Procol Harum

the Pale

PH on stage | PH on record | PH in print | BtP features | What's new | Interact with BtP | For sale | Site search | Home

A barrage of views from AOL

Sent in by Joan May

Repent Walpurgis ... keyboard virtuosity ... different drummers ... guitarists ...

GOLDMINE magazine published the following letter in their 12/6/96 issue, under their title:


From reading Michael Dawson's review of the boxed set 'Supernatural Fairy Tales: The Progressive Rock Era' (#424), I have to conclude that he's a major Frank Zappa fan and has little to say about any of the other artists in the set. I'd like to amend his review from the perspective of a major Procol Harum fan

As the review mentioned Procol Harum without specifying which song is included, I bet almost every reader assumed A Whiter Shade of Pale. Well, Not This Time!! Fortunately, and Finally, another Procol masterpiece is featured , and what a Beauty it is the Matthew Fisher-composed instrumental Repent Walpurgis. Fisher's gorgeous Bach-inspired melodies and heavenly signature cathedral sound on the Hammond are well represented here. In a related story, I've recently discovered (from an interview on the Procol Harum Website), that Fisher, not Bach, is the composer of the immortal organ intro and countermelodies on A Whiter Shade of Pale, and has been inexplicably denied his due credit in the music press for the last 29 years.

Not only is Repent Walpurgis a showcase for Fisher, it may also be Robin Trower's finest hour! He achieves an Incredible sound, like a wild, frenzied, electrified cello, that fits so well into the classical/rock/blues fusion of Procol Harum and no band has ever accomplished so perfect a fusion. Every note every nuance on Trower's 2 guitar solos is an Inspiration! All of Trower's fans, whether or not they know of Procol Harum, should be awed by his work on this track. I think most or all those familiar with the late B.J. Wilson (sadly a small group at present) rate him as the greatest, the most musical, drummer the world has ever known. His brilliance is better recorded on Procol's later albums, but if actively listened for, it can be heard on Walpurgis as well, though not prominent in the mix. Thankfully, Wilson's totally unique and beautiful solo drumrolls at the end are clearly audible and help immeasurably in bringing the track to an exciting conclusion. I hope the inclusion of Repent Walpurgis in this prestigious boxed collection will bring new fans to Procol Harum, one of the finest and most underrated bands in Rock. So I suggest everyone pick up a copy, or, better yet, eliminate that chore and just start buying Procol Harum CD's.

Joan May

Michael Dawson ( is a PH Expert who wrote a long piece on them for Goldmine a few years ago. In his review of Supernatural FT, he mentioned PH, but not what song was included or anything else about them, saving most of his verbiage for Frank Zappa and his sidemen! So I wrote the above letter. Well, Dawson wasn't too happy with this and said so in the AOL PH Folder where he's been a frequent participant. I'm used to Rock critics being very thick-skinned, able to laugh off even the most scathing comments from readers, not to mention my gentle teasing. But I failed to realize 2 things: that Goldmine didn't give him the chance to respond, and that he isn't a typical Rock critic but primarily an Artist, which is a whole different sensibility. (He's a Musician who has a CD out, and a WWW Page see his last post below for details). I emailed him about the letter and I think he's more ok with it now at least I hope so.

Here's the AOL discussion (with a couple of other things included ... just Because <g ....:)

Subject: A stung shrew! Date: 96-11-26 22:02:37 EST From: Biffyshrew

Just received my subscription copy of Goldmine (they make me pay for it now--when Jeff was the editor I got it free). Ouch!!!

Joan, that letter was a little below the belt. Who the hell do you think wrote Goldmine's *cover story* on Procol Harum a few years back?

Your pal, Michael the Big Dumb Human Being @}-`--}---- Remember when you felt it first? At

Subj.: Supernatural Harum Date: 96-11-26 23:36:19 EST From: Jem33

Sorry Biffy, I meant no disrespect, and really thought you'd be amused, not angry, by what I wrote.

