Procol Harum

the Pale

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Procol Harum

Paul Williams in 'Crawdaddy!' # 12, September 1967

We reprint this hugely-influential article by kind permission of its author, Paul Williams (illustrated). Facsimile back-issues of Crawdaddy! are available from his website, price twelve dollars including postage.

Health News and Request for Help from Wolfgang's Vault, April 2009.
'The health of Crawdaddy! founder andfather of rock criticism, Paul Williams, has taken a turn for the worse. Back in 1995 Paul suffered a traumatic brain injury that has led to an early onset of dementia and other complications that have necessitated full-time care. The emotional hardship and financial burden on his family has been immense. We want to share Paul's story with his fans in the hope that the word gets around enough where those with a little money to spare can give back to a person who's given so much to all of us music lovers. Please visit to learn more about Paul's extraordinary life and works, and to see where you can send a donation. And please pass this note on to others who might be interested in Paul's condition.'

The Procol Harum album just keeps getting better and better. So far anyway. Maybe one day it gets worse, but long after I've gotten as much from it as I could want to get from anything, long after I've stuck it in place with the other bricks, stars in the constellation, whatever metaphors you like. Follow-the-dots is hard work. You hear an album once, and it's a part of you, and it with all the rest of you listens again; and this time it becomes part of you a slightly different way, since after all you aren't the same you as the first time you heard it, back when you'd never heard the album before at all.

Procol Harum, then, is an additive, something that pushes you a little from where you are, something that accelerates your motion. Listening to a Joan Baez album the other day I realized that while I still like the 'beautiful', I'm fed to the teeth with the merely 'pretty.' And this leads to some thoughts on a definition of rock; a definition which would have to do with 'inside' and 'outside,' that which reaches in and pushes you, and that which you yourself must reach out to. Rock moves people; rock is environmental in the sense that it specifically affects you. You don't have free will; you are caught up in it. Non-rock is all that music which must be looked at, as it were; you hear Joan sing Lady came from Baltimore and you say, 'yes, that's pretty - there's nothing wrong with it.' But nothing right either, meaning no matter how good it is, it doesn't affect me. I can judge that it's good but why say so ...

To me, this stuff is useless. I don't like to dabble. Feeling you're in control is nice but only if things are almost not-in-control; absolute power is a non-rock situation. Nothing affects you, nothing moves you, changes you; nothing can. Which is entropy, or death; nothing ever happens, or ever will. Sure, you can make things happen, but you can't make them happen to you. You're in absolute control; to conceive of something happening to you not only means that it can happen and must happen but that it already has happened and therefore will never really be new (because you don't change - the same thing again is only different if you've changed. Now is forever. Tough luck.

Anyway, the relationship between absolute control and non-rock is simply that one has complete control over non-rock. Any music that doesn't affect you in spit of yourself can then only affect you the way you want it to. It will never give you anything, merely affirm that which you already known. Pretty music. Not like Tim Hardin singing The Lady came from Baltimore, which might even make you shiver. You could easily say: 'That isn't pretty' but you'd still have to saw 'Wow!' 'Wow!' is involuntary - it's a rock reaction.

With all this in mind, let us examine Procol Harum as a rock album. Denny Cordell, who produced the LP, was relieved when Sandy and I were enthusiastic about it. He had been worried that, because of its lack of complexity compared to Sergeant Pepper and other modern rock, the Procol album might be poorly received in America. But things have gone beyond mere rules in the music world, even new rules. ('Okay, this month the trend is complex stuff. I don't like it if it ain't complex.') Complex is not a term that should be applied to the music on an album but rather to the reactions of the listener. I judge an album to be satisfying to me on a complex level if it moves me in varied uncertain ways - if it somehow interacts with whatever themes are bothering me at the moment. Procol Harum does this, and it's really the first LP to do this to me since The Doors. A lot of people in this office have been similarly moved by Jimi Hendrix. I mention that to point out the subjective level in all this: why Procol Harum should strike chords in me that Jimi Hendrix - much as I like the album - does not, is a mystery, and ones whose answer may only be found in an examination of Paul Williams' reaction to each of these records. Since the Hendrix LP moves others in the way the Harum moves me, it is fair to assume that both are on a similar level of 'greatness,' despite being non-simultaneous. Judging objectively, we decide that both can be subjectively 'great.'

