Procol Harum: Grand Hotel and Robin Trower: Twice Removed From
Time was when I'd say that my favourite group and guitarist were Procol Harum and Robin Trower. It seemed all so simple, the steady intelligence of the Brooker-Reid songwriting team coupled with the studious but fiery musicianship of Trower and drummer BJ. Wilson was the unbeatable combination of its time. The alliance between Trower's wholly unique guitar technique, borrowing inspiration but not clichés from the blues, and the rest of the superb characters in PH, was the golden age of the group. They produced at least two undisputed masterpieces of rock, Home and A Salty Dog, and several more classics. Then Trower departed, reportedly mumbling about wanting to play more rock and roll (what were Whisky Train, Memorial Drive and Power Failure then?), and one is forced to mourn the loss all these years later because of the voids left, evidenced most recently by Trower's premier LP Twice Removed From Yesterday and Harum's new Grand Hotel. United they stood, divided, are they falling?
Trower's album is a disaster. Reg Isidore and James Dewar provide the second and third parts of this blues/ power trio, without much to recommend either. Dewar's vocals are sometimes soulful, sometimes bluesy and usually dull, very similar indeed to Jeff Beck's hideous later work with vocalist Bob Tench. Robin, previously un-obviously influenced guitarist, has fallen head over heels in love with all the blues clichés he previously avoided. The LP in addition simply reeks of the worst points of Jimi Hendrix. Everything bears his quickly cracking seal of approval. Daydream and Ballerina are remakes of Little Wing, exact Hendrix progressions and voicings with a crumb or two of Peter Green tossed in. Repetition and riffs dominate, as Trower yields to indulgent tactics including heavy overdoses of echo effects and fuzztones – are there 11,000 or 12,000 guitar overdubs on Hannah? Rock Me Baby contains the Beck/ Stewart, Page/ Plant unisons we've heard in every blues club – the kind of playing Jeremy Spencer killed with Mean Blues. Matthew Fisher's contribution as the listed producer seems to have been as yes-man to Trower's rantings. Why go on? The project is a mess, with bad production, pseudo-heavy posing and poor songs. For a musician of Trower's previously shown talent, what happened?!
Procol Harum's effort has its share of brilliance but for once the group – long the masters of production and orchestration – have laid it on too thick. Many cuts are swamped in sound, floods of distracting background vocals as in the closing Robert's Box. TV Caesar [sic] (an inexplicable, unimportant song with a plain tune) and Souvenir of London (a strange, supposedly humorous experiment in the folk mode) are failures outright, while the most beautiful melody of the set, Fires (Which Burn [sic] Brightly) needs less stilted lyrics ("fray"?) and less Swingle Singers. It is especially disconcerting that Keith Reid should write such empty, awkward and uninteresting lyrics – "Yes I've found a bit of London / and I'd like to lose it quick/ Got to show it to my doctor/ 'cos it isn't going to shrink" is hardly worthy of the man who wrote Whaling Stories.
But when Procol are good, they're great. The thematically linked tunes (Grand Hotel, Toujours L'Amour, A Rum Tale and Bringing Home the Bacon) show all the virtues of the group. The conspicuous consumption portrayed in the lyrics – the continental living and travel which is actually a mask for disillusionment, despair or depravity – is expertly supported in the highly original melodies and humorous rhythms; sambas, tangos, waltzes. Reid's serious wit shows in such sequences as "I'm thinking of renting/ a villa in France.../ Or maybe I'll take/ an excursion to Spain/ buy a revolver/ and blow my brain" or the opening of For Liquorice John, joining the figurative to the realistic for its irony, "He fell from grace and hit the ground."
BJ Wilson's drumming is superhuman throughout but especially on the title cut and the opening piano/ drums/ cowbell of Bacon, which could not have been any other drummer's work. Copping and newly-added Mick Grabham (ex-Cochise) turn in good performances with moments of flash, both highlighted in Bacon. Brooker delivers the convincing, clear vocals we'd expect.
Still, the erosion evident, especially in sound quality and songwriting, is disturbing. I hope the group will continue to work hard with the re-stabilized lineup instead of taking an unfortunate backward step just as their commercial success is blossoming. For the moment, it's clear Procol Harum needn't prove anything to Mr Trower and company.
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