Procol Harum

the Pale

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The Lives and Times of Procol Harum

Marc Tucker in Progression

After a very brief [sic] formative stint with an early-'60s covers band called The Paramounts, singer Gary Brooker decided that pursuing the already overcrowded norm of rock 'n' roll was not his calling. So instead, he chose to follow a vision through which a stubborn unwillingness to 'toe the mark' would become Procol Harum's trademark.

Brooker also was humble enough to realize he wasn't exactly a gifted wordsmith. He searched for, and found in the person of Keith Reid, a lyricist who could prove the equal to his music. Reid, not a musician, was content to remain in the group's background, but nonetheless was a full member in a very unique partnership.

Up to that point, groups had often purchased songs from outside writers—hence the kingdoms formed by Chapman and Chin [sic], Leiber and Stoller, Sager and Mann, etc. But no one had yet included a non-performer as a permanent and equal member. It remains a rare event. However, it was from that special alliance that Procol Harum – whose name derives from a cat owned by a friend of the band's, and whose Latin translation means roughly "beyond these things" – was born.

From the beginning and through most of its history, the group was perpetually on the verge of a progressive sound so polite and literate it could well be labeled 'Dickensian'. And the phrase 'on the verge' is key to the Procol sound, as they always were on the edge of going in one or another direction within rock's many styles, yet never settled into a truly identifiable sub-genre.

Through Reid's provocative and surreal poetry, Matthew Fisher's moody organ, and the dignity and rich classicism of Brooker's piano, vocals and compositions, Procol brought a courtliness and reserve to rock that was eminently British and quietly surprising.

Brooker conducted himself like an august maitre d' who relished an elusive streak of mischief, mixing erudition with a psychoanalytic smirk. The early membership of guitarist Robin Trower didn't hurt either, for it was his instrument which often colored the group's restrained sonic content with shrieking psychedelic and choppy lines that pulled Procol above its patrician cloakery.

The band's biggest claim to fame lies in their one true hit [sic], A Whiter Shade of Pale – a composition so fantastically oriented in a dream of drug soma and odd, young upper-class [sic]dichotomies that it was curiously progressive in both blatant and subtle ways. It appeared [sic] on their eponymous debut LP (1967), one of the classics of rock, which included at least three more solidly progressive tunes: Cerdes (Outside the Gates Of), A Christmas Camel, and Repent Walpurgis.

The first afforded a handy comparison between the similarities of Reid and one of progressive music's all-time greatest lyricists, Pete Sinfield. Dealing in mythological figures, it nonetheless reversed the sort of romanticism Sinfield imbued his subjects with by relying on street-level sensibilities. Reid, it turns out, was a product of one of London's nastier slum districts. It's hardly shocking that as social commentator, Reid's work carried a streak of lone-wolf elegant anarchist.

In A Whiter Shade of Pale, Fisher's musique-noir, jazz-inflected Hammond set a grey background, while Trower's squealing, distorted guitar held forth. A Christmas Carol [sic] was pretty much similar in atmosphere. Far and away the most prog-drenched tune, though, was the moody instrumental Repent Walpurgis, a shortish opus that built slowly and eventually terminated with five crescendos [sic].

Procol's next release, Shine On Brightly (1968), continued the mixture of moods christened in their debut. The title track was the lyrical progeny of Whiter Shade though more insistently psychedelic in its foreground guitar. Most of the rest of the first side of the album was not far from what Sinfield and Robert Fripp would later do on the A-side of King Crimson's Lizard. The first half of Shine On Brightly was a collection of quietly demented rural pictures and psychological city still-lifes, heavily rock styled but tinged with the progressive elements they twisted to suit their purpose. As any study will show, Procol Harum had a distinct propensity for beating everyone to the punch.

The album's second side was the most progressive undertaking the band would ever concoct. It was a side-long concept, shown on the LP as two separate songs. The first, Magdalene (My Regal Zonophone was merely the preface to the second, In Held 'Twas In I. The latter is a 19-minute cabaret incorporating everything: spoken intro, tubular bells, sitar, bar-room / circus barrelhouse, zigzagging psychedelia, environmental sound effects, the kitchen sink, the next-door neighbours, and the horse they rode in on. Musically, it was the logical successor to Walpurgis – just a lot longer, with vocals, and with a quietly lampooning humour. This two-part [sic] epic should rightly be considered among aficionados as a classic example of progressive rock. As pure mind theatre, and as envelope-pushing music, it still stands as a source of great intrigue and satisfaction.