For those who don't know Biffy wrote a review of that Supernatural Fairy Tales Boxed Set for GM, and mentioned PH but nothing further about them not even which of their songs was included in the collection. The only artist who got more than a few words in the review was Frank Zappa. I was surprised at this but decided to be polite about it (I thought I was being polite anyway) and to treat it as an opportunity So I wrote an amendment to his review, which they printed in the 12/6 issue (typo and all) they entitled it Supernatural Harum an appreciation of Repent Walpurgis, PH, MF, RT and BJW. I was grateful that Biffy gave me the opportunity to get more verbiage about PH in print, even though only in a letter, than there could possibly have been in a review of that boxed set.

My opening 2 sentences were intended to be tongue in cheek, and alluded to the overabundance of Frank Zappa material in Biffy's review and the need for a PH amendment. I still don't understand why there weren't a few more words about PH/Walpurgis in your review, Biffy. Is it that you don't care for that song?

I'm really sorry you were hurt by what I wrote, as that was certainly not my intention. In fact, I kind of expected you to have written a response to my letter, to the effect that your PH credentials were greater than mine, etc. Didn't they give you the chance to do that? Jeff [Tamarkin former Editor of GM jm] probably would have. I thought that was standard practice. If you do respond in the next issue I hope you'll go somewhat easy on me and use it as another opportunity to get some more PH praises in print this time by a real professional.

Subject: Supernatural Biffy Tails Date: 96-11-27 21:19:34 EST From: Biffyshrew

Well, at least I mentioned PH in the first place; how many other reviews of the set even did that much? As Joan herself points out, there's no way I could have gone as much detail as she did about any one track on the five-CD set--Joan's letter was roughly the same length as my whole review. Nor is there space to give every one of some 50 artists their fair shake, or even a name check. By far the hardest part of writing those things is cutting them down to size, ya know. Believe me, I wish they were assigning me (and paying me for) a 10,000-word, in-depth examination of the music on Supernatural Fairy Tales, with special emphasis on the groups I happen to like best...

The problem I had with the opening sentences of Joan's letter is that in saying that I 'don't have much to say' about all but one of the artists on SFT she implied I was ignorant of those artists. Of course she didn't literally say that, and I guess she didn't mean that, but I would have made the same inference even if I hadn't been the writer in question. What makes this more discouraging is that Joan's criticism is the ONLY feedback I received on my review. (Well, except for my paycheck. Yes, they did pay me for that one, which, the way things are going at Goldmine these days, shouldn't be taken for granted.)

I did go into a little extra detail on the Frank Zappa cut, although I hardly think X# of sentences is an 'overabundance.' The reason for this is that the Zappa cut stands out track for several reasons. First, it's the only track on the whole box set by an American artist (or, to look at it another way, the only track by a non-European artist). Second, as the last track on the whole set, it serves as a 'Grand Finale' for the whole project. Third, in a genre of music that practically worships instrumental virtuosity, Zappa's crew is pretty much unbeatable. I mean, purely in terms of technical chops--and remember, this is IMPORTANT to prog-rock fans--does anyone seriously believe there could be any contest between Matthew Fisher and (Zappa keyboardist) George Duke? Fourth, the Zappa track has an interesting story behind it: Zappa's guitar solo was 'flown in' from a live performance, which was a pioneering use of this technique, so I mentioned it. Especially since it's an AMAZING solo. (I believe it was the first recorded instance of Zappa using the tapping-with-the-pick technique.) Fifth...well, okay, yeah, I *AM* a big Zappa fan, okay? Ya wanna make somethin' of it? :-)

(Trivia question: who turned down an offer to join Procol Harum and joined Frank Zappa's band instead?) be continued on the next post!


Subject: Tails from Topographic Biffy Date: 96-11-27 21:20:41 EST From: Biffyshrew

The rant continues:

