker to try to recruit his old pals from The Paramounts. "Being a potpourri of all the things I liked at the time," he explains, "a bit of classical, a bit of Bob Dylan, a bit of Ray Charles, the project was very far from what The Paramounts had been doing. I really didn't think it would interest the others."

Wilson had agreed on the phone to be the new outfit's drummer, but was nowhere to be seen when Brooker auditioned guitarists. Thus, when it came time for their recording date, it was with session man Bill Eyden, normally a jazzer, at the drum kit. Ray Royer played guitar, David Knights bass, and Matthew Fisher, who'd briefly belonged to Screaming Lord Sutch's Savages in spite of his training at the Guildhall School of Music, organ.

In A Whiter Shade of Pale, that first session produced a track that stunned the world. Fisher paraphrased Bach, Royer pretended he was Otis Redding's guitarist, Steve Cropper, and Brooker howled Reid's wry, enigmatic lyrics like some psychedelic Percy Sledge, of whose year-old When a Man Loves a Woman 'Pale' seemed an ecclesiastical update. It was virtually a global hit, resounding throughout the weekend of the Monterey Pop Festival and blowing the minds - as they themselves put it at the time - of no less than The Beatles. Decades hence, Paul McCartney would pronounce it his favorite track of the 60s.

Before they'd half come to terms with the giganticness of their accomplishment, the group hurried back into the studio to record an album and a second single. Trower replaced the unfortunate Royer, while one Bobby Harrison signed on as drummer the day after the single was recorded, only to be shipped back to the minors when BJ Wilson, noting Pale's chart position, developed a very great interest in the new project.

As was the fashion of the time, the second single - in this case Homburg - was essentially 'Pale' revisited. Despite the fact that it boasted the funniest opening line in the history of British pop - "Your multilingual business friend has packed her bags and fled" - it barely [sic] muscled into the British Top 30, and made an enemy of Nik Cohn, the Beatles of rock criticism. Never mind that the group's debut album was largely breathtaking, never more so than during the instrumental Repent Walpurgis, featuring extraordinarily emotive playing by Trower.

On their second album, Shine on Brightly, which Brooker remembers sardonically as 'very cosmic,' the group tried a bit too hard, as witness their interminable contemplation of their own tendency to pretension, In Held 'Twas in I. On the other hand, there was no denying the power of such tracks as that for which the album was named, or of Quite Rightly So. Reviewing the album in what was fast becoming the organ of the counterculture, someone asserted that the Harum bore great kinship to The Band, what with both groups employing both a pianist and an organist. Widespread critical Procolphobia ensued.

As the 60s began to run out, they recorded the largely breathtaking [again!] A Salty Dog, which might, by virtue of its great variety and adventurousness, be thought of as Procol Harum's Revolver. M. Fisher not only produced, but also revealed himself to be a vocalist of great appeal. In the title track, which featured the drum entrance to end all drum entrances, Brooker did some of his most spine-tingling wailing ever; who, even after two decades and change, can fail to be given goosebumps by his performance of the line "Now many moons and many Junes have passed since we made land?" And behold the great sly wit of Reid's lyrics both here, in The Devil Came From Kansas and in The Milk of Human Kindness.

They came at last to America. In Los Angeles, their record company had the bright idea to have them confront the local college press en masse at no less than the University of Southern California. Our heroes were arrayed like The Beatles but looked deathly uncomfortable at a couple of microphone-laden long tables laced end to end. An absurdly eager young PRmeister in pink aviator glasses (sheer Spinal Tap, if a decade and more too soon) called cheerfully for questions. No questions were forthcoming; in the presence of Actual English Rock Stars, the college press could but cower piteously.

One of our heroes might have snickered. You could have heard a pin drop. Eventually, though, everyone relaxed, and Keith Reid had a moment that Dylan himself might have envied in the era of his own sarcasm-drenched confrontations with the press. Someone wondered why A Salty Dog's lyrics referred so frequently to the mythology of the sea. 'I went rowing," Keith said, immensely straightfaced.

They were wry guys, then, though they kept that part of themselves pretty well hidden from all but their most trusted intimates. They seemed content to be thought of as dour intellectuals. Their very name, pidgin Latin for "beyond these things," smacked of pomposity, at least until you found that they'd named themselves after a cat - a tabbie, a puss! - owned by a chum of early mentor Guy Stevens. Indeed, out of the hearing of foreigners, they called themselves The Purple Horrors!

