Procol Harum

the Pale

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The History of Procol Harum

Ronald L. Smith

Procol Harum in early 1967 playing live somewhere on what appears to be some pretty primitive equipment. Note the presence of Ray Royer and Bobby Harrison.

Picture from The Awe and Majesty of PROCOL HARUM


July, 1967. 'A Whiter Shade of Pale' is the #1 song in the world. But it's more than that. This is an era of rock revelations; each year has seen the deepening of rock as art. The Beatles have gone from 'Hard Day's Night' to 'Revolver' to 'Sgt. Pepper.' And now there is 'A Whiter Shade of Pale,' one song that has instantly defined something new: 'classical rock.' It's the melding of rock's electric guitar, powerful vocals and bombastic drums with thoughtful lyrics and the artful complexities of classical melody and arrangement. The very name of the group suggested something far deeper than ordinary pop music ... PROCOL HARUM.

The oddly-named band had arrived out of nowhere with a #1 hit. To add to the thrill and confusion, the song was enigmatic (many to this day aren't exactly sure what it's about), the group was already fractured by changes in personnel, and by the time people learned what the band's name meant (even if to this day they rarely seem to spell it right), the group's stunning #1 reign was over. The #1 hit was like a massive earthquake; unforgettable but unrepeatable. Over the next decade, there were plenty of songs that could have been #1 hits. For fans, every new album became a classic, filled with memorable and moving songs. And while rock critics argued whether the next lp should be 'more rock' or 'more classical,' and whether singles like 'Homburg' and 'Conquistador' were as good as the legendary 'A Whiter Shade of Pale,' and indeed, amid the confusing disappearance of various band members, all fans hoped was that 'still there'll be more.'

If you're new to the band, this 'history' of the band might help you find your way through the years. If you're an old friend and fan, maybe you'll find some glimpses of nirvana in recalling with me the memories that still shine on brightly. Gary Brooker (vocals, piano) Robin Trower (guitar) and B.J. Wilson (drums) joined forces in the early 60's. Their band was THE PARAMOUNTS influenced, as were so many British bands, by American R&B. Their first single, released in 1963, was a cover of The Coasters' 'Poison Ivy.' (They also did a wicked version of 'Bad Blood,' and a few originals co-written by the team of Brooker/Trower). The Beatles had chart hits with old Chuck Berry tunes, The Animals adapted 'House of the Rising Sun,' but these and other bands soon found their own voices via original material. Their new music and lyrics led to the historic 'British Invasion' that dominated the charts worldwide. THE PARAMOUNTS' bluesy cover versions were appreciated by their contemporaries but 'Top of the Pops' success wasn't theirs. 'I became disillusioned,' Brooker recalled – but then seriously 'started writing my own songs.' His lyricist? Keith Reid. As they say, 'the rest is history.' THE PARAMOUNTS were gone in 1966, but a year later there was a new group and that July single: 'A Whiter Shade of Pale.'

Out of the swirling ocean of psychedelia, which included Jefferson Airplane's 'Somebody to Love' (a Top Ten hit in May) and The Doors' 'Light My Fire' (June's #1 hit) there had arisen a dark and mighty leviathan with a strange and magical name: PROCOL HARUM. The name, misspelled from the Latin, translates as 'Beyond These Things.' The original owner of that name was somebody's cat. And like a cat, fame nuzzled up warmly and then abruptly walked away. Inscrutably, critics trashed the golden band's follow-up single 'Homburg' for either being, or not being 'A Whiter Shade of Pale.' Management and personnel problems added to the bad luck. Other bands made a big splash and didn't repeat. Jefferson Airplane, to cite one example, disappeared from the charts completely after 1967's 'Somebody to Love' and 'White Rabbit.' But 'A Whiter Shade of Pale' was THE hit of 1967 and it burdened the band with a legend they couldn't live up to.

