Procol Harum

the Pale

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A Classical Rock Band

Rob Smyth in Go Set, 2 May 1970

The most consciously classical of all rock bands, Procol Harum exists now as a dim memory for many people. A Whiter Shade Of Pale was one of those rare moments in the evolution of progressive music: a first single, uncompromisingly brilliant, upon which the group emerged with its style full blown. Stranger still was the fact that this hesitant and haunting masterpiece should have become such a huge-selling record.

Yet despite its length, and despite its restrained and self-conscious classicism it was a hit, and Procol Harum was acclaimed, probably as no band has been before, or has been since on the strength of one record. The follow-up was equally classical, equally subdued, and in many ways a better record than the first. But, though Homburg was itself very successful, it laid the group open to the accusation that its music was limited: that it 'all sounded the same' (see here).

Simply this might be what has kept Procol Harum's name out of favour since: it has been too easily dismissed as a band which failed to live up to the promise of an incredible first single.

In fact, Procol put out a fine first LP, (which was very well-received by the English press late in 1967) and, late in 1968, the group released a second LP which redefined the existing limits of pop music.

This was Shine on Brightly. It is a recording that achieves more, and promises more than any other so far received as part of the new English music. The seventeen-minute In Held 'Twas in I (whose name is taken from the first words of each of its parts) is, for me, the most successful sustained piece ever recorded. This is prefaced by a short track, Magdalene, which sets the mood from which In Held 'Twas in I is to spring like a dark, winding river.

'Caprice your bugle blew away
The cobwebs from my ears,
And for once I stood quite naked;
Not ashamed [sic], I wept the tears
Which I tried to hide inside myself
From me – I mean from you.'

Procol Harum was the first group to use a lyricist who was not actually a group member (their manager, Keith Reid), though other groups have done so since. Reid's lyrics are remarkable: at times he is simple and accessible, at other times obscure and withdrawn. His lyrics are alwasy painfully self-critical. Pete Brown, who was responsible for Cream's predominant lyrical theme of alienation (and who has carried this theme further with Jack Bruce's Songs For A Tailor) is the only English poet whose intent can be compared with that of Reid. Like the group's musical style, Keith Reid's lyrical style was established from the beginnings of Procol Harum's existence though it has since become more spare, more condensed:

'And so it was, later, [sic] as the miller told his tale
That her face, at first just ghostly, turned a whiter shade of pale.'

In Pilgrim's Progress he makes the act of writing seem almost an accident

'I sat me down to write a simple story
which maybe in the end became a song ...'

In Held 'Twas In I was the first extended song in rock to successfully contain poetry within its structure. Sensitively backed (Robby Trower's sitar is notable) and sensitively spoken rather than recited, these poems are extremely beautiful. They move through despair and elevation before finally settling in the same sort of resignation that emerges as the final part of most of Keith Reid's poetry. His final irony is startling in its honesty:

'They say that Jesus healed the sick and helped the poor,
And those, I'm sure, [sic] believed his eyes: a strange disguise!
Still, write it down, it might be read;
Nothing's better left unsaid
Only sometimes – still, no doubt;
It's hard to say [sic]; it all works out ... '

This is difficult to read, and it's difficult to listen to because of its painful determination to arrive at nothing less than truth. Keith Reid's lyrics, and his attitude and intent in writing them, are central to Procol Harum's character.

His subjects are essentially serious, and his structures have been sometimes complex. Gary Brooker, who wrote most of the music, has been deliberately classical in his treatment of them. Procol Harum made no secret of the classical basis of A Whiter Shade Of Pale, which will be found in Bach if you think it relevant to look. Similarly, Matthew Fisher's instrumental Repent Walpurgis and his chorale for the climax of In Held 'Twas In I are plainly derivative of classical sources.

What is important, however, is that Procol Harum have neither plagiarised nor parodied these sources. Rather, they have been used as stepping-off points, from which classical music and rock can be joined without the pretensions that usually accompany such attempts. All This and More on the LP A Salty Dog represents (along with the title-track) the most entirely successful wedding of the two styles. The addition of horns, held back until the closing moments, is comparable to the Band's inspired use of them in The Unfaithful Servant on its second album.

