Procol Harum

the Pale 

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'Still There'll be More'

Zachary Nathanson online at The Progressive Aspect

A great review full of insight, with only an indiscriminate addiction to the word 'waltz' to count against it: do visit the excellent parent site (click Progressive Aspect link above)

In the 2012 foreword notes of Henry Scott-Irvine’s amazing book Procol Harum: The Ghosts of A Whiter Shade of Pale, film maker Martin Scorsese describes the band in this way; “Procol Harum’s music drew from so many deep wells – classical music, 19th Century literature, Rhythm and Blues, seaman’s logs, concertist poetry – that each tune became a cross-cultural whirl-gig, a road trip through the pop subconscious. For that time and for this one too – for any, I’m sure – it was great travelling music.”

Well, Marty, you are absolutely right. Procol Harum’s music has been around for 51 years and is so much more than just that one hit single that changed everything thanks to the Bach-esque organ and the commercial ad for Hamlet cigars. It was much deeper throughout their catalogue, showing how much appreciation, achievement, accomplishment and the goals they’ve set for themselves have brought into it.

This 5CD and 3DVD anthology comes from Esoteric Recordings, who reissued the first four Procol Harum albums three years ago. This time, they’ve hit the mother lode, and as the title Still There’ll Be More attests, despite the various line-up changes the music still holds, like a flaming fire that will never burn out.

From their roots as an R&B cover band called The Paramounts, admired by The Rolling Stones, to the essence of Symphonic, Psychedelic, and Progressive Rock, Procol Harum changed everything. Gary Brooker and Keith Reid were a perfect match; a great team and a winning combination. Among their supporters were Jimmy Page, Sir Alan Parker, Pete Townshend, ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris, and the late great Douglas Adams. Brooker and Reid were, in my opinion, the real deal.

So it is time to take off our Homburgs and delve into some of the highlights of this box set. You have the mournful lost at sea and the captain’s choice to die, featuring a haunting string section that sets the scene with A Salty Dog, the Gothic Hammond organ of Matthew Fisher and Robin Trower’s exhilarating guitar work delving into a climatic finale with Repent Walpurgis.

The first disc covers 1967 to 1970, the second 1971 to 1974, and the third disc concludes with the period 1974 to 2017. There’s the bright ascending rise into clouds of wonder on Shine on Brightly, the mysterious cat-and-mouse puzzle with an intense Russian dance sequence during Skip Softly (My Moonbeams) and the epic that started the Prog-Rock epics, In Held ’Twas In I. Included in the box set is the 19-minute live version which was recorded with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra in Canada in 1972. For me, this is raw and perhaps one of the most chilling versions; gut-wrenching and emotional, this is where the band came together, giving the piece a real performance, not just to ‘wow’ the audience but taking them along for the ride, together with the dazzling version of Conquistador which features a mariachi-esque trumpet fanfare and went on to become a hit single in the UK (number 22) and in the States (number 16).

But getting back to the 19-minute version of In Held ’Twas In I, it is a staggering piece and by closing your eyes you can imagine yourself being at the concert, watching in awe as the music is brought to life. There’s also the hard rock element that Trower adds by spicing his guitar riffs with a Led Zeppelin vibe on Long Gone Geek, and his slowed-down train adventure that offers a nod to Jimi Hendrix with Simple Sister.

The classical beauty of Grand Hotel, which inspired Douglas Adams to write The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, is a piece that refuses to die. You have, as I’ve mentioned for Skip Softly, the Russian waltz, also a mournful string section, operatic chorus, it makes you feel as if it were scored for a 1940s black-and white film, one last dance for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

There are some okay moments from the latter days in 1991 and 2003, but I still feel that there was a little bit of magic dust in there too. Songs like The [sic] World Is Rich (For Steven Maboe) from 2003’s The Well’s on Fire is Reid’s nod to Roger Waters’s The Tide Is Turning. The album would be his last one writing arrangements [sic] as Pete Brown took over for Procol’s next and latest album, Novum, released last year.

