Procol Harum

the Pale 

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Procol Harum  • 2015 double-CD reissue from Esoteric Records

Reviewed by Peter Bourne

“… that her face, at first, just ghostly …” 

Esoteric Recordings' 2015 release of the début 1967 album Procol Harum (aka in the USA as A Whiter Shade of Pale) is available as a double-album and as a single disc version (Disc 1 only of the double set); this review combines a bit of history with a review of the double set, with occasional reference to the previous 2009 release on the Salvo label. All three versions contain the smash hit début single A Whiter Shade of Pale. Over the years, there have been numerous releases of this album in various formats (LP, 8-track, cassette, reel-to-reel, CD, digital MP3 download) – on CD there have been at least five versions of the album, the more recent with bonus tracks.

Procol Harum was recorded by the classic six-man line-up of Gary Brooker (piano and voice), Matthew Fisher (Hammond organ), Robin Trower (guitar), David Knights (bass), Barrie (BJ) Wilson (drums and percussion), and Keith Reid (lyricist, who was and has always been a fully-fledged member of the band, occasionally reciting spoken words both on record and onstage). This roster remained intact for the following two albums, after which some band members (save Brooker, Reid and BJ) gradually left, one by one, for various reasons (two returned, and left again), and were replaced. In particular, it’s been said that Matthew Fisher’s initial departure was due, at least in part, because he was “… extremely and justifiably demoralised about the credits - the reason he left PH in the first place” (from BtP’s e-mail page). By July of 2009, the legal issue was finally resolved by the courts, in which Fisher was awarded co-composer status on A Whiter Shade of Pale, incidentally (but not surprisingly) costing the friendship of the principals involved (Brooker, Fisher). 

Court cases tend to do that. Interestingly, Chris Welch, in the liner notes to the 1997 Repertoire release, suggests that Brooker, in his turn, may have contributed the middle section of the Fisher-composed Repent Walpurgis, the concluding instrumental to the album, but there’s never been a counter-suit. I imagine there might have been other songs where co-composer credit could have been claimed. Hopefully, all this has ended, for everyone’s sake.

A Whiter Shade was a huge hit in the so-called Summer of Love of 1967: it was ground-breaking, era defining, indeed group-defining, and iconic. It’s the song most people associate with Procol Harum, not only for that famous Bach-based Hammond organ riff, but also for Gary Brooker’s haunting vocal of Keith Reid’s equally haunting (and inscrutable) lyrics. You couldn’t go anywhere pop music was being played without hearing it! That it wasn’t included in the initial Regal Zonophone album release in Britain and Europe became the source of much controversy; contrary to the US and Canada, the practice at the time was usually to exclude previously-released singles from albums (probably so as not to hurt singles sales, which were still the dominant form at the time), especially with well-established and popular acts. But less established bands (like Procol Harum) needed all the help they could get to sell albums, and having a hit single of this magnitude would have been the perfect vehicle to establish their (and the album’s) credibility. Keith Reid reportedly said at the time, echoing many others in the industry in Britain: “We couldn't possibly put it on because people had already bought and paid for the single.” Hippie idealism, or just simple naïveté? Who knows? Perhaps nothing more than “received wisdom.” Anyway, so it went …

The single, which had been recorded (taped and mixed) in one day (29 March 1967) with the original guitarist (Ray Royer) and session drummer Bill Eyden (replacing original drummer Bobby Harrison), spent many weeks on worldwide charts. After Whiter Shade became a hit, the band played a few dates then – having added a new guitarist (Trower) and drummer (BJ Wilson) –hastily recorded the ten album cuts. (Gary Brooker famously remarked that, unlike most bands, they “started at the top”!) But the album tanked, sales-wise, at least in part because it didn’t include Whiter Shade.

