Procol Harum

the Pale

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Procol Harum • A buyer's guide

Classic Rock (UK), issue 264, Summer 2019

See if you can find anything to agree with in this trying summary of Procol albums (not including PH67, A Salty Dog, Barricades, Edmonton, Ninth ao)

Superior: Reputation cementing

Shine on Brightly
Despite the haste with which it was recorded, Procol Harum’s second album shows that they had a sense of the direction they wanted to take, and had the songs to take them there. Set in the post-1967 glow, the first two songs – Quite Rightly So and the title track – are fine examples of the kind of organ-driven rock that Traffic were also playing at the time, while Rambling On eerily predates Bowie’s Hunky Dory. But it’s dominated by the eighteen-minute epic, In Held ‘Twas In I, with its musical twists and turns and lyrics that veer from incandescent to impenetrable.

This was the heaviest Procol ever got, mainly thanks to Robin Trower’s guitar playing which was starting to move in a Hendrix direction and he would soon go solo with. Organ player Matthew Fisher and bassist David Knight had already left, replaced by Chris Copping who took on both roles. But even with Trower’s searing guitar (particularly on the opening Whisky Train) and BJ Wilson’s rock-hard drumming the band’s style survives intact. Reid’s lyrics take a darker, more foreboding turn, and Brooker cleverly brings all the different new strands together on the ambitious Whaling Stories with its barnstorming finale.

Grand Hotel
Not surprisingly, given the success of Live With The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, Procol Harum’s next studio LP was festooned with orchestral and choral arrangements. The grandeur of the opening title track and TV Caesar (about talk show hosts) get [sic] an additional dose of pomp that can still set the hairs on the back of your neck a-quiver. There’s also an intensity about Toujours l’Amour and Fires (Which Burnt Brightly) and a sense of variety with tracks like For Liquorice John and Bringing Home the Bacon. All of which make this one of Procol Harum’s strongest albums, enhanced by Chris Thomas’s fine production.

 The Well’s on Fire
Returning from a twelve-year break following the dismal Prodigal Stranger, The Well’s on Fire confounded all expectations – or rather, the lack of them – by delivering a fully committed set of songs that restored the band’s reputation. While their days of coming up with indelible epics are long gone – the opening An Old English Dream is as close as they get – they can still throw the occasional nostalgic curve ball like A Robe Of Silk and The Emperor’s New Clothes while Matthew Fisher’s organ luxuriates in its own time warp. Plus, Brooker and Reid are back on form. A confident return.

Good: Worth exploring

Exotic Birds and Fruit
With their passion for orchestral arrangements temporarily sated, Procol Harum got back to basics on Exotic Birds and Fruit. But they could still give their rock a symphonic edge, as they prove on the thumping Nothing But The Truth, the operatic [sic] mash-up of Beyond the Pale and the hymn-like As Strong As Samson and New Lamps for Old. Recorded while Edward Heath’s government and the unions were engaged in a power struggle, Keith Reid’s lyrics take on a political stance as well. They also get personal with their record company bosses on Butterfly Boys, whingeing about their contract.

BBC Live in Concert
The only [sic] live recording of Procol Harum that does not feature an orchestra, this 1974 show from the Golders Green Hippodrome features six tracks from their just-released Exotic Birds and Fruit album although they warm up with a couple of earlier tracks, Conquistador and Whaling Stories. And later on they revive the under-rated Simple Sister from their 1971 Broken Barricades album. The production is on the lacklustre side but it’s good enough to prove that the band is perfectly capable of playing their own orchestral arrangements, most notably when they get around to Grand Hotel.

There had been a fourteen-year gap since their previous studio album when it came to releasing Novum, although the band had continued to tour regularly. Even so you’d be forgiven for wondering if Procol Harum had anything left to say, particularly when it emerged that lyricist Keith Reid was no longer with them for reasons unknown. But his replacement Pete Brown (Jack Bruce’s lyrical foil) gives Brooker a new lease of life and the band respond in kind, opting for less of the prog and more of the bluesy rock that set them on their way fifty years earlier. Sunday Morning and Somewhen especially would grace any Procol Harum album.


The Prodigal Stranger
Nothing prodigal about this album. Coming off the back of a fourteen-year hiatus it was recorded in the wake of drummer BJ. Wilson’s untimely demise and sounds like the work of a band who are still in mourning and do not wish to be disturbed. Brooker, Fisher and the returning Trower are all present physically, if not mentally, but they have forgotten to bring any decent songs with them. Even worse, Reid’s lyrics are scandalously mundane. The result is a lacklustre band trying half-heartedly to write another A Whiter Shade of Pale, which was something they’d left behind decades earlier.

Something similar from 1995

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