Their subsequent singles were compared to it and hopes for more million-sellers led to frustration. At the time, the idea of an 'album band' was just becoming a reality; record companies still were obsessed with the 'hit single.' As the 60's ended and the 70's began, the band went five years without a 'hit.' But they produced consistently rewarding albums. Nobody was like this band, although critics groped for comparisons and named everyone from The Band to The Moody Blues. PROCOL HARUM remains unchallenged as having created the most unique and enduring fusion between gothic classicism and hard rock. As each new record appeared, listeners could at once feel alienation, derive strength and find a kindred spirit in the words of Keith Reid, the tormented yet soaring vocals of Gary Brooker, the infinte beating of Barrie Wilson's drums, and at various times the profound melancholia and majesty of Matthew Fisher at the organ and the shrieks and moody rumblings of Robin Trower's lead guitar. The line-up for the first album included THE PARAMOUNTS' core: Brooker, Trower and Wilson, along with the most important addition, organist Matthew Fisher. 'I thought all the songs on the first album were fantastic,' Keith Reid said. 'It was the worst recorded album, but I like the excitement of it.' Despite its hollow sound, 'Procol Harum' remains a sentimental favorite for many fans. Fisher's classical organ work dominates, but 'A Christmas Camel' demonstrates Brooker's pounding piano and his howling-at-the-moon' ability to drive high into the upper register and yet maintain power and dignity. Most of the songs are portraits of youthful insecurity, mortality fears and depression – subjects befitting band members whose average age was 18 [sic]. Reid's lyrics were studied with the same awe as the writings of Bob Dylan and John Lennon. The album was recorded quickly and sounded it, especially compared to its only contemporary rival in rock literacy, 'Sgt. Pepper.'

Fans anxiously waited for the first 'real' studio album from PROCOL HARUM. 'Shine on Brightly' was recorded over a long period of time and with great care. Reid's lyrics continued to dwell on the unseen, describing a level of optimism obtainable from acknowledging mystery and helplessness ('my befuddled brain shines on brightly, quite insane'). Trower's screaming guitar became a potent force while B.J. Wilson emerged as one of rock's most imaginative drummers. 'In Held Twas In I' (title taken from the first word in the five inter-connecting songs) was an innovation for its time, a brilliant suite simmering with gothic bass, stinging guitar, smoldering organ, mystical recitation and even a smattering of sound effects. According to Gary, 'All the ideas were there, but the suite wasn't complete when recording started. We didn't know what was going to happen. When it was finally finished we listened to it for the first time at night in the studio. It was tremendous.' But, as Keith recalled, ''Shine on Brightly' came out at a time when no one understood or appreciated it. Yet now I have people talking to me about it like we had just released it.'

'A Salty Dog,' the third album, turned out to be one of the group's most accessible, best-selling efforts. The title cut came not from the sea, but from Cleveland. The inspiration was a wood carving in a bar with the words 'Great God, Skipper, we done run aground.' Like Bob Dylan, Reid has the habit of using an easy rhyme here and there. On 'Salty Dog' he actually rhymed 'moon' and 'June' and got away with it. That's because this is one of the great PROCOL songs – a mood piece that transcends itself and takes the listener on a special journey 'beyond these things,' beyond sea, sky, shipwreck or resurrection. It swirls through emotions of despair and regret, reaching a searing crescendo that produces 'tears of joy' and then mysteriously ebbing into a kind of serenity and acceptance.

After the album was completed, producer-writer-singer Matthew Fisher departed. He had not had much opportunity to sing (a solo on one or two songs at best) and most of the songs were Brooker-Reid's. There wasn't even a Brooker-Reid-Fisher credit for 'A Whiter Shade of Pale,' despite Matthew's trademark organ work (which, contrary to popular belief, was not lifted directly from anything in Bach, but was barely inspired by a few passages in old Johann's work).

Fisher produced a band called Prairie Madness for Columbia and then in 1972-73 recorded two solo albums for RCA filled with beautiful organ solos and lyrics throbbing with bruised feelings. Some songs dealt bitterly with backstabbers ('Once I thought I had good friends but now I know they lied') and the past ('don't make me sing that song again'). Others described a painful search for direction. There were a number of wistful, sad ballads of lingering love. The sweetness turned sour, the warmth turned cold, the only question to be asked was 'Where did I go wrong, you know I loved you for so long.' His voice well suited the material and there was a tasteful balance between the slow, sad songs, the vengeful rockers and the instrumentals.