Once home from America, they bade Fisher, who'd decided to see what he could get going on his own, a regretful adieu, and did the same to the diffident Knights, replacing both with - surprise! - a former Paramount, the extremely taciturn Chris Copping. And, on the superb Home (whence sprang Whiskey Train) they began to work with red-plimsoled young producer Chris Thomas, who, as a 20-year-old, had produced Birthday on The Beatles' white album (a little-known fact, but a fact nonetheless). As new additions to the Chrysalis stable of stars (which also included Jethro Tull and Ten Years After), they became the charges of one Derek Sutton, who looked unnervingly like the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk.

Around this time, I rode in a Minneapolis taxicab with Reid and Trower, if memory serves, and a member of Chrysalis's newest hitmakers, Curved Air. The Airs had apparently been sent shopping on the Kings Road before catching their plane for America, and were all decked out like pop stars. It was my impression that the one in the cab suffered some considerable embarrassment when he noticed how much gaudier than Reid and Trower he was. The problem being that what the Horrors wore to catch airplanes in at some barbarically early hour was what they wore on stage as well. Early on, the group had posed for a press photograph in outfits seemingly left behind by a road company that had just abrogated Hamlet. The outfits suited them, but they flushed with embarrassment whenever anyone asked after them. Anti-stars to the marrow, they devoted no more attention to their "act" than they did to their duds; no jury in the world would have convicted them of showmanship. The only time any of them smiled was when they played a Jerry Lee Lewis number for their encore. If one were going to love them, it would be for their music, and their music alone.

"We felt in those days that playing the music was enough," Brooker has affirmed. "We were totally wrong, of course." He's clearly being ironic, but how else, but because of their disdain for showmanship, to explain their failure to prosper to the same extent as Tull and Ten Years?

After the largely glorious Broken Barricades, of which the irrepressible Brooker quips, I think I had a cold when we made it (and which Simple Sister and Power Failure originally called home), Trower left to form Jude with Frankie Miller, who was known nearly as much for needing someone to "translate" his incomprehensible English at interviews as for his non-inestimable singing. "I should think," Brooker reflects, "that he was fed up with getting to play solos only when I decided I'd stop singing for a minute." But Whiskey Train and Power Failure, among others, reveal that Trower had begun to exert an influence on the band's direction nearly comparable to Brooker's.

At any rate, after Jude's nearly instantaneous demise, Trower went on to a notable career as the star of his Hendrix-inspired trio, whose first three albums - including the commercial milestone Bridge of Sighs - none other than M. Fisher produced.

If the Horrors Trower had left behind were inconsolable, it wasn't for long, as their next album - a live recording with the highly unlikely Edmonton (Alberta, Canada) Symphony orchestra -- proved the most successful of their career, thanks in substantial part to the shocking success of Conquistador as a single. 'We didn't even write any songs for the occasion,' Brooker marvels. 'We (Brooker and the onetime violin prodigy Chris Thomas) had to do the orchestration, but that was pure enjoyment, really.'

Brooker remembers that 'we always tried to do something different every time we recorded; every record had an almost 'anti' feeling to the one that had come before. If our last album was raw and ragged, the next one would be smooth."

Such wasn't the case with Grand Hotel, though; Brooker describes it as "a studio version of Edmonton. The idea was to take the black-tie classical evening into a studio." They did so with the help of a new guitarist, Mick Grabham, who came in hot on the heels of a new bass guitarist, Alan Cartwright. The wickedly satiric Bringing Home the Bacon was its most memorable track.

On the other hand, they did indeed change directions radically with 1974's Exotic Birds and Fruit, whereon they "decided to get back to rock & roll a bit," and which housed Nothing But the Truth' and As Strong as Samson. "'Let's get away from the orchestras,' we said," Brooker recalls. "We never want to hear another bloody violin."

When it came time to record their 1975 album, the group realized, as Reid puts it, that they and Thomas 'weren't inspiring each other. We'd got into a pattern of going into AIR London studios every October and November and making another record with Chris. By that time, the thought of doing it again was quite appalling." While Thomas consoled himself by co-producing The Sex Pistols (how's that for breaking old habits?), our heroes made a comparably audacious move, enlisting the venerable team of Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller to produce their Ninth album. "They'd made some nice albums with Stealers Wheel,' Brooker recalls, "and we'd always been great admirers of them from the old days" - when they wrote songs for no less than Elvis and produced The Coasters. "They spent a lot of the time trying to talk us into doing their new songs, and we spent a lot of time persuading them that ours were all right." When the smoke finally cleared, the group and their new producers discovered that Pandora's Box was a huge European hit.