Paul Williams: he wrote this article

Which is to say, this album will get to you. Keith Reid is thus far the only modern lyricist to successfully assimilate Bob Dylan's '65-'66 songwriting style, and that makes him number one in a field of thousands. Gary Brooker (who writes the music, plays piano and sings) and the group have borrowed judiciously from the musical structure of Dylan's recent work. (The most important influences on this LP would seem to be Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, and The Moody Blues #1.) JS Bach and other traditional influences wander into the melodies of these songs, but it's the freshness and competence of the compositions rather than their cheerful eclecticism that makes it clear that Procol Harum and particularly Gary Brooker have a long creative road ahead. And best of all, Brooker has reserved newness for the one place where it's really needed these days - his vocal style is completely his own, and he makes brilliant use of it.

Procol Harum is, at present, a very strange rock group. For one thing, its impetus came from someone not even in the group proper: Keith Reid, who wrote A Whiter Shade of Pale well over a year ago. He took it to Denny Cordell, who suggested he find a collaborator, and many months later Reid returned with music for his words and five people to perform the completed work. Reid is now co-manager of the group, and songwriter-in-residence (with Gary Brooker). For another thing, the group only began to take real shape after their record was number one in Europe; the drummer and guitar player left and were replaced by two really excellent musicians, BJ Wilson and Robin Trower. And just as the group was beginning to absorb this change, they rushed to the studio to record this album, which is nonetheless surprisingly tight and worthy of musicians who understand each other and their material thoroughly.

The group is unusual in its instrumentation, and its use of instruments. The basic rhythmic ground on most of the tracks is provided by the organ, and is complemented and given shape by the bass (played by David Knights). The drums, which traditionally provide the 'beat' in a rock song, are used here more as punctuation (as in Blonde on Blonde). This requires very sophisticated drumming, and indeed Wilson is extremely sensitive to everything that's going on in the music; and the ability of the drums as - almost - a lead instrument to cut across the flowing of the organ is used to great advantage, as in the brilliant ending of Kaleidoscope (which suspends the listener in almost complete timelessness).

The lead instrument is very often Gary Brooker's piano. The piano creates (particularly in Christmas Camel and Salad Days, a repeated phrase that serves as basic structure for the piece, like Keith Richard's guitar in Last Time and Satisfaction. Indeed , the centres of attention in Procol's music are the repeating figures - organ ripples in She Wandered Through The Garden Fence, loops of piano and organ in Conquistador, the pacing of the bass in Cerdes, etc. The words of the songs seem to unroll from these constant circles of music.

By contrast , the guitar is not so much a lead instrument as a voice, silent much of the time, absolutely in the forefront when it steps in. Robin Trower must now be counted among the important rock guitarists. His work in Repent Walpurgis is shattering, brilliant; amid the precise weariness of the piece he cries out like Thomas Hardy at century's end, himself exhausted, still ready to report whatever hope he finds. His foreshadowed entrance in Something Following Me provides the song its only real depth.

The album starts weakly. A Whiter Shade of Pale - which I've always liked - does not come across so well here. This is mostly because we've heard it far too many times already; but also, I think it is one of those songs that is most effective on its own. It seems a part of some lost epic, beginning and ending in medias res, and very uncomfortable as the mere first of five tracks on an album side. It sounded far better on midsummer's radio.

Cerdes is the masterpiece of the album. The instruments walk on, each in a separate entrance, each tracing the former's footsteps, voice last of all: 'Outside the gates of Cerdes sits the two-pronged unicorn' .... The song is impossible to interpret, difficult even to make sense of, glorious to feel rolling over you and, finally, carrying you out in its tide. The guitar, after choking its screams for two verses, speaks more than articulately of the state of things, pulling apart any listener not already bisected by Brooker's voice. More and more you feel the want of the music to devour the vocalist; when he returns after the break he is inside, lost, swallowed and just saying it, so you'll know. And the instruments march out, led by the guitar.... This is the approach to the void, a newer Gates of Eden - a comparison of the songs will show you how far we've gone, in only two years, how much closer we are, how much less we know.