Meanwhile, back at the turn of the 70's, Chris Copping came in to replace both Fisher on organ and David Knights on bass. This turned PROCOL HARUM into THE PARAMOUNTS again! Chris had actually been an original member of the old group, but left in 1962 before the band began recording (with Diz Derrick his replacement on bass). Being THE PARAMOUNTS again seemed to signal a return to R&B. The band was 'Home,' and this new album with its bright 'board game' cover offered some songs one could almost get up and dance to. Except, of course, that the rockin' 'Whiskey Train' was about a staggering alcoholic and the rollin' 'Still There'll Be More' had some of Keith Reid's nastiest lines ('I'll blacken your Christmas and piss on your door...') Yes, despite THE PARAMOUNTS line-up this was PROCOL HARUM, and the album was flooded with Procoholic imagery: 'streets awash with blood and pus...' images of 'boiling oil and shrieking steam,' fears of losing faith and drowning in an unswimmable river ('Your Own Choice') and the soggy hope of ritual cleansing ('wash yourself and see your sorrow.')

But in the end, all that was left was 'Broken Barricades.' The title track proclaimed: 'The oceans have ravished and strangled the land. Waste fills the temples. Dead daughters are born. The presses are empty. The editors torn.' The album's songs were of decay, disease ('Simple Sister') and 'Power Failure.' The love songs were moody and necrophiliac: 'Playmate of the Mouth' and 'Luskus Delph.' The latter Brooker often introduced as 'a bit of sultry, underhanded smut.' The lyrics viscously bubbled with heated sexual imagery. ('Almond eyes, my Turkish pearl, burn me up sweet oyster girl. Shove me in your steaming vat...') Around this time Keith defended what some critics took to be an excessively morbid outlook. He said, 'I have no bleak attitude. I'm not on a death trip. It's realism. The thing is, it doesn't matter how horrific anything is – that doesn't make it negative.' Indeed, many found black humor in his work, from the vaudeville of 'Mabel' on the first album (death by green meat!) to the 'Luskus Delph' line equating male orgasm with a spit of chicken fat.

Although it had seemed that the band was rock solid, the old PARAMOUNTS mates were not getting on that well. Years later, Robin Trower would confide to me that he was simply sick of 'that organ and piano sound.' His efforts to add more guitar were not always met with enthusiasm. Not only were bandmates less than happy, critics voiced opposition as well. The Trower/Reid song 'Song for a Dreamer' was considered a slightly numb Hendrix-inspired experimentation, while another, 'Poor Mohammed' suffered from Robin's ragged vocals. It was time for Trower to move on. The split was fairly amicable but still a strain. Fans looking for a new guitar hero found one in Robin Trower. His first two solo albums for Chrysalis were successes and he would issue many more. His first producer? None other than ex-Procol organist Matthew Fisher, as unlikely as that might seem. Though these albums were simply released as 'Robin Trower,' Robin wisely handed the vocal duties to one of his new band mates, James Dewar. Through the years (and new lead vocalists Jack Bruce and Davey Pattison) there would always be a few Trower/Reid songs on the albums, giving PROCOL fans an extra kick.

Musically, PROCOL HARUM had always been split between hard rock and classical rock. Although the group often combined the two into a brilliant fusion, the albums always leaned toward one side or the other. After Trower's departure, PROCOL turned completely to the classical side with 'Live at Edmonton,' a symphonic exercise released in the winter of 1972. For the first time in five years, the band cracked the American Top 20 with their rousing new version of 'Conquistador.' The song, ironically enough, was on that first album from 1967. With bold brass and violin'd percussion, the Edmonton orchestra helped turn the album a dazzling shade of gold.

