into Something Rich and Strange : Procol Harum 2000
Procol Harum is a world-class rock band of unique vitality and finesse, a national treasure of which we may be justly proud. Tonight's headlining appearance, their first concert of the Millennium, has been eagerly awaited around the globe, and fans have flown in from Australia, North and South America, and all across Europe to witness it.
Everyone remembers Procol's first single eleven million of us own it ! which seemed to encapsulate all the glories of 1967's "Summer of Love"; but fewer recall that the group who created A Whiter Shade of Pale convened in freezing North London church halls, and made their impact upon a primitive world that was yet to hear Sergeant Pepper. Procol Harum have always been ground-breakers, releasing eleven seminal albums essential listening now on CD that include the acknowledged inspirations for rock landmarks such as Tommy and Bohemian Rhapsody.
The UK media, puzzled by a group that didn't jump about on stage or sing about lurrve, limited their interest to Procol's unfathomable name (did it derive from Latin, or a Burmese cat's birth-certificate?) and their sparsity of chart singles (though other influential underground acts, the Floyds and Zeppelins, got away with far fewer!). Yet these were trivial issues beside the completely individual music that was spilling out of the group's central partnership
Singer / pianist / composer Gary Brooker [born 1945] now lives close to Guildford, but was born in London, and paid his dues handsomely in R&B outfits such as The Paramounts, once described as the Rolling Stones' favourite band. Having shared a stage with the Beatles at age 20, he was 'ready to retire' when he began writing with Keith Reid, an ambitious wordsmith whose lyrical vision grafted the verve and scathing humour of Bob Dylan on to a body of weighty European influences.
Early Procol albums saw these eclectic, innovative songs presented by an amalgam of extraordinarily gifted players: tonight's famous organist, Matthew Fisher , a fellow-composer of exquisite sensibility; guitar-hero Robin Trower, later to attract his own cult; and percussionist BJ Wilson who even now, almost ten years after his death, tops polls for the unparalleled drama and imagination of his drumming.
'Our heart is in the blues, or in the lungs of some giant organ,' said Brooker but there was vaudeville, country, calypso and Baroque in the band's music too: in fact it's hard to think of a style that didn't undergo the Procol 'sea-change into something rich and strange'. Record after record, fuelled by judicious conflicts intellect with instinct, melody with muscle, grandeur with grotesque, precision with passion burst on our ears like a Genie raving inside a cool, classical urn.
Fearless innovators, Procol Harum had begun playing Brooker's own, self-taught arrangements live with orchestras as early as 1969 (Deep Purple's Concerto for Group and Orchestra didn't hit the Albert Hall until the following year). The soulful voice and tempestuous guitar, sweeping through the majestic architecture of a symphonic setting, proved irresistibly moving, and a live recording made with a Canadian orchestra and choir was Procol's largest-selling album of the early seventies. Tonight's fine blues guitarist, Mick Grabham , made his début with the band in an ambitious London showcase with the Royal Philharmonic; orchestral / choral concerts followed in Switzerland, Germany and Austria, and at LA's Hollywood Bowl.
Alongside these extravaganzas the band also averaged about a hundred regular rock gigs a year, right through to their dissolution in 1977. Yet the fact that they habitually sold-out the big venues across Europe and America (not to mention their quirky forays into Poland, their Presidential invitations to Mexico, and their command performance of The Blue Danube for Strauss HQ in Vienna) still comes as news to many otherwise-enlightened music fans.
Though the 1980s saw no official Harum activity, their orchestral oeuvre remained in demand, as Gary Brooker frequently accepted invitations to perform Procol music, alongside his growing solo-album repertoire, on 'Rock meets Classic' tours in Europe and Japan. He has also toured with Eric Clapton's band, scored a ballet at the request of the Royal Theatre of Copenhagen, and a commissioned work for huge brass ensemble in Switzerland; with chamber strings and choir he recorded a Gary Brooker Ensemble CD, and he still runs 'No Stiletto Shoes', an all-star band of R&B hooligans who have raised £50,000 for Surrey charities.
Procol Harum's star rose again in the 1990s; the group brought out a new album, recorded with tonight's percussionist Mark Brzezicki , and toured the USA and Europe promoting it. 1992 saw another orchestral / choral encounter in Canada: as always, the programme drew on the entire Procol repertoire music that was not written at fashion's dictates will never sound dated! A fabulous concert with the London Symphony Orchestra, promoting a 1995 CD of the group's classic songs, elicited the longest ovation in the Barbican Theatre's history: featuring tonight's bassist, Matt Pegg , it is still the most-requested item in their entire recorded archive. A full-length Harum biography, Beyond the Pale, was recently published, and one of the web's most authoritative dedicated music sites the 1,900-page www.procolharum.com presents full details of all records and projects touched on in this article.
Following a joyous Thirtieth Birthday Party at Redhill in July 1997, when nine quondam band-members entranced fans from every nation, Procol Harum no longer seems like a fixed group so much as a pool of adepts, on whom Gary Brooker the band's 33-year constant can draw for particular recitals, just as the leader of any Contemporary Music ensemble would do. Though Brooker has spent recent years touring the world with Ringo's All-Starr Band, the British Rock Symphony, and Bill Wyman's Rhythm Kings, he comes home tonight, in every sense, to do what Procol Harum has always done
Combining piano, organ, guitar, bass and drums, and that mesmerising voice, Procol Harum, orchestra and chorus will present jewel after jewel from the treasury of their repertoire, as substantial as it is nourishing as it is eternal. Stand by for some truly unique entertainment.
Roland Clare © 2000
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