‘Paradoxically’ is a pretty useful word, when considering the illustrious career of Procol Harum.
Paradoxically their first record was a worldwide smash-hit that almost did them more harm than good. The band had arranged for A Whiter Shade of Pale to be played once on pirate radio, to test how it sounded over the airwaves. From that single night in May 1967 the song’s reputation soared, and it sold millions before Procol were ready to release an album. So the media treated them as a singles band, and – since their subsequent chart placings couldn’t really replicate the runaway success of Pale – assumed they were not built to last. As their enduring track record has shown, however, nothing could be further from the truth.
Paradoxically they became renowned for ‘classic-rock’, because the chord-sequence Gary Brooker adapted, in composing the celebrated single, had well-known Baroque antecedents. Its flipside should have proved, to anyone with open ears, that the band was just as well-versed in rhythm & blues! But in fact Procol Harum drew on many and diverse musical and lyrical influences, quickly establishing a sound and style which, though much imitated, has never been surpassed.
And paradoxically they must be the greatest British band to remain better-known almost everywhere but their homeland. In their 46th year Procol are still a big draw on the European touring and festival circuit; they frequently gig in North America too. Their signature hit is the most-played record on UK Radio in the last 75 years, yet the man on the London ’bus – though he can hum the tune and quote the famously enigmatic words – still can’t quite put a name to the performers.
Perhaps the 32 tracks on this 2CD can help to set the record straight about Procol Harum’s unwavering quality? One disc presents the band in the studio, through some choice tracks from their 1970s’ albums; the other reveals their dynamism on stage, where to this day they perform songs from every period of their distinguished career: music that wasn’t written at the dictates of fashion can never go out of date.
All the tracks on CD1 are the product of one great songwriting team. At 21 Gary Brooker (voice, piano) had ‘retired’ from top Southend R&B combo, The Paramounts, to write with Keith Reid (words), to whom he’d been introduced by 60s’ scene-maker Guy Stephens (Stephens’s friend’s pedigree cat provided their new band’s distinctive name). Simple Sister, still a stadium staple, is a purpose-made belter for guitar (an instrument scarcely heard on the band’s early hits). The soloist is Robin Trower, who joined Procol after their first single, as did drummer Barrie (BJ) Wilson. Both men had played in The Paramounts, as had Chris Copping, bassist at this era: paradoxically, though, Procol’s music was worlds away from the cheerful covers they had peddled in their previous incarnation.
Broken Barricades is the title-track of Procol’s 1971 studio album, where it directly follows Simple Sister. The contrast epitomises the band’s mastery of both drama and delicacy: from a riff-driven work-out to harmonically-complex poignancy. Paradoxically the symphony orchestra (arranged by Brooker) decorates the much-less ‘classical’ track. Like Broken Barricades, Luskus Delph features Brooker’s understated Moog. At this period Procol made little use of the organ that hallmarked their first single; Matthew Fisher, whose Hammond sound saturated Pale, left the band after three albums, and they found new wings as a four-piece. The mysterious title suggests a sensuous intertwining of luscious and suck, demon and elf.
The next six tracks come from 1973’s Grand Hotel album; Mick Grabham is the guitarist (Trower having begun his highly-successful solo career), Chris Copping has migrated to Hammond, and Alan Cartwright is fresh in on bass. The title-track, Grand Hotel, with its evocative words and subtle music, brilliantly balances rock and symphonic forces, creating a classic in anybody’s terms. Toujours l’Amour is a dynamic number with fantastic ensemble playing: BJ Wilson’s drumming is a strong feature, as it is on A Rum Tale, where the organ returns to the foreground in a droll waltz about self-indulgence and exile. Brooker’s melodic gift is matched by his exceptionally expressive singing voice. This outstanding trio of tracks, consecutively opening the Grand Hotel album, shows how the band’s wide-ranging eclecticism defies pigeon-holing.
The next three songs also occur consecutively. Bringing Home the Bacon is a meaty rocker (complete with illogical recorder consort, mixed very low), still much played live today. For Liquorice John is a mournful and oblique response to the suicide of a friend of the band: Chris Thomas’s production is mesmerising, and the choppy rhythmical tricks and explosive drum punctuations create an unforgettable effect. And Fires (Which Burnt Brightly) is another triumph of Keith Reid’s allusive style, set in a Bach-tinged sound-world in which Swingle Singer Christiane Legrand, specially imported from Paris, improvises the ravishing soprano break.
The team was unchanged for the 1974 follow-up album, Exotic Birds and Fruit: yet, paradoxically, the new set sounded quite unlike its lush predecessor. Choirs and orchestras were gone, replaced by an undertow of urgent energy, Brooker again on top form as composer and singer. Nothing But the Truth is a powerful opener, its emphasis on former glories then echoed in the Eastern-European voicings of perennial crowd-pleaser Beyond the Pale. On its single release As Strong as Samson was helpfully subtitled ‘When You’re Being Held to Ransom’, and despite its see-sawing melody it punches home a clear message of dissatisfaction with the state of the world. Grabham and Wilson make marvellous contributions to Samson, but characteristically there is no spotlight-hogging: it’s a group performance.
The same goes for the menacingly atmospheric The Thin End of the Wedge, a striking experiment in both composition and arrangement. New Lamps for Old closed the original album, with resigned passion and elegance: rehearsed and recorded in a single evening, this was the final flowering of the band’s very fruitful association with producer Chris Thomas.
