Procol Harum

the Pale

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Procol Harum • The Secrets of the Hive

Roland Clare's liner note on the 2007 Compilation from Salvo Records

Everyone remembers Procol Harum’s first single – six million of us own it! – which seemed to encapsulate all the wonders of 1967’s ‘Summer of Love’; yet fewer recall that the group who created A Whiter Shade of Pale convened in freezing London church halls, and made their impact upon a primitive world that was yet to hear Sergeant Pepper.

Procol’s global chart smash and its top-ten successor, Homburg, head up the two discs of this fortieth anniversary anthology, which – largely chronologically – go on to sample each of the band’s twelve albums from 1967 to 2003. They gloriously dispel any preconception that those early pop hits were the summit of Procol’s achievement.

A Whiter Shade of Pale was the first release credited to Gary Brooker and Keith Reid, the heterogeneous songwriting duo who have remained the band’s heart through the decades. Inspired by a Bach bassline, the song originally ran to four mysterious verses; the fourth was captured live on a 2003 concert DVD, but the third (its opening quip ‘if music be the food of life’) remains unrecorded. The record went on to win a profusion of awards, and has been covered by almost a thousand artists.

The Whiter Shade line-up didn’t last, and replacements were auditioned for drummer Bobby Harrison (whose place at the recording had been taken by session-man Bill Eyden) and for guitarist Ray Royer. The strongest applicants were both ex-Paramounts, so an exceptionally gifted cast of players – Matthew Fisher (Hammond organ), David Knights (bass), Robin Trower (guitar) and Barrie ‘BJ’ Wilson (drums) – was to be heard alongside Brooker (voice, piano) on the follow-up. Homburg was another stately song, deliberately switching its focus to the piano for variety’s sake. As before, the writing, playing and singing all oozed confident originality; as before, listeners were hooked as much by the gnomic poise of Reid’s words as by the innovative sound and harmonies of the setting. ‘I was just busking around, finding voicings, shifting chords over a pedal note in a way I hadn’t heard in pop singles,’ Brooker recalls. The record was another substantial hit.

Idealistically, Procol left both hit singles off their début album: ‘Our fans had already paid for them once,’ says Gary. Procol Harum (1967), produced by Denny Cordell, was recorded over a handful of live sessions, and offered a fantastic taste of the independence, variety, even the waywardness to come. She Wandered Through the Garden Fence is a characteristically mixed marriage of Reid’s shame-drenched libretto with a jaunty Brooker melody (the first three notes stem from To a Wild Rose; the organ solo is lifted from Clarke’s Trumpet Voluntary). Fisher’s Repent Walpurgis has equally complex derivation: he slowed down the chords of The Four Seasons’ hit Beggin’, letting Brooker’s Bach insert (the first Prelude from Book I of the 48 Preludes and Fugues) and witty glance at Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto alleviate their oppressive power.

The opening of A Christmas Camel suggests its writers’ early debt to Dylan (Ballad of a Thin Man); the bluesy melodic lines wrung by Robin Trower from his Les Paul were a surprise to owners of the band’s more decorous single hits. ‘Rob was a very emotional soloist,’ says Brooker. ‘His solos really went somewhere, they achieved something.’ And the whole album was a surprise to fans seeking any trace of the covers repertoire on which these ex-Paramounts had cut their musical teeth. ‘It took me half-a-dozen songs, as a writer, to play those genre influences out of my system,’ Gary explains. As for Keith, he didn’t own records at that time but Otis Redding – not Dylan – was his favourite listening.

Procol’s bluesy roots are less visible on Shine on Brightly (1968), where churchy harmonies are on the increase, perhaps reflecting the organist’s growing involvement in the songwriting. Magdalene (My Regal Zonophone) was the first track tackled for the second album; Gary fancied it as a single, though the present recording never quite captured ‘the warmth and magic’ of an earlier version, accidentally deleted ‘by an experienced engineer’. Brooker, not Reid, came up with the curious vocal coda: Regal Zonophone was the band’s record-label, for which Gary’s father Harry Brooker had also recorded.

It was the title-track, Shine on Brightly, that attracted the most interest, its vigorous, inventive music perfectly matching Reid’s striking, hallucinatory words; Denny Cordell’s deputy Tony Visconti, with talented engineer Glyn Johns, came up with the quirky stereo panning midway through this number. Yet the gentler Quite Rightly So – obliquely lamenting a fractured love-affair – was chosen as the single. Matthew Fisher, playing a Lowrey organ rather than his signature Hammond, came up with the opening, earning his first co-author’s credit with Brooker and Reid; the record was a minor hit.