A Salty Dog (1969), Procol's third LP, commenced with the symphonic-rock title tune, a short light-opera of the sort later pursued by the Dutch progressive band Kayak. A combination of Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner and the Bee Gees' Odessa, the LP fulfilled what buyers were looking for. Too Much Between Us, a bittersweet, feathery piece of mellifluity, bridged the gap between Pink Floyd's mellow work and faint echoes of Hisako Yamashta.

Wreck Of the Hesperus, though, perhaps best illustrated why Procol was perhaps too intelligent to successfully cleave rock 'n' roll bedrock. The track commences with Brooker [sic] on a repeating classical piano figure until Fisher steps in with his plaintively monotonic vocal chords to Reid's intriguing philosophising, preparing for Trower to glide in on a quavery Cippolina-ish line. And what rounded it out? Well, orchestral sweetening, of course. The result was neither fully rock nor exactly prog, but definitely possessed of the class, thought, and majesty that so frequently marks progressive music.

Pilgrim's Progress, the last of the identifiably prog-flavoured songs on A Salty Dog, would not have been out of place on Kayak's See See The Sun (released four years later), or Royal Bed Bouncer (two years later still). Not unusually, most of A Salty Dog was engineered by Ken Scott, who later would become a soundboard hero and record a string of finer, often prog-tinged rock LPs (Supertramp, et al.). In the end, the album was a huge success with the critics, less so with the buying public.

Which may have accounted for the fact that the next LP, Home ( 1970), was, from Trower's Savoy Brown-style opening on Whiskey Train on, drastically less progressive in all ways. The praise of critics may be intellectually satisfying, but you can't fold it and put it in your wallet. The only faint progressive echo was Home's new Salty Dog, Whaling Stories. But even that song writhed fitfully in its night-shirt.

Before recording the LP, Fisher had left, leaving bassist Chris Copping to assume organ duty (Procol Harum without an organ would be unthinkable). Yet the entire shading of the band had changed, veering sharply into the mainstream. Trower, too, was not happy and soon followed Fisher. He took his leave after the release of Broken Barricades (1971), their next LP. It was a solid enough rock effort, though much too bland for Procol's standard, and almost totally lacking any of the ground-breaking reputation they were known for [!].

In the midst of recruiting new members and pondering their future stylistic direction, a Canadian admirer invited the band to perform with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. They took him up on the offer, and the success of that effort took everyone by surprise. Wisely, they had chosen to reprise their most prog-friendly material, including In Held 'Twas I, which retained its side-long fullness. A Salty Dog and Whaling Stories reappeared, while Conquistador, from their first LP, benefited from a meatier treatment than it had initially enjoyed.

All This And More, from Salty, was helped in equal measure. The Live in Concert album, released in '72, made excellent use of the flash-in-the-pan quadraphonic encoding which was enjoying its brief heyday. As the liner notes state, on a properly rigged system one can indeed receive the convincing illusion of seagulls wheeling overheard during A Salty Dog, not to mention a huge, panoramic vision of group and orchestra throughout the remaining tracks.

The most dramatic feature of the album was, as one might expect, In Held. What the song originally had in dynamics suddenly became thunderous: wistful passages became heartbreaking, the lyrics acquired a hoary patina, and every aspect of the already marvelously realized epic telescoped into grader [sic] depths. It re-proved itself as a masterpiece, though it is now all but forgotten [!].

Now re-established as a force to be reckoned with, Procol Harum seemed to have some idea that the progressive element was popular with the public, certainly more so than their foundering stabs at straight-ahead rock. So they reinvented it in Grand Hotel (1973), the follow-up. The orchestra, always lurking in their music and so successful on Live, re-raised its melodious head prominently throughout, suffusing the title cut so thoroughly that the listener knew Procol's old glories had returned. Even Brooker's much-remarked-upon piano work took another step forward in its classical-cum-night-club finesse.

But though they finally seemed headed into a more identifiably progressive mode, it became apparent as the songs unfolded that Procol was first, last and always one of rock's most idiosyncratic ensembles. By the close of the first side, it was clear that they stubbornly intended to stay within that, as The Rock Encyclopaedia put it, 'most unclassifiable' sound of theirs.

