There's nothing hidden anywhere, it's all there to be sought
First impressions of the boxed set Still There’ll Be More: arrived safely from England (finally!) on 5 April, and of course opened with great anticipation (Christmas in April!) -- my oh my, what an impressive package.
However, there are one or two ‘containment’ flaws, in my humble view; certainly not deal-breakers, by any means, but minor annoyances, at least to me, about which more later.
First, what’s here. Nothing hidden anywhere, as I knew what it would contain from all the hype and hoopla over the last few months: five CDs – the first three of which serve as a fairly comprehensive collection of previously released material (necessarily incomplete, hence endlessly debatable, but there are at least two selections from every studio album and the live Edmonton album).
For those of us who have these selections already, the remainder of the set is much more interesting. CDs 4 and 5 have apparently complete concerts: CD4 has a 1973 Hollywood Bowl concert (with orchestra), previously available as a bootleg. All reports indicate CD4 has much higher quality audio than did the boot. CD5 has a heretofore unavailable 1976 concert from the Bournemouth Winter Gardens (no orchestra). Same band as Hollywood, though.
Then there are three (video) DVDs: some previously-seen material, but probably more that’s new to us (at least, to me). I’ve seen some of the early material on the first DVD (Disc 6), and it’s terrific: a few Top of the Pops performances (complete with Matthew Fisher in monk’s cowl!), but mostly from the (West) German Beat-Club TV series. There is some mention in the track-by-track part of the book (about which more below) that some amusing fooling/joking around by individual band members (eg BJ and the sandwich) happened, but unfortunately, most of this has been edited out. It does retain Gary’s pre-performance solo piano riffing on Dear Prudence (‘won’t you come out to play’), an apparent plea to the others to get out on stage. When they finally arrive, we’re then ‘treated’ to Alan Cartwright’s modelling of his new (very) yellow T-shirt. Some tremendous playing here, including one of BJ’s ‘famous’ (because of their infrequency) drum solos, on Power Failure, of course. I’ve not yet had the pleasure of viewing the final two DVDs, but my expectations have been raised by DVD1.
The box cover art is by Julia Brown, who (as Julia King) created the amazing cover art for last year’s equally amazing album Novum – the new cover is somewhat reminiscent of the Novum cover as it harkens back to the ‘swooping’ keyboard and fretboard, and adds some elements past Procol releases. The resultant collage of images seems to refer mainly to the First Four albums: other than the ‘Novum Lady’, there’s another lady (can’t quite pin her down, ’though she looks familiar), a stopwatch, a Prussian-blue electric clock, a few ‘salty’ references such as the (piratical) parrot*, some marine wildlife, a sailing ship (perhaps running afloat, yet upside-down) and what look like some shivered timbers (from a whaling catastrophe?). Of course, there are several drums and the swoopy keyboard and guitar fretboard, the latter two of which form a crescent moon image (possibly referring to some lyrics of Perpetual Motion, contained on CD3). The celestial bluish-green background continues to the back cover, on which is placed an artful, nicely printed list of the music and video content on simulated parchment.
(*Gary’s pub? Or maybe a reference to the crucial role pirate radio played in breaking The Single? Shall we call the parrot ‘Caroline’?)
Inside, there’s a lovely full-size, folded, period colour poster announcing a concert in Oxford on 11 January (1976, I think) – suitable for framing if you don’t mind the crease lines. The wonderful 65+ page hardback book, besides containing many photographs and poster art from various periods, has an interesting potted history/essay (by long-time Procol contributor Patrick Humphries) on the band from its earliest Paramount incarnations (and “The Single”) through to the present-day. Add invaluable detailed commentary by Beyond the Pale co-webmaster Roland Clare on every selection (107, by my count) from every disc, and we have a bonanza. What I really like about both the essay and the track comments is that there’s often new and/or reconsidered observation; example: in Roland’s comments on ’Twas Teatime at the Circus, he refers to its similarity to the Beatles’ Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite and also makes reference to ‘Mr Brooker’s dungstorming mix-up’ (recommend you read the whole comment, for context ...). And many more examples. Anyway, very nice. Quite rightly so. Eminently qualified are both men.
The celestial blue-green background motif from the box cover also appears on the fold-over disc container (same dimensions as the book), both of which fit neatly inside the box. The container has on its cover a distinctive Procol Harum ‘heraldic crest’-style logo, derived from a concert (Zürich, 16 October 1967) poster (designer unknown), also reproduced on Page 68 of the book. Very much in ’60s-style and it contains images of four of the sixteen vestal virgins, apparently, who hadn’t yet left for the coast. It sure does capture the times, in any case.
