Procol Harum

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the Pale

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PH albums : are they concept albums?

James Lloyd, for BtP


The concept album is a much-maligned idea, yet some of the greatest albums have been concepts (or at least have been called a concept album). Albums like Aqualung, Sgt Pepper, Thick as a Brick, and Tommy are all ranked somewhere in the world as some of the greatest ever.

One day, I was thinking about the idea of concept albums when I hit upon the fact that most Procol Harum albums are quite conceptual, lyrically. So I thought that the best way to form an opinion on the subject would be to write down the ideas, then I would be able to argue whether an album was a CA or not.

So first, what is a concept album? I have narrowed the criteria down to three. One, the album must contain thematic continuity Ė be it in the words, or the overall feel of the songs strung together on record. Two, the artistís intention Ė although this is not always a strong criterion, it is important to know exactly what the band believed they were making, and how they made it. Three, what are other peopleís thoughts? Listening to or reading other peopleís thoughts on the subject can not only make your job a lot easier, it can also provide you with as many different angles on a point of view as you need Ė and sometimes all you need is a different perspective (thanks Mum!).

As I sat down to write this "essay", I had a myriad ideas swimming through my cerebrum. Yet now I find it hard to find a place to begin. And normally with these reports, it is logical to start at the start. Therefore:

PROCOL HARUM
Lyrically, this album represents a very ethereal period in pop music. With Keith Reid only just recently having his words put to music, and Gary Brooker given the task of the music (which he does very well), the amalgam is surprisingly compact and solid. This is Reid at his most fantastical. As always, it is easy to draw lyrical meaning and metaphor from these songs, as it is with many other songs of the period, when none is intended. Conquistador, for example, might be read as a precursor to The Idol from Exotic Birds and Fruit. She Wandered Through The Garden Fence, one of my favourites, has been referred to as an S&M song, much like the Whoís Pictures Of Lily. Much of the album verges on lyrical pomposity, but this is a good thing in some respects. It only helped the bandís image as a new standard in pop music, beyond the "Medieval Spacemen" tag. This is overall a very psychedelic album (Kaleidoscope is perhaps the core of this quality), with some very interesting music and words. However, lyrically, the only similarity between the songs is hallucinogenic experiences, but then again Canít Buy Me Love is about prostitution, so even if this were somewhat true, it would have no bearing on the quality of the music.

Is it a concept album? No.

SHINE ON BRIGHTLY
The bandís second album reprises many of the lyrical ideas from Procol Harum, yet is by all means strongly independent of it. It is slightly more conceptual than its predecessor, but this is mainly due to the "Magnum Opus", In Held 'Twas In I, which took up half the album. This piece can be easily related to the search for spiritual meaning, and its effects on the searcher. Yet, many of the other songs on the album include quite spiritual words, for example, Magdalene (My Regal Zonophone) has an uncertain meaning, yet the words converge to make an almost heart-rendering statement, possibly about a deep and personal loss to the author. Shine On Brightly, one of the bandís more "anthemic" songs, is lyrically confusing, yet strangely powerful: in particular, the fade-out refrain of "Shine on", a term of endearment used by most worldwide "Palers". I do believe this album to be very conceptual, yet the fluid links do not exist.

Is it a concept album? No.

A SALTY DOG
This album, the bandís third, has been called a concept album by many people, due to the lyrical content of each song, with a reference to the sea, the ocean, ships, or water in almost every song. Keith Reid, I feel, was now beginning to recognize that he was writing words that were to become lyrics, unlike the first album, in which the words were simple poems or blank verse. This is why the words on this album flow easier over the music (which is absolutely gobsmacking). Even when the words themselves have very little reference to the aforementioned themes, the music supplements the idea (Juicy John Pink sounds like it was recorded in the galley of the Santa Maria!!). When the words directly use the words Ė sea, ocean, ships etc, Reid is not necessarily conveying a literal translation. In many cases (namely Crucifiction Lane), the sea he refers to is a sea of misery waiting to consume the unlucky sailor, or a huge sweeping obstacle in oneís way. In either case, when one listens to the album and begins to daydream, one can clearly see images, created by the music. Be they scenarios, conversations or people, this quality is absolutely genial. One of my favourite albums.

