Procol Harum

Beyond
the Pale 

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Shine on Brightly • 2015 triple-CD reissue from Esoteric Records

Reviewed by Peter Bourne


Peter Bourne sends ‘Beyond the Pale’ (October 2015) ‘a few updates/revisions/edits to an earlier Facebook review of Shine on Brightly, as I’ve recently been listening to the expanded version. This (lengthy) review was originally on the single disc version, which has been passed on to a family member. A long-ish rant, so get comfortable …’


Flashback, late 1968/early 1969: I had just started a (highly-coveted) job at a prestigious music store (remember those?) in Montreal, Canada: International Music on Sainte-Catherine Street. Among my main duties was to maintain stock, thus I saw every record that came in (good, bad and ugly). I remember noting this one (with its green background and gold-plated woman-figure-standing-at-an-upright-piano in the desert North American cover (not the far more interesting ‘Harpsichord from Hell’ UK cover). “Procol Harum!?” I said. “Not the same band that did Whiter Shade,  which saturated the airwaves for much of ‘67?” I had lost track of them after the Big Hit (so many bands, so little time…), and wasn’t really familiar with the first album, which was eventually released in late 1967, I think (?), with Whiter Shade, but without Homburg, which I don’t recall being released in Canada until later. I’d heard the early 1968 single (Quite Rightly So c/w Sixpence – included here), but it hadn’t made much of an impact, either on me or on the charts. A&M Records (Procol Harum’s US/Canada label) was still quite small at the time, and, although California-based, by 1968 was starting to add hitherto unreleased British rock acts to their otherwise MOR roster, such as Spooky Tooth, Joe Cocker, the Move, Fairport Convention and a few others, and, most notably for me, "that A Whiter Shade of Pale band." As a small label, and to promote sales, A&M encouraged us resellers to sample their “product” (as the “suits” called it), so we sometimes got promo copies (to keep!). From a batch of promos that came in one day, we employees got to choose one each, and I chose Shine On Brightly. Wish I still had that original …. oh, well.

On first listen, I was blown away! Here was proof these guys weren’t just a one-hit wonder (and there were plenty of those then – Hot Smoke and Sassafras by Bubble Puppy, anyone?). I was struck immediately by the tight structure and unusual (for the time) instrumentation of this album - piano and organ? This was rarely heard (and mostly unheard of) in rock music (OK … the Band!). The store I worked at was renowned for its classical music section, and I was learning to appreciate classical music in all its sophistication, perhaps for the first time in my life (alas, I remain untrained!). SoB didn’t sell particularly well – but I played it to death and wore it out (maybe that’s why I didn’t keep it!), and it prompted a lot of interest, but that didn’t necessarily translate into sales. The old critical recognition/low sales problem!

I won’t bore you with a song-by-song analysis, because there’s already loads of that … but a few album points should perhaps be made:

        • This was bassist David Knights’s second album, and his playing (before, since, but especially here), in my view, was exemplary. There are many who have unfairly dismissed his playing (“No imagination!” “He just plays what Brooker tells him to play” “Boring!”). Poppycock, I say (indignantly in a very English way!). He played simple lines; he also beautifully complemented BJ Wilson, one of rock’s best drummers, ever, one-half of “... rock’s most underrated rhythm section …” (from Henry Scott-Irvine’s Salvo notes). Essentially Procol were a five-piece orchestra (with resident lyricist and using occasional instrumental augmentation). Good case in point for DK is the very simple, very lovely bass intro to Grand Finale. Three full notes, followed by the piano tune. Very simple, very powerful, just the ticket.

        • Speaking of the piano, Matthew Fisher does play it in several spots in the “long tune”, (In Held ‘Twas In I) as well as Hammond organ. Gary Brooker played the opening piano part (following the aforementioned three bass guitar notes), and in several other spots, with Fisher taking over later when the choir comes in.

