The Procol Harum story began on the day in 1966 when singer/pianist Gary Brooker first composed music for words by Keith Reid. The two young writers had been brought together by pop Svengali Guy Stevens (who later provided their band with its enigmatic name, derived from a pedigree cat’s birth-certificate): their rich collaboration grew out of differing backgrounds.
East-ender Reid had left school young, defying his academically-inclined family’s expectations, and wrote in his spare time to alleviate the drudgery of various dead-end jobs: that escapist urge, mingled with a bookworm’s immersion in surrealism, existentialism, and British ‘kitchen sink’ drama, hallmarks his early output.
Hackney-born Brooker, the son of a successful working musician, had paid his dues touring and recording with The Paramounts, an R&B ensemble containing the cream of young players from Southend-on-Sea, where he grew up. Watching Lennon and McCartney from the wings, as he supported The Beatles on their final tour, Gary saw that writing one’s own material was the way forward: but neither he nor Keith could have foreseen the lasting mark they would make on music history within months of their first recording session.
The iconic A Whiter Shade of Pale was unusual, even among the very diverse Brooker/Reid compositions in that initial batch. Memorably embellished by the Hammond organ lines of Matthew Fisher, the record became an enormous, immediate hit. A worldwide audience, yet to hear Sgt Pepper, succumbed to the soulful geometry of Procol’s music and the allusive yet inscrutable words. Winner of countless polls, and covered by at least a thousand artists, Whiter Shade was recently declared ‘the most-played song in public places’ of the past 75 years. Other chart singles followed, but the band’s enduring impact was based on their pioneering LPs (at this time becoming integrated works, rather than scrapbooks of hits and make-weights), and on their classy musicianship onstage.
Procol Harum’s groundbreaking work has been documented in endless anthologies, but the present album is the first to incorporate contemporary live recordings, not available on CD elsewhere. These demonstrate Procol’s perennial power in concert, and the longevity of their material. As aficionados know, the 45rpm Whiter Shade uses only half the original text’s four verses: this CD’s riveting live version (Bad Krozingen, Germany, 2010) includes one ‘missing’ stanza and, broadening the celebrated arrangement, a guitar solo. The trademark Harum sound – piano, Hammond organ, guitar, bass and drums, with Brooker’s unique voice on the top – remains gloriously recognisable as the band’s line-up slowly evolves (unsurprisingly, over more than four decades). Nonetheless new musical personalities bring out fresh facets of familiar songs.
Procol Harum has been both cradle and crucible for some impressive and significant instrumental talents. Its 1967 line-up stabilised with the chart single Homburg, featuring new-boys Robin Trower (guitar) and BJ Wilson (drums). Both men had played with Brooker in The Paramounts, and it’s no wonder that they won the Procol audition: Trower eventually became a stadium attraction with his own band (touring to this day) and Wilson (who died in 1990) withstood the temptations of some high-powered head-hunting, notably from Led Zeppelin.
These players brought considerable weight and edge to the self-titled Procol Harum album. 1967’s Cerdes (Outside the Gates of) marries Dylanesque flights of verbal fancy to a hefty riff (David Knights on bass) and bluesy soloing. By contrast Kaleidoscope throbs with pop sensibility, and hastens with reckless urgency towards its concluding pile-up.
The same line-up moved into stereo with the influential Shine on Brightly album, produced, like the first, by Denny Cordell. Its title-track presents a welter of disquieting images – by now (1968) Reid was a psychedelic initiate – amid some sparkling organ-work. Matthew Fisher was credited as co-writer of the gentler Quite Rightly So, a catchy single that fared indifferently in the UK hit-parade.
More surprising was the failure of the single-buying public to take A Salty Dog to the top of the charts. Widely lauded by critics, and unfailingly moving in performance, this 1969 song was – and remains – a masterpiece of melodic freshness, harmonic ingenuity and perplexing lyricism. BJ Wilson’s daring entry is one of pop’s most memorable drumming moments (another is his intro to the first chorus of Joe Cocker’s With a Little Help from my Friends cover). Barely 24 years old, Gary Brooker – also the self-taught orchestrator – sings with timeless soul; unbelievably his power, even on those high notes, remains undiminished in his mid-sixties.
Fisher had produced the Salty Dog LP, but he and Knights departed before 1970’s Home album, for which George Martin’s protégé Chris Thomas assumed the controls. Ex-Paramount Chris Copping took over bass and organ, and Procol’s sound grew in dynamism. Your Own Choice was the lightest cut in a set noteworthy for dark words and titanic ensemble-playing: here, precise drums and nimble bass underscore the mordant vocal.
