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Something Magic

The Salvo reissue, 2009 • Salvo CD029

Salvo’s Procol Harum reissue series – of which Something Magic is the tenth and final instalment – allows fans of sophisticated music the chance to re-evaluate one of rock’s most consistently innovative bands. Careful remastering has brought out hitherto elusive nuances, and judiciously-selected bonus tracks offer a unique insight into the compositions of Gary Brooker (music), Keith Reid (words) and their less-frequent collaborators, and into Procol Harum’s studio methodology.

1976’s Something Magic, however, is the only Procol album in need of outright reappraisal. It has been misrepresented as a Prog turkey sacrificed on the spiky altar of punk, ‘Something Tragic’ from a band that somehow came full circle and disappeared up its own kaleidoscope. Equally simplistic thinking had filed A Whiter Shade of Pale – the band’s huge début hit – under ‘Bach with a back-beat / Chaucer on acid’: in fact, Procol Harum is not so easily pinned down.

Something Magic’s side-length suite and surrealistic sleeve may echo earlier glories, but Brooker and Reid themselves harboured no retrograde intentions. An immediate follow-up might have revealed the album as a fruitful mutation, not an evolutionary dead-end; injury and exhaustion took their toll, and the band dissolved unceremoniously after the promotional tour. Knowing now that Procol Harum regrouped in the early 90s, released three concert DVDs and two further studio albums, and is currently (2009) performing and recording exciting new material, we are well-placed to reconsider Something Magic as an intriguing milestone, not a millstone.

Many songs intended for Something Magic were road-tested by a new, vibrant touring line-up. Chris Copping had reverted to bass guitar, which he’d played on Home and Broken Barricades, ceding the organ-rôle (his since 1969) to Pete Solley, whose pedigree included Arthur Brown, Chris Farlowe and Terry Reid. Secure in a session career, Solley had turned down tours with The Kinks, Moody Blues and more; Keith Reid’s call, out of the blue, was the one he could not refuse.

Starting afresh, the album was to be made in America, where Procol had previously recorded only individual numbers like Wreck of the Hesperus and Long Gone Geek. Miami’s Criteria Studios then had an impressive track record, boasting more singles in the top ten than New York and LA combined; its clients included Clapton, The Bee Gees and The Eagles. Following the 1975 success of Pandora’s Box (recorded in London under Americans, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller) Procol Harum was once more a chart band, and as they took up residence on Ocean Boulevard in Golden Beach they hoped the Criteria producers would work something magic for them again.

The USA had been good to Brooker and Reid, in terms of formative influences, and a positive critical reception for Procol Harum. But Leiber and Stoller – who had come with a wealth of hit-making know-how and a dozen years’ seniority – were not available for ‘Procol’s Tenth’. The band’s new US producers were younger, though not without experience: Ron Albert had risen from tape-library typist to earn a gold disc in his teens; on becoming Criteria’s primary engineer he’d hired his older brother Howie, a former player with Miami’s Nightcrawlers, now returning from Vietnam.

Fresh off the plane, Procol Harum ran through fourteen new numbers for the Alberts. Their reaction was grossly discouraging: ‘You want us to produce? You can take a dog-shit, and cover it in chocolate, but when you bite into it, what have you got? Dog-shit.’ ‘We should have walked out, there and then,’ Gary recalls. But it was too late. Nick Blackburn, their manager, did head home, his parting quip – ‘Sounds like platinum, guys!’ – ringing in Brooker’s ears.

Of the songs that garnered the producers’ unappetising assessment, just four made Side One of the ensuing album; Wizard Man was the single release, Backgammon its UK flipside. (Of the rejects, So Far Behind and One Eye on the Future resurfaced on 21st-century setlists; This Old Dog and You’d Better Wait make their début as bonus tracks on this reissue; and Musical Fish, I’m a Reader and a Writer, A La Carte, and Fish Dinner for Two remain in the vaults). The void thus created begat Procol’s most controversial offering, The Worm and the Tree.

Gary Brooker’s absorption in scoring this entirely unscheduled suite explains why the orchestration of Something Magic’s title-track was farmed out to a Miami arranger. Mike Lewis incorporated several figures Brooker was already using on the piano, and his brimful treatment – alongside the band’s onomatopoeic heartbeats, tick-tocks etc – straightforwardly dramatises the lyric. In realising the demo Brooker elaborated the vocal melody, enhancing the impact of words fraught with spiritual gravity. Despite its grandiose instrumental prelude (half as long again as the Whiter Shade intro) Something Magic was the Netherlands’ single: with its stately tempo and characteristic stop-start style, it made no impression on a chart dominated by disco.

