Procol Harum

Beyond
the Pale

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' Ö time to reclaim PH as a great rock and pop band Ö'

Billie G Eyeball


Reprinted from here with the kind permission of the author, Billie G Eyeball : please visit his page


1967: Procol Harum. 1968: Shine on Brightly. 1969: A Salty Dog. 1970: Home. 1971: Broken Barricades. 1972: Live in Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra; The Best of Procol Harum. 1973: Grand Hotel. 1974: Exotic Birds and Fruit. 1975: Ninth. 1977: Something Magic. 1987: Classics. 1989: The Chrysalis Years (1973 Ė 1977). 1991: The Prodigal Stranger. 1995: The Long Goodbye.

Gary Brooker: 1979: No More Fear of Flying. 1982: Lead Me To the Water. 1985: Echoes in the Night.

Robin Trower: 1973: Twice Removed From Yesterday.

Matthew Fisher: 1973: Journeyís End. 1974: Iíll Be There.

The art critic Harold Rosenberg pointed out some time ago that the combustible energy of a new-art revolution tends to release individual and idiosyncratic personal expression, rather than to perpetuate stereotypes of seminal work. In rock and pop terms, one such revolution came with the electrification of acoustic equipment. Newly converted acolytes didnít bother with following leaders. Instead, they plugged electricity into the wall and they plugged electricity into themselves; by placing their fingers onto keyboards and fret-boards, they immediately began exuding private particularities of personal expression. Electricity, before the sixties, had already launched personalized attempts. A second recognition came at the dawn of the sixties, when a massive spark of insight ignited a whole generation at almost the same instant.

In an attempt to plug into the electric currents of the time, musicians had very little time to look backwards, or dwell on pop theory. Musicians got together at a breath-taking rate, pulled up their chairs or tossed their chairs out of the room, and they started playing. Many of the bands became so honored for their initial sound that they become revered and, eventually, emulated. The original hybrids had absorbed the blues, r b, or rockabilly, and, in some instances, big-band swing, jazz, poetry, literature, and pretty much anything that had been on their minds before they were swept away by the new revolution in noise. What they launched was a mixture of what came before them. Immediately adapted ideas became new stylistic signatures.

Procol Harumís idiosyncratic features were many. Gary Brooker and Matthew Fisher fronted the group with a duo piano/organ approach. Keyboard-fronted bands were only a little uncommon, but the gothic sense of orchestrated grandiosity that the team brought to their music made their emphasis unique. Initially there were similarities to other bands: Al Kooperís work with Dylan, and Garth Brooksí and Richard Manuelís piano/organ work with The Band, for instance; but The Band pursued rustic, churchy, rock and roll, ragtime Americana. In letting their classical music influences run rampant over their love of pop and R&B, Procol Harum found a distinctive voice.

The five-piece band had a sixth member Ė Keith Reid. He wasnít a musician; he wrote the lyrics. It is still pretty unusual for a non-commercial songwriter to supply the lyrics for a band. Reidís approach and Procol Harumís style were consciously unified as a style. Brooker would often provide an R&B emphasis with his rhythm arrangements and percolating counterpoint, Trower leaned towards stream-lined, but tough, blues structures, while both Fisher and Brooker filtered their influences through structural drama picked up from a pop music loverís appreciation of classical music ideas.

Because the sound had what some critics incorrectly referred to as "classical music pretensions," Procol Harumís music was labeled "art rock," even though all good rock and pop already was art made by artists. For reasons mostly flawed theoretically, many sixtiesí rock critics considered what they labeled "art rock" a betrayal of rockís supposedly populist ideals. Many of these critics seem to miss some of Procolís best jokes Ė at their most potent, Brooker and Reid dissected pretense and decadence in a tongue-in-cheek fashion (most clearly on Grand Hotel). If Procol Harum are correctly described as an art rock band, they were the funkiest art rock band the sixties produced.

