Along with All You Need Is Love and San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Some Flowers In Your Hair), Procol Harum's A Whiter Shade of Pale was the sound of the Summer of Love. Nobody had ever heard anything quite like that sonorous, funereal anthem.
Even today, after a million plays, the song retains its haunting, elusive quality. But to many people Procol Harum appear, like Orson Welles with Citizen Kane, to have started at the top with A Whiter Shade of Pale and then worked their way steadily downhill. In fact, in the decade between that landmark 1967 single and their split in 1977, Procol went on to record a stunning sequence of ten perfectly-crafted albums.
The abiding interest in all things Procol is testified by the recent release of three archive albums. The first of these, Pandora's Box (Westside WESA 821), is a 12-track compilation made up of out-takes from the time of Procol's eponymous first album, which was cut at Sound Techniques in south west London during the summer of 1967.
Fascinating as the alternate takes of Cerdes (Outside The Gates Of) and Repent Walpurgis are, there is little to differentiate them from the familiar 1967 album versions. Of rather more interest to Procol fans is an alternate stereo mix of Whiter Shade and an instrumental first stab at Pandora's Box, a song which would surface in finished form - with typically inscrutable Keith Reid lyrics - as the opening track on Procol's Ninth in 1975.
Still missing though is the version of A Whiter Shade of Pale featuring the unreleased fourth verse - for which we should perhaps be grateful: 'If music be the food of love, and laughter is its queen / And likewise if behind's in front, then dirt in truth is clean / My mouth by then like cardboard, seemed to slip straight through my head / So we crash-dived straight way quickly / And attacked the ocean bed'. [sic].
Pandora's Box is nevertheless an intriguing addition to Westside's worthy cycle of Procol Harum reissues - and if it lacks the tingle factor of earlier CDs, that's only because the Procol vaults have effectively been stripped bare.
Personally, I think that Procol's follow-up, Homburg, was actually a better song but, because of its endless recycling on 60s compilations, A Whiter Shade of Pale still defines Procol Harum - and Gary Brooker understandably retains an enormous fondness for the song: 'I've always had a great affection for the effect it's had on my life. I could go anywhere in the world, get caught by natives in Fiji, and I mention A Whiter Shade of Pale, and it's 'Aah'. It really reached far into the depths of things. In that way it's always been handy, for breaking the ice at parties ...'
'I know that producer Denny Cordell was in the toilet when we did the take! We recorded A Whiter Shade of Pale in April, it was out within three weeks, and within six weeks of us going in the studio, it was No.1 in every country in the world ... I think the worst place for it is in this country, where the general opinion is that Procol made one record, and that was it.'
Ain't Nothin' To Get Excited About (Gazza, GAZZA 002) is another Procol archive release, this time only available via mail order. Credited to 'Liquorice John Death', the 13 songs here emanate from the legendary 12-hour session which Procol undertook in 1970 under the watchful eye of producer Chris Thomas, just prior to the recording of the band's fourth album, the Thomas-produced Home.
In their previous incarnation as the Paramounts, Procol had established quite a reputation in the buzzing British beat scene of the early 60s; and it was effectively the Paramounts who convened at Abbey Road's No 2 studio for the marathon session of 17 January 1970. Taking up what he'd learned from watching the Beatles and George Martin at work on the 'White Album', Thomas got Procol into a groove by running through their old repertoire. From 7pm to 7am, the band dug deep into their rock'n'roll and R&B past, effortlessly and evocatively crashing through Vince Taylor's Brand New Cadillac - nine years before the Clash brought it back to life on London Calling.
Little Richard's Lucille and Keep A Knockin', Carl Perkins' Matchbox and Jerry Lee Lewis' High School Confidential were among the 30 or so songs recorded that night. But the tapes stayed a secret until Capital Radio DJ Roger Scott obtained a copy and slipped it to colleague Nicky Horne, who premiered some of the songs on a 1976 edition of his show Your Mother Wouldn't Like It. The result was an NME feature blowing the gaff. But, even then, the 'Liquorice John' takes remained unreleased - until 1998, when six of them were tacked on the end of The Paramounts At Abbey Road, 1963-1970 (EMI 7243 49643628). Comprising 22 tracks recorded by Procol when they were a hard-working covers band, supporting the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, this CD also featured the band rocking out on such staples as Poison Ivy, Bad Blood, Little Bitty Pretty One, and remains the best evidence yet of the Paramounts on disc.