In the market-place Procol may have been ‘swimming against the tide’, as Reid observes in Skating on Thin Ice; in other respects they were in fertile flow. Chris Copping (‘such a capable musician’ in Brooker’s words) makes his only credited contribution to any Harum composition with a sweetly subtle orchestration of this skater’s waltz. ‘Gary got me off my slothful derrière,’ Chris told me, ‘saying something about a woodwind ensemble with a euphonium ... Professor Solley pointed me in the right direction. I feel guilty that I hadn’t lent a hand previously …’. Solley (an ex-Trinity College string-student) recalls helping Chris ‘grow’ the arrangement, and suggesting an answering theme for the last-verse vocal. Unusual phrase-lengths, unexpected textures and unpredictable harmonies make this track a delight; the tempo fluctuates feelingly, doubtless vexing the Alberts, who’d wanted to impose a click-track on Procol’s inspired percussive maverick, BJ Wilson!

Where the foregoing tracks are stuffed with detail – distinctive middle-eights, multiple changes – Wizard Man employs just three chords, the root-position I-IV-V staples of a flourishing pub-rock movement. New Musical Express (5 March 1977) dismissed Procol’s final vinyl single in eight words: ‘Laid-back mid-tempo wallpaper, slight appeal in its predictability’; though that week’s Melody Maker heard chart potential: ‘Just the stuff to rid us of the cynicism which dogs the idea that PH will ever be big again.’ Though never destined for 45rpm success, Wizard Man (originally entitled Waiting for Christmas) made a canny late addition to the Something Magic album, contrasting its weightier neighbours. Its words never made the artwork; a pity, since their shamanic imagery is mysteriously evocative.

The Mark of the Claw, another strong lyric, was set to music by Mick Grabham, whose sole Procol writing-credit came about ‘simply because I said I’d like to write a song for the band,’ he told me. The first non-Brooker setting of Reid’s words since Robin Trower left Procol in 1971, it’s a strong – if not ground-breaking – Procol song, its episodic construction and fleeting chordal transitions much less guitar-flavoured than Trower’s contributions. Despite the first Solley solo on record, improvised live on his ARP Odyssey with much dramatic pitch-bending, the track really starts to rock only with verse two, and Mick’s energetic break. The momentum soon dissipates: were the concluding sound effects – imposing a cut-and-dried narrative on the lyric’s dream-like ambiguities – the Alberts’ idea? In the ‘dog-shit’ demo BJ had decorated their gaps with characteristically syncopated fills. Keith selected this lyric (alongside Something Magic) for his anthology My Own Choice, published by Charnel House in 2000; and two songs on Procol’s 1991 album, The Prodigal Stranger, recycle Claw lines.

As incoming bassist in 1969 Chris Copping undoubtedly revitalised the Procol rhythm section; by ‘changing the players’ in 1976, Brooker and Reid may have hoped his bass-work would galvanise their sound again. As thirty-somethings, however, their writing grew less visceral, and it was Solley’s state-of-the-art keyboard approach that brought their emerging, mature style to its zenith. Where Strangers in Space speaks of the distance between people, Pete’s organ evokes interstellar space, using the glide-pedal unique to his Farfisa Professional. Electric piano, restrained guitar, super-subtle drumming and high ‘lead’ bass create a sparse platform for Brooker’s soulful, Ray Charles-inspired delivery of Reid’s paradoxes: an outstanding match of music and words from these ‘partners in crime’. Solley told interviewer Dmitry Epstein that Procol ‘understood space and dynamics better than anyone I’d played with before.’ Elsewhere the Alberts sought perfection by adding detail; but Strangers in Space – greatly refined from its busy demo – is perfect because nothing in it could profitably be taken away.