Some of the earliest songs Procol Harum recorded without Robin Trower and BJ Wilson prove that Brooker and Fisher already had an idea of how it wanted to present itself. This is evident on early tunes like Whiter Shade of Pale, Homburg, Lime Street Blues, Cerdes and a few other songs. Gary Brooker and Matthew Fisher were largely responsible for the bandís style. Procol Harum soon consolidated around the line-up of Dave Knights (bass), Wilson (drums), Trower (guitar), Brooker and Fisher.

Procol Harumís debut album was originally released without A Whiter Shade of Pale, which was a big hit in the summer of 1967 (10 million copies sold). In its original sequencing, the debut album had Captain Clack in the Whiter Shade of Pale slot. At its least ambitious, Procol Harum seemed to be lampooning Dylan (She Wandered Through the Garden Fence, A Christmas Camel, Cerdes). Comparisons with The Band are valid. As in some of Bob Dylanís work, Keith Reid mixed obscure historical and cultural images in a sometimes-irritating fashion. But three songs on the debut album suggested the power of Procol Harumís approach at its finest: Conquistador, Kaleidoscope, and Repent Walpurgis. The first two songs have perfect lyrics; Walpurgis is an instrumental. Walpurgis manages a musical emotionalism without words. Repent Walpurgis is designed around understated piano, a stately and determined pace that suggests climbing a mountain, or struggling with a negative force, the flamboyance of a swashbuckling guitar solo swells with the music, and the song finishes with a very decisive ending. The bandís flair with dramatic pauses and explosive flourishes is shown here in its earliest form. As it often is with the best bands, thematic and musical perfection isnít all that necessary as long as itís fun listening to the band play.

Conquistador has the same kind of visually stimulating musical details: a galloping beat, the kind of urgency that permeates Bob Dylanís All Along the Watchtower, plus the protagonist shoulders a cheeky state of supercilious amusement. Also included is a host of narrative details: "vulture," "silver shield," "rusty scabbard," "sand taken seed," "jewel-encrusted blade," "gloom," "armour-plated breast," "death-mask face," "stallion," and an "angelís haloed brow." Though Keith Reid is occasionally glib, his ideas are perfectly clear within the contours of the Conquistador story line. Reidís scope is evident in the distance between the realism of Conquistador and the less direct Kaleidoscope. Kaleidoscope is a tale of confusion that sticks to its metaphor closely: "Jostle, hassle, elbow bustle/ in a swirling rainbow tussle/ Caught and frozen, broken sheen/ now unites for one brief scene." A Whiter Shade of Pale was added to a later release of the album, replacing Captain Clack" but its significance as the bandís massive hit single has exaggerated the importance of the song to the bandís career, which would be quite glorious even without this particular tune Ė though it is a good one. Procol Harum wasnít totally successful, but the bandís best ideas were unique.

Dark musical undercurrents run beneath Procol Harumís music. Some of Knightís bass lines seem drawn from the good left hands of the keyboard players Ė heavy anchors and sturdy runs sporadically reinforced by the rest of the band. Everybody jumping on top of the bass lines created a heavy ebb and flow of feeling. The riffs were often played in colorful counterpoint to the rest of the music. BJ Wilsonís drum parts are magnificent displays of the syncopated flourish; no matter how rambunctious the more-complex Procol Harum structures became, BJ never grew repetitive, yet never broke the flow (his work on Broken Barricades is wonderful).

Robin Trowerís fuzzy electric guitar flow was there for the climaxes. Other guitar players used the fuzz-box, but Trower was the fuzz-box. He had an extremely slow way of playing, but was unique in the way he chose to release, or hold back, his unspooling guitar lines. Part of Trowerís blues-feeling came from holding back, and just letting his guitar navigate through the heavily textured cavern of sound produced by Procol Harum. Trower had (and has) a blues-based heart, and he managed to bring emotional honesty to some of Procol Harumís wildest creations. (As Mike Saunders put it in Rolling Stoneís initial review of Broken Barricades: Robin Trower "had done what Eric Clapton endlessly bullshitted about but never did Ė play with the emotional intensity of the blues in a rock framework).) Art rock criticisms have a hard time sticking to the band because Procol Harumís blues and R&B roots were not shallow. Some of Trowerís songs with the band Ė Poor Mohammed, Juicy John Pink, Wishing Well [sic], Whiskey Train Ė have all the simplistic, earthy immediacy of the blues, mixed with the heavy neo-adventurousness of Reidís cinematic writing style.