Polished, literate, as refined as a handmade silk tux worn by a slick bridegroom supporting [sic] a sardonic smile, the music of Procol Harum would never, ever, successfully embrace any established style other than their own. They refused to reside in either the rock or the prog camps. More maddening still, they were indeed progressive and yet they weren't. As stated, they persisted in committing the worst possible offence, the most detrimental and uncommercial disaster one could imagine: they were exercising the collective intellect.

Grand Hotel contained many special moments. Most of side two combined sophisticated elements of various styles with deep prog flavouring. Bringing Home the Bacon and For Liquorice John interpolated transmogrified classical factors and Fires boasted the talent of Christine Legrand, the featured vocalist of the marvellous Swingle Singers (a group that specialised in complex and spritely [sic] a capella versions of classical catalogue staples). It proved to be welcome to critics and audience both, though the former were not as generous in their observations as they had been earlier on.

Exotic Birds and Fruit (1974) was a good next-in-line, as strong as anything they'd done, but was grossly under-appreciated by the critics. (As one may comprehend by now, this band was one of the few to ever enjoy an unusually kind regard from that dubious profession.) The reason for the cold shoulder from the public would be difficult to explain, given their warm reception to Live.

But it seems that one can always count on the fickleness of the punters. Perhaps the success of Live depended on the relative saccharine coating provided by the orchestra. (And please note that this is not a derogation, as the phrase used for the inclusion of an orchestra in anything other than a classical context is 'to sweeten up the sound'.) Another reason might be that live represented, more or less, a greatest hits collection (sans Whiter Shade).

Regardless, the band's incorrigibility was again their undoing, as they were not willing to do another 'Mantovani Does Procol Harum' routine. Like any too-big for-their-own-brainpan outfit, they over-achieved and suffered for it on Exotic Birds and Fruit. Audiences, for the most part, don't want art, they want to be entertained. Procol Harum could always sell, but they never achieved the success they so richly deserved.

The frustration arising from that dilemma may be the reason for a temporary insanity in the hiring of Leiber and Stoller for their next LP, Procol's Ninth (1975, a wry Brooker reference not only to the release's sequential numbering, but to Beethoven's most famous work). The pairing produced a hit single, but had joined together an uneasy musical alliance. Finally managing to submerge most of their singularity in the hands of the veteran hit-makers, the group was now very un-Procolian. The result, which might be most readily likened to Gentle Giant's latter-period attempts to chart, was listenable as rock music but forgettable as Procol Harum.

The inevitable death knell came with Something Magic (1977). It was their last release and a mostly lacklustre, depthless, forced attempt to resurrect the success of their epic compositions, as well as the abandoned Procol Harum sound and its peculiar progressive sonorities. The centrepiece, the side-long The Worm and the Tree, was uncharacteristic of both Brooker and Reid, who together had remained the spine of the ensemble through thick and thin.

The allegorical tale was weak, even insipid at times, and Brooker's music seemed too successfully altered by the recently deceased Leiber/Stoller days. In fact, the whole LP was a bit too superficially clean, period. Procol had always had a goodly portion of the stylish clatter that artists always carry around in their heads, through which ideas and visions are born. Magic had sheared that all away.

The first side is the most satisfying, but it does not exert the pull of the back catalogue. The band had been gelded. It was not difficult to tell their hearts were no longer in it. They had reached the dreaded point at which they were making music just to keep their collective hand in the mix and keep the paycheques flowing.

Thankfully [?], they folded. Inglorious though that quit may have been, it was a wise move. To carry on would have been disastrous. Something Magic was, in fact, something pedestrian. The magic had fled south and the band was wise – or disappointed – enough to realize it.

Like many of the '60s and '70s acts now trying, with varying degrees of success, to resurrect themselves in 1991 with Prodigal Stranger [sic]. Commercially, it didn't create much of a stir. But for Procol devotees and new fans, it was a great little reprise of a much-loved sound. Was it progressive? No.

And most recently, as the latest entry in a very dubious tide of symphonic treatments of material wrung from various groups, Procol Harum's music was chosen for The Treatment. How well these attentions have complemented the hallowed compositions might be difficult to say. After the very dysmal [sic] Yes symph-versions CD, the middlin' success of many of the other attempts (the Genesis try, for instance), and the lukewarm Moody Blues one-off, this offering might best be sought out in the cheap racks, preferably used.

If it stinks, you can at least mount the damn thing on a handle and use it as a pizza cutter.

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