They had one final album in 'em. The little-noted, not-long-remembered Something Magic, about which Brooker will say only, 'I think that I should have sung The Worm and the Tree.' He recited it instead, you see, and former Terry Reid (no relation) accompanist Pete Solley played the organ. But no matter.

By the spring of 1977, the group had, in Reid's words, 'definitely run out of steam.' Coming off stage at New York City's Academy of Music on the evening of 15 May 1977, the last gig of their umpteenth American tour, Brooker said to BJ, "'I think we'll knock it on the head for a while, eh?' And everybody went, 'Yeah. Know what you mean.' A couple of days later I noticed that it had been 10 years to the day since the release of A Whiter Shade of Pale.'

'I don't think any of us had any particular idea in mind as to what else he'd do. But for the time being, Procol Harum had nothing more to say."

Brooker went on to collaborate extensively with Eric Clapton, and to record several solo albums, the most recent of which, 1985's Echoes in the Night, was produced by (and featured) Matthew Fisher, and was co-written in part with Reid. "Then," Brooker chuckles, I went fishing for a couple of years until '87, when I started a little band sheerly for the fun of playing live again." He performed with orchestras in Germany, Poland, Belgium, and Japan, and even wrote a ballet, which premiered in Denmark at the end of 1990.

If Reid's in a sufficiently playful mood, he'll tell you that he's had a painting and decorating business for several years, but the fact is that he's been living in New York since the mid-80s and writing songs with such partners as Chris Thompson, a star of the Blinded by the Light-era Manfred Mann. Such estimable current figures as Jeff Healey have recorded them; Australian John Farnham's version of You're the Voice was an international hit in the late 80s.

Trower, meanwhile, continued to record and tour under his own name, while Matthew Fisher operated his own recording studio. BJ Wilson, surely one of the most inventive and dramatic drummers in rock annals, died in Oregon in 1989 after having recorded and toured extensively with Joe Cocker.

Our story would end on that sad note had not Brooker phoned Reid shortly after their former comrade's death and asked "what I'd think about doing something." Reid suggested that his old partner come to New York to write songs. 'The idea wasn't to re-form the band," Reid tells us, "but to start from scratch, to determine whether we had something to say."

It didn't take them long to agree that they did indeed have something compelling to express. But they kept writing, in some cases with Fisher, "until we had enough good songs to see if any record companies were interested." They reached that point in the middle of 1990, and were rewarded with Widespread Record Company Excitement. Apprised of which, Trower replied in the vigorous affirmative when asked if he might be interested in participating. 'I think," Reid speculates, 'he quite enjoys just being the lead guitarist for a change, rather than being responsible for everything."

Mark Brzezicki, formerly of Big Country, fairly leapt at the chance to be the group's drummer, Dave Bronze, who'd worked with Brooker and Trower, its bass guitarist. After a hiatus of 14 years, Procol Harum was back in business, wandering once more through its playing cards.

And feeling very much a new band, rather than one with a history dating back nearly a quarter-century. 'It would have been diabolically stupid - and impossible - for us to try to make a record without it being Procol Harum," Brooker acknowledges. "But we really didn't think much about the past."

The Prodigal Stranger, Reid excitedly affirms, "is very much like a first record, which is very often a group's best because it's made up of the best songs they've written over a very long period. Later, you often make records for all the reasons except that you've got something to say - you've got a career going, for instance, or the record company wants you to maintain your momentum, or the guitar player needs to pay his mortgage. This time, we had absolutely no reason to make a record except that we had something to say."


Big thanks to Clyde 'AJ' Johnson whose great generosity made this luxury package available to BtP. He adds,

"Compare all the cuts on Chapter One to the versions on all existing albums and CDs: all the songs are backwards, left is right and right is left coming out of the speakers. Very curious indeed, and it adds a new listening dimension in my book. Also the mix itself IMO is a bit more punchier and focused and the vocals tend to pop out at you along with solos etc. The Westside stuff is a bit warmer and 'fatter' sounding but I do prefer this compilation when I just want to listen to the best of PH because of the famous LA mixdown tightness, from the older gear hanging round the studios.

"I think they wanted to show as much of the ten years on one disc as possible by even including Strong as Samson and The Idol but left off Homburg! I thought about it and am sure Keith and Gary were the ones that made the final picks of what went on when they could have left Samson off and gone for another compilation like all the others but didn't. I believe the list of songs in itself tells us something about the mind-set at the time and at the very least makes this best-of package something more to think about than the usual fare."


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