OK, let's set the scene: Your new band has just issued its first single, which shoots to the top spot pretty much everywhere in the world and is immediately hailed as a trailblazing, genre-bending, era-defining instant classic. So you record a fine, consolidating follow-up single (also a Top 10 hit) and return confidently to the recording studio to record your first LP, which duly comes out in a blaze of publicity as the first magnum opus from the hottest new group around. It flops.
Couldn't happen nowadays, of course, when the marketing of a successful new band receives the same level of planning as a military operation. But that's the way it was back in 1967 for Procol Harum, when the singles success of A Whiter Shade of Pale and Homburg was followed by an eponymous début album that stiffed completely. BGO's reissue of the band's first two LPs (now bolstered by those two aforementioned hits plus the stray B-side Lime Street Blues) merely adds to the mystery: Procol Harum was a fine introduction to a band that was capable of being enigmatic, witty, scholarly and visceral in almost equal measures. Only a couple of fashionable mock-vaudevillian tracks (Mabel and Good Captain Clack) fail to convince, but these regrettable aberrations are more than compensated for by material of the calibre of the psychedelic Kaleidoscope, the original version of the subsequent hit, Conquistador, and the surreal, vaguely Dylan-esque A Christmas Camel.
That first set was impressive enough, but the band painted their masterpiece in the 1968 follow-up, which remains one of the great overlooked albums of the era. A near-flawless concoction, Shine On Brightly moves seamlessly from the corruscating title track to In The Autumn Of My Madness (the Bee Gees with 'A' Levels) via the likes of Wish Me Well, which sounds like a more rock-oriented English version of the Band. Closing with a breathtaking 17-minute song suite, In Held 'Twas In I, Shine On Brightly evinces a heightened level of ambition that, even in those heady days, had few equals. Commercially, however, it went the same way as the first album, and Procol were soon written off as one-hit wonders. Maybe Gary Brooker, who voiced the sentiment, and Keith Reid, who penned it, were right after all: 'Life really is like a beanstalk, isn't it?'
More on Procol Harum albums