Itís time to reclaim Procol Harum as a great rock and pop band that seldom let their songs get all that long. They attempted only two twenty-minutes songs (In Held 'Twas In I and The Worm & the Tree, both pretty much disasters) in a career that lasted eleven years (the career even allowed for a two-year reunion, 20 years after the original break-up).

Shine on Brightly was Procol Harumís second album. Most of the songs have roughly the same protagonist, a morose, anguished gentleman, with little redeeming social value. Keith Reidís "everyman" is a perfectly sane man living in an insane world, so he must be insane. Itís a reversal of Shakespeareís King Lear Ė "in a mad world only the mad are sane." Shine on Brightly works perfectly as a statement of this theme, but most of the songs on the album are redundant. The point of view could use some humor Ė most of the wit is in the playing. If we are supposed to identify with the gloom, the idea is slightly presumptuous and character identification hooks hard to find. On In Held 'Twas In I Matthew Fisher sings a gloomy song (Autumn of My Madness) that seems to reiterate the gloomy songs Brooker has already sung. And is the circus thing necessary? Isnít the beanstalk joke pretty worn by the third time you hear it? Some good Keith Reid lines pop up, and Brooker is deft in singing Reidís excellent cross-purpose lyrics like "Write it down, it might be read / Nothingís better left unsaid / only sometimes / Still no doubt; Itís hard to see / It all works out." Unfortunately the whole album is a seesaw of contradictory feelings, and the result is pretty labored. The attempt seemed to be to extend the success of Whiter Shade of Pale and its downbeat, dream-like backdrop. But the band is much better than that. Highpoints: The screwy guitar riffs Trower uses to fuse Autumn of My Madness to Look to Your Soul; the marching band senility of Magdalene (My Regal Zonophone); the discordant climaxes to Autumn of My Madness; the descending scales and upward flights of Rambling On: BJ's punchy syncopation on Skip Softly, My Moonbeams.

Shine on Brightly may be the only bad album the band made up until their last official release Ė Something Magic. Easily shirking a common rock music myth, the band got better from album to album. Fast-forward to Home, Grand Hotel, Exotic Birds and Fruit, and Ninth, which are varied: funny and horrific, light-on-their feet and grandiose, funky and orchestrated Ė these seem the culminating classics of Procol Harum form. Once compared to The Band, Robbie Robertson, by the time these albums were released (1973 Ė 1975), had run into a bad case of writerís block; Robertsonís need to write big statements had made The Band almost as heavy an entity as the early Procol Harum. Meanwhile, Procol had been through a live album with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra which redeemed the whole genre of orchestrated pop (every band should do one). Albums this ambitious donít have to be perfect, they just have to be interesting and "Edmonton" is that and more. The band thundered through some old songs in the midst of massive arrangements. The climaxes to most of the songs are stunning, Conquistador ends with a more thunderous sense of importance. Even In Held ĎTwas In I, seems faster and somewhat likable thanks to the big explosions, the choirs, guitar by David Ball played even louder than Robin Trower, and a varied host of BJ embellishments. The albums following Edmonton would include additional use of instrumentation. By the time Robin Trower and Matthew Fisher left the group (replaced by Mick Grabham and Chris Copping), they had quite a few great songs. Shine on Brightly, Wreck of the Hesperus, Pilgrimís Progress, A Salty Dog, Devil Came from Kansas, Whiskey Train, Dead Manís Dream, Nothing that I Didnít Know, Broken Barricades, Luskus Delph, Playmate of the Mouth, Poor Mohammed, plus their more well known songs.

