Shane Faubert in Music Hound, 1999
Gary Brooker, piano, vocals; Keith Reid, lyrics; Matthew Fisher, organ, vocals (196670, 1991); Dave Knights, bass (196670); Ray Royer, guitar (196667); Bobby Harrison, drums (196667); Robin Trower, guitar (196771, 1991); BJ Wilson (died 1989), drums 196777); Chris Copping, bass, organ (197077); Dave Ball, guitar (197172); Alan Cartwright, bass (197176); Mick Grabham, guitar (197277); Pete Solley, organ (197677); Dave Bronze, bass (1991); Mark Brzezicki, drums (1991).
From the ashes of the Paramounts, a commercially unsuccessful British R&B band, rose Procol Harum, which established itself early with the landmark single A Whiter Shade of Pale. Unlike other "progressive" rock bands of the time, Procol Harum didn't use string arrangements and classical melodies to disguise the fact that it couldn't write or as a way to seem more important than it was. On the contrary, it wrote concise pop songs that were magnificent, beautiful, haunting, mysterious, and hummable. Gary Brooker and Keith Reid are obvious choices when discussing what made Procol Harum tick, but BJ Wilson is possibly one of the most underrated drummers ever (slightly less manic than Keith Moon and far more stylish), and the many guitarists who played with the band (Robin Trower went on to huge success as a solo act) all provided flash and taste. Things tended to sound bombastic or pretentious at times, but you always got the feeling that the band was winking at you all the while. For example, is A Salty Dog a sailing song or is it the story of conception? Only Reid knows for sure. But Procol Harum ran out of inspiration a couple of albums before it quit recording for the first time (the group reunited in 1991). Brooker, Reid, and Matthew Fisher have recorded and toured together recently, and much of the magic has returned with them.
What to buy
A Salty Dog (rating 4.5) (A&M, 1969, prod. Matthew Fisher) has the title song, So [sic] Much between Us, Fisher's Boredom, and probably the strangest drinking song ever recorded, The Devil Came from Kansas.
Greatest Hits (rating 4) (A&M, 1996, prod. various) provides a good single-disc overview of the band, featuring digitally remastered sound.
What to buy next
Powerful production, good songs, great guitar solos, and some wonderful counterpoint singing on Fires which Burn Brightly make Grand Hotel (rating 5) (Chrysalis, 1973, prod. Chris Thomas) a surprising and consistently fine album.
What to avoid
On Something Magic (rating 2) (Chrysalis, 1977, prod. Procol Harum, Ron Albert, Howie Albert) the band sounds too tired to do anything but go for the formula and hope for the best. It didn't work, and the band broke up shortly after.
A Whiter Shade of Pale (rating 3.5) (A&M, 1967)
Shine on Brightly (rating 3) (A&M, 1968)
Home (rating 3) (A&M, 1970)
Broken Barricades (rating 3.5) (A&M, 1971)
The Best of Procol Harum (rating 3.5) (A&M, 1972)
Procol Harum in Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra (rating 3.5) (Chrysalis, 1972)
Exotic Birds and Fruit (rating 3) (Chrysalis, 1974)
Procol's Ninth (rating 2.5) (Chrysalis, 1975)
The Prodigal Stranger (rating 3) (Zoo, 1991)
The Long Goodbye: Symphonic Music of Procol Harum (rating 2) (RCA Victor, 1995)
30th Anniversary Anthology (Westside, 1998)
Worth searching for
Fisher's first solo outing, Journey's End (RCA, 1973), is a neat collection of pop tunes not at all what you might expect after hearing the band's work.
No More Fear of Flying (rating 2.5) (Chrysalis, 1979)
Lead Me to the Water (rating 3) (PolyGram, 1982)
Echoes in the Night (rating 3) (PolyGram, 1984)
I'll Be There (rating 2.5) (RCA, 1974)
Matthew Fisher (rating 2.5) (A&M, 1980)
<JS Bach, the Shangri-Las
> Electric Light Orchestra, Genesis, Kansas
Originally published by Visible Ink Press / Schirmer Trade books