On the other hand, I perceive PH as being pretty tangential to the whole prog-rock scene. I believe they were included in the box set more as an example of the *roots* of prog-rock rather than as the full-blown '70s-style thing itself--same with Traffic and Pretty Things. If I had felt I could afford to go into detail about any other individual tracks on SFT, I would not have singled out 'Repent Walpurgis'; I would have chosen tracks by Yes, Genesis, or one of the other core groups of the genre. Would my review have been any better if I'd left out the passage on Zappa entirely? In retrospect, I do wish I'd included some description of the FIRST cut on the set (the Nice's 'America'). As it is, I felt compelled to cut out a bunch of stuff I wrote about ELP as a paradigm for prog in general. Joan's letter rightly praises 'Repent Walpurgis' for its excellent musical qualities, but I don't really agree that it's an appropriate choice to introduce new fans to Procol. The thing about 'Repent Walpurgis' is that it's an instrumental, which is distinctly uncharacteristic of PH. Without Gary's voice and Keith's lyrics, you're not hearing the classic Procol mix. As superb as 'RW' is, it's not the track I'd have chosen to represent PH. (Off the top of my head, and bearing in mind that I want to stress the prog-rock aspect of the band, I might have chosen 'A Salty Dog'...or 'All This And More' [maybe the live version], or 'Whaling Stories,' or 'Grand Hotel,' or, if I could get away with it, 'In Held 'Twas In I' in its entirety. Actually, come to think of it, I'd go for the Live/Edmonton S.O. version of 'Luskus Delph' from the British single, so I could finally have this on a CD!!!) No, they don't usually offer me a chance to respond to letters (not that I get mentioned on the letters page all that often). I could tell you stories about this, but this tirade has gone on way too long already. Anyway, I'd prefer to keep it among friends--we're all friends here, right?--rather than argue publicly. Your pal, Biffy the Elephant Shrew @}-`--}---- The devil came from

Subject: Re: Supernatural Biffy Tails Date: 96-11-29 15:37:26 EST From: Jem33

Thanks for that enjoyable rant, Biffy! And I don't think anyone who read your review or my letter would think for a minute that your were ignorant about any artists.

....does anyone seriously believe there could be any contest between Matthew Fisher and (Zappa keyboardist) George Duke? <<<

Well, to paraphrase Mr. Horshack: 'OOOO OOOOOOOO Mr. Dawsnnnnnn!!! Meeee!! MeeeeeeeeEEE!!' {VBG}

Of course I'm not referring to technical proficiency. I imagine Duke wins on that score, though I don't know for sure, nor do I care. It's just that Jazz Fusion leaves me cold, whereas MF's playing has exactly the opposite effect on me.

Subject: M. Fisher Date: 96-11-29 16:07:33 EST From: BigRedBecn

Just saw this story told on the Mott the Hoople mailing list by Morgan Fisher, who played keyboards in the later versions of MTH, which transmogrified into Mott and then British Lions.

It seems that the British Lions were opening for Status Quo. Morgan was setting up his B-3, and one of the members of Status Quo (Rossi?) came up to him asked if that was the organ he used on AWSoP. Morgan had to tell him that he had the wrong Fisher.

Subject: Re: Supernatural Biffy Tails Date: 96-11-30 01:41:15 EST From: EMVan1

<<Third, in a genre of music that practically worships instrumental virtuosity, Zappa's crew is pretty much unbeatable.

Well, there's at least one crew as good . . . Christian Vander's ever-changing gang over in France, aka MAGMA. I'd classify the MAGMA LIVE version of 'Kohntark(osz)' as the only piece of music I know of where the musicianship frequently crosses the line into the realm of the superhuman or almost literally unbelievable. And that line-up doesn't even include bassist Jannik Top, who (like Vander on drums) has a legit claim for having the best chops on his instrument in all of (prog) rock. And it's all as visceral as Zappa is intellectual.

NB: The Magma track that was chosen for the Rhino box is almost painfully unrepresentative. If I were doing a *MAGMA* box set, I'd probably leave it out! One reason why I'm not buying the box (we have a nice little discussion in the Prog Rock folder going about how the box should have been done).


Subject: Re: Prodigal/PH's Future Date: 96-11-25 18:37:56 EST From: EMVan1

I certainly wasn't disappointed by Prodigal, largely because '(You Can't) Turn Back the Page' ranks with GB's absolute best compositions, and several others ('The Pursuit of Happiness' and 'Holding On' spring first to mind) weren't far behind. But I think the CD suffered from a number of problems, almost all of which can be traced back to a single source: the perceived need to be commercially successful and warrant the investment put into them by a major label.