Other centrepieces include the mysterious Pandora’s Box from their ninth album, Procol’s Ninth. Produced by Lieber and Stoller it started as an instrumental going back to 1967, perhaps inspired by Nita Rossi’s Untrue Unfaithful (That Was You). It has an eerie film-noir vibe with a carousel keyboard twist, while Beyond the Pale deals with the subject of going too far, again with a waltz [sic] feel. Christiane Legrand’s vocalisations on Fires (Which Burnt Brightly) offers the beautiful scenario of a grand hotel in its glory days, now nothing more than a pile of rubble.

The Only One is a brilliant end to the studio set. You can tell that this might be the final goodbye, saying thank you to the fans as if this time Procol Harum are about to come full circle. Brown’s lyrics on this track are almost marking an end to an amazing fifty year ride that the band have been on as they move to a new beginning and a new chapter.

Now to the two bonus discs. Disc four is a live recording of the band at the Hollywood Bowl on 21 September 1973 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and the Roger Wagner Chorale, a one-gig event in the States during the promotion for Grand Hotel. Recorded for the King Biscuit Flower Hour, you can feel the audience’s appreciation for the band and the orchestra on that Friday evening.

Knocking out versions of A Simple Sister, Toujours l’Amour, A Salty Dog, Grand Finale, and a wonderful choral introduction before kicking it in with A Christmas Camel, the closing number of TV Ceasar is a real surprise, Brooker singing about the late night talk show hosts, watching the characterisations of these people whilst eating TV dinners as they creep into your eyes, possessing you and exposing your secret fears, exposing deep and dark secrets. Just after the Chorale sings the repeated line…

“TV Caesar, Mighty Mouse, hides the land [sic] in every house
TV Caesar, Mighty Mouse, gets the vote in every house.”

…they move into the British patriotic song Rule, Britannia! and you can feel the audience standing up and applauding both the band and the orchestra as the fireworks go off into the night, knowing they have done their job well.

The fifth disc is another live recording, from 17 March 1976 at Bournemouth Winter Gardens midway through a 67-date tour. The band were promoting their eighth studio album, Procol’s Ninth. It was recorded for King Biscuit’s sub-series British Biscuit, sadly not the complete concert as it had to be cut down to an hour. The recording for this disc is not bad at all. Chris Copping takes his banjo for a walk in the waltz [sic] rhythm of a New Orleans-style performance of Beyond the Pale, the band taking some soul inspiration for their take of The Four Tops’ I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch) as they open the door to Nothing But the Truth.

The version of Johann Strauss’s The Blue Danube is a cross between bluesy and symphonic rock styles, as if it could have been used in Kubrick’s 2001, Copping, Brooker, Mick Grabham, and BJ Wilson working well to honour Strauss’s vision of the waltz. When I listened to this the first time, I didn’t know if they were going to pull an ELP on me, but they didn’t, and for me it is a wonderful take on Johann’s composition. I’m sure that it would make the composer himself both very happy and thrilled at the band honouring his suite.

Now to the three DVDs. The first DVD contains TV appearances including a Top of the Pops from 1967, five appearances on Beat Club, including an unearthed performance of The Devil Came from Kansas, and the full unedited version of the Beat Club Workshop on 27 December 1971. The second DVD is a performance, also at Radio Bremen, on Musikladen, the new name under which Beat Club continued, on 27 October 1973. The final DVD is their performance for the BBC TV show Sight & Sound in Concert at the Hippodrome in 1977, the last gig for bassist Chris Copping with the band during the Something Magic-era, along with another Top of the Pops performance of Pandora’s Box in 1975.

The box set contains a 76-page hardcover book containing liner notes by Patrick Humphries and track annotations by Procol Harum authority Roland Clare, who along with fans run [sic] the amazing 'Beyond the Pale' website. Also in the book are never before seen photographs from Brooker’s private collection. The CDs and DVDs are in an amazing replica art deco design, and inside the packets are newspaper articles, including a concert promotion for Friars’ in Aylesbury and The Lyceum. Also, for a special treat, there is a replica poster of the bill with Vivian Stanshall’s (of Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band) Vivaria at the New Theatre, Oxford on 11 January 1976.

As previously mentioned, Esoteric Recordings have hit the mother lode with this incredible box set. It’s way too early to say it’s the reissue of the year, but it’s going to be up there. I’ve been with the music of Procol Harum since graduating from High School in 2004. They were part of my life through my nine-year run in Junior College, Procol Harum’s music will never burn out.

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