On Sunday 16 March 1975 London's premier rock venue, the Rainbow Theatre, closed down, with a hastily-arranged and, by most accounts, pretty dreary concert! [Roy Carr in the New Musical Express referred to it as 'one of the theatre's greatest non-events', noting that 'an air of gloom hung over everything' and that 'an atmosphere of acute boredom mixed with impeding violence' prevailed over everything 'except Procol Harum, who turned in a killer set both on their own and with Frankie Miller ...' … among others Procol played Brickyard Blues, Devil Gun, If you need me, and It takes a lot to laugh, it takes a train to cry with Frankie.]
On 22nd March Melody Maker printed a deeply scathing review of this concert, penned by Steve Lake.
Entitled 'Rainbow sinks with a whimper', it slated just about everyone who had played: Sassafras, Hatfield and the North, Richard and Linda Thompson, John Martyn, Kevin Coyne, and Procol Harum: 'only the last band edging on what you could describe as superstar status, and that based solely on the strength of an incomprehensible eight-year-old hit single.'
This is how Lake chose to portray the Procol parts of the evening:
Martyn played over his time limit, however, and was refused the encore demanded, which seemed slightly unfair as Procol Harum who followed were to play for a stultifying two hours (it seemed like weeks).
If ever there was a band without a mission it's Procol – all they have to their credit is that they know how to mike up a piano for use in a rock context, and the sound of the natural concert grand among electric instruments is interestingly unusual – for the first five minutes, after which it rapidly palls.
Palls, so much, in fact, that it reaches nightmare proportions as Gary Brooker hammers out those unrelenting major chords in some bogus attempt at classicism, while the organist drones like the Phantom of the Opera asleep on the job and the drummer batters sluggish paradiddles over the tom-toms.
Procol's crime is that they are completely unswinging, as though rigor mortis is creeping up on them, locked in their strait-jacketed arrangements. What they really need, more than anything else, is a crash course in Black Music Study – a little bit of funk goes a long way.
They dissolve in unwitting self-parody as one attempts to unravel the mysteries of Keith Reid's lyrics only to discover that the pomp and ceremony and fake grandiosity is embellishing something called Typist's Torment, while another tune reveals something along the lines of 'he had to pay the price, he didn't take his mum's advice,' as usual confused with strip-cartoon surrealism.
Procol ploughed turgidly through Conquistador, Grand Hotel, Shine On and a host of others, plumbing new depths with a rudimentary drum solo and a completely pedestrian bass solo, cheered of course with indiscriminate fan fervour. Saving the day, Frankie Miller, fine Scottish singer, strode out to front the hapless Harum, and, with his high energy vocalising leading the way, the group were obliged to wake up and attempt to stay with him.
Miller swaggered around the stage in Farmer John hat and wasp-striped tee-shirt bellowing the lyrics to Dylan's It Takes A Lot To Laugh, Shoorah Shoorah and (surprisingly) Jim Reeves' He'll Have To Go, and while the combination of soul singer and apocalyptic rock-group wasn't entirely happy, there were several invigorating moments. Frankie received a large ovation for his pains, after which Procol carried on and on and on, finally winding up with the stunningly obvious inclusion of Whiter Shade Of Pale, which brought the crowd to its feet.
On April 5th Melody Maker printed three responses to this piece of writing, under the (mollificatory?) banner: 'Procol – a band with class'
I can understand Steve Lake's annoyance and disappointment at the last Rainbow Concert, but I can't agree with his view of Procol Harum. They were the only act with class (although John Martyn did have his moments), and they saved the whole occasion.
They were not at all monotonous, boring, or whatever they were called. Gary Brooker's songs are full of power and skill, and just because their albums are not of one concept doesn't mean they're going nowhere. As to the comment that their reputation is based on one song, eight years old, this is ridiculous. If Steve Lake were to listen to the Shine On Brightly album he would soon change his mind.
What about Grand Hotel, A Salty Dog, Nothing But The Truth, Homburg? Then it was also reported that the drum solo was mediocre – BJ Wilson happens to be one of the best drummers in the world, and his solo was nothing less than fantastic.
Anyway, who the hell wants some funk in their music? They're about the only band who haven't resorted to the Black Music' style (even Elton John has now, with his Philadelphia Freedom), and all I can say is thank God for that.
James Wallace, Victoria Cres, London.
Dear Steve Lake,
I think that your live review of the last Rainbow Concert is the best piece of writing I've read in the MM. Truthful, rather than polite.
John St Field, Upper St, Islington.
They also printed this letter from me, though not under the name I'd signed it with, and cutting out most of my first paragraph [as shown]: nonetheless I suspect it still carries plenty of juvenile bile.
I hope I'm not the only friend of Procol Harum who has finally written to complain about the way your paper treats the group. [From the first time you misspelt their name you have heaped insult on inaccuracy, reaching a nadir with your recent hopeless 'Band Breakdown' in which everything, even the simple identification of the musicians and the names of their records, was wrong. I don't remember anything you've published which has referred to their lyrical/musical innovations and progress, or which hasn't harked back to AWSoP with some damning jibe.]
Now you print Steve Lake's contemptible Rainbow review. Working from the Bigot's Thesaurus he catalogues his grievances, ending with the admission that it is the obvious which stuns him. Well that's fine: if he prefers rhythm music I suppose he is entitled to go to infinite lengths to dismiss Reid, Brooker, and all their inventions. But surely the man owes it to himself not to drivel about major chords, phantoms at the opera (the organist?), and surrealism in a way which (not least syntactically!) brands him incompetent, a blighted, vindictive, total waste of DNA.
To me Procol's records and concerts have been a craftsmanlike embodiment of power and beauty, and I suspect that it's the spirit of humour and mystery inhabiting that body which scares off your staff from any sensitive reporting on their behalf. No-one expects total praise, but a legion of followers and probably the band themselves would be glad to see you print something a bit more constructive and accurate than the past eight years have yielded.
Roland Clare, Leamington Spa
I think it was about the same era that MM printed a brief letter from Matthew Fisher, concerning AWSoP authorship: but someone else will have to submit that to 'Beyond the Pale'. I can't find it any more.
Someone did: here it is!