        • This was the album that prompted many to say that Procol was the first "progressive rock" band. Certainly In Held was proggy, a suite of distinctly separate songs/recitations, one of the first of its type (I think Vanilla Fudge did one earlier, centering on You Keep Me Hanging On). Others say King Crimson take the honour of being the first prog band, an opinion I tend to favour. Actually, I’ve never thought of Procol as a prog-rock band: these typically rely on considerable chops (check), instrumental mastery (check), and often a lot of improvisation. Here’s where they depart: although their chops are second to none, Procol’s material consists of highly structured songs, which are often blues-based (their earlier R&B background as The Paramounts (reportedly the Stones’ favourite British R&B band) attest to that. Robin Trower’s guitar workouts are the best examples of this, and Gary Brooker’s compositions are often R&B-based, with his unique flair. But it’s Fisher’s organ playing, steeped in the classics (especially baroque), which really set them apart from the others. Much of his Hammond work (from the earlier album’s Repent Walpurgis, AWSoP, etc.) might be construed by some as "prog", but not in the same way as, say, Rick Wakeman or John Evan. To me, the prog genre is largely jazz-fusion with words (I don’t mean to sound dismissive, because I do like it, in small doses), while Procol is more pseudo-classical R&B hybrid, if a label is needed. And not just Bach/baroque, but 20th century – good examples in Moonbeams: a little of Rodrigo’s Aranjuez, a little Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance at the end.

        Shine on Brightly is probably Procol’s best album – it has the elements we want and expect: celestial Church of England Hammond organ everywhere, the R&B stylings, the disciplined structures and highest-level playing, and of course, a great "long tune." Their style became solidified and consolidated here, after the impressive debut which was still (a bit) “all over the place” stylistically; and although my personal favourite is the next one (A Salty Dog), which came a year or so later, and was more eclectic (adding folk and hard-rock elements to their established style), Shine On continues to shine on. Very Brightly indeed.

Now – a little on the new Esoteric release. Speed issue with the Salvo release: solved – easily audible. After “A-B”-ing the Esoteric vs. the Salvo, it was noticeable right away, especially in the opening bars of Rightly, Brightly, and Magdalene. Frankly, the Salvo, which I’ve had since its release, had been fine for me, but my lack of perfect pitch betrayed me. It may still be OK for those of you who have the Salvo CD (and not perfect pitch!).

Disc 3 has more bonus tracks, but there are still some on the Salvo that weren’t included on the Esoteric (Oh, and the Salvo’s worth it for Henry Scott-Irvine’s excellent liner notes. He also wrote excellent new notes for this box). Also, Disc 2 is  a real find: the long-lost mono mix of the main album – only originally released in the UK, I’m told. Sounds good to me – I’m a mono fan, especially of this era. And from all reports, it’s a "true" mono mix – not “folded down” from the stereo mix. Probably, because many people are unused to hearing true mono sound for music like this, it may sound “thin.” But the stereo mix (Disc 1) truly “shines brightly.” Better than the Salvo, to these old ears anyway; more transparency, instruments more distinct, a real soundstage in places. The legendary Glyn Johns was part of the original engineering team at Olympic, so assuming the tapes (which this release purportedly used) were in good shape, this good result is not surprising.

Note that the single disc version comes in a traditional jewel box with booklet insert, not a digipak or a cardboard album-sleeve-style like the Salvo. Mixed feelings: jewel boxes are fragile when dropped (fortunately replacements are cheap) but are durable for storage, while the other formats get mixed reviews. The triple-set is contained in a cardboard clamshell-type box, and beside the excellent notes, there is a fold-out poster with the European ‘Harpsichord from Hell" cover (which is also the main box cover), the other side of the poster being the North American gold-lady-piano-in-the-desert cover. The album’s main lyrics are also printed on the poster. The booklet contains many photos of the band (individually and collectively) – the booklet’s cover is a detail from the green American album cover.

Bonus-bonus alert! Three small postcards included, reproducing 1968 concert posters  (maybe tickets?) – two from concerts at the Grande Ballroom, Detroit (admission $1.75 and $1.50), and one from the San Francisco International Pop Festival at the Alameda County Fairgrounds – admission cost: not indicated  (probably not much, if not free). Terrific replica relics!

All in all, of the various recent releases, the Esoteric’s the clear winner in my view – and the 3-set is recommended over the single, for all the extras. Crucially, it has the correct speed, and a very good mastering job was done. I can’t speak to the earliest “un-fiddled-with” mastering because I haven’t heard it. But I have heard the Westside, the Repertoire and I think one other (label escapes me) – all pretty good as I recall. There’s all kinds of tech-talk out there “rambling on” (and on and on… J ) about brickwalling and peak limiting and Pro-Tools analyses and whatnot – fine for those who like (and need) that sort of thing: I suppose it may help some decide whether to get the Esoteric (or not). For me, the critical question is ‘does it Sound Good? (and is my equipment good enough to make it so?)’. I’m an unabashed fan of remastering; much has been learned since the ‘80s, and we’re the richer for it. The Esoteric is definitely the best (but keep your Salvo if you have one – for the bonus tracks!). “Life is like a beanstalk, isn’t it?”

Peter Bourne. October 2015


 

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