The group's new-found mass appeal allowed them to join Warner Brothers/Chrysalis with a bigger budget to explore their classical-rock identity. The result 'Grand Hotel,' an exquisite blend of elegant classicism wired with the gut of rock. It drew instant acclaim and was in Billboard's Top 100 for five months. Gary Brooker's enthusiasm for re-creating a classic-rock fusion had restored the band to fame; few fans seemed too concerned with who was on lead guitar. (The rather invisible Dave Ball was on the Edmonton album). The emphasis was back on Gary Brooker's musicianship – and the lyrics of Keith Reid. Reid's style had changed over the years. He said, 'Theme and story line have become simplified. I cut away as much of the fat as possible and try to leave the bare bones.' The paring down of lyrics can be seen, in perfect textbook example, on the album cut 'Toujours L'Amour.' The pain of a hurt, angry lover is caught in quick flashes: 'She took all the pleasure and none of the pain. All of the credit and none of the blame.' The short, gut punches build: 'She grew thin – and I grew fat. She left me and that was that.' It reaches what, in the fevered world of PROCOL HARUM, is a logical conclusion: 'Maybe I'll take an excursion to Spain. Buy a revolver. Blow out my brain.' While the album did have choral work ('Fires Which Burnt Brightly') there was rock to balance it, thanks to 'Bringing Home the Bacon,' a full-powered and muscular number, as grisly and hateful a nursery rhyme as 'Simple Sister' was.

Despite the 17th century artwork on the cover, 1974's 'Exotic Birds and Fruit' represented a sudden shift back to hard rock. 'The Edmonton album was just an attempt to try something different and we carried it over to 'Grand Hotel,'' Keith Reid explained. 'On this album we tried to dispel that symphonic image.' As a return to roots, the album was almost a mirror of their very first release. The musical patterns match when 'Fresh Fruit' is compared to 'Mabel,' 'New Lamps for Old' to 'Whiter Shade of Pale,' 'Butterfly Boys' to 'Kaleidoscope.'

Further exploring the roots of rock, the band allied themselves with the legendary writing team of Leiber & Stoller. They produced the follow-up album, 'Procol's Ninth.' Again, despite the Beethoven allusion, this was rock, not a symphonic roll. Released in April of 1975, the album gave Gary a chance to show off the old PARAMOUNTS enthusiasm for Leiber & Stoller's writing. Instead of a Coasters cover, this time he sang a Chuck Jackson number: 'I Keep Forgettin'' An improvement on the original thanks to Gary's vocals and the absence of novelty percussion, it should've been a hit single. If there was any theme running through the album, it was Reid's reappraisal of his writing. Heroic self pity was raised to a fine art on 'Fool's Gold' ('I was trying hard to win, save the world and be the king...I was locked in bitter strife, fighting monsters all of my life.' The battle to put words on paper ('Without a Doubt') led to 'Typewriter Torment.' The album ended with a lifeless rendition of 'Eight Days a Week,' which I hope was intentional. Ironically placed after 'Typewriter Torment,' here's Gary resignedly covering one of The Beatles' most simplistic love songs. The rote rendition seems to suggest that if gut-wrenching originals don't yield fame or financial reward, the horrifying alternative is robotic renditions of pure pop. The album won some good reviews but the group was not putting up the kind of figures they or their record label wanted.

There were more band member changes when Procol began touring in support of 'Something Magic.' Updating their sound, the band installed Pete Solley on synthesizer. This worked well on the moody 'Strangers in Space,' but was it really PROCOL HARUM? There were some tasty licks on 'Mark of the Claw' thanks to guitarist Mick Grabham, but highlights were few on the album, and one side was dominated by the embarrassing fable 'Worm and the Tree,' recited by Gary. It was a classical idea (if one cares to recall 'Peter and the Wolf') forgotten. And forgotten was PROCOL HARUM, especially by Warner Bros./Chrysalis, who barely showed much interest in promoting it. And I know, because at the time I was editing the national (150,000 circulation) rock magazine 'Rocket,' and it was tough to get past the label's apathy to a) get the album, b) interview band members, and c) see the New York concert. There was no 'official' announcement of the band's break-up. After about a decade, PROCOL HARUM was simply 'beyond these things.'