There has been a definite link between Procol Harum and the Band. The Band became the first American group to employ both piano and organ, and their sound on Music From Big Pink was unmistakably influenced by Procol Harum in parts (see liner note here). Procol repaid the compliment on Shine On Brightly with the rocking Wish Me Well sounding as Band-like as they could. The comparison goes even further than this occasional similarity of sounds, though. The Band is probably (along with Creedence Clearwater Revival) the archetypal American music band; Procol Harum fills the same role in England, though without drawing on its heritage as the Pentangle and the Fairport Convention do. What the Beatles achieved only once or twice (on Strawberry Fields Forever most notably) – a definitive English rock music – Procol Harum have consistently achieved since that first single. Ray Davies of the Kinks has been extolled as the most distinctly English of modern rock composers, but in fact his songs do not have the depth of Procol Harum's – with the important exceptions of songs like Two Sisters, End Of The Season and the superb Waterloo Sunset. On these songs, he is doing more than just writing down the characteristics of his English people; he is writing from within them.

So is Keith Reid writing from such an entirely personal position that his insight is clouded only by his admitted lack of self-understanding. Like Pete Brown and John Lennon, he has an incredible feel for the sound of words, but where at times Brown and Lennon allow this to obscure their meanings, Reid places his intent first. He is fortunate to have musicians of such feeling and taste playing these songs, though lately Procol Harum has been running into difficulties.

On its third album, A Salty Dog Procol ran, for the first time, into difficulties of direction (borne out by subsequent changes in the line-up). Dave Knights has been replaced on bass; Matthew Fisher has given up performing for producing, and Keith Reid has taken up organ. Perhaps the primary difficulty has been the emergent abilities of Matthew Fisher and Robin Trower, both of whom are writing songs. The uniformity achieved by the combination of Reid / Brooker has been, because of this, virtually undermined.

All the members of the group outside the rhythm section (which is a little unfair to Barrie Wilson, as he is more melodic than rhythmic on drums), this means, have had the chance to write for A Salty Dog. Robin Trower, long England's most distinctive and most heavily-stylised guitarist, whose drawn, twisted fuzz-runs have balanced Brooker's piano and Fisher's organ all the way since the first album, sings in a predictably fuzzy voice on the bluesy Crucifiction Lane:

'All my sick is in my stomach, all my sweat is clearly fear;
And if you could see inside me, I don't think you'd have me here.'

His other piece of music, Juicy John Pink, is also blues based; these two things are fine, but they don't have much in common with Procol Harum's musical stance. Matthew Fisher's Pilgrim's Progress is more in keeping with what one comes to expect from Procol Harum – a beautiful melody, counterpointed to a rolling organ solo that flows superbly in the background. Fisher's voice is stronger than it used to be, but Gary Brooker's voice is still the one that dominates.

Brooker's A Salty Dog and All This And More are the high points of an uneven LP. A Salty Dog is half-heartedly thematic; a few nautical images creep in from time to time, but unfortunately they are pretty loosely connected, and ultimately the album doesn't live up to the excellence of its better parts. It still stands far above much of what is being put out under the embracing wing of so-called 'progressive' music: A Salty Dog was released as a single, and could have been the song to match A Whiter Shade Of Pale, had it gained any exposure on radio. You know the rest. (see here).

Chris Welch virtually pleaded in Melody Maker for this record to be given the attention it deserved. It's not surprising that Procol Harum find it more profitable to base their activities in the United States in the face of the overwhelming indifference that meets their work in England. There's no doubt that the band has suffered from some pretty indifferent publicity, but it is still hard to believe that their records should not have finally broken this down. Sooner or later, (later, as more often happens), there will be a resurgence of interest in the group. Let's hope that they're still around, and still together, when this happens.

You only have to listen to these records to know what they contain for you; Ralph Gleason could have been talking about Procol Harum when he said of the Band: 'It's good for what ails you, and it gives you what you haven't got.' That's exactly what it does!

Many thanks to Rob Smyth, who sent us this article (he was needlessly apologetic about his youthful judgments!) with the following note:

A word about Go-Set: it was the first pop music paper in Australia, mostly concerned with Australian artists. I persuaded them to run a weekly supplement which they titled CORE, as it was always the middle four pages in the paper. This supplement ran articles on US and UK artists.

The Procol article was part four of a series I wrote called An English Music. I think other bands I wrote about in that series included the Beatles, Jethro Tull, Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span, but I didn't archive any of the reviews I wrote. It's only by chance that I have a few today, as someone kindly sent them to me some years ago when they found some old copies of the paper in a drawer!

Anyway, hope it's of some interest. Best regards, Rob.

More Procol history in print

Procol Harum and The Band | See also here 

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