In the town where I grew up there were two places to buy records: a family-owned department store and the local Woolworth's, both long gone. The first record I ever bought, the 45rpm single of Roger Miller's King of the Road, came from the former in 1965. I was 11 years old.
Those stores and the 7" records they sold got a lot of attention from me and my friends, but we didn't start buying LPs until a few years later. For one thing, we couldn't afford albums, which cost three dollars and change – a little less for mono when the choice existed – as opposed to 99 cents for singles. For another, we generally didn't want LPs – up to a certain point in time, most pop albums comprised little more than the artist's most recent hit or two, packaged with a lot of filler: weak B-sides, spiritless performances of hit songs by competing artists, those sorts of things.
Chuck Berry's 1965 album Fresh Berry's (sic, Chess LP-1498) is typical: It combines his latest single, the fine It Wasn't Me, with such Berry throwaways as Every Day We Rock & Roll and Merrily We Rock & Roll (yes, they're virtually the same song), and wig-flippingly bad renditions of One for My Baby and Vaya con Dios. Even the liner notes are awful: you can feel the writer's pain as he scratches, desperately, for something good to say.
The idea of a pop album as a consistent collection of good songs, let alone the idea of a pop album as a complete artistic statement, was in the future – defined, for our purposes, as 1967. That was a year of transition, when retail sales of 7" records began to soften and young consumers began buying LPs in increasing numbers. That was also a time when two records in particular seemed to be on everyone's turntable: a new album by the Beatles, Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the début single by another English group, Procol Harum.
Oceans of ink have been spilled on the former, but the latter remains underexposed, in spite of Procol having just released their eleventh album of new material in March of this year (The Well's On Fire, Eagle ER20006-2). From the other end of the timeline, their debut album, Procol Harum, has now been reissued on vinyl by those saints at Classic Records, in glorious mono (LRZ-1001).
Procol Harum started life as a songwriting team: lyricist Keith Reid, a flamboyantly bookish young man with an interest in the music business, and Gary Brooker, a composer, singer, and pianist with a distinctive, Ray Charles-inspired vocal style, which he honed during his years in an R&B band called The Paramounts. (The Paramounts very popular on their native Southend turf, and even snagged a local hit with their recording of Lieber and Stoller's Poison Ivy. The young John Atkinson was sometimes in their audience.) Within weeks of their meeting [sic], Brooker turned a pocketful of Reid's lyrics into a couple dozen distinctive rock songs – uniquely catchy things, some with unexpected melodic twists and chord sequences not generally heard in rock – and one of the songs made an impression at Deram Records, a subsidiary of Decca.
That song, with its four verses of Dylanesque whimsy and a musical framework that recalled both Bach's Air on a G String and Percy Sledge's When a Man Loves a Woman, was A Whiter Shade of Pale. Whacked down from its original four verses to two and framed with an organ line fashioned by the group's Matthew Fisher from another JS Bach piece (Wachet auf, from Cantata 140), the song became the biggest international hit of June 1967, and the fastest-selling single in Decca history. [In December 2005 Matthew posted a demo of Wachet Auf, using synths and a rhythm machine, at www.matthewfisher.com]
Instant success was not in anyone's plans, however, and chaos ensued. In June, new management was brought in. In July, guitarist Ray Royer and drummer Bobby Harrison were sacked – the latter hadn't even played on their hit, but was in fact passed over during the session in favor of Bill Eyden , who was Georgie Fame's drummer at the time – and when the pair threatened to sue, lawyers stepped in and began to grab all the money in sight. Two of Broker's old mates from the Paramounts were recruited, raising both the level of musicianship and the sense of Procol as a real band rather than a session group, but the latter was the impression the UK music press took hold of, and they stayed with it, souring on Brooker and company from the start.
There was an even more pressing matter at hand: How do you follow up a single like A Whiter Shade of Pale? It wasn't the first song Brooker and Reid had written together; in fact, by June 1967 they had more than two dozen fine originals in their repertoire, some of which, like their 1976 single Pandora's Box, wouldn't see the light of day for years. A number of those songs had already been recorded by the original version of the group – including the magnificent Homburg, which would be the follow-up single – but not enough for a whole album. So the reconstituted Procol Harum entered London's Olympic Sound Studios in late July and quickly recorded the bulk of their debut album, with producer Denny Cordell opting for a live-in-the-studio feel, with little overdubbing and nothing in the way of strings, effects, or exotic instrumentation.
That first, eponymous album was a stunner, but no one heard it until early 1968: Procol Harum's new management wanted it held back, at least partly because they didn't want the record to interfere with new releases by other acts in their roster. As if losing the momentum of the year's biggest single weren't bad enough, Deram decided to leave both A Whiter Shade of Pale and Homburg off the album (footnote 1). That was a common practice with established acts such as the Beatles, who could afford to leave Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane off their new album, and was defensible in light of the record-buying public's quaint reluctance to pay to own the same song twice. But in this case it was commercial suicide, leading to the hitherto unthinkable: a hit group whose first album didn't even chart.
