Procol Harum

the Pale

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PH remained a cut above the best

From 'Stairway to Heaven – the Spiritual Roots of Rock 'N' Roll'

We always knew that Procol Harum was something unique to the history of pop music – we pilgrims actually knew that the very term 'pop music' wasn't big enough to define unique music of this band. Gradually, history is starting to recognize what we knew all along.

 What follows is excerpted from the book, Stairway to Heaven – the Spiritual Roots of Rock 'N' Roll, by Davin Seay with Mary Neely. The book was written in 1986 and published by Ballantine Books in New York – ISBN: 0-345-33022-6. Bolds in the following excerpts are mine – Bert

' ... when, in 1967, Procol Harum, solemnly announced in their multi-layered mood-piece Shine On Brightly that "life is a beanstalk, isn't it?" [sic] they were echoing a fascination with eternity that has maddened, mystified, and mesmerized rock writers and performers for nearly thirty years.' page 6

Notice, in the following selection, the (at last!) proper context for any comparison between our boys and a group that too often seemed to upstage Procol Harum when the discussion of 'classic' or 'symphonic' rock music ensued – the Moody Blues. It's all the difference between style and substance, and Procol Harum had the substance! Unfortunately, most people were looking for the sizzle, not the steak!

' ... The Moody Blues, for example, proved conclusively that you'd never go broke underestimating the spiritual sophistication of rock audiences. Erstwhile R&B hacks, the British quintet hit the big-time conjuring up a loopy melange of Prince Valiant Chivalry, low-grade occult blather, and symphonic wheezing that scored big with the starry-eyed set. Album titles like Days of Future Passed, On the Threshold of a Dream, and Seventh Sojourn pretty much summed it up, as did their drippy tour-de-force Nights In White Satin, which charted no less than three separate times ... Quintessentially goofy, The Moodies' matchbook-cover mysticism would nevertheless set the tone for dozens of other groups..."

 '...Of considerably more interest, and substance, were the gloomy candle-and-cobweb meditations of Procol Harum. The British band's intriguing pretentions were underscored even by their name, Latin for "beyond these things". Progenitors of "classical rock," with a penchant for cantata frills and Bachish lilts, the group could also flex a hard, electric blues muscle. But it was the subject matter of their original material – penned primarily by lyricist Keith Reid and keyboardist Gary Brooker and spread out over ten albums and eleven years – that set Procol Harum apart. For once rock music's high literary aspirations were in competent hands: the Reid / Brooker partnership at its best achieved the pop music equivalent of a good nineteenth-century novel: mordant fatalism, mixed with a healthy dose of Old Testament fear and loathing, an obsession with sin, self-abasement, and moral decay that would warm the cockles of a flagellant's heart. Even when they overdid it, wallowing in melodrama or dipping into the trough of bastardized Eastern dogmas, Procol Harum remained a cut above the best efforts of many rock pundits.

'It was a raison d'κtre not immediately evident in the band's early efforts. The 1967 A Whiter Shade of Pale, their first and most successful (and still best-known) hit, could be interpreted as an exquisitely painful tale of regret, but its appeal as a slice of psychedelia lay in a doomy surrealism couching the obscure message.

'It was a different story with A Salty Dog, the group's 1969 stroke of genius, and one of the few real accomplishments in the benighted realm of Rock Concept. A ghostly guided tour through the feverish hold of a sailing ship, A Salty Dog, was peopled with a cast of haunted, deluded, and deranged characters, each with a cautionary tale to tell. The band's deft handling of the most venerable seafaring metaphors was enhanced by a wonderfully entertaining story-telling skill. The Milk of Human Kindness, Juicy John Pink, The Devil Came from Kansas, Too Much Between Us; the songs are, at once, character cameos, one-act psychodramas and beautifully rendered judgments on the human condition. 'Interspersed were evocative nautical interludes; the title cut, with its echoes of Melville, and the wind-whipped mock operatics of Wreck of the Hesperus set the rolling seas under this fated musical clipper.

'A Salty Dog closes on two luminous compositions that speak as clearly of Procol Harum's melancholic genius – and their unique place in modern music – as anything they ever did. "You better listen, everybody," says the character in Crucifixion Lane, "Cause I'm gonna make it clear. That my life is unimportant. What I've done, I did through fear." Bitter self-reproach dissolves in a moment of existential terror, as the blues riff builds to an anguished crescendo. "Can't you hear me, mother, calling you? I'm cold, I'm deaf, I'm blind." This stroll through the valley of the shadow of death is contrasted with an ineffable sense of loss in the majestic Pilgrim's Progress, where still another shipboard stranger laments life's futile journey:

In starting out, I thought to go exploring,
And set my foot upon the nearest road.
In vain I sought to find the promising turning,
But only saw how far I was from home.
In searching, I forsook the paths of learning,
And so did stead to find some pirate's gold.
In finding, I did hurt those nearest to me;
Still, no hidden truths did I unfold.

'"I sat me down," concludes this sadder-but-wiser penitent "to write a simple story. Which maybe in the end became a song. The words have all been writ by one before me. We're taking turns in trying to pass them on."

'Procol Harum would themselves, in time, pass on, and while they would never regain the lofty heights of art and metaphysics attained on A Salty Dog, their recording career remained one of the most consistently intriguing in modern music. ...' pages 237 – 239


Are you listening, folks at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?! History is starting to catch up! Continue the legacy, Commander! We're drowning in a sea of wheat! Thanks, Bert Saraco

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