The eerie Side One atmosphere is nicely complemented in Bruce Meek’s album art. By now resident in Austria, Meek had been friends with The Paramounts – Brooker, Wilson and Copping’s pre-Procol R’n’B combo – in Southend-on-Sea. Having met Reid on Procol’s first US tour, he had painted the band and symphonic ensemble (‘in the sky of course, it was the late 60s’), for their iconic Live in Edmonton cover. While preparing their 1976 record, Procol decided to commission Meek again, and called Vienna from Miami. ‘Keith read me the title-track,’ Bruce told me. ‘I researched magic, famous tricks and illusions etc. A visual ‘frame’ developed: end of storm, seen from a ship, nautical elements being part of the mythology at least since A Salty Dog.’ Working in watercolour, inks and acrylic, Meek depicted the new line-up – ‘all hands on deck’ – smiling at a disembodied head (his wife, Daisy’s). The inverted bowl suggests that Musical Fish had been an album contender, but Bruce says this was ‘a happy coincidence, intended to lighten a rather bleak seascape’. Apposite though the imagery was, the sleeve – following the markedly less whimsical Procol’s Ninth, Exotic Birds and Fruit, and Grand Hotel artwork – did suggest that Procol Harum had one eye on the past. And, inside the gatefold, seven little story-book vignettes compounded that impression …

Gary Brooker had been toying with Reid’s The Worm and the Tree for several years. Unlike his usual, workmanlike typescripts, Keith had delivered this fable – Blake’s Sick Rose crossed with Carroll’s Jabberwocky – in its own little booklet, a name-label on the front. Nick Blackburn himself was keen on another Procol suite (‘The one time we listened to management suggestions,’ Reid sighs). But its twenty-one rhyming couplets, in dactylic tetrameter, presented quite a challenge to any composer. Brooker (perhaps influenced by his involvement in a rock recording of Peter and the Wolf the year before) started piecing together impressionistic music that reflected Reid’s characters and situations, rather than responding to the rhythmical exigencies of the text itself. Now in Miami, with half an album to fill, he played some fragments to the Alberts; given the thumbs-up, he had to finish it fast.

The opening ‘tree theme’, developing for over a minute, is the longest unaccompanied piano sequence in the Procol repertoire; as it evolves, a sinuous ‘worm theme’ threatens then subsumes it. As well as handling leitmotif with such skill, Brooker provides broader, programmatic writing in the heroic drum-driven ‘young rider’ music, the tree-chopping, and the epic guitar-solo battle chords. Space constraints forbid an extended consideration of these musical effects; readers are referred to the ‘Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes’ feature at where I attempt this, in tandem with Dr Sam Cameron (to whom I’m indebted for various insights in the present liner-note).

Gary Brooker’s strong melodies and harmonic ingenuity here might have graced an animated film. And the fine orchestration, completed against the clock, is a considerable achievement from a rock musician lacking any formal instruction. This is essentially romantic music, worlds away from the fussy histrionics of Prog, though the shifting time-signatures and demanding keys do require real concentration onstage, from the pianist in particular. Some see The Worm as a nineteen-minute piano piece, decorated with rock-band and orchestral colouring; others rate its stylistic breadth alongside 1968’s celebrated In Held ’Twas in I, co-composed with strong band-fellows.

No Procoholic can remain unmoved by the stately geometrical largo of Menace, whose organ-lines are quintessential Harum (every band has its reactionary fans, and Hammond diehards were hard on Solley’s Farfisa; but as Pete told me, ‘I’d played B3 for everyone … I wanted to try something new.’) Nor by Battle, when Grabham’s magnificent guitar solo – recorded fortissimo without ‘cans’ in the studio – explodes with the release of pent-up anticipation (Stephen Stills helped the Alberts drop in Mick’s final note, from a different take). An Enervation extract still sounded strong, woven into Procol’s 1993 epic Last Train to Niagara (now released on Salvo BX407). And in August 2006, when Gary Brooker heard fans in The Palers’ Band perform The Worm in Denmark, he laughingly declared that ‘I didn’t realise that it was such a great piece of music’! An instrumental mix from 1976 would be an excellent find.

So what of the words, and their delivery? Reid’s Worm never set out to replicate the charm or variety of In Held, whose existential explorations bear little relation to the later work’s didacticism. He uses repetition and archaism to create an authentic nursery-morality tone; arguably that genre makes an uneasy bedfellow for The Blues, wellspring of Procol’s soul. Despite some internal contradictions (did the worm enter the tree, or grow out of it?) the tale seems ripe for ‘decoding’. Uncharacteristically, Keith offered clear pointers, telling Tony Stewart (NME, 19 February 1977) it was ‘about how the press nearly caused the band to break up’ (32 years later he assured me that the worm was unspecific: ‘It’s about worms generally’.) In contemporary band promo-shots Gary Brooker sported a tee-shirt proclaiming himself as ‘The Worm in the Tree’; not to be taken literally, he cautions, as his wife Franky made it, and English isn’t her first language!

