Procol Harum

the Pale

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Lost Souls In A Parallel Universe?

Sam Cameron

The connection between Procol Harum and The Band reassessed

Amongst those well-versed in Procol lore there seem to be two opposite points of connection with The Band. These are to be found at Procol Harum versus the Band. Parallels have been drawn between the two groups for the most part owing to the unusual (for its time) two keyboards-plus-guitar line-up, although they each stuck resolutely to rather different sounding organs.

One such point of connection, though rather lacking in evidential support, is the ecstactic Paul Williams liner note to Shine on Brightly which claimed that the first Procol album was a profound influence on Music from Big Pink. The second point, and one which has caused hackles to rise, is Robbie Robertson's dismissal of Procol Harum as constantly re-writing the same tune. Surely there is more that links these two reticent pillars of popular music history than these loose threads?

It can be argued that in some ways they might have inhabited parallel universes, emanating from Southend and Canada. Both bands started out playing the music they admired without undue 'showbiz' flamboyance or any clearly-defined ambitions. These were no doubt factors which lead them into poverty and the ignominy of working as backing bands. I am here treating The Paramounts as equivalent to the nascent Procol Harum, albeit the personnel are not as correspondent as the Hawks were for the Band. The Paramounts supported English pop icon Sandie Shaw for basic wages with the high (or perhaps low) jinks of their life on the road this time being documented in her autobiography. As the Hawks, the Band were recruited by Ronnie Hawkins using the line he retailed for the rest of the career: something along the lines of "come and work for me you won't get much money but you sure will get laid".

By the mid-60s both groups of musicians found themselves stranded in the void created by the revolution, spawned by the Beatles, of recording self-penned and innovative compositions which eroded any market for playing the music they themselves actually enjoyed. The naivety of the musicians is well displayed in the interview with Brooker in the CD liner of A Whiter Shade of R'n'B where he confesses that he did not know about royalties for the 'B' sides of singles. Some might see here an irony that he and Robbie Robertson would later be accused of exploiting informal compositional contributions of their colleagues.

Other outfits like Love, the Byrds, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks and the Zombies managed to follow the Beatles' light from within their own ranks, by finding songwriters purely through trial and error without any outside catalyst being needed. For the Band and Procol, the catalysts were respectively Bob Dylan and the waves of his influence. It is well documented that Guy Stevens's Svengali intentions, towards Procol Harum, were to produce an English fusion of Dylanesque imagery with his prime 'Judas' period electric backing. Although England at this time did not lack Dylan acolytes, the only one with any success - Donovan - was basically too gentle in demeanour to go down this route. When he was given band backing, by Mickie Most, to take him out of the naked 'voice plus guitar' mode, it was of a mellow jazzy nature, barring a few later exceptions such as the late 60s work with Jeff Beck.

So this brings us to the issue of musical catalysts. I think it is a mistake to claim, as some would, that there are no European classical influences in the Band's work. As with Procol, the discernible influences have a marked tendency to be German. While they do not have a Repent Walpurgis on their first album, Garth Hudson's protracted introduction to Chest Fever is not a million miles away from a piece like Bach's Toccata and Fugue in A Minor. Likewise, the lugubrious and oblique The Moon Struck One [from Cahoots] is in the same musical ballpark, along with Homburg, of what constituted classical-rock fusion before the arrival of the synthesiser and mellotron gymnasts of the prog-rock era. This era presented both groups with a problem of situating themselves in the marketplace as both their work is, in the end, resolutely song-based. Record company strategy and recordings of the 1970s definitely show Procol to be flirting with the prog-rock vogue but this was never satisfactorily worked out.

A return to the catalytic elements, which solved the lacuna of not having an individual 'style', shows definite parallels. Achieving a coherent established style required the input of a classically-trained keyboard player. To make the full potential of the compositions blossom, in both cases, leant on allowing the idiosyncrasy of the percussionists to flower. BJ Wilson was a great admirer of Levon Helm [see here and here] even up to the point of taking up the mandolin, as he is to be heard playing on Grand Hotel. It is hard to think of either group without the distinctive contribution of their drummers and it is rare to find cases where they made a meaningful or telling contribution to anyone else's work.

It may be partly down to their drummer that both bands have many songs which seem to stop and start rather a lot, in comparison with the average big-time pop chart success. On the other side they both have relatively few songs with a through driving rhythm despite their origins in authentic rock and roll and their love for it. The lack of a flowing rhythm suggests a music born of inhibition, and some tendency towards neurosis, in keeping with the words and in marked contrast to the youthfully carnal celebrations implicit in the drive of most rock-pop. Indeed, another feature which the Band and Procol Harum share is that of sounding distinctly old and weary even when they were still only in their early twenties.