Their new producers – US hitmakers Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller – opened the Procol’s Ninth album by revisiting a 1967 song that had not yet been successfully recorded: the 1975 Pandora’s Box, with its elaborate production and session-man flute solo, was a sparkling return to the singles charts. Fool’s Gold, with its excellent guitar work, has a similarly punchy sound. The band had never played better, but the album wasn’t particularly well-received and they decamped to Miami, and fresh American producers, to prepare their 1976 release. Something Magic, its title-track, is densely arranged and recorded; Strangers in Space is sparse and soulful, perhaps the finest Brooker/Reid composition at this ten-year mark in their collaboration. These last two songs feature newcomer Pete Solley on organ and synths; the versatile Copping has reverted to bass. Having toured to promote this album, Procol Harum took a fourteen-year sabbatical, pursuing solo-careers and other ventures (in Brooker’s case, playing with Eric Clapton’s band), before regrouping in 1991: since then, as well as releasing two excellent new studio sets, their download-only live albums (available through ‘Beyond the Pale’, www.procolharum.com) have continued to expand their fan-base all round the world.
CD2 showcases Procol Harum on stage in various combinations, their vitality and integrity always forging an immediate, indelible connection with audiences of any nationality. Though the venues vary in sound and size, it’s possible to listen to this selection as if it were a single concert performance: and like all Procol gigs, it’s laced with classic songs.
The rousing Conquistador – recorded with orchestra and choir in Edmonton, Canada, developing the band-only version on Procol’s self-titled 1967 début album – was a substantial 1972 hit. Brooker wrote the new arrangement on the ’plane to the rehearsals; it’s possibly the largest ensemble ever to chart in a live recording. The intricate and innovative Whaling Stories was an amazingly ambitious achievement for a self-taught orchestrator; the original version, on 1970’s superb Home album, proved hugely influential, spawning the likes of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Both these 1971 Edmonton tracks feature the future Grand Hotel personnel (except for Dave Ball, on guitar); no other official live Procol recording features the daring drumming of Barrie Wilson. Needless to say, it went gold.
Sadly BJ did not live to participate in the Procol Harum revival. His successor, Mark Brzezicki, can be heard on two 1992 tracks from Holland – the hallucinatory Shine on Brightly (from the eponymous 1968 album) and The King of Hearts (a Mediterranean-flavoured ballad co-credited to Matt Noble, who produced 1991’s The Prodigal Stranger album, where it originated). New guitarist Geoff Whitehorn is joined by bassist Dave Bronze (Brooker’s colleague from Clapton days) and Matthew Fisher, back on the Hammond bench.
Two 2006 recordings show Procol Harum wowing the UK’s Isle of Wight Festival with songs from the earliest days of the Brooker/Reid partnership. No studio version of the twisted blues Alpha ever saw official release, but the rocking Kaleidoscope was a stand-out on the first Procol album. Matt Pegg and Josh Phillips, who both started their Procol careers in the early 1990s, make powerful contributions on bass and organ respectively, alongside Brooker, Brzezicki and Whitehorn.
With the arrival of drummer Geoff Dunn in 2006, Procol Harum established their present touring line-up, which performs the remaining tracks on this CD. The VIP Room, with its exemplary Whitehorn slide-playing, initially appeared on 2003’s album The Well’s on Fire: this version was recorded in Italy in 2007. The eerie rarity Sister Mary has not been released on CD until now. Captured in the USA in 2010, this performance highlights the band’s jamming empathy over unusual chords; exotic synth-work complements Brooker’s incantatory singing, and Whitehorn’s strong harmony vocal.
Procol have collaborated with numerous orchestras, from America, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Sweden and the UK. Barnyard Story was recorded with Denmark’s UnderholdningsOrkestret and Vocal Ensemble in 2010, and richly enhances the skeletal offering heard on Home. The sensational voice and tempestuous guitar, sweeping through the majestic architecture of a symphonic setting, are irresistibly moving. The Home album also contained Whisky Train, where Reid’s defiant words were set to music by Robin Trower: a live favourite ever since, here it rides Geoff Dunn’s ferocious groove, and has grown a new vocal prelude, an organ part, and a cracking drum solo.
Like Whisky Train, the remaining tracks were recorded in America during the summer of 2012. Gary Brooker’s authoritative, emotive singing on A Salty Dog (title-track of the band’s 1969 album) betrays no trace of his severe head-injury a few weeks before, from which he was recovering after spells in South African and British hospitals. What sounds like an orchestra is Josh Phillips’s synth work; guitar and drums also do a great deal to dramatise this elegiac piece. It’s surely the Brooker/Reid masterpiece: the ‘twisted path’ of its chords and words feels fresh at every performance.
We close this imaginary recital with three prime songs from 1967. Cerdes (Outside the Gates of) was the bluesy high-point of Procol’s début album; here Matt Pegg’s stately bass riff underpins two searing solo spots from Whitehorn (who has played longer with the band than all its other guitarists put together). Homburg and A Whiter Shade of Pale were the hit 45s from the band’s first year, crafted to sound highly-distinctive, while maintaining continuity through the similar metre and dreamlike content of the words: the piano-driven Homburg used a static bassline and horizontal verse-melody, the organ-drenched Shade a chorus that fell from high pitch to low. Paradoxically, on this latest US tour, Procol let the Hammond lead Homburg, and the piano Pale. The applause – when ‘Commander’ Gary Brooker’s famous voice begins the famous words – tells its own story: and when a crafty and unexpected guitar-break emerges, the iconoclasm is wholly in keeping with the progressive spirit of the song.
And that’s Procol Harum: mischievous attention to detail, timeless compositions, magical singing and playing. The blend of instinct with intellect, melody with muscle, grandeur with grotesque, and precision with passion has made the band a phenomenal force in rock for the best part of five decades. Unique entertainment – nothing paradoxical about that.
Roland Clare © 2013, Perth, WA
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