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the Pale

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Solid Silver

Bobby Harrison & Mezzoforte (1986 / 1987)

  Bobby Harrison – vocals
Fridrik Karlsson – lead guitar
Eythor Gunnarsson – keyboards
Johann Asmundsson – bass
Gunnlaugur Briem – drums
Stefan Stefansson – woodwind

'Special thanks to [eight Icelanders] and Matthew Fisher'

1 It's Over
(Harrison / Karlsson)

2 The Hunter
(Jones / Wells / Jackson Jr Dunne / Cropper)

3 Icelandic Rock & Roll

4 Overload
(Harrison / Karlsson)

5 Nothing Stays the Same
(Harrison / Stefansson)

6 Hot Stuff

7 Guiding Light
(Harrison / Stefansson)

8 Highway

9 Victim of Love

10 The Shape I am In

11 Get on the Right Track

12 After the Storm
(Harrison / Stefansson)

13 Oh Pretty Woman

14 It's Over (Radio Version)
(Harrison / Karlsson)


Bobby Harrison

During modern times a number of British musicians appear to have taken up a tradition which goes back all the way to the middle ages: like the troubadours they roam the European Continent armed with six-stringed instruments, leaving behind them a trace of musical endeavour.

This was particularly in vogue during the sixties and seventies. Some of these people travelled in established groups, settled for a while in a foreign place and released records for local labels: The Renegades in Finland, The Sorrows in Italy, Red Squares in Denmark etc. Others infiltrated local bands by joining already existing line-ups: the now legendary Swedish R&B act The Dee-Jays had two English members, Cy Nicklin and Scotsman Tom McEwan were part of Culpepper's Orchard in Copenhagen, Ray Fenwick was extremely active in several Dutch bands, whilst Frank Robson and Jim Pembroke, in particular, turned the Helsinki rock scene into arguably the most exciting place on the European map for rock fans during this era.

You might suspect that these people were second-rate musicians who couldn't make it at home and consequently found themselves a niche in a foreign country at a point in history where anyone born in the UK would automatically be regarded as a musical hero. You might suspect that the local performers in these countries were no-talented bores who desperately needed outside help to get anything done at all. Well, I'm happy to say that you couldn't be more wrong. What lies behind this phenomenon is something quite different – musicians have always defied boundaries and borderlines, and hence music has always been perhaps the greatest cultural melting pot we know.

Having said that, what would often drive the aforementioned artists to leave their native Britain was in fact, more often than not, a chance meeting with a person of the opposite sex. Boy from Hackney meets girl from Belgium on holiday in London, and they end up settling in Brussels. Or – as in this particular case – boy from Southend meets girl from Iceland and they end up living in her home country. So if you ever wondered what happened to Procol Harum's original drummer, the founding member of Freedom and lead singer of Snafu – I'm talking about none other than Bobby Harrison of course – well, that's exactly how he ended up in Reykjavik!

'It was 1980, and my career had come to a turning point anyway,' Bobby now recalls. 'Snafu had disbanded some years before, which had really been a let-down for me. We had been touring extensively for so long both in Britain, Europe and the US. Thin Lizzy, War, Doobie Brothers, Eagles, Ray Charles, you name them – we toured with them all! But then our guitarist Mick Moody was suddenly hi-jacked by Whitesnake during a tour of Germany, which just broke us up. I was devastated. Snafu was my baby.'

Bobby tried to keep the band together for a while with Clem Clemson on guitar, but it didn't work.

'I then started hanging out with people like Reg Isadore, the drummer who had been with Robin Trower, and Joe Jammer. We had a band together and lived in Chicago for a couple of years. Unfortunately, our manager died and the whole thing just ended in disaster. But then I met this Icelandic girl whom I made pregnant, moved to Reykjavik with her and began a whole new chapter of my life.'

If somebody mentions Icelandic rock today, it probably means but one name to most people: Björk. Considering the population of the country (only a quarter of a million people) this comes as no surprise. But in fact there is at least one particular bunch of Icelandic musicians who ought to be familiar to a lot of people – Mezzoforte.

A jazz-funk outfit with immense technical abilities, Mezzoforte had several hit records in Europe during the eighties. Funk and jazz as particular styles have, like progressive rock, always seemed to suit North European musicians particularly well. While the gothic side of progressive rock obviously goes hand in hand with the traditions of classical music in these countries, there is a sharpness and cleanness attached to their interpretation of jazz-funk which not only finds its natural reflection in the clear daylight of these latitudes but also includes a reserved and introverted approach which comes natural to a people who, for simple climatic reasons, have to stay indoors or pack themselves up for much of the year. Finally, it is worth noting that whilst British rock musicians typically come from working-class environments, their colleagues in Northern Europe are mostly middle-class kids, often with a vast degree of formal musical training behind them and a soft spot for the more established genres of music.