The same personnel recorded the Broken Barricades album, released in 1971. The unusual music of the title-track glitters with understated authority, and the poetic, questing words – like so much of Reid’s oeuvre – reach far beyond the one-dimensionality of typical popular songwriting. But Trower – his guitar scarcely heard on this number – was soon to leave, replaced by Dave Ball; simultaneously Copping moved to full-time Hammond duties, and Alan Cartwright came in as bassist.
With this new line-up the ever-ambitious Procol Harum recorded a pioneering album, Live with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, during one transAtlantic tour. Setbacks in rehearsal seemed nightmarish, yet this retrospective collection became a gold-disc success; the rousing single Conquistador was a 1972 hit, the more remarkably since Brooker arranged the Hispanic-tinged score while flying between gigs.
Eight countries have now played host to Procol’s high-profile orchestral collaborations. New guitarist Mick Grabham made his début with the band at their first symphonic date in London, which showcased some lavish material destined for the 1973 album, Grand Hotel. The languorous title-track is another Brooker orchestration: the band (later characterised by one critic as ‘maestros of dicky-bow rock’) appeared to have blossomed far from their earthy musical roots.
Their eighth album was designed to restore the balance: Exotic Birds and Fruit (1974), Procol’s final foray with Chris Thomas, was a high-energy rock set with a massive sound. Its lead track, the intricate yet relentless Nothing But the Truth , suggested monster chart potential.
Yet it took veteran hitmongers Leiber and Stoller to return Procol Harum to the top twenty. 1975’s Procol’s Ninth album kicked off with the fascinating Pandora’s Box , on which the American producers realised a fantastic, elaborately multi-tracked mix. The composition itself – like all Procol’s chart hits – dates from Brooker and Reid’s exceptionally fertile first year of working together.
The band’s 1976 album was co-produced with the Albert brothers at Criteria in Miami, then a ‘happening’ studio with numerous successes to its name. Something Magic featured a new organist, Pete Solley, and the versatile Copping went back to bass. From that set, the country-flavoured Wizard Man continues Brooker’s policy of exploring many genres; Reid’s lyric seethes with voodoo imagery.
Procol’s decade-long cycle of yearly albums had been matched by hard touring, often in territories where ordinary rock bands did not venture: Poland and Mexico, for instance. But in 1977 they went into suspended animation – during which Brooker recorded solo albums, and played with Eric Clapton’s band – and it was not until 1991 that Procol Harum released a new album. The Prodigal Stranger was co-produced by Matt Noble in New York, where Reid now lived. Fisher and Trower had returned to the band; Dave Bronze, Brooker’s ex-Clapton colleague, played bass; and the drum throne of the late BJ Wilson – to whom the album is dedicated – passed to Mark Brzezicki from Big Country. Holding On showed that the Brooker/Reid team had lost none of its imagination and drama in the long interim, and a potently rejuvenated Procol Harum rejoined the touring circuit to a heroes’ welcome.
In 1997 the compendious ‘Beyond the Pale’ website was founded: a whole world of fans visiting www.procolharum.com discovered that they were not alone when they ‘called out for more’. In 2003 Procol Harum unveiled The Well’s on Fire, an album recorded with stage stalwarts Geoff Whitehorn (now Procol’s longest-serving guitarist) and bassist Matt Pegg. Many songs from this collection have become concert favourites, not least the ballsy, prophetic Wall Street Blues , captured at a club in Hagen, Germany, in October 2009. Like this compilation’s other live tracks it features Whitehorn, Pegg, Hammond organist Josh Phillips, and drummer Geoff Dunn: as ever the indispensable Gary Brooker, MBE, plays the piano and sings, and lyricist Keith Reid ‘still remains unseen’.
A characteristically diametrical contrast to that worldly rant comes in a festival recording from Brønnøysund, Norway (July 2009) as the sepulchral Barnyard Story is stirringly reincarnated, from its original 1970 sketch, thanks to Geoff’s shining guitar. As exemplified by the closing A Whiter Shade of Pale , mentioned above, a Procol live set revisits and reinvents songs from all eras of their illustrious career.
Perhaps the greatest distinction of this great band – whether fronting a choir and orchestra in a stately concert hall, headlining some multilingual festival, or packing out a sweaty club – is the way the words and music of Brooker, Reid, and co. retain their power to move and enthral. Such unique material, not written at fashion’s dictates, can never age. The tantalising CD in your hand contains songs from all the Procol Harum albums: go out and listen to them!
Roland Clare, Bristol © 2010
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