Cordell’s commitment was waning, so it was ‘a natural progression to have Matthew twiddling the knobs’ as Gary puts it, for A Salty Dog (1969). Fisher played less organ on this album, taking up rhythm guitar on The Devil Came From Kansas, which Brooker had written at Woodstock on the Hohner Pianet he took on tour for composing. The looser style here suggests the influence of musicians Procol typically jammed with, during rehearsals for US tours, at Garth Hudson’s house: various other members of The Band, Van Morrison. Brooker’s wife Franky sings among the backing voices here, as does Reid himself.

Keith explains the title All This and More as meaning ‘All these feelings, and more besides’; like Quite Rightly So, this was a deeply personal lyric for him. Yet he concedes that ‘Mad Ox’ in the third verse is simple whimsy, and ‘Lollard’ was a word Gary had introduced him to, mistakenly believing it signified a roving minstrel. The raucous Long Gone Geek was recorded at A&M’s Hollywood studio, as the B-side of the Salty Dog single (artistically, if not commercially, Procol’s finest hour to date). Reid had written this crazy dollop of Americana before Procol’s 1967 New York début, his first trip to the USA. He gleaned the then-strange word ‘geek’ from Highway 61 Revisited; his ‘Pinstriped Sweet’ character, the convict in Cell 15, was already familiar from Brooker’s final holler on the Whiter Shade of Pale flipside.

Myth has it that Procol’s 1970 album was named Home because the players (once Fisher and Knights had been replaced, in a second Harum shuffle, by Chris Copping on organ and bass) were all former Paramounts, come home to roost. Keith laughs: ‘The sleeve-design was a board-game, and the word ‘Home’ just happened to come at the top!’ Not only players but producers had changed, as the band teamed up with George Martin’s young protégé Chris Thomas, who oversaw Procol’s next four studio albums with great distinction. ‘He became like a member of the band,’ says Reid. To integrate Copping, Procol rented a rural retreat together for rehearsals in Surrey: here brilliant and eccentric drummer BJ Wilson could also practise his alto sax, in the woods.

The aggressive attack of Whisky Train, Trower’s most enduring Procol composition, marked a further departure for the band. ‘The music was sorted out between Trower and Copping before I arrived,’ Gary relates. There was no organ either: the song was recorded straight to two-track tape, making overdubs impossible.

Though Reid’s writing was usually completed before he and Brooker met at the piano, he recalls working together on the apocalyptic Whaling Stories (whose quiet–loud–quiet contour arguably provided the blueprint for Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody). ‘Let’s have every verse different, not like a pop song,’ was Keith’s byword. ‘It was my contribution to Prog Rock,’ Gary laughs. Is that first word ‘Pailing’ or ‘Paling’? Reid can’t remember, but he promises it’s not a reference back to Whiter Shade.

Procol now left Regal Zonophone for Chrysalis. The emphasis on Broken Barricades (1971) – the first album whose sleeve portrays the musicians actually playing – is on the performing rather than the writing; this, except in the sparkling, intricate title-track, is less structured and ambitious than heretofore. Trower’s guitar kick-starts the album, as it had done with Home. Gary had decided to ‘write some heavy metal, to feature Rob’: Simple Sister relies uncharacteristically on repetition throughout. The midway section (orchestrated by Brooker, conducted by George Martin) owes ‘a few atoms of inspiration’ to the Capitols’ 1966 Cool Jerk: Gary achieved its manic instrumental build-up by multi-tracking pianos while the tape ran slow. The lyric was ‘trying to be really mean’, Keith explains. ‘It was a song that just wrote itself. I only realised a couple of years ago that people might have thought it was about my own sister. Nothing could be further from the truth.’

Sorry I didn't get disc 2 level (RC)In Broken Barricades his ‘vision of a dead civilisation’ is set to the first music Gary wrote on quitting London for rural Surrey, where he still lives. ‘I doubt that Keith set out to write an environmental song, but that’s the meaning I have in mind when I sing it,’ says Brooker. His Moog ostinato in the lengthy playout is decorated by the incredible drumming of BJ Wilson, always a featured player rather than a human metronome.

Power Failure is another showcase for Wilson, who even ten years after his death (1990) was topping world polls for the unparalleled drama and imagination of his drumming. In the studio he chose to solo in 5/4, with numerous supplementary sounds overdubbed. The words depict the chaos of rock-band touring: drum solos often did have to cover electrical malfunction. The dubbed-on applause here originally greeted a BJ solo recorded at New York’s Felt Forum: Procol added their own cheers to the crowd’s, and it’s Wilson himself who shouts ‘Rubbish!’