In other words: they do need someone to kick their arse a bit now and again. So welcome to Iceland, Mr Harrison!

'Yeah, I did manage to become bit of a sensation up there,' admits Bobby. 'And I was in for quite a few surprises myself right from the start. The beautiful landscape, the friendliness of the people ... '

His knowledge of the English language, a pretty basic condition if you want to write and sing some rock and roll, was obviously a help to Bobby. It also paved the way for some work in promoting bands and getting some big names into the country to play concerts.

'I did that at daytime, and in the evenings I would be playing with bands. At the same time, I still kept in contact with people at home, Gus Isadore in particular, a brother of Reg. He had a band called Niagra with this LA drummer Bill Carson; they were incredibly good and I tried to get them a deal, which was very difficult and didn't become easier when they suddenly moved to Finland! I had also met Mezzoforte and tried helping them to get a deal, and on several occasions we were working together as a band. They hadn't played real, basic rhythm and blues before but they did it just brilliantly. A truly great, great bunch of musicians. We recorded a 12-inch together in Reykjavik and I took two of the four tracks with me back to London and had them re-mixed. I persuaded my old friend Matthew Fisher to mix one of them at his studio, and Gus did the other.'

Over the next couple of years, Bobby would gig all over Iceland. In connection with this he found that to promote himself, he needed to do an album. And thus, the idea of Solid Silver was born.

'It was all done very basically, very 'first-take' etc. I think we recorded the whole of that album in three days flat. It was done at a really good studio in Reykjavik though, called Stemma.'

When speaking about the album today, ten years down the line, Bobby Harrison sounds a little bit apologetic.

'It would have been nice to spend some more time on it.'

I will allow myself to disagree with him. The faster you can make an R&B album, the better. Who cares about mistakes (I can't find them anyway). 1987 was not exactly the most uplifting year in the history of rock and roll, but it's nice to observe that at least a group of people in Reykjavik still knew what the thing was all about. This is a very fine album, indeed.

The combination of Mezzoforte's funky approach and Harrison's raw, urban rhythm and blues voice is the main thing on these recordings. It seems incredible how this singer has been able to evade greater fame. British blues wailers don't come much better than this, ever. In fact, this is what Eric Burdon would have sounded like today if he hadn't lost it sometime around 1965. Or, perhaps even better – it's Tom Jones with taste.

To underline just how lucky you are to have found this particular gem of an album I can inform you that it has never been released outside Iceland before.

Today, Bobby Harrison finds himself back in Southend again.

'At the end, I discovered I had this yearning for my roots, and I'd done everything I could do in Iceland anyway. So I'm involving myself with a number of different projects here at the moment. I'm preparing for a new album, writing with Gus Isadore, and playing in a duo with a young guitarist from around these parts, Andy Rowlands. I've even re-formed Snafu with a group of local musicians.'

Luckily, it seems like we haven't heard the last from Bobby Harrison.

Liner note copyright Claes Johansen, reproduced by permission

Roland Clare's brief comments:

Why bother about Bobby Harrison, that mere footnote in the Procol story, the drummer displaced the day that AWSoP was recorded, and then sacked, so that his recorded contribution to the band's oeuvre, Lime Street Blues, is even shorter than Bill Eyden's?

Because that's not actually the way it was. Harrison can be heard on at least six Procol Harum tracks now available (AWSoP, Homburg and probably Magdalene from the 30th Anniversary Anthology, Salad Days from Procol Harum ... plus! and In the Wee Small Hours of Sixpence and Alpha from Shine on Brightly ... plus!) and who's to say, with the current steaming sales of those Westside exhumations, that people will not start finding all sorts of other rare Procolabilia in their vaults?) and he also went on to run other hard-working bands (Freedom, Snafu), to sing a bit of backup for Matthew Fisher, before embarking on the solo career that begins with 1975's Fisher-co-produced Funkist and continues with the present Solid Silver. In fact he rivals Robin Trower in the most-prolific ex-Procol stakes, though his sales are probably not quite up there with RT's!).

Such is the Harrison pedigree: for all that, however, this is not really a record that most Procoholics will feel the need to own. For one thing, he's the singer here, not the drummer, so there's no practical overlap with his Harum work; for another, the album leads off with a romantic ballad, a synth pad underlaid with a snare-heavy beat and clanking piano, before a real MOR chorus starts up. No, it's not a Prodigal Stranger out-take, though the opening four piano chords follow a favourite Brooker pattern. This is in fact It's Over, present in two mixes, and it would probably sound great late at night in a lorry on some desolate autobahn. Unfortunately I was not able to test it under those conditions: I must admit, though, that the bonus track version (coming only fifty minutes after the opening) sounded amazingly familiar: it's therefore got real radio-friendly single-appeal, unless I'm conflating it with something I've half-heard Tom Jones sing.

