Procol Harum

the Pale

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The 'What-if' History of Procol Harum


[After reading Nick Hancock's new book 'What Didn't Happen Next', I've become a firm believer in the 'What If..' theory. For example, Nick reckons that if Scotland had scored another goal against Holland in the 1978 soccer World Cup, then Argentina wouldn't have 'invaded' The Falkland Islands, Neil Kinnock would have won the 1987 general election for Labour, and that Spurs' football manager would have become President of Argentina.]

So, a 'what-if' history of Procol Harum:

In late 1966 Procol Harum are formed around the songwriting team of ex-Paramount Gary Brooker, unknown lyricist Keith Reid and organist Matthew Fisher. They are to be called after Guy Stevens' mother's cat, before deciding that 'Butch' may send out the wrong signals. However, it turns out that when they study the cat's birth certificate, it says that its name is Procul Harem, misspelt by the registrar on duty that day, who later becomes a music journalist, and thus continuing to misspell it his whole career.

With Dave Knights recruited on Bass, Gary immediately insists that fellow Paramounts BJ Wilson and Robin Trower join the band on drums and guitar, rather than use session men. After all, they have a proven track-record in the studio and on the road. A line of session men, including Bobby Harrison, Ray Royer, Bill Eyden, Jimmy Page, and Ritchie Blackmore slink off into the shadows to almost certain anonymity, apart from Jimmy Page who records the guitar solos in Tom Jones' It's Not Unusual.

May 1967. A Whiter Shade Of Pale is released. Initial support for a song called Lime Street Blues to be the B-side dies away as Fisher balks at Brooker's insistence that he play bursts of cod organ in the style of Billy Cotton's Bandshow, a well-known British TV cabaret act. A Fisher instrumental, Repent Walpurgis, gets the thumbs up instead, thus securing him a deserved royalty for life. However, under pressure from the tabloid press, he later claims to have co-written AWSoP and most of Bach's music.

With a strong B-side supporting it, AWSoP sells by the bucket load. It is number 1 in Britain for eight weeks, even holding off The Beatles' All You Need Is Love before finally succumbing. Media attention is intense. Who is that organist, and why does the drummer hold his sticks 'funny'?

Their management are extremely supportive, almost as if Procol are their only clients. Despite a hectic schedule, Procol Harum are given 'space' to record their first album - and subsequent singles - in state-of-the-art studios. Guy Stevens introduces them to David Bowie, although at the time he is just a young mime artist. Guy waits five years before introducing Bowie to another one of his 'artists' (an even more bizarre choice, Mott The Hoople).

The next single is pencilled in as Homburg, until Gary comes up with a rather fruity orchestral arrangement for a song called Conquistador. A flock of producers swarm in (Visconti, Cordell, the Abbey Road mob) and the resulting sound is bigger than the Albert Hall. The song is expanded to have a further keyboard / guitar solo before the last verse. The single, backed by a simple arrangement of a song called Pandora's Box, is released in early September. The Press love it, it shoots to No 1 all over the place, although some feel that Box could do with a few years' more thought and a cow-bell. The group buy some more sensible stage gear for appearing on Top of The Pops, so as not to feel too foolish in years to come when it is repeated ad infinitum (which is Latin for 'Beyond even these things').

With Conquistador knocking Englelbert Humperdinck's The Last Waltz off the top spot (which makes it even more popular still), Procol's debut album is released mid-September to rave reviews. The Summer of Love lasts an extra week or two. The album includes AWSoP as the opening track, followed by Conquistador. With Repent as the closing track, some reviews snootily remark that there are too many singles and B-sides and not enough new tracks. The glorious use of stereo is remarked upon in high places. As a result of all this, The Move, who share the same management, get a superb record deal and are catapulted to super-stardom.

The album does good business that Christmas, with every teenager begging their parents for a copy in order that it may inspire them to write humorous science fiction books in years to come. To coincide with this, Procol Harum release Homburg in December, and many disappointed teenagers get this in their Christmas stocking instead. 'And it was only seven shillings and sixpence,' says Dad, puffing on his pipe; 'Good hats, homburgs.' The single thought to be too sombre and too English sells three million worldwide, reaching No 5 in Britain. The B-side is a special Christmas mix of Lime Street Blues, with jingling bells, and the band singing carols in the background. Mono-loving Dads who mock the use of stereo are subjected to extended bursts of Procol Harum.

The singles continue to sell into the new year, but it isn't until March that a new one appears. Awash again in Hammond Organ, it is called I Wish that Someone Was Me. DJs play it up and down the country, girls swoon over the sentiments of the title, and boys think it's a really cool sound. What they don't realize is that there has been much arguing over the title. Management have stamped their little feet, and told the group that An Ode By Any Other Name is not the name of a hit record. However, Keith Reid citing that 'Mighty Quinn, Cinderella Rockafella, and The Legend Of Xanadu are topping the charts and they've got crap names as well' does little to help his argument. They almost compromise with the title Quite Rightly So, before logic prevails. The record reaches the Top 10 in Britain and the USA, but Keith Reid still reckons it would have been higher if they hadn't changed the name ...