When Robin Trower began his highly-successful solo career Procol Harum recruited Dave Ball and Alan Cartwright on guitar and bass, allowing the versatile Copping to revert full-time to the organ. Daringly recorded in concert with orchestra and chorus, Live with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra (1972) was a surprise Gold-seller: the soulful voice and tempestuous guitar, sweeping through the majestic architecture of a symphonic setting, proved irresistibly moving. When Procol had first been invited to work with classical musicians, at 1969’s Stratford Festival, Brooker’s symphonic arrangements had elaborated an emotional drama already implicit in the songwriting. Subsequent joy-riders on Procol’s live-orchestra-plus-band-wagon (Deep Purple, The Nice) tended to present group and orchestra oppositionally: an upcoming generation’s powerboat churning the lily-pond of parental taste. But Procol’s Edmonton adventure emphasised the depth of the band’s repertoire in a seductive collaboration.

Conquistador – orchestrated at the last moment on a ’plane, and performed without full rehearsal – was the single that saw Procol, now firmly established as an album band, back in the pop charts. ‘This song could have made a good follow-up to Whiter Shade,’ says Gary, ‘but our producer scrunched up the frequency-range when we first recorded it in 1967. I knew it would live to fight again.’ Atypically, its music largely predated the words: Brooker was playing the chords and riff at home when Reid arrived in Southend having ‘seen an interesting word on the train’. Keith professed no specific background in Spanish-American history, though ‘I was a bookworm from the time my mother taught me to read – I was probably the only five-year-old in my class who could.’ He read compulsively, using his own and his parents’ tickets to work through the Mile End Road Library. Conquistador’s mosaic of images demonstrates ‘the futility of conquering people and asserting your values’, summed up for Reid in ‘I see there is no ... only all’: the ellipsis implies that ‘there is no glory ... at the end of the day, you’re dead.’

The original recording of A Salty Dog had been released as a single, and the Edmonton orchestration used Brooker’s string parts from that heart-stopping 1969 session: amazingly, he was a self-taught arranger. The additional winds and brass were scored by Jim Parker – ‘he knew all the instrumental ranges, and could do the transpositions quickly’ – once Gary showed him the notes required. Despite its harmonic originality this masterpiece had taken ‘about five minutes to write’, catalysed by Brooker’s searching, at a piano in Switzerland, for the chord sounded by a passing locomotive-siren. The music brings out the elegiac gravity in a lyric that Reid had expected to receive a lighter treatment. His ‘moon/June’ rhyme was rather making fun of songwriting, and ‘it took me a while to realise what a wonderful piece of music Gary had written.’

With Mick Grabham replacing Dave Ball on guitar, Procol Harum unveiled Grand Hotel (1973), the first of two wholly Brooker/Reid albums. Grand Hotel and Bringing Home the Bacon contrast ‘conspicuous consumption’ at home and in the States. ‘Pretension is what you get in Europe,’ says Reid. ‘In America they just shovel it down.’ Much of Bacon derives from US menus, and the ‘baby dumpling’ character is ‘a metaphor for greed’. Brooker’s hard-hitting music – garnished with an unexpected recorder ensemble – seems to bolt together many disparate ideas: ‘In a sense there are twenty songs on this album, because a lot have so many parts,’ he recalls. Unusually Grand Hotel itself took him weeks to compose, searching for a majestic atmosphere to suit the words, and an East-European flavour for the central movement (which shimmers with BJ Wilson’s 22 mandolin overdubs). Keith looks back on this lyric with pride: ‘“Dover sole and oeufs Mornay, profiteroles and peach flambé” was a good compact couplet,’ he says.

Gary was glad to work with an orchestra in the studio, redressing ‘the chanciness of the Edmonton experience’, but equally happy to dust off his guitar to lead the rambunctious A Souvenir of London. Reid had drawn his inspiration from the Oxford Street trinketmongers near AIR Studios where Procol were recording: the street-busker ensemble – including BJ’s minimal kit, Chris Copping’s banjo, and roadie Denny Brown on spoons alongside the departing Dave Ball – nonetheless took him aback. But Brooker had played guitar and banjo in skiffle bands and – though his blues gene was recessive at this era – his ears remained hungry for all kinds of music. Not least The Swingle Singers: when Procol were finalising Fires (Which Burnt Brightly), with its ‘Bach licks’ in the piano, they impulsively rang the Swingles’ Christianne Legrand, who immediately came from Paris and scatted the marvellous solo, which no singer has since dared replicate live – except when Gary noticed Legrand in a French audience, whereupon she got up and spontaneously reprised it!