There's even more: some folks who did buy Procol Harum, and not a few critics, complained about the album's Spartan production values, suggesting that the Beatles had raised the stakes with Sgt Pepper's – which they had, of course. What the hell kind of psychedelic was this, without so much as a single backward guitar solo?
Footnote 1: But they caved in to pressure from their US distributor and put AWSoP on the Stateside version.
The final blow was one that Procol delivered themselves: a complete and utter absence of visual appeal. Band appeared in concert and on TV dressed in fringed boots, Mandarin caps, and cheap-looking satin tunics and capes, looking less like pop stars than medieval Chinamen from outer space. Moreover, Procol Harum shows weren't shows at all, and notwithstanding the group's superb musicianship – Repent Walpurgis, a down instrumental by Fisher that sounded like nothing else in pop, seldom failed to get an ovation – they didn't give the audience a whole lot to look at. Fellow downtempomeisters Pink Floyd would eventually solve this puzzle for themselves by touring with their own sound system and light show, garnering more money and attention in the process, not undeservedly.
So what can we make of that first PH album? As others have suggested, it's a rare début that sounds this mature and fully realized. Procol was often compared to that other twin-keyboard outfit, the Band, but the latter's Music from Big Pink, brilliant though it is, a mishmash by comparison. While it contains examples of what would become the Band's signature sound – the loose, call-and-response singing, the half-time drumming, the almost Vision background wash of Garth Hudson's Lowrey organ – the song selection betrayed a few stylistic dead-ends, too, such as the riff-happy Chest Fever and the group's uncharacteristically lightweight cover song, Long Black Veil.
By contrast, although the material on Procol Harum describes a wide range of moods, there's a pretty strong vibe running throughout: intelligent, inventive, outrageous, a tiny bit pretentious here and there ... not unlike what the Beatles were doing with Strawberry Fields. Even the lyrics that sound dated – portions of A Christmas Camel, Kaleidoscope, and Cerdes – are carried along by Reid's literate attitude and cinematic perspective, the freshness of which allows the occasional slip into youthful pretentiousness to be overlooked, I think.
Just as important, the songs share a common sound, irrespective of tempo: that stately, almost churchy combination of piano and Hammond organ, punctuated – but no more – by the contrasting sound of Robin Trower's fuzzy take on the basic Steve Cropper electric guitar style (he hadn't yet discovered Hendrix) and propelled by the nimble drumming of the late, great BJ Wilson. Even on the more light-hearted numbers, the playing is singularly intense.
Is it "progressive rock"? That depends on how you define it. The melodies and arrangements go beyond the typical pop fare of its day, but then, Procol never went in for long keyboard solos, meaningless time-signature changes, or lyrics about wizards driving spaceships full of fairies to and from Stonehenge. Noting Brooker and Fisher's reliance on minor chords and generally slow tempos, some folks labeled the band "gothic" – but given that term's appropriation by obese, mall-wandering teens in black lipstick (not to mention JA's least favorite band, the Smiths), that doesn't fit, either. "Procol Harum music" will have to do.
A Classic example
Mike Hobson, president of Classic Records, told me about his adventures in bringing his reissue of Procol Harum to market (footnote 2), and the story has some unexpected twists of its own.
First, because the recording was never mixed for stereo – although most copies that made it to the US were reasserted in horridly fake two-channel sound – Hobson decided that the Classic reissue should be mono as well. He also decided that the only proper way to do the album would be to follow the original UK running order – which is to say, without A Whiter Shade of Pale or Homburg.
There was a surprise waiting for him. The opening track on the original UK album was Conquistador, but when Hobson cued up the equalized and laddered production master, the first song he heard was Homburg, with Conquistador relegated to the No.4 spot on side 2. What had happened? With so many people involved in producing the original, and with 35-year-old memories being somewhat faded, it's hard to say for sure. One good guess is that, late in the summer of 1967, Homburg was chosen as the album opener, but during the nearly half a year the album sat in the can, someone had a change of heart – perhaps wanting to prevent another lawsuit by the musicians who'd been let go, since they'd played on Homburg.
Replacement drummer BJ Wilson recalled going into the studio with Procol not long after Homburg was recorded and re-doing the drum part using the original four-track tapes. That newer version, sometimes heard in a very good stereo mix, turned up on a number of compilations over the years and may even have been used to master the single version in some markets, but apart from the better drumming – and less reverb added to the vocals during mixing – it's the same performance as the original.
Back to Mike Hobson – who wanted to do a "correct" reissue of the first Procol Harum album but who also had reservations about ignoring the group's most famous song. Eventually, he hit on an idea: do the album purist-right, but package it with an additional 12" record, that one with A Whiter Shade of Pale. They could even couple a 33rpm cut on one side with a higher-fidelity 45rpm version on the other, in what has become a recent Classic tradition, if you'll pardon the three-way oxymoron.
It took a while to locate the production master for the single – the original four-track tapes haven't surfaced since 1967, and are presumed forever lost – but along the way someone turned up a box from Ad Sound Studios in London, dated "April 1967" and marked, simply, "Whiter Shade of Pale plus takes." (Charmingly, the label on the box credits someone named Procol Harridan.) Rather than a mixed and I'd [sic] production master, the box contained an original four-track tape. Careful playback revealed the contents to be three different, unmixed recordings of the song, each slightly different from one another and from the "official" single.
