Procol Harum

the Pale

PH on stage | PH on record | PH in print | BtP features | What's new | Interact with BtP | For sale | Site search | Home

Procol Harum reviews online

'Trotsky' reviews 'The Black Album'

5 stars

First off, I have to say that on no other record have the bonus tracks been as important as this one. Back in 1967 Procol Harum pulled the perverse stunt of scoring a massive #1 single with A Whiter Shade of Pale, followed it up with the excellent Top 10 hit Homburg and then left both songs off their debut album, which then endured a delayed release despite being recorded in a rush! Hence the fact that I even contemplated giving (a harsh) 3 stars to the unadulterated first album, but have accorded (a generous) 5 stars to my version First album plus, which has the two singles, the B-side Lime Street Blues and a few other goodies besides.

By the time the first album was cut, two members of the line-up that had gone into record A Whiter Shade of Pale (Royer and Harrison) had already been dumped, and Procol's creative fulcrum of Gary Brooker (vocals/piano) and Keith Reid (lyrics) were already joined by brilliant organist Matthew Fisher, guitarist Robin Trower, and drummer BJ Wilson. What they crafted was an album of solid classically-tinged rock songs with a number of exceptional highlights

My personal highlights (of the 10 songs that came out on the original album) are a mythological/literary quartet. Firstly there's the urgent brassy Conquistador (although this song would eventually be given a superior treatment on the live album In Edmonton in 1971). Then comes Cerdes (Outside the Gates of) which rides along on a superb ominous Dave Knights bass hook while Fisher and Trower start tearing at you with searing bluesy lines. The third one is A Christmas Camel ... which actually could be described in much the same way, except that Brooker's piano is probably the key rhythm instrument! Completing the quartet is the Matthew Fisher instrumental Repent Walpurgis, which is a mournful stew with a number of fiery Trower solos and some understated tragedy from Brooker's piano thrown in the mix.

The rest of the material is closer to being solid rather than truly spectacular, with Brooker's warm, soulful voice taking us through Beatles-style music hall (which seemed to be de rigeur for psych bands in 1967!) in Mabel, Good Captain Clack and She Wandered through the Garden Fence (which has a nice classical solo from Fisher), while the gospel-blues of Something Following Me probably reflects a direction that the band would be tempted to veer in at various times in the future. Kaleidoscope and Salad Days are also great 60s rock songs without standing out in the vast catalogue of Procol gems.

Now as good as the original 10-track album was, it didn't contain my favourite song of all time. That has been rectified by the CD era, and here as the bonus track is A Whiter Shade of Pale. I don't know where to begin on this song. Brooker's aching vocals, Reid's mesmerizing lyrics (only half of which were used for the recorded version), the great drum rolls [sic] and probably most of all Matthew Fisher's unforgettable organ melody. As a keyboardist who grew up in the 80s, even the excitement of hearing piano and organ being played at the same time is something I still associate with this outstanding song. It is a song that defines an era! It is a song that broke down barriers between classical and pop ... it made progressive rock happen! Oh and did I mention Matthew Fisher's unforgettable organ melody?

As I mentioned before, Homburg is another stunning work (Your trouser cuffs are dirty, Keith!), and although a critic could easily dismiss as being a little too similar to A Whiter Shade of Pale in structure, I think it's got a different vibe. Another over-looked gem is the Whiter Shade B-Side Lime Street Blues, a storming, cheeky song in which all three of the band's soloists get their rocks off. The other bonus tracks are mainly alternate versions of tracks that were released on the first two albums and I'm not usually too interested in that sort of thing.

I must say, my deep enduring love for A Whiter Shade of Pale is almost certainly responsible for my stretching this one to the maximum rating, but there's a lot of exciting blues and classically tinged proto-progressive rock on offer here. Beyond that one absolute masterpiece of a song, of course. I'm not sure if I've mentioned Matthew Fisher's unforgettable organ melody. ... 90% on the MPV scale

 Index page for the Trotsky reviews

Reviews of Procol Harum albums



PH on stage | PH on record | PH in print | BtP features | What's new | Interact with BtP | For sale | Site search | Home