Exotic Birds and Fruit (1974) saw Procol returning to arrangements that could be belted out in live concert by a line-up that had now gelled formidably. Nothing But the Truth was selected as a single release, but did not chart. The words smack of the disillusion felt by a band who fear their loftiest peaks are behind them, but Keith is adamant that this was not an autobiographical song. ‘There is one about the band on this compilation, but nobody seems to have sussed it yet,’ he hints intriguingly. Brooker sets the rueful lyric to a powerful clutch of quick chord-changes; Chris (‘Is it on, Tommy?’) Thomas adds unobtrusive strings.

Nor is Beyond the Pale about a quest to transcend Whiter Shade: the words sung are actually ‘beyond the veil’. Reid explains that his titles generally emerge once the song is finished; this one was later adopted as the name of the band’s compendious fan-driven website at Despite the ‘back-to-basics’ approach, many Exotic tracks feature attractive extra colour: here Grabham and Wilson provide the Eastern-bloc twanglings, Copping plays banjo, and Brooker’s piano is mildly detuned. As Strong as Samson features BJ Cole (Grabham’s former bandmate in Cochise) on pedal-steel guitar. The seesawing melody of ‘When you’re being held to ransom’ is demanding to sing, but Gary recalls that ‘… at that point in my life I was yodelling quite a lot’: could his Swiss wife have been an influence here? The words relate superficially to Britain’s ‘winter of discontent’, when album sessions were interrupted by scheduled power-cuts; but Keith remembers writing them (in one sitting) ‘… around Watergate time, when the radio likened Washington to classical Rome, reputedly full of lawyers when it fell’. The Idol, however, was written with no specific icon in mind; Brooker presented the finished song to the band onstage during 1973’s Royal Festival Hall gig, just piano and a solo voice full of yearning. Procol’s music is ‘fundamentally the blues, with the odd clever chord thrown in’, he has remarked. Mick Grabham’s solo on this track proves him a worthy successor to Trower.

Wary of becoming formulaic, Procol engaged visiting US producers Leiber and Stoller for Procol’s Ninth (1975). Their legendary catalogue of hits suggested strong potential for furthering the Brooker/Reid songwriting craft. But it was not an easy alliance: whereas Procol habitually recorded until 3 or 4 am, Leiber and Stoller would break at 8 sharp for dinner. ‘We’d ask, when are you coming back?’ Gary recalls. ‘Tomorrow,’ would come the reply.

The lyric of Pandora’s Box dates back to 1967, but it was not a forgotten song: Procol had already made two attempts at recording it, but Brooker ‘couldn’t find the right way to perform’ the music (inspired by a Ravi Shankar raga, whose droning residue informs the present arrangement). Gary played marimba and string synth, Mick Grabham overdubbed rhythm guitar, and the producers independently added the wind and brass, at sessions back in New York. Procol climbed the charts once more with this intricate soundscape; but on Top of the Pops they played the song live, and it has remained a stage favourite ever since.

When Alan Cartwright left the band Chris Copping resumed his bass duties, and keyboard newcomer Pete Solley imported synthesisers for the first time since Broken Barricades. For 1976’s Something Magic album Procol turned to a second pair of American producers, but it was again a fraught relationship. Miami’s Ron and Howie Albert proved to be on a foreign wavelength: ‘We didn’t have to be here,’ they volunteered at one stage, ‘but our boat’s broken.’ Yet the band and their families had rented houses in Florida, so there was no turning back. The album’s sturdy title-track – cinematically orchestrated by Mike Lewis – is ‘a great Procol tune’, Gary says, though he finds the sound ‘a bit squashed-up and breathless’. ‘Old Testament’ Procol Harum dissolved unceremoniously after the promotional tour, however, whereupon Gary Brooker’s solo album career began. Yet the Reid words he was to sing included ‘They had left the scene triumphant / They would live to fight again’: something of a prophecy.

And so it was that later – thirteen years later – Keith Reid, now resident in New York, contacted Brooker and proposed they write together at The Loft, where the lyricist had been working with American musician Matt Noble. Noble had not originally been scheduled to produce the album that became The Prodigal Stranger (1991), but ‘the demos we made with him were so good we couldn’t match them.’ Noble, ‘taking an extremely active part in the creative process’ according to Gary, achieved a handful of co-writing credits: third time lucky for Procol with American collaborators! Fisher and Trower, long gone solo, came back on board to record organ and guitar at The Loft. Gary had always wanted BJ to resume his position on the drum throne, ‘hoping against hope that he would come out of his coma’. Sadly this was not to be, so Noble’s programmed rhythm section was replaced, in UK studios, by Big Country percussionist Mark Brzezicki, with Dave Bronze supplying bass; Jerry Stevenson added some guitar decoration. The widespread use of backing-vocalists was an innovation which, alongside some late-80s production values, makes this a somewhat anomalous Harum album.