In glancing back over the criticism written about Procol Harum during their heyday, one sees a controversial pro and con attitude. John Mendelsohn loved them about as much as he hated Led Zeppelin. Bud Scoppa loved them and would resurrect them for one of the strangest late-career revivals ever attempted (reference point: IRS Records and their attempt to relaunch the sixtiesí band Spirit in 1979 as a new wave band Ė they were actually successful with the Animals). Other rock critics who were fans included Robert Cromelin, Mark Saunders, and Gary Von Tersch. Some of the bandís worst critics were the most prestigious and, unfortunately, they are the critics usually referred to as authoritative.

Robert Christgau pretty much ruined the legitimacy of his Village Voice critical career by releasing his "Christgau Consumer Guides" which made rock art primarily the target of bad jokes and ill-considered snobbery. Regarding Procol Harum, he showed his macho, guitar-oriented side when he wrote, upon Matthew Fisherís departure, "Not that Iíve ever missed an organist before." Then he called Trowerís guitar work "technological and macho" which doesnít even make sense. He calls Gary Brooker stupid for using Keith Reid as a lyricist. He called Broken Barricades "pompous, muddy, indecipherable" (most of the lyrics are on the album cover). Again, meaninglessly, he referred to Simple Sister and Whiskey Train as showing Reid to be "self-servingly arrogant" (in regard to what? Ė Christgau seems more cryptic than Reid). He writes: "a smart singer would try and play Whaling Stories for laughs." But Whaling Stories is played for a laugh, Christgau probably canít locate the humor because itís not of the same imbecilic American nature of his "hip" put-downs.

Ken Emersonís incredibly superficial summation of the band in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll (Random House Ė 1980 version) suggests that he may have been writing about the band without having heard most of their music. He praises the single A Whiter Shade of Pale as an "international hit [the band] never quite surpassed" (in what way?). Then he ends the paltry paragraph with "very few groups have ever produced so fully realized a first album and Procol Harum never quite duplicated it" (in what way? And why would they want to?). Elsewhere in the same book, Ed Ward remarks, The Bandís Chest Fever far outclassed Procol Harumís experiments," but Chest Fever isnít a very good song Ė its structure is stunted and the classical intro is in no way integrated into the song itself Ė itís just a flamboyant, pompous false start. Here are several Procol Harum songs that are better than Chest Fever (which has a pretty common lyric): Butterfly Boys, New Lamps for Old, The Piperís Tune, Bringing Home the Bacon, Nothing But the Truth, Grand Hotel, Simple Sister, Poor Mohammed, and many more.

There is a reason comparisons to The Band keep showing up here. Robbie Robertson once commented on Procol Harum "Iíve heard vaguely a few records by them, and theyíre still singing that same song." There obviously was a certain tonal sameness to some of the material on the first few Procol Harum albums, but, regardless, their career, arguably, may have finally outshined [sic] The Bandís career. Robertson and The Band were not as strong coming across the finish line.

I think what appealed to critics like Bud Scoppa, and to fans of Procol Harum in general, was the way the band decided to pitch its efforts towards such ambitious musical endeavors. A certain amount of contrivance resulted, for sure. But, Robert Christgauís argument to the contrary, what was absorbing about the band was the way they did actually attempt, and pull off, an intellectually conceptual endeavor. The bandís chord structures were often rewards in themselves (the wandering forlorn quality of Nothing That I Didnít Know, for instance, that seems to cover about 10 different chord changes); and they pulled off some incredibly potent key-changes that seem unduplicated in the repertoire of most other bands. Procol Harum played with finesse, and there is something honorable about their will to be singular. It probably was Keith Reidís language that distracted critics with theoretical views as to what rock could and couldnít be. They mistook Procol Harum as aristocrats trying to pass themselves off as democrats. They didnít allow them their British eccentricities. Reidís language is what also makes so many of these songs seem constantly refreshing when returning to them. What seemed a little questionable at first, continues to yield meaning and emotion.


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