PH's sound is classic; there was no need whatsoever to update it with synths or other 90's production touches. If the taste of the masses has changed, that's the masses' problem: that's my attitude and it should be PH/GB's. They should find an indie label that wants them to do the sort of music they love best with ZERO regard to commerciality, and just do it. With the right producer and studio, I'm sure they could make great sounding records for a fraction of the money they spent on PRODIGAL. As a model, I'd use HOME; it's classic-sounding PH without string sections, exotic instruments, or even a lot of overdubs (excluding the phantom fifth member on 'Piggy Pig Pig,' 'Whaling Stories,' etc.). (Those nice extra touches could come later, of course).

Then, they should just tour the hell out of it. They have an unusually passionate installed fan base to build off of. Who needs airplay (how much did Phish get)?

The only other thing we'd need to do to help resurrect the band is waylay KR's daughter and kidnap his wife. Or something like that. I can't help shake the feeling that since KR exorcised the last of his demons (sometime around EXOTIC BIRDS), he simply hasn't had much to *say*. I'd like to think that a conscious move away from pop and towards art would reveal that he still has some fires burning; all PRODIGAL showed was a perfectly competent, utterly professional lyricist whom I would have never spotted as KR if it weren't for a handful of lines scattered throughout the CD.

Finally, when I saw PH in Boston a few years back, I thought Mark B was decent enough on drums . . . then for the last 3 numbers (the closing combo of 'ASD' and 'Whaling Stories' and the first encore of 'Repent Walpurgis') the very spirit of B.J. came down and settled on his shoulders. It was downright transformational. All GB has to do, I think, is pay Mark B not by the gig but on a drum-fill-for-drum-fill basis. The more he does, the more money he makes! The thing that made B.J. the second most important-to-his-band drummer in the history of rock (after Keith Moon, of course, and excluding drummers who write) was an absolute lack of shame about 'overplaying.' I think most mortal drummers must get that burned into their brain in their first few years of drum lessons. That Mark B could lose those inhibitions by the end of a very successful gig and just start WAILING all over the kit like prime B.J. is proof that he could do it from the opening gun, under the best of circumstances.

No recent evidence suggests that Gary has lost *anything* in the vocal or compositional skills department, versus PH's prime. That is saying A LOT, because you can count the number of people in the history of rock who could sing and write better than GB on the fingers of . . . ah, maybe two fingers (Brian Wilson and Jack Bruce). If the *talent* is still there, all we need to do is solve the problematical relationship with the 'livelihood' end of the equation. And that is very doable. Eric

Subject: Re: Prodigal/PH's Future Date: 96-12-01 15:20:10 EST From: Jem33

Hi Eric! {Hey, great plug for PH in the Prog Rock Folder!!}

Interesting post about Prodigal Stranger. I certainly agree with you about slickness, etc. I think they miscalculated even from the standpoint of being commercial the synth craze was on its way 'out' or already out of fashion when they made that album. The Grunge/guitar sound was coming 'in.' They might have done better commercially (as well as artistically, IMHO) if they had showcased Trower.

According to a radio interview with GB and KR, they used a Drum Machine for most of the rehearsing and making of demos, waiting until the final hour to DECIDE whether to stick with the Machine (??!!!) or go with a live drummer. [I just thought of a possible explanation that makes me feel better about this: maybe they were hoping that BJ would recover and join them, and they didn't want to have to fire a newly hired drummer]. Anyway, they decided on the live drummer route, and chose Mark B, the first one who auditioned. I agree that Mark sounded much better live than he did on the CD, where, IMO, he often sounded like a machine. I heard that he studied BJ's parts diligently before going out on tour with PH. [..and as a result he sounded like a machine that was programmed to emulate BJ --jm]... Did you know he left around 1992 to rejoin Big Country? Ian Wallace played with them in 1993, Graham Broad in 1995, and Henry Spinetti at that London Symphony gig in 2/96. I liked some of Broad's work, especially the reggae drumming in the revamped version of Boredom. I don't think Mark is at all part of PH anymore. In fact I wonder if there Is a PH anymore.

I have a few suggestions for the band, to add to yours:

Take some time to find a truly Exceptional drummer

Get Trower OR Grabham to return. I've been listening to the MG albums lately, and to some live audio and video footage I've recently acquired. The man was Awesome! MG did play one gig with PH, in the summer of 1995 I think, at Cambridge, to celebrate MF's completing his degree there. But I think the set-list consisted of old rock tunes rather than PH songs. See Phase's Newsletter for details. I don't see why MG didn't join the band when RT left in 1991... How busy could he have been?