The album Shine On Brightly becomes the album to own in 1968; the extended In Held 'Twas In I attracting most attention. The Times leader questions whether popular beat music really has to last this long - 'Three minutes is quite enough for most people, so why stretch to twenty?' they grumble. The title track fails to quite reach the Top 10, but becomes a huge influence on the Vietnam War. US soldiers see peace-making messages in the song, and it becomes a theme for the 'Enlightened' generation. Their peaceful protests lead to a slim election victory for Nixon, who has no choice but to quickly end the war.

The Fisher-produced A Salty Dog is even more influential. The single and album go to No 1, and attracts the attention of The Beatles, presently falling apart. As Fisher leaves the band to go into production, one of his first projects is The Beatles' final album, All Things Must Pass. It features Maybe I'm Amazed, God, My Sweet Lord, It Don't Come Easy, Working Class Hero, Every Night etc. David Knights also goes into production; his productions with Blodwyn Pig and Henry Cow are largely overlooked. However, he later becomes a shepherd. Keith Reid writes Piggy Pig Pig in praise of his New Age lifestyle.

News of Procol Harum's demise are premature, as reflected by the cover and the sentiments of their new album featuring Chris Copping on bass / keyboards. The cover features a typical English graveyard tombstone on a black background, with the words 'Procol Harum, Home' on the stone. Its bleakness gives rise to it being referred to as The Black Album. To lighten the overall feel (and to ensure younger fans don't slit their wrists), management include as an insert a free snakes and ladders game with the optimistic message Whoosh across the board. The printers make a mix-up and put the game board on the cover of the first few thousand copies and ship them to Sweden under the title Whoosh, until the mistake is spotted and the tombstone cover is restored. The Swedish covers become collectors' items. Chris Thomas, given the choice of being second fiddle on the Beatles album or producing Home, wisely steers for Home. Whisky Train goes top 10 all around the world. Still There'll Be More isn't so lucky; banned by the BBC for pissing on people's doors, it only makes 15 in the UK. Curiously it makes No 1 in the USA.

The Labour government loses the election in the UK, and blames Procol Harum's Home for spoiling the 'Feel-Good-Factor' that the sixties had created and that Labour had taken the credit for (The Beatles, the 1966 World Cup victory, the Summer of Love, Val Doonican).

After much speculation, Procol sign a lucrative new contract with Chrysalis. They are accused of taking advantage of the new Conservative Government's tax cuts for high earners. But their first Chrysalis album, Broken Barricades, is a blunt answer to their critics, who take a savaging at the hands of Keith Reid's lyrics (if lyrics can have hands...). Tom Jones calls them to ask if he can cover Simple Sister. The band say they'll let him know, and they release it as a single. The BBC ban it for giving everyone whooping cough, and it only reaches No 18. The title track does a little better, and Song For A Dreamer takes them back into the top 10. The B-sides are mainly Robin Trower compositions.

The band steal off to Edmonton to record a secret live album with Alan Cartwright joining on bass. The album, an early greatest hits live, takes them to superstardom status. As the band haven't had an album of new material out for over a year, Robin Trower finds time to release his first solo album.

Matthew Fisher produces an album called The Dark Side of the Moon. It is not a hit. He asks Medicine Head if Pink Floyd can also use the title, and ends up producing an album by the same name for Floyd. This time it's a hit. A big hit.

The Democratic Party use The Watergate building with no apparent problems; Nixon is so popular that he wins easily in 1972's election because everyone loves him, until they realize he's a loony. Procol Harum record Grand Hotel. The reviews are extraordinary, and with only Dylan and Tony Orlando to compete with, the band dominate the charts. A Souvenir Of London is banned by the BBC - for mentioning London ... or something ... no-one is too sure - and they ban For Liquorice John for advertising ... Liquorice. The title track and Toujours L'Amour are US chart toppers. Despite heavy pushing from Chrysalis, Toujours flounders at No 5 in the UK.

Exotic Birds and Fruit is released to equal acclaim - the first side dominated by Brooker / Reid songs, the second mainly by Trower / Reid material, as the writers square up to fight it out for domination. The bluesy Butterfly Boys and rocking Fresh Fruit make the band sound as tight as ever.

However, the touring is taking its toll, though, and they foolishly choose Leiber and Stoller to produce their next album, Ninth. It flops. Pandora's Box makes the top 10 to everyone's surprise, but the damage is done. Island / Chrysalis Records go into crisis management. Chris Blackwell buys Queens Park Rangers Football Club as a tactical manoeuvre on some very bad financial advice. Republican Spiro Agnew loses the presidential election to Jimmy Carter in a landslide. British PM Harold Wilson resigns.

Robin Trower and Alan Cartwright leave to form Balls with Frankie Miller on vocals. They are extremely successful, and turn up regularly in the monologues of Johnny Carson and Mike Yarwood.

The rest of the band regroup in the throes of punk and New Wave, and record Something Magic with Mick Grabham, from the enormously successful supergroup Sutherland Brothers and Quiver (I think maybe this article has gone a bit too far into fantasy), and Pete Solley on keyboard. The album doesn't make any sense whatsoever (Ah, back to reality again). The band tour and break up.

BJ Wilson becomes a member of Balls, and lives happily ever after. Balls make stable progress, saving the jittering Island / Chrysalis.

Gary Brooker fishes for Britain.

Keith Reid is extremely rich.

Chris Copping retires to Australia to get a bit of peace and quiet.

Matthew Fisher produces Michael Jackson's Thriller.

Thanks, davelee

Read another What-if piece by davelee

What if there had been no Bob Dylan?

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