Rave On Procol Harum, Still Skipping the Light Art-Rock Fandango
The song's descending organ line a borrowing from Bach (intentional) and Percy Sledge (unconscious) that has become stately rock history is as unmistakable and unforgettable as any handful of notes in popular music. In the summer of '67, Procol Harum painted A Whiter Shade of Pale all over the radio and the record charts, launching a career and putting organically integrated classical rock firmly on the map.
That début single proved to be the English group's finest commercial hour in America, but it was only the beginning of a far-ranging and influential creative enterprise. With thick-voiced singer-pianist Gary Brooker and lyricist Keith Reid at the helm, and Hendrixian guitarist Robin Trower firing salvos of stylish rock power into the sometimes symphonic mix, Procol Harum reached the '70s at the peak of its form.
Subtle, affecting albums like A Salty Dog and Broken Barricades remain impressive documents of rock musicians ambitiously searching for new means of expression.
As the field for groups unafraid of strings and things became crowded, a series of personnel changes and uneven albums brought Procol Harum to close up shop in the late '70s. But the band returned to recording and touring action this decade; The Long Goodbye (RCA Victor), a newly recorded symphonic greatest-hits album that features Brooker and other members of the current lineup, has just been released.
This Sunday, Procol Harum will join the Jefferson Starship (which includes original Jefferson Airplane members Paul Kantner, Marty Balin and Jack Casady) and John Kay and Steppenwolf for a night of nostalgia at Westbury Music Fair.
What makes this appearance particularly notable is organist Matthew Fisher, who will be on hand to play the memorable keyboard parts he created for A Whiter Shade of Pale and other classics of the canon. Fisher, now 49, left the group in 1969 to spend more time in the recording studio specifically the one he owned and operated in London. Although he was on the outs with Brooker for 15 years, they repaired that relationship in 1984. ('When my management changed in 1984,' Fisher reports, 'five minutes later I was working with Gary again.')
'Procol Harum got back together around late '89,' recalls Fisher. 'Gary gave me a ring and asked if I was interested. I said sure. I thought it would be more full-time than it turned out to be, and I was looking for something to throw my energies into, so I went to Cambridge [University] and did a degree in computer science. I graduated on the 1st of July, which was a Saturday, and Monday we started rehearsing for this tour. It's been a bit fast and furious.' (Along with Brooker and Fisher, Procol Harum now includes drummer Graham Broad, guitarist Geoff Whitehorn and bassist Matt Pegg.)
'After twenty years in the studio you get sick of that. The idea of going on the road is very appealing now,' says Fisher. One thing not very appealing to Fisher was the new album, for which he reluctantly played church organ on one track. 'I have to state that I do not approve of that kind of thing symphonic rock. I don't mind rock being symphonic in its content, but I think it's pretentious to get an orchestra in to play. When Procol had an orchestra it was something I wanted to do, but I was disappointed with the results.'
PROCOL HARUM, JEFFERSON STARSHIP, STEPPENWOLF. Sunday at 7 p.m. at Westbury Music Fair, 960 Brush Hollow Rd., Westbury, (516) 334-0800. Tickets are $25. [PH setlist here]
GRAPHIC: Photo-Two original members organist Matthew Fisher, left, and singer-pianist Gary Brooker now lead Procol Harum.