A mock stereo (“electronically rechanneled”) version of the album was released in 1967 in North America and elsewhere, dropping Good Captain Clack in favour of Whiter Shade. Good move to include the hit, as it turned out, although I’ve always thought the “Good Captain” was undeserving to have been excluded. However … bad move to release the album in fake stereo, but marketing departments rule, I guess. Issuing  albums this way was surprisingly common practice in those days, attempting to fool unsophisticated consumers into thinking they were listening to real stereo, which was starting to come into fashion. The tech details of how this was done are beyond the scope of this piece. The end result of this so-called rechanneling was a muddy, indistinct sound. Another common practice: record companies, when juggling their album selections, rarely added a cut without removing another, and releases in the UK nearly always differed (sometimes greatly) from their North American counterparts.

Anyway, a slightly different version of Clack (an extra gong note) did appear later as the B-side to the second single, Homburg, released autumn 1967. And, a real oddity - the sleeve cover of an Italian release of the LP was re-tinted cerise pink (replacing the black of the Dickinson original), and the album included Homburg after it became a hit, but not Whiter Shade! The Italian version also included Il Tuo Diamante, an early Italian-lyrics version of the song Shine on Brightly, and appeared as a bonus cut on the Salvo, but not on this Esoteric release (Il Tuo Diamante is a bonus cut on the Esoteric Shine On Brightly). The Italian album also included Fortuna (the Italian “translation” of the title of the instrumental Repent Walpurgis – the music was unchanged). Clack was also excluded from the “Italian job.” (Clearly, little love ever seems to have been shown towards poor old Captain Clack). Il Tuo was actually an early version of a later re-recording, which appeared as the title track of the second album Shine On Brightly.  [See the full story here]

As previously implied, the entire original album and the singles were from a true mono mix, as original producer Denny Cordell didn't "believe" in stereo! This was common at the time; most of the target market (ie us!) didn't own stereo equipment. No stereo mix of the entire original album has ever been found, to my knowledge.

The Esoteric release includes Whiter Shade in two studio versions: the original mono single, and a longer, earlier (March 1967) stereo outtake, with very busy drumming by Bobby Harrison (who also drummed on the single B-side Lime Street Blues – included as a bonus track). There’s no indication that it’s stereo on the sleeve or in the notes, but it sure sounds like it. There’s also a live version from a June 1967 BBC broadcast. Of particular interest is Homburg, another European hit in autumn 1967, which strangely only reached #34 in the US charts. Homburg turned up on several European releases of the album, as well as on later compilations, of course. The original single mix is on the first CD, while an extended stereo version, another (1971) stereo mix (presumably mixed from the original recording) and a live BBC broadcast version are on the bonus CD. (I’ll take four Homburgs, please. Hold the onions!)

There are many more bonus tracks spread over the two discs: six true stereo (!) outtakes of some of the album cuts, some alternate mixes, and six more live BBC cuts: many examples of the band wandering through their playing cards, so to speak. Note two minor errors on the album’s bonus track listing for Disc 1: #16 (Salad Days) is depicted as an instrumental (it isn’t!), while #17 (Understandably Blue) indeed is, in fact, an instrumental, but isn’t identified as such.

The album didn’t really come into its own until after the release of the (live from Edmonton) hit single version of Conquistador in 1972. The first album was then re-released. I think by this time, the album became consistently entitled A Whiter Shade of Pale, with Whiter Shade as the opening cut; I recall its being advertised with a sticker stating something like “Contains the Original Version of Conquistador!”

The original album cuts have been reviewed extensively elsewhere, so I will add only a little to that commentary. It’s been said that the album is all over the place stylistically, from music hall to pseudo-psychedelic to R&B. Maybe so, but any inconsistencies in approach were redeemed by Keith Reid’s surreal lyrics, fresh and new at the time, and IMO a cut above so much of the mediocrity – that “hippie-poesy Summer Of Love” stuff .

