A WHITER SHADE OF PALE
Within weeks of forming Procol Harum, Gary Brooker and Keith Reid's first recorded composition reached the UK #1 slot (10 June 1967). The fastest-selling single in the history of Decca Records, released on their Deram label, A Whiter Shade Of Pale remained at #1 for six weeks before becoming a global hit of incredible magnitude, allegedly selling in excess of ten million copies.
In many ways the song defined the essence of Procol Harum: dual keyboards, blue-eyed soul vocal, a fusion of classical themes with mid 1960s R&B soul crossover and cinematic lyrics. Its influence was enormous. It is reputed to have inspired John Lennon's penning of I Am The Walrus; Elton John's lyricist Bernie Taupin rates it as his favourite song of all time; and Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg owed a debt when they recorded Je t'aime in 1968 (cough, splutter). Countless covers have been recorded, the best being by Percy Sledge, King Curtis, Joe Cocker and Annie Lennox.
Gary Brooker's musical career began five years prior to Procol whilst still at school in Southend-on-Sea. Some time in 1962 Brooker formed The Paramounts; loved by Mods, they were, in truth, an R&B / soul covers band, cited by The Rolling Stones as 'their favourite R&B band'. Many of the obscure 'hep' tunes performed by the Paramounts were borrowed from Soho 'scene' club DJ Guy Stevens's record collection. Brooker met future Procol lyricist Keith Reid at Stevens's house in 1966, by which time Brooker was writing tunes. However, like his contemporary counterpart Elton John (still a relative obscurity) he was unable to write lyrics. Keith Reid could, and rather well! A partnership was born.
PROCOL HARUM (the
album) Disc One
Procol recorded their debut album at Olympic Studios in Barnes, London in the summer of 1967 at the peak of 'flower power'. The group were tied to an all-embracing deal with Essex Music (who were also The Rolling Stones' publishers). The 'deal' meant that Essex not only owned the UK rights to the recordings as well as the lyrics, but also allowed them to provide management through their subsidiary Straight Ahead Productions. As a result, decisions were taken in the interest of Straight Ahead / Essex instead of Procol. Consequently, instead of capitalising upon the success of A Whiter Shade of Pale, Straight Ahead Productions decided to delay the release of the album whilst cutting a suitable label deal for their roster of 'new' talent, which included T Rex, Joe Cocker and The Move, who, with the exception of the latter, were unknown in 1967. As a consequence, the album, which would have been ahead of the field in the summer of '67, was almost ignored in the UK when finally released on EMI's Regal Zonophone label in January 1968.
Procol Harum had been intentionally recorded 'live' in the studio (and in mono) by producer Denny Cordell. The stereo engineering excellence of The Beatles' Sergeant Pepper album meant that all subsequent product was assessed largely upon that criteria. Music paper ponces proceeded to pan Procol's debut LP, and one of their criticisms was valid. Worldwide superstars The Beatles could afford to leave Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane off Sergeant Pepper. Procol, however, could not afford to lose A Whiter Shade Of Pale and its million-selling follow-up Homburg (UK #6) from their debut LP. The liner notes claim that it should 'be listened to in the spirit in which it was made'. This must have seemed like a poor excuse for the hits' omission, as well as a shoddy apology for the delayed release of an album recorded quickly live-in-the-studio in four-track mono. It failed to chart in the UK in 1968, but when re-released in 1972 to include A Whiter Shade Of Pale and the album A Salty Dog, the 'Doubleback' reached UK #27.
Having been digitally transferred Procol Harum seems better sound-wise than its analogue vinyl counterpart. The performances are magnificent and the songs rate amongst Procol's finest. The opening track Conquistador provided Procol with their third Top 30 single (on both sides of the pond) when re-recorded with The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra in 1971. Salad Days was used in an obscure British Film Institute feature film entitled Separation (1967), while Kaleidoscope, a psychedelic minor masterpiece, seems as powerful today as it must have thirty years ago. A candidate for Kula Shaker to cover?
SHINE ON BRIGHTLY – Disc
Procol's second album, Shine On Brightly, was recorded over many sessions between the autumn of 1967 and the autumn of 1968. Two outtakes emanate from the 20/10/67 session and are featured here on Disc #3: namely Seem To Have The Blues (Mostly [sic] All The Time) and Monsieur Armand.
Producer Denny Cordell began to lose interest in Procol in 1968 and despite being credited as producer was content to allow 'Assistant Producer' Tony Visconti (later to become Bowie's regular producer) to hold the reins after the recording of the single Quite Rightly So and its B side in March 1968. Olympic Studios' wizard engineer Glyn Johns, who was then working on The Rolling Stones' Beggars Banquet album, was also enlisted, but uncredited on the sleeve. Meanwhile, Cordell became preoccupied with his burgeoning talent Joe Cocker and even poached Procol's organist and drummer to play on Cocker's UK #1 smash With A Little Help From My Friends.
