A full decade has passed since the rolling organ chords of A Whiter Shade of Pale heralded the arrival of The Summer Of Love. Ten years that have seen the metallic measure of success change from gold to platinum and a steady stream of passing fancies and one-hit wonders who reached for their place in the sun and burst just like super-novas.
But through a succession of personnel changes and periods of commercial feast and famine, Procol Harum has resolutely rocked on, constantly refining and adding intriguing new variations to a musical approach that remains one of the most distinctive in the rock world.
"There’s obviously two ways of doing things in this business," Gary Brooker, Procol’s voice and pianist, remarks at the outset of the band’s first American tour in two years. "You either forge ahead with what you do, regardless, or you cater to the maximum demand. Our way has been to forge ahead with what we believe."
At a time when progressive rock has degenerated into a succession of keyboard maestros flailing away at a vast keyboard armada, it’s important to remember that Procol was the first, and to these ears still the best, band to attempt to fuse elements of classical music with rock. A refreshing rarity in an era that worshipped at the shrine of the almighty guitar, Procol appeared with a sound emphasizing the stark keyboard combination of piano and Hammond organ augmented by the sparing – and thus doubly effective – use of intense, blues-tinged lead guitar. Brooker and, to a lesser extent, Matthew Fisher, created a unique style that blended the majesty of the classics with the passion of R&B in a highly disciplined song format. Many of the songs they recorded eight-ten years ago – including less well-known numbers on the order of Salad Days (Are Here Again), Quite Rightly So and Pilgrim’s Progress – are marked by a timeless quality that make them sound just as fresh and vital today. And when Procol went for epochal statements like Repent Walpurgis, A Salty Dog, Whaling Stories and the eighteen-minute In Held 'Twas In I – one of the first attempts by a rock band to pull off an extended, thematically unified piece of music – the band invariably left the listener with the feeling that no portion of the emotional spectrum had been left untouched.
Even the departure of David Knights (bass) and Fisher (organ) after A Salty Dog – a move that led many to predict that Procol couldn’t sustain the high standard of their early works – didn’t substantially affect the quality of the material. For Home and Broken Barricades, Procol simply re-grouped as a four piece, downplayed the role of the organ to some extent and unleashed Robin Trower as a bonafide lead guitarist utilizing a heavily atmospheric attack that foreshadowed his future direction as a solo artist.
The complement to Brooker’s unusual melodies and striking arrangements throughout their career has been the lyrical contributions of Keith Reid. Cryptic fragments exploring the darker, more absurd sides of this life, Keith’s words create an atmosphere seemingly inspired by an endless succession of nightmarish hallucinations.
My lasting impression of him can be found in the back cover illustration to Broken Barricades – a ghostly apparition wandering forever in some murky netherworld that most people spend a lifetime trying to avoid. The existential nature of his words give Procol a rare intellectual depth and a lyrical posture light years removed from your average rock band.
Despite their proven track record, Procol has never really moved beyond the critic-cult favorite stage popularity-wise, save for the flurry of excitement surrounding Whiter Shade and the orchestrally embellished version of Conquistador released in the summer of ’72. The Live In Edmonton album exposed them to a mass audience largely unfamiliar with their old material and demonstrated conclusively that their affinity for classical music went far beyond copping [!] a few themes from a revered composer. Most attempts at combining a rock band with a symphony orchestra have ended up as exercises in pretentious bombast with each element working at cross purposes to the other. But the band’s songs lend themselves perfectly to a collaboration of that nature, the orchestra and choral group adding color and depth to a selection of group standards.
After another strong album in Grand Hotel – which yielded another epic in the title track that in many ways epitomized the stately elegance of the band’s music – and successful tour, Procol’s commercial fortunes inexplicably took a downward tour. Both Exotic Birds and Fruit and Procol’s Ninth bombed. And when the band spent most of the last two years touring Europe, their popularity sank on these shores sank to pre-Edmonton level.
Which bring us to Something Magic, the tenth Procol Harum album and one finding them returning to the basic piano-organ axis that has always been the foundation of the band’s sound. Recorded at Criteria Studios in Miami, the material finds a number of typically interesting Brooker melodies enhanced by a number of well-conceived orchestral arrangements. The sons [sic] runs [sic] the gamut from the rollicking, country-tinged single Wizard Man and the powerful guitar riff of Mick Grabham’s Mark of the Claw to the side long musical illustration of Keith’s Reid allegory The Worm and the Tree. New member Pete Solley, who has replaced the tradition [sic] Hammond B-3 with a Farfisa organ and added other keyboards to the group arsenal, acquits himself admirably with a soaring synthesizer solo (it’s a bit strange to hear a synthesizer pop up on one of Procol’s songs) on Claw and 'wrenches' some astonishing space sounds out of the Farfisa on Strangers in Space. The album sports some of Reid’s best lyrics in some times [sic], thematically dealing with man’s fear of the dark (the title track), man as a helpless pawn being swept along by forces beyond his control (Skating on Thin Ice), and capricious twists of fate (Claw).
Relaxing in a hotel suite on the afternoon before the first major concert of the tour – a rapturously received performance that, despite some rough edges, earned the band three legitimate encores – Brooker and drummer extraordinaire BJ Wilson are quietly optimistic over the prospects of re-establishing the band in the States. Between glances at the omnipresent TV Caesar in the corner of the room, Brooker passed along these thoughts on Procol’s current status.
On the contributions of Solley – "We always had the very straight organ up until Pete joined. We might have used a couple of things on records but it always was very much Hammond organ and piano. He adds a lot of color, a very tasteful player. He uses many more effects but what he’s doing so far is not sounding too electronic or unsoulful which many of those machines can become. He’s given a new lease of life to a lot of our older stuff. They’re sounding more like they always should have sounded like."
On producing themselves – "We always at least co-produced our albums anyway. We’ve always had a great deal to say in the arranging and sound. It’s not as if we’ve been produced like somebody that needs somebody to sort it out for them. It’s just that this time it was actually written down as such and all the decisions were our own. In the past we let the producer’s way of seeing it be the way that it came out. But we have felt the last couple of albums that there were one or two things that didn’t come out the way we wanted. The numbers weren’t fully realized."
On whether they’ve consciously tailored songs for the singles market – "I think Wizard Man is probably the only one we’ve done that on. It’s the only one that we thought in the studio, ‘This is a single, we’ll make it as such.’"
On the decision to include the extended opus The Worm and the Tree – "Well, I think it’s something which we do well and something which we felt that lot of people wanted us to do, particularly as the last two albums were more presentations of just a package of songs. There wasn't a big song there. We’d gone for that, for a simple rock format, but it didn't go down that well with the record-buying public so we thought we'd have a go at putting a big one on this album, a bit more of a chance."
On the present state of Procol Harum’s affairs –
"At this moment in time, we’re a group of musicians all with a common aim and that is playing and recording the best possible thing. The situation’s not always so, but now everybody pulls their weight and they can all play their instruments as good [sic] as anybody. There’s a good mutual respect.
"We’ve got quite a challenge ahead of us, just to go out and play to the people and make this record a success. It’s very important for us for this record to do well and for us to do well when we play because there’s been this two year gap. We’ve been busy so it hasn’t been easy for us to appreciate what it means to play here."
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