Harrison's grown-up vocal, and harmonies, are a strength of that opening track; the filthy guitar and strutting blues beat that kick off The Hunter come as a real surprise. This minor standard's words now seem endearingly primitive (the love gun is loaded, old-fashionedly enough, 'with hugs and kisses / and when I pull the trigger / Ain't gonna be no misses ...') but the guitar solo is rumbustuous and sounds quite a lot like Geoff Whitehorn ... a sudden hiatus in the ensemble exposes a ragged edge, suggesting a live take that was never cleaned up.

Icelandic Rock and Roll is a medium-paced choogling number beginning 'Rock and Roll Reykjavik / ... you going down in history / land of the midnight sun / everybody having fun.' But we're only one verse into this when the fierce guitar breaks out again, and the ear is drawn to some nice detail in the keyboard playing. The band cooks up to a jazzy frenzy within a few beats, but has to revert to the garage boogie for another vocal verse, before an echoing synth takes the second solo: exciting stuff until a silly Duke Ellington ending kills it off.

Overload is exciting the moment it starts off with its funky clavinet / piano riff, and its middle section offers unexpected harmonies and textures: the hand of Stevie Wonder might be detected somewhere in this interesting mixture. The sax solo starts off promisingly, but seems to lose its confidence just as the band pauses to let it show off most; as before it's the rocking piano that draws itself to the ear's attention. This song again ends in toyland fashion, and a cackle of merriment remains in the depths of the fade.

Nothing Stays the Same starts off with electric piano and Bobby's warm, appealing ballad voice: major and minor sevenths, and sliding jazzy semitonal cadences establish the rueful world of this smoochy track, and a snapping bassline occasionally surfaces to indicate that the band has rather more energy than they're being allowed to use.

The next track is a wholly Harrison-written saga of how his wife and her sexy hips got him in trouble with the traffic-police, all hollered and falsetto-whooped over a nice bluesy backing with nifty bass details and a fat sound from the brassy synths. The unpretentious fun and class of this track were a lot more appealing to me than some of the rest of the set.

Guiding Light sounds like something from a different record, much more soul-oriented and American, with some dated flash in the backing: but Harrison sounds as though he's having a lot of fun! As he does on Highway, which pitches a nice fat guitar sound over noisy bass and piano: the words are generic, as is the voice: but the soloing is again fluent and pleasing, tending always towards the jazzier end of the spectrum.

Victim of Love sounds as though it has been carefully mixed for radio, with much more space than some of the arrangements use, and carefully layered harmony vocals over a disco-worthy pulsing bass. It seems a bit incongruous to hear the word 'relationship' surface in a raucously- declaimed, otherwise-demotic protest about love gone wrong. But it's intriguing to hear how closely the bridge at 2:30 mirrors the harmonic world of Saw the Fire ... if I had to guess which track had involved the hand of Matthew Fisher, it would be this one.

The Shape I'm In gets a perky reading now, brittle, jumpy rhythms under a great guitar solo; the insert meanwhile gives us a clear idea of the shape Bobby's in, a rumpled suit and tie alternating with shades and bow tie, and with an opera scarf. None of these guises really befits the peddler of the honking Get on the Right Track, which stomps along excitedly, and which would be fine to hear live, while not really being distinctive enough to merit a place on record.

After the Storm sets Harrison words to the music of sax-player Stefan Stefansson, whose compositions seem to have earnt the most adventurous arrangements on the album. The words of this song reach out interestingly in an extended meteorological metaphor: 'It wasn't so long ago, I felt a cross-wind blow ...' though there are occasional make-weight lines such as 'deep cuts from a silver blade'. Nimble electric piano cascades about in the background, and a wolfish synth takes a soaring solo towards the conclusion.

The final song (except for the radio mix of It's Over) is Oh Pretty Woman, whose words owe little to the Big O: 'drop your dress and come down off your throne, stop using my poor heart for a stepping-stone'. There's something very macho about this record, yet the constant undertow of victim-hood reminds us that Bobby's lyrical roots are very much in the world of the blues.

In all honesty I can't suppose that Procol Harum fans need this record; but the completist whose obsession compels him or her to order a copy will discover some agreeable, if perhaps undemanding compositions and covers, mostly played and sung with real gusto and class.

Bobby Harrison at BtP

Order this recording

Claes Johansen's Procol Harum biography

Bobby talks about this record

Bobby talks about his Procol years


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