The eccentricity and centrality of the drumming is partly what stops the Band being 'country' (as some seem to claim). While parts of their work, ably assisted by their beards, hats and coats, may evoke a rural Americana this does not make the Band 'country music' any more than the nautical penchant would make Procol Harum folk music in the 'finger in the ear' sense. In fact, the 'western' element in the Band only serves to highlight another parallel with Procol Harum which is that both were stretching back into their respective Arcadia for inspiration. If you have the CDs nearby try playing in rotation Unfaithful Servant and Magdalene (My Regal Zonophone) for a 'compare and contrast' session in sepia yearning for a bygone age.

The backward-leaning elements may have been instrumental facets of a pursuit of originality as, having thrown off the traditional yoke of youthful sex and rebellion in rock music, both bands needed some otherwise neglected furrow to plough. It is hard to think of many bands, outside of the main seam of 70s pomp-rock, with so little overt celebration of the sexual freedoms of the supposedly promiscuous era they flourished in. For the Band, one has to look to Rag Mama Rag, Jemima Surrender and Up on Cripple Creek for any hint of this and these turn out to be some of their most Arcadian works: the last-named song is essentially a picture of old-time courting. So what of Luskus Delph then? Or other Reid 'smut'? Inhibition would seem to me to be the hallmark of these pieces, rather than them being some kind of erotica. There is an underlying sense of sexual pleasure being a guilty secret or a very hard-won thrill.

In Luskus Delph it is after all likened unto "orphan's gruel" and Souvenir of London derides the fate of someone who pays for his hedonism. It is of course set to jokey music, and Luskus Delph to a pastiche of a Brahms lullaby. Ultimately, in this line of argument, one looks to The Piper's Tune with its lament for a discovered masturbator which is, coincidentally or otherwise, nested in a musical landscape of inhibited rhythmic sensibility.

Both groups had a 'signature song' which became most people's contact with their work, and hence a potential albatross around the collective necks, although The Weight does not dominate typical perceptions of the total work in the same way that A Whiter Shade of Pale does. Although not sharing imagery, both songs have been stigmatised by many as nonsense and tend to play fast-and-loose with grammar and syntax. Achieving such distinctive styles created a risk of being 'painted into a corner', where coming up with acceptable new work grew harder over time at an uncomfortably rapid rate. While some cavil at the quality of the later Procol Harum output, the Band seemed to experience the more abrupt creative drought, having ossified by the time of the fourth album.

In the midst of the onset of the problems of coming up with new material, both outfits made a covers album harking back to the unambitious days of their youth. Of course, the difference is that Moondog Matinee came out as a legitimate album and Liquorice John Death has only seen the legal light of day in 1998. In fairness, it must be said that the Band were forced into their release as a contract filler and that Procol also flirted many times with the prospect of letting LJD out.

Both bands continued through the 1970s with a degree of somewhat shy or absent minded detachment in performance which was at odds with the 'glam-rock' and later 'punk' delivery of other artists. They were also uncomfortable in some ways with the rock and roll lifestyle, the overt expressions of this being in Stagefright on the third Band album and Power Failure on the fifth Procol album.

Let us turn away from music, manners and life history for a moment to the vexatious issue of words. While I do not have a Robertson/Reid cross-concordance to hand, I think a case can be made for a fair degree of similar imagery put together in roughly the same fashion. If anybody wants to pursue this, the place to start is to read the lyric sheet of Cahoots while thinking of which Procol song might make a good bedfellow. The reference to rivers, time, flying, philosophers and so forth are set in contexts which evoke a sense of frustration, inhibition and some kind of malaise at being placed, or even trapped, in the modern world. In part this, and the obliqueness of its expression, may be traceable to the varying feelings of ethnic dislocation felt by Robertson and Reid as 'strangers' in a not-always-understanding host culture.

Both bands left the music scene at about the same time through fatigue, creative burnout and changes in the musical climate. Sad to say, the Band went out in a videoed blaze of fellow-artist-approved glory while Procol Harum ceased with a whimper having failed to regroup after the commercial disaster of Something Magic. Both reincarnated at about the same time, with a very profound difference in that Robertson would not join and the Band were reduced to putting out to tender to other songwriters for material. The Prodigal Stranger certainly featured all the available key personnel of the founding days of Procol Harum although it differed from the first nine studio albums in seeming to allow a diverse range of musical inputs from non-members.

Both ensembles failed dismally in market terms, in these 'Phoenix' routines, and although Gary Brooker claimed [Southend Zero Club concert, song-introduction 1993] that BMG did a "shitty job" they did do quite a bit of marketing, whereas the Band were consigned to European reissue label Castle [who were of course the initial representer of the first four Procol albums on CD] where the album slipped out with little evidence of a sales campaign.

Despite their somewhat ignominious return, The Band still have a hallowed status in the received wisdom about the rock canon that Procol do not quite have even though they have still, on balance, received very favourable accounts in rock reference works.

More about Procol Harum and The Band  | See also here and here

Many thanks to Sam for another verbal treat.
'Beyond the Pale' looks forward to receiving visitors'
comment and feedback.

More Procol writings from Sam Cameron

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