Knowing he had some special tracks in his possession, Hobson looked for an equally special setting in which to mix them. He found it just southwest of London, moored on the Thames: an opulent Edwardian houseboat named The Astoria – or, as present owner David Gilmour, of Pink Floyd, has rechristened it, Astoria Sound Studios. It's quite possibly the finest floating recording studio in the world, and reportedly one of the most well-run studios anywhere, regardless of where it sits. Gilmour's magnificent Neve console is supplemented by such esoteric audiophile gear as ACT monitor loudspeakers, special-built equipment stands from Manna Acoustics, and a number of custom bits designed and installed by UK design genius and all-around tube guru Tim de Paravicini.
In fact, it was Mr de P whom Mike Hobson asked to cut all the Procol Harum lacquers, at the Exchange, the well-known London mastering house. And when Hobson secured a day at Astoria, he had de Paravicini there with him and producer John Luckier [sic] to create something that most people have never heard: a true stereo mix of one of rock's greatest singles.
Everyone who buys the Classic Records reissue of Procol Harum will get two 12" vinyl records: Tim de Paravicini's reasserting of the original début album and his reasserting of the original single release of A Whiter Shade of Pale, both in mono, the latter with a 33rpm side and a 45rpm side. The first 1000 buyers will also get a bonus: a 7" 45rpm single containing John Locke's remix of the alternate version of the famous single and its flip side – the snappy, R&B-tinged Lime Street Blues, also discovered on the four-track tape – in full stereo. (After that, I hope that Classic will consider offering the single for sale as a standalone record.)
The Classic package uses the same cover art as the original album – a woodcut by Keith Reid's then-girlfriend, Dickinson, who would design two more covers for the group – but since the new one will contain two and sometimes three records, a gatefold sleeve was chosen; Classic's art department took advantage of this opportunity to include two photos of the group, one showing the line-up that made the single, the other showing the album-track personnel – a nice touch. I only wish they'd gone whole-hog and included a poster version of the cover art, as did the first few thousand copies of the original LP. (I still have mine, but then, I'm a collector – which is to say, I'm sad.)
How does it all sound? Nothing short of glorious.
The original A Whiter Shade of Pale sounds great here: both chunkier and more "open" than any mastering I've heard, with an especially clear view of the electric bass line. But where the original is great, the stereo mix of the alternate version is superb. I'd never heard this recording of AWSoP before, and while true stereo mixes of the song have surfaced over the past five or six years, I believe those have mostly been from multitask recordings of live-in-the-studio performances, intended for broadcast.
By contrast, the Classic stereo version is a more "committed" performance, and although the group's inexperience shows – there are some slips in the bass line, and the drum part, by original drummer Harrison and not one of his more accomplished replacements, is overly deliberate and heavy-handed – the song sounds utterly fresh. And the extraordinarily good mastering job lets us really hear, for the first time, what original guitarist Ray Royer, the man with the most ahead-of-his-time hairdo in rock history, was doing in this song: mostly appreciated chords, but with some Cropper-sequel touches of his own. Cool, and cool.
As for the album itself, it's hard to imagine a more compelling reason to run right out and buy one of the new high-quality monophonic phonon cartridges. (God knows I love my Lira Helicon Mono.) Like the reasserting of the original single, the album has the same combination of substance and color that I hear in all the best mono records, and while nothing can be done to correct some aspects of it – what a horrible-sounding room that must have been! – Tim de Paravicini's reasserting is by far the least grainy I've heard. In short, it's a great success.
And now that I've listened to it, I'm surer than ever that the song selection on Classic's reissue – with Homburg as the first song – is the way the album was intended to be heard. In particular, the version of Conquistador here is not the one that came out on the UK and US albums, but is an earlier take 1, in fact) that was intended for release but was pulled in early December 1967 in favor of a performance with a slightly smoother solo by Fisher. (Take 1 is a rare bird, having surfaced on a collector's compilation only three years ago – and it, too, is often heard in a true stereo mix.) A few other changes were made to the running order at the same time the earlier Conquistador was pulled – these are noted on the box used for the UK album's master tape – which, again, probably reflect the "luxury" of having an extra six months added to the album's production schedule.
Don't sweat the small stuff: if, like me, you're a collector, this reissue will have you oohing and ahing for months. But the real appeal is to the many thousands of folks who appreciate great sound and truly classic rock'n'roll – and who, of course, are into vinyl. I said it when Classic Records reissued the live Dylan at Albert Hall, I said it when they did the Led Zeppelin BBC Sessions box, I said it when they started their wonderful Hefts series, and I say it again here: these guys just get better and better.
Footnote 2: Classic Records catalog number is LRZ-1001, price is $50 for the 2-disc set.
|A compilation on Eric records exists which claims to contain a
stereo mix of the original single of AWSoP, as opposed to the
familiar stereo mix of a different take of the song that is available on
the Westside compilation.
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