Brooker composed Holding On ‘with dummy lyrics, about the wind’, and Keith provided a poignantly topical lyric to his finely-poised melody. A hint of world music, and exotic backing vocals (supposedly ‘Who’s got the power? You have!’ in Swahili) could have made this a chart hit, had the label released it as a single. Equally affecting is (You Can’t) Turn Back the Page – Brooker’s elegant vocal completed in a single take – which BJ’s admirers have taken, erroneously as it happens, for Reid’s tribute to the late master-percussionist. Matthew Fisher, invited to write for the album, sowed the seeds of the sparse, lightly-arranged A Dream in Every Home, from whose lyric the present compilation takes its title. Keith’s original typescript read ‘a dream without a home’, the wholesale reversal indicating how sound can prevail over semantic considerations in a Procol lyric.

One of the earliest ‘New Testament’ songs was Into the Flood: a master-quality demo, recorded with session players (‘Gary B and the Reidtones’), was released as a bonus track on a European Procol CD single. When Procol Harum were invited to play a twenty-first anniversary reunion with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra (under the baton of David Hoyt, French horn player at their 1971 concert) Gary felt the last-minute need for a fresh up-tempo number. Sensing that the neglected demo ‘would lend itself to adaptation’, he bought a portable keyboard in New York and (as with Conquistador before it) arranged Into the Flood on the road, handing the score to copyists on arrival in Edmonton. He conceived the all-but-wordless choral interlude as a feature for the Greenwood Singers; in later outings this was replaced with a harmonically-similar excerpt from the Coronation Mass by Mozart (‘he copied it from me,’ Brooker quips). This Mass had been on the programme during Procol’s early-70s tour with orchestras in Germany – where Gary also kept the Brooker / Reid flame alive, during Procol’s 80s interregnum, in the ‘Rock Meets Classic’ concert series. His RMC encores included Land of 1,000 Dances, the Wilson Pickett hit, for which organist Mathias Weiss devised and orchestrated a fiddle-punishing ‘hoedown’ insert: Gary duly magpied this into the revitalised Flood. Featuring Brooker, Bronze and Brzezicki from the Prodigal line-up, with the newly-recruited Geoff Whitehorn on guitar and temporary organist Don Snow, this intriguing stylistic mélange made its live début on Gary’s birthday, 29 May 1992; the recording is released here on CD for the first time. 

A decade passed before Procol next ventured into the studio: during that time Brooker, Fisher, Brzezicki and Whitehorn had been joined by Matt Pegg on bass. This established touring line-up was able to record The Well’s on Fire (2003) virtually live, in marked contrast to its predecessor, with Rafe McKenna producing. The album’s title comes from an as-yet unrecorded Procol lyric, The Futures Market.

An Old English Dream was not written specifically for the album: Brooker had worked on the tune for some years, now adapting it to accommodate Reid’s long lines, closely modelled on Refugee Blues by WH Auden. This World is Rich – penned just before the album sessions began – was inspired by a Guardian vox-pop feature in which Stephen Maboe, from Sasolburg SA, bewailed the plight of poor township dwellers as they marched on the 2002 World Summit conference. This ‘struck a very strong chord’ with the lyricist, and his partner found strong chords to sing it to, their plaintive freshness assuring listeners that the Brooker muse had not jumped ship.

Meanwhile Matthew Fisher, during a spell in America, had demoed a powerful instrumental with the working title Night of the Kitchen Sink: the piece forms a close parallel to Repent Walpurgis from the first Procol album. Walpurgis Night sees witches gather in Germany, and Brooker wanted a Gothic-sounding polysyllable to entitle the new piece too: Weisselklenzenacht is his neologism amalgamating the French ‘vaisselle’ (‘washing-up’) with ‘cleanse’ and the German word for ‘night’: wittily eclectic, perversely allusive, pure Procol. The ‘Signature’ subtitle refers, of course, to the opening milliseconds: the same note, the same organist, and the same haunting Whiter Shade sound with which the band began the epic voyage charted in this collection. The songs and performances here sound as fresh as ever (as they do in the hands of the touring line-up, currently featuring Josh Phillips on organ and Geoff Dunn on drums): music that was not written at fashion’s dictates will never sound dated! So Procol Harum remains a national treasure, one that has kept a world of discerning music-lovers fascinated, mesmerised even, over forty magnificent years.

© 2007 Roland Clare

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