Released in December 1968, the album is perhaps Procol's tour de force. Nevertheless, In Held 'Twas In I, originally entitled Magnum Harum, is something of a magnum opus, but The Grand Finale [sic] is classic Harum, with Rob Trower's guitar in ecstatic form. Interestingly, for the record, The Who's Pete Townshend, who is often credited with citing The Pretty Things' SF Sorrow as the major influence on his rock opera Tommy, claimed In Held 'Twas In I was a major inspiration on Tommy. Compare The Grand Finale with Tommy's finale (!)
The Hammond organ playing of Procol's Matthew Fisher – then nicknamed 'Matthew Celestial Smith' as a tribute to his eclectic influences – and Rob Trower's unique blues-drenched guitar playing both succeeded better on this album than on any other. The sleeve is a clever depiction of Reid's lyrics for the title track. Deemed offensive by the American label A&M, the artwork was banned and redone for US release. It reached US #24 but failed to chart in the UK, despite excellent reviews.
A SALTY DOG – Disc
As Procol were a major headline band in the USA in the late 1960s – topping acts like Santana, The Byrds, Pink Floyd – the group decided to record the third album at the A&M Studio in Los Angeles. Long Gone Geek and The Wreck of the Hesperus are the only two tracks to survive from that session. Stoke Poges was scrapped and has been subsequently lost. Procol upped their bags when they were offered the chance to complete the album using EMI's eight-track facilities at Abbey Road Studios, London, in January / February 1969, with Procol's Matthew Fisher working as producer as well as singer / songwriter on three tracks (The Hollies' producer Ron Richards aided Fisher on these compositions, but was not credited.)
A Salty Dog was much lauded around the globe when released in the summer of 1969, but for my money it's a patchy album. Quality ranges from the masterpiece of the title track – 'Procol's Citizen Kane' according to Matthew Fisher – to the poor man's blues of Juicy John Pink and Crucifiction Lane (both composed by Robin Trower, the latter sung by him too) and the weedy ballads Pilgrim's Progress and Wreck Of The Hesperus (both composed and sung by Fisher). The Gary Brooker compositions are definitely the strongest. The Devil Came From Kansas was covered by Frankie Miller's first outfit, The Stoics, and helped cement a lifelong friendship between Brooker and Miller. The title track has since been covered by artistes as diverse as Sarah Brightman, Billy Joel and Marc Almond. The album cover, which is a clever parody of the old Player's Navy Cut cigarette packet, was painted by Keith Reid's then girlfriend 'Dickinson'. The album reached US #32 and UK #27. (Due to time constrictions the track A Salty Dog appears on Disc Three, in context of its single release).
HOME – Disc Two
By the time A Salty Dog was released, both Matthew Fisher and Dave Knights had split from the group. It was now decided that Fisher would be the group's producer. Former Paramount Chris Copping was enlisted to play bass and lyricwriter Keith Reid (a non-musician) attempted to play the Hammond. Four tracks for Procol's fourth album were recorded on this basis, but scrapped when they proved to be 'unsatisfactory'. George Martin protege Chris Thomas (the man who produced The Beatles' song Helter Skelter) was enlisted as producer – a relationship that would endure for a further four albums – and Procol's fourth album, entitled Home, went into production throughout February / March 1970.
Procol were now a four-piece, with Copping playing bass and occasional keyboard (and bass keyboard when on tour). This led to a much more rock orientated band, who were in effect The Paramounts re-born. The material on this album is more consistent and stronger than on its predecessor. But it is a dark album. Keith Reid's lyrics are preoccupied with death and nightmares. However, they do make for extremely evocative compositions, and come no better than the surreal nightmarish sea shanty Whaling Stories, a song which paved the way for many 1970s 'progressive' rock groups. At the other end of the spectrum are the upbeat rockers Still There'll Be More and Your Own Choice, the latter featuring great harmonica playing from the legendary Larry Adler (uncredited). No singles were released from this album in the UK, although the Trower / Reid composition Whisky Train, a take on Elvis Presley's Mystery Train, was released as a single in the States. The album charted at UK #49 and US #34.
PROCOL HARUM – IT MEANS 'BEYOND THESE
Procol Harum went on to make a further six albums before splitting up in the wake of Disco and Punk in May 1977 – ten years after their inception. They reformed in 1991 and recorded The Prodigal Stranger for ZOO / BMG. In 1996 they released The Long Goodbye (The Symphonic Music of Procol Harum) for BMG, featuring The London Symphony Orchestra. 2,000 people attended a live equivalent of the album at London's Barbican on February 6th 1996.
Quoted without asking permission: but if the above doesn't convince people to buy the album, what will?
Buy the 30th Anniversary Anthology from Amazon USA
Buy the 30th Anniversary Anthology from Amazon UK