The album served notice – sooner or later – (a) Procol Harum weren’t just another one-hit wonder, and (b) there were many more wonders to come, both on this album, and later on. Their distinctive two-keyboard approach is especially effective on Good Captain Clack, Cerdes, Salad Days, Conquistador, A Christmas Camel, Kaleidoscope, and the fine instrumental Repent Walpurgis. Now and then, Trower’s guitar is given more space, especially on Cerdes and Repent. The latter tune, the Fisher-composed album-closer, features our introduction to Robin Trower’s astonishing guitar playing – his announcement that this wasn’t only just about Brooker, Reid and Fisher. Fisher’s celestial Hammond organ, Brooker’s (very) grand piano, Knights’s much underrated bass, and BJ’s percussion only enhance Repent (and indeed the rest of the album!). Repent also became their inevitable concert-closer – they found it hard to do an encore after it – literally a show-stopper! An extended version of Repent (over two minutes longer, and in stereo!) appears on Disc 2. Interesting that it seems to have been the only regular cut on any Procol album without vocals (apart from bonus rehearsal or backing tracks) until 36 years later, when the wonderful Weisselklenzenacht (The Signature) – also a Fisher instrumental – made its appearance to close The Well’s On Fire. Lastly, Gary Brooker’s singing voice and “piano grand” defined Procol Harum as a unique musical force in those heady days of the mid-to-late 60s. Other than Steve Winwood and (yes) Tom Jones, I can’t think of a better British R&B singer than GB, before or since. All in all: world – take notice!  

There is an excellent booklet (not included in the single-disc release) with group photos (check out the Carnaby Street look / “Dedicated Followers of Fashion”), and detailed notes on the original album tracks by Henry Scott-Irvine, author of the band’s biography. Although he is silent on the stereo mixes and the BBC sessions, he provides commentary on the hit singles throughout the booklet, and also includes brief notes on the outtakes (Alpha, Understandably Blue and Pandora’s Box).

The set also includes a beautiful fold-out poster reproducing the original (black and white) album cover on one side, and, on the other, lyrics to the original album selections, plus the singles. (Unfortunately, the creases from the folds pretty much annul its suitability for framing.) Another criticism: the light cardboard Digipak-style case is a bit flimsy; other record companies usually reinforce with a plastic slipcase, and that would have been nice here. Even better would have been a glossy cardboard box (as used for the Shine on Brightly set). This set is, after all, presumably intended to be collectable.

The cover of the Salvo (single) CD release mimics the above-mentioned pink “Italian job” (which I should say I’ve always liked – very “Euro/Continental”). The compilers of the Esoteric set reverted to the original black-and-white ghost woman/apparition cover by Dickinson (Keith Reid’s one-time girlfriend), which I probably like more; the black & white cover (included for the superior Salvo booklet) seems more evocative of A Whiter Shade of Pale – ie “… her face, at first, just ghostly…”. However, since the Salvo has a few different bonus tracks from the Esoteric, it’s probably worth keeping if you have it – there IS that hot-pink cover! And the booklet contains a lot more interesting band history.

The digital transfers and 24-bit remastering on the Esoteric release are nothing short of superb (kudos to Ben Wiseman and Rob Keyloch). There’s slightly improved sonics compared to the Salvo; even though the album is in mono (with noted bonus track exceptions), there is more of a sense of space and depth (which evidently IS possible with mono) in the Esoteric release compared to other versions. Since I’m a fan of mono anyway, I don’t see the need to leave no stone unturned to find any long-lost stereo original masters (if they even exist!). The stereo mixes that are here are pretty good but not particularly revelatory; stereo (especially in rock music) was in its infancy, and often suffered from extreme panning and other weird effects. Nice, but not necessary.

Although the Esoteric Recordings press release insists the album was “remastered from the original tapes” (note: not “original master tapes”), there are rumours afoot that this (and previous releases) may be from a second-generation tape, or even from a digital transfer created from a “needle-drop”. Whatever happened – it sounds very good indeed, to my old ears. And as the back cover exhorted us all those years ago (and does still), Procol Harum is “to be listened to in the spirit in which it was made."

Don’t hesitate – I know, it’s yet another re-re-re-release, but trust me: this one’s done right, and it’s worth it.

© Peter Bourne. October 2015


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