Do at least one long slow sensual Blues tune. Preferably with RT or MG of course... Gary really Shines on blues vocals and piano!!! Why doesn't he realize this and capitalize on it?? That 'Hey Bartender' intro they do to Whiskey Train is Great. I wish they'd expand that to a complete song.

Let MF do some soloing on Hammond!! There are 2 Beauties on his first 2 solo albums Theme from Separation and Song Without Words. And I Love that Stoke Poges instrumental he wrote. The current PH line-up could do a Bang-up job on that one!!

Let MF Sing!!! Or MAKE him sing <G.

Subject: Re: Prodigal/PH's Future Date: 96-12-01 19:20:43 EST From: Haclac

Well I wanted to pop in to congratulate Joan on her enormous letter in the latest Goldmine but clearly it has been discussed already. Joan you are an animal and I mean that in the loveliest way. I do agree with Biffy about PH's place in the prog pantheon and probably IN Held is as prog as PH ever got. Anyway any press is good press for PH and thanks to Joan they have been introduced again to at least the Goldmine readers. BTW, Biffy is goldmine in trouble? I noticed that their web site is a few months behind which seemed strange since they just got it started. Other PH sightings...a new movie called Breaking the Waves directed by Lars Von Trier has a soundtrack of classic rock and included is Procul Harum (how many times can they screw up that spelling...even 30 years later). The song of course is AWSoP. The movie which is from Europe won the prize at Cannes and from reviews is interesting to say the least...I have seen a couple of films by Von Triers and he's got interesting style (Zentropa is one). Anyway Tull and several others are also on the CD so keep your eyes open. Finally I saw one of those Christmas type softcover books, called Rock Hound I think which is an alphabetical listing of groups and music to get. First PH is in there and gets glowing reviews. BJ is called 'one of the most underrated of rock drummers' (did you write this too Joan?). The book's a little different since they list CDs to get and avoid with each group and with PH they pick ASD and GH to get and to avoid...3 guesses but it rhymes with Tragic. Fun book to browse thru, I was glad to see they actually mentioned the Strawbs but no mention of Family and they thought Lou Reed's Berlin was among his best which I also agree with. Anyway good work Joan. Howard

Subject: Re: Prodigal/PH's Future Date: 96-12-01 19:52:06 EST From: Tausendsas

Joan, you nailed it (as usual). It would sure be nice to see Mick Grabham back in the fold if PH decides on another go-round. Grabham had a real 'ensemble' sense, and fit right in. Certainly a welcome relief after Dave Ball, who may have been a fine guitarist but who was all wrong for this band. Has anybody heard what Trower is up to these days? There's a small club near where I live that books a pretty eclectic mix of entertainment (from rock acts old and new to name comics), and Trower usually played there twice a year or so...last time he was booked, the owner said that Trower's people called and cancelled out on the day of the show with no explanation. He hasn't been back since. I haven't spotted any appearances in the NY area in a couple years. Al

Subject: Re: Prodigal/PH's Future Date: 96-12-01 20:20:40 EST From: Biffyshrew

Jem33 wrote: I agree that Mark sounded much better live than he did on the CD, where, IMO, he often sounded like a machine.<

Were the basic tracks for Prodigal Stranger even recorded with Brzezicki, or were they recorded with a machine and MB's live drums overdubbed later?

As for Goldmine, something fishy is going on with them, but I don't know what it is ('Do you, Mr. Biff?'). The fact that the managing editor departed almost immediately after Jeff Tamarkin did is quite suspicious, as is the fact that Jeff is now writing for rival mag DiscOveries (which had a really ludicrous vendetta against Jeff a few years back, trying to prove that he was the author of anonymous crank letters they received). (I always used to call them Disc Ovaries.) Meanwhile, in a recent issue I had four reviews published and I got paid for only two of them--I never had trouble getting paid under Jeff's regime. The new editor is very unresponsive. I'm fed up with Goldmine at this point, and don't plan to do any further writing for them--certainly not if they don't pay me for the stuff I've already done!

Your pal, Biffy the Elephant Shrew

PH on stage | PH on record | PH in print | BtP features | What's new | Interact with BtP | For sale | Site search | Home