The design of this rather stunning package was overseen by Philip Lloyd-Smee (better known as just ‘Phil Smee’), who has been involved with the design of over eight hundred album covers and packages for more than fifty years. The earliest of his credits I can find is from the early pre-Procol Sixties (Billy Fury, Cliff Richard and the Shadows), and he’s been active every year since. Nor is this his first contact with Procol: he was involved in the design of the first album, Shine on Brightly and Home. Oh, and another indirect Procol connection: the package design of an anthology of Cochise, Mick Grabham’s old band. So to say he’s eminently qualified is a gross understatement, and he’s really outdone himself this time. Every aspect of the package is absolutely beautiful. Of course, there are pictures everywhere and newspaper clippings (from the collection of sometime Paler Paul Wolfe (and he’s Canadian!) which are actually readable). Many of these have never before been seen by most of us.
Depending on where you live and what currency you deal in, this set is pretty expensive, at least for many of us (about $135 CDN, delivered, for me). Having said that … clearly, a great deal of time, talent, coordination and effort has gone into the execution of this package; the cross-licensing of the material, for one thing, must have been nightmarish at times. So, given the sheer volume of material the price is probably fair.
My grumble, and I hesitate to sound critical of the eminent Phil Smee: I have a problem with the discs’ being housed in eight little slots cut into the inner folds of the rather light and fragile cardboard case; when inserted, the discs are half-exposed, and some were hard to remove – jammed too far into their slots, and of course all of them are in direct contact with the cardboard underneath. Therefore, there’s a risk of tearing the cardboard during disc removal. The surface with the disc slots is literally covered with reproductions of newspaper and magazine stories and pictures from various periods – the good news is they’re actually readable, since when you remove the discs, the slot perforations disappear. So I ask: why couldn’t a bit extra have been spent so the discs could be properly and securely stored? The set’s already expensive, there’s a dedicated, built-in audience/market, so a few more dollars probably wouldn’t matter.
CDs have been around since the early 1980s, and in my view, they ‘got it (mostly) right’ the first time with the familiar jewel case: the inside portion has a hub (albeit fragile) to secure the disc, keeping the ‘read’ surface out of contact with the case. Since then, the only acceptable ‘improvements’ have been the Digipak, which uses the same hub design, but glued to an LP-like cardboard cover. The 100% cardboard LP reproductions, which are quite common these days, are fine if they contain a proper inner sleeve (like the recent Stones and Beatles mono boxes) – most don’t, unfortunately. It’s as if this blind spot persists. The most important aspect (apart from the artistic / merchandising side) is the quite valuable – and fragile – discs containing the music and video contents. In Canada in the 1960s and 1970s, popular LPs typically had no inner sleeve at all (Almost never. Really!) – thus the record would often be damaged the moment it was first removed from the bare cardboard. High-quality ‘specialty’ pressings and European and Japanese imports usually had an inner sleeve; American imports usually had a plain (or printed) paper inner sleeve, but rarely in Canada.
Ok, rant over. And rants are useless unless at least one alternative/solution has been proposed. So … I’ve permanently removed all eight discs from the package and stored them separately in a modified clamshell-style box, in rice-paper inner CD sleeves.
These storage problems are more annoyances than deal-breakers. Still, these compromises, in my view, should not be made in a beautiful, relatively expensive set such as this.
I should mention here that Esoteric has also released a ‘bare-bones’ 2CD set under the same title, a distillation (29 cuts) of the first three CDs of the boxes set (which have 48 cuts) – presumably intended for the uninitiated and/or those of more modest means. Significantly, every studio album (plus Edmonton) still remains represented on the 2-CD set, so ‘coverage’ remains intact, and it’s therefore valuable. But, it’s strongly recommended to try to spring for the eight-disc box, as its main attractions lie beyond the ‘old’ material: the wealth of unheard/unseen live material and the glorious artwork and hugely useful (and beautiful) book.
As one of the regular reviewers at the Allmusic.com site (the reliable Thom Jurek) concludes here: “The audio [24-bit digital remastering by Paschal Byrne] is better than any previously issued compilation, the video is superb, and the presentation is excellent. Though the hard-core fans will likely have all the music [in various forms, this set] is worth it for the video alone. This is the Procol Harum story as it was meant to be told.” From what I’ve seen and heard so far, I couldn’t have put it better myself. So I won’t, other than my already-stated random thoughts. I will leave it to others to comment in more detail about the music and visual content. I will say that what I’ve heard and seen so far is absolutely superb. A fine job by all concerned (extensive credits listed on the copyright page of the book), and my congratulations! Don’t hesitate! Run, don’t walk, to your favourite (virtual, if necessary) stockist.
© Peter Bourne, 2018