Is it a concept album? Yes. 

HOME
Again, it is made fairly clear what the overall theme of the album is, but does that make it a concept album? I think so. All the songs are preoccupied with death and loss, and even the "juxtapositional" Your Own Choice is only about the final acceptance of death, and not a happy ending as I first thought. Although said theme is vast and broad, the lyrics are all very similar in their delivery. Death in battle, Whaling Stories. Beyond the grave, The Dead Manís Dream. Death by the bottle, (the effervescent) Whiskey Train. The music complements the rather morbid words very well. I think this is due to the personnel change of Fisher to Copping. Gone was the magical swirly organ flourish, and in came a very gritty yet fluid tight group. This really is an easy one to research (and in my personal Top Ten Albums of All Time).

Is it a concept album? Yes.

BROKEN BARRICADES

Playmate Of the Mouth? Tulips Lips? Oh come ON!

Is it a concept album? Yes.

GRAND HOTEL
This album is one of the bandís best, yet whether or not it is a concept album, I am not sure. When I first heard the album, the words seemed to be about money (Grand Hotel, TV Ceasar etc). Yet as I listen to the album now, the words seem to be about romance, money and travel Ė all related to marriage. Romance for the rich Ė Grand Hotel, romance for the poor Ė Souvenir of London, romance gone pear-shaped Ė A Rum Tale, Toujours LíAmour, Fires (Which Burnt Brightly), and what seems to be a plea for viagra in Robertís Box. Of course, For Liquorice John is the obvious exception, being a biographical lyric. Again, the problem is to differentiate between a CONCEPT album and a THEMATIC album. This album is thematic, yet I donít feel that the theme (whatever it may be!) is poignant enough to be reflected in the entire album.

Is it a concept album? No.

EXOTIC BIRDS AND FRUIT
Possibly my favourite album. Yet, the songs are so disparate, it is almost impossible to make connections between at least two songs, and to do so would be a contrived attempt at proving a point. It must be noted however that Mick Grabhamís guitar work is spellbinding!

Is it a concept album? No. But I love the cover art.

PROCOLíS NINTH
Absolutely not.
Is it a concept album? See above.

SOMETHING MAGIC
This album seems somewhat autobiographical, a retrospective in the same light most people experience on their death beds. Something Magic is definitely autobiographical in parts, yet songs like Wizard Man and The Mark Of the Claw quickly dispel any inclination at a thematic continuity. The Worm & the Tree has me totally stumped as to what it means. Perhaps the albumís lack of continuity is why it wasnít so successful as it should have been.

Is it a concept album? No.

CHAPTER TWO
THE PRODIGAL STRANGER
The reunion album is (for the most part) semi-autobiographical, yet in a more positive fashion, thus Ė The Truth Wonít Fade Away, Learn to Fly and A Dream In Evíry Home could easily be the bandís signature tunes. Although the albumís lyrics and aura are potently positive and reflective Ė as any reunion should be Ė the songs are too lyrically diverse. To call this a concept album would mean Perpetual Motion, Holding On, King of Hearts and All Our Dreams Are Sold actually tell the story of an explicit liaison on a luxury yacht. Which it obviously isnít. Is it?

Is it a concept album? No, but itís a bloody good one.

So what have we discovered? All in all, the Procol Harum studio album collection boasts a wealth of brilliant music, the lyrics of which are easy to discuss in a sensible manner to achieve some sort of proven hypothesis. As Keith Reid once said himself Ė ships donít run aground with him, they run afloat. Perhaps he could have been too correct in this comment.

Due to the bizarre and complex nature of the earlier songs (lyrically), Procol Harum will always be erroneously placed in the field of pseudo-psychedelic progressive pretentious pomposity (Moody Blues is perhaps the foreman in this jury of the damned). When in fact, quite a lot can be learned from a single listening of Cerdes (Outside the Gates Of), in which words and music combine to create a whirlpool in oneís imagination, consequently making them believe that life DOES exist on other planets. Thatís how it was for me, anyhow.

 


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