Fans have no misgivings when a song encrypts Procol history – Butterfly Boys is one such, and it sounds great whether we ‘understand’ it or not – but TWatT, merely inchoate when Brooker set out for Miami, never in the end became a song. Gary ended up reciting it all, though a thespian guest-narrator, James Mason, was considered briefly. Brooker’s speaking-voice is expressive in Glimpses of Nirvana or The Dead Man’s Dream, yet here it adopts a sternly pedagogical, ‘Young Person’s Guide’ quality. The insistent dactylic metre (relieved by long notes in the melodic lines of New Lamps for Old or As Strong as Samson) ultimately proves trying for speaker and listener alike. ‘Given a few more days, I could have sung it!’ Gary told Danish fans. Sadly those days never came.

Why the Alberts, raised on rock, so esteemed this spoken fable is a mystery; though as Chris Copping wrote (to ‘Beyond the Pale’) ‘the band has to bear some of the brunt – we co-produced it.’ Chris ‘thought at the time that The Worm was special – sort of Tolkien-like.’ Likewise Mick Grabham explained (to Déjà Vu) that TWatT had been virtually recorded in one ‘magical day’. Procol seemed somehow spellbound by the experiment, perhaps dazed by the hubris of ditching the more commercial material they’d routined. And given that their forebears had scored a hugely unpredictable hit singing ‘dirges in the dark’ during the Summer of Love, maybe The Worm could defy all odds and repeat that triumph ten years later?

Free from the illusions and expectations of that era, we can now enjoy Side Two of Something Magic for what it is; but there’s no pretending it was a shrewd release at the time. Melody Maker had said (of Grand Hotel) ‘the more ambitious [Procol] get, the more they succeed’; The Worm and the Tree burst that particular bubble. Yet one Brooker/Reid prophecy came true: after the ‘great tree’ dies, an emerging melodic tendril promises ‘a new life’ … which Procol Harum has happily fulfilled. Those last piano notes (merged by Brooker’s sustain pedal into the Salty Dog signature chord) were not the final moments of the band’s recorded career.

Nor are they the last moments of this Salvo reissue, whose three bonus tracks highlight the band’s range and versatility. Backgammon was released behind the UK Wizard Man single (18 February 1977); few countries mirrored this pairing (Warner Brothers’ US B-side was Something Magic) and it became a collector’s item. The players all feature in turn on this catchy throwaway, Brooker’s only solo Procol writing-credit. Audibly influenced by Booker T instrumentals, its choppy bassline and boardgame title echo Chinese Checkers. Keith Reid recalls that Chrysalis had given the band-members backgammon sets for Christmas, and ‘backgammon!’ was even hollered midway through the ‘dog-shit’ demo, mimicking the shout of ‘Your move’ on The MGs’ single.
Solley’s non-traditional keyboard sounds (the ‘harpsichord’ is his Crumar Multiman) ‘gave us a kick up the 70s,’ approves Chris Copping.

Worlds apart in musical terms, This Old Dog rides on BJ’s drums and Solley’s violin. Gary Brooker has often voiced his ‘great respect for Pete’; Keith Reid adds that ‘we gleefully pounced on his fiddle-playing.’ This uproarious hoedown – like Whisky Train, a reforming alcoholic’s pledge – was the result. Mick Grabham’s country credentials (his previous band was Cochise) shine through the shindig captured live at Criteria, Procol’s penultimate, vain, submission for the Alberts’ approval. This Old Dog concluded the band’s BBC Sight and Sound showcase in 1977, and took their 30th Anniversary Party by storm twenty years later; this is its first release on disc.

Different again, and straight from the classic Brooker/Reid hymnal, the enigmatically-entitled You’d Better Wait was Procol’s last offering that first night in Miami. Is it about the artist/audience relationship, or a court-case? ‘A person carrying an uncomfortable truth,’ is Keith’s assessment. The quadruple rhyming was ‘a device I was trying out … it had some logic at the time’. This number predated Solley’s recruitment, having been premièred at Aylesbury on 27 March 1976: Gary Brooker taught it to his band-mates during soundcheck, and they played it for their long-serving lighting-man, departing to work with OMD. Despite the strong melody, it probably hasn’t been performed since; this is its first release.

The controversial Something Magic proved that not even Procol Harum could please all the fans all the time; yet a band whose cast-offs include tunes of this calibre is surely a classy band indeed.

© Roland Clare 2009         

The words of this album | The original version | More from Salvo records

The same album on vinyl 2015 | More liner notes from the same author

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