Gary Brooker emerged as a solo artist. And so it was that PROCOL fans soldiered on as best as possible, surprised and delighted by the occasional Gary Brooker or Matthew Fisher solo album, frustrated by the gradually dwindling Robin Trower output, and making too much out of any time Gary, B.J., Mick, or anyone Procol-related made a guest appearance on somebody else's record, produced a semi-unknown singer, or played in the background at somebody else's concert.

Probably the greatest delight for PROCOL fans was Gary's 'Echoes in the Night' album, an 'almost-PROCOL' affair released in 1985. It was produced by Matthew Fisher and Gary Brooker. B.J. Wilson was back on drums. Seven cuts had music by Gary, Matthew (or both) with lyrics from Keith Reid. One cut, 'The Long Goodbye' has indeed become a staple of PROCOL HARUM's repertoire. And then, like that fellow seeking an audience with the Delhi Lama, fans spent about five years in contemplation. Would there be a new Gary Brooker or Matthew Fisher album? Or something...magical?

The 90's began and...where were you when you heard that PROCOL HARUM was back? I was listening to WNEW-FM here in New York, and the DJ mentioned 'the new Procol Harum album.' New? NEW? Next thing I NEW, I was at a WNEW-produced broadcast at Electric Ladyland studios where PROCOL HARUM went on the air live with a concert in support of the NEW album. The date: September 25, 1991. There was Gary Brooker, looking suave and assured. Matthew Fisher, sensitive and serious, was on organ. Robin Trower had declined to make the tour, but at least was on the album. Guys who had been on Brooker's last solo album were now PROCOL band members, such as bassist Dave Bronze and guitarist Tim Renwick. But on drums...where was B.J. Wilson? There was an ominous note in the booklet of the new album declaring it was 'dedicated to Barrie James (B.J.) Wilson who will always be with us.' I'd hoped that maybe B.J. had simply retired. Or that he was finding greater satisfaction in some new, creative pursuit. I, and most PROCOL fans, had no idea that he had been in a coma for some time. And that, on October 8, 1990, he had passed on. Of course, he is still with PROCOL HARUM in spirit. And he's there on all those great albums. When we think of PROCOL HARUM, we always think of B.J. on drums. And even in concert today, any drummer must respect the indelible patterns B.J. created for songs like 'A Salty Dog' just as every organist must follow Matthew Fisher's introductory lines opening 'A Whiter Shade of Pale.'

The new 'Prodigal Stranger' album had encouraging titles: 'Man with a Mission,' 'Holding On,' 'One More Time,' 'A Dream In Every Home,' 'Perpetual Motion,' and 'Learn to Fly.' Of course, it wouldn't be a PROCOL HARUM album without anger ('All Our Dreams Are Sold') and regret ('You Can't Turn Back the Page.' ) But...they DID IT. They came back with heroic and muscular rock ('The Truth Won't Fade Away.') They came back with that special black light that is dark but brightens the darkness ('...ships out on a moonlit ocean, sailing toward a distant shore.') The album rocked with 'The Hand That Rocks the Cradle.' And if you like, you can even find that touch of grim humor and double entendre ('...but she laid the Ace of Spades...The King of Hearts no more, but King of the Brokenhearted.') And so 'The Pursuit of Happiness' was taken up again by the elusive PROCOL HARUM. The album sparked renewed interest, re-issue CD's, and various tantalizing side dishes.

The 1995 'Symphonic Procol Harum' wasn't an official PROCOL HARUM release but it did have Gary Brooker, Matthew Fisher and Robin Trower – and some guest vocalists that ranged from surprising to annoying.

It was followed by 'Within Our House,' a solo CD from Gary that included the new Brooker/Reid title track and a few old and new PROCOL numbers backed by a choir, string quartet and various PROCOL band members including bassist Dave Bronze and drummer Mark Brzezicki.

1997's 30th Anniversary marks a band that is very much still with us. But whether there was a comeback, or will be re-union concerts or still more original albums, the name says it all: PROCOL HARUM. They are beyond criticism, beyond detailed analysis, beyond comparison with other bands, beyond words that can fully explain why the music and lyrics touch us so profoundly.


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