The two songs following are the least impressive of the album. She Wandered Through the Garden Fence is a pleasant account of the visit of a she-demon, arranged and executed with high competence but no particular spark. Something Following Me is about a guy and his tombstone, and too comic-book-like to be scary; it falls rightly between the light fantastic of Whiter Shade and the mystic depths of Cerdes. Not that there's anything wrong with comic books - Something Following Me is delightful in its innocent obviousness - but the song is nowhere as significant as might have been intended.

Mabel is just fine, the best music-hall song yet recorded in rock, full of lust and impotence, and a squeak at the end where the tape ran out. David Flooke and I were listening to Mabel at 1/32 ordinary speed (after recording it at 120 ips); sounded pretty good. Something like wind in a Jules Verne cave far at the end of the world, with crickets (cicadas). Stomach noises with soul; some kind of cosmic motion. Or waves on very cold rocks. Maybe like being outside the gates of Cerdes.

A Christmas Camel is as fine as its title. A further instalment in the obscure adventures of Keith Reid: our hero wanders in the desert, having trouble with mirages, a common theme. ('She said 'there is no reason and the truth is plain to see'' - Whiter Shade; 'Which only retells legends, while my eyes reach out for facts' - Cerdes; 'Still sees truth quite easily, shrouds all else in mystery' - Christmas Camel.) Lots of good piano stuff.

And Conquistador, a lovely bit of romanticism invaded and enriched by modern anxiety. The timing, restraint and sheer technical ability of pianist, bass and drummer are really impressive here, and Matthew Fisher's organ playing becomes precisely the right vehicle for the song's desperation.

This same need, 'something to find', propels Kaleidoscope, a far more satisfying song to listen to because of its energy. It describes not the cage - Conquistador seems almost hopeless - but the straining of the singer toward freedom. 'Lonely in the dark I grope, keys in my kaleidoscope' ... just listening to the song, loud, violent, you feel the surge of power, rushing through the night, car radio loud - the modern cure for frustration, that feeling of massive power, motion - make the car faster, the music louder... sexual imagery, 'key's in my kaleidoscope' and orgasm ending like hitting a roadblock and not stopping, on and on, endless roll.

Salad Days - the transition from Kaleidoscope to Salad Days is perfect - is a salute to Bob Dylan, a sympathetic description in Blonde on Blonde imagery of the falling out between Dylan and his audience. The audience, his mistress, refuses to believe the affair is over, continues to make the selfish demands that originally lead to the disaffection. The music here is very fine - gentle, poignant, active, full of irony, innocence, déja-vu.... Procol Harum as musicians are at times so sure of what they're doing that they seem to transcend groupness to become mere session men again - impersonal, certain. This song is completely Gary Brooker's, excepting the lyrics, and each musician does Gary's will without being any less himself.

Walpurgis Nacht, the eve of the first of May, is when the witches come out in Central Europe; Repent Walpurgis, Matthew Fisher's contribution to this album as a composer, is one of the finest instrumental tracks in rock. It is also the most effective rock composition yet to utilize classical music influences. It will move you, in a rock sense; it will, in fact, shake you mercilessly, and leave you aching to hear it again. [More here]

So the album leaves an impression of greatness; but after two years of doing practically nothing but listening to rock and roll all day, you can - as some of you must already know - get rather jaded. So it is that even as I write this article the Procol Harum album is slipping into the category of being merely a very fine record ... the only albums I have been able to derive real satisfaction from in the last two weeks have been Strange Days by the Doors and the Rolling Stones live (listened to in mono on Koss headphones). But the Procol songs - particularly Salad Days - continue to generate spontaneously in my mind as I walk down various streets, and I've derived no end of pleasure from imagining I was listening to the album.

More reviews of the same album
More reviews of other Procol Harum albums

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