But back to 'Liquorice John' - actually one Dave Mundy, a contemporary of Brooker's at school in Southend, who hated the name of the Paramounts and was forever trying to convince the group to change their name to Liquorice John Death & His All Stars. Mundy suffered from mental problems and was institutionalised in the late 60s, before eventually committing suicide in 1972 by throwing himself from a 15-storey building. The event was remembered by Procol Harum on For Liquorice John from their 1973 album Grand Hotel ('He fell from grace and hit the ground...'). And amid all the rock'n'roll favourites on Ain't Nothin' To Get Excited About is Well, I ..., a poem by Dave Mundy which Procol set to music, and which makes its official début here.
Fans who witnessed Procol at their peak will recall the band's ability to rock up a storm in concert. Procol were always typecast as gloomy and Gothic, solemn and splendid, which - on record - they undoubtedly were. But, in live performance, the Paramounts would soon break through - and that lightness of touch is evident on this album.
Gary Brooker always had a great rock voice, but even he can be heard close to collapse on Keep A Knockin'. This is a priceless souvenir of Procol Harum, and of a session that Brooker still remembers with affection: 'We went into Abbey Road one night. It was the four of us from the Paramounts, but all those years on, more experienced in our playing. It was what the Paramounts should have been. (Robin) Trower plays fantastically well.'
Incredible but true: Procol Harum: BBC Live In Concert (BBC SFRSCD 089) is the band's first live album since their Canadian gig with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, memorably released on album in 1972, but currently unavailable on CD. The BBC recording, which dates from 1974, features Procol pushing their then current - and currently undervalued - album, Exotic Birds & Fruit. Like the 'Liquorice John ...' album, this shows that in concert Procol could rock out with the best of them. Highlights here are Barrie Wilson's drumming, Mick Grabham's guitar, and Brooker's sweep over the majestic Whaling Stories and Grand Hotel. There are also the hits that should have been: As Strong As Samson and Nothing But The Truth - emphasising once again that Procol Harum had far from lost it after Whiter Shade.
To tie in with the renewed interest in all things Harum, the first-ever biography of the band has just been published by SAF. Claes Johansen's 'Beyond The Pale' is a thorough, well-researched chronicle of the band, from the Paramounts' Southend to the Nirvana that Procol Harum frequently attained.
Too often, Procol Harum were simply lumped in with the Moody Blues and the worst elements of late-60s progressive rock. It was an image the band themselves were well aware of, and Johansen quotes Procol organist Matthew Fisher quitting after receiving Keith Reid's latest batch of lyrics: 'all the same old coffins and rotting corpses ... it tends to put you off a bit'. But these recent archive releases help to paint a fuller picture - of a band who could muster mighty musical muscle onstage, but were also capable of infusing their albums with a solemnity and epic dignity unequalled by any of their contemporaries.
The world might only remember Procol Harum for that song, but their peers know better. 'We were talking to Pete Townshend once,' Gary Brooker recollected, 'and he said Tommy only happened because we'd done In Held 'Twas In I (the lengthy song suite from Procol's second album, Shine On Brightly). Brian May has always been a big fan; he said in Queen we were only doing what you were doing on Whaling Stories; lots of ideas compressed into six or seven minutes ... even down to the quiet ending, which was a different idea at the time. This huge piece, which didn't end with a massive great wallop, which ends very quietly, as did Bohemian Rhapsody !'
Procol Harum: 'Beyond The Pale' is published at £ 12.99, Unit 7, Shaftesbury Centre, 85 Barlby Rd, London, W10 6NB; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Ain't Nothin' To Get Excited About (£13), from Shine On at 56 Brecknock Road, London, N7 ODD; e-mail: email@example.com
The Procol Harum website is at www.procolharum.com
Thanks to Tormod Ringvold for typing!
More Procol history in print
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