Procol Harum

the Pale

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Bach, blues and snobs like me

William Littler in Toronto Star, Monday 7 July 1969

So rock has come to Stratford. After flirting with several earlier manifestations of musical pop culture, from the balladry of Ed McCurdy to the semi-sophisticated jazz of Duke Ellington, the festival that Shakespeare founded [sic] has finally come to terms with NOW.

You may not like NOW. In many ways I don't. But it's here, people are involved in it, and a Festival that purports to speak to people as at least as great an obligation to show them the best of what is happening today as it has to show them the best of what happened yesterday.

You may, of course, argue that rock is not the best of what is happening musically today. Snob that I am, I still believe that an aesthetic gulf divides art music from pop music and that the creativity of a group such as the Procol Harum is fingerpainting beside the creativity of a Boulez or a Britten.

But if the business of msuic [sic] is communication, there is no denying the success of rock. The Procol Harum won two standing ovations from a capacity audience in Stratford's Festival Theatre yesterday afternoon.

The same audience did not stand when Lawrence Smith led the Festival Orchestra in a spirited (if slightly rough-and-ready) reading of the overture from Bach's Suite in D major, or when violinist Charles Libove and oboist Ray Still made musical work of Bach's C minor Concerto for violin and oboe. Although the concert bore the title Bach Rock, old Johann Sebastian ran second in popularity to the young men from Britain.

Perhaps this tells us more about the audience than it does about the relative merits of Bach and the Procol Harum. The incidence of youth was high; the proportion of Stratford regulars, low. The people who came, came mostly to hear rock.

Then why make Bach share the billing? Not simply becauseA Whiter Shade of Pale, the first Procol Harum hit, is an amalgam – an unusually successful amalgam [sic] – of Bach and blues. More likely the reason has to do with the Festival's assumption of some sort of kinship between the Baroque master and his amplified descendants.

And make no mistake, a kinship exists. The creative practitioners of rock are like Bach, complete musicians, who compose the music they play. Gary Brooker, vocalist and pianist of the Procol Harum, also writes most of the group's songs in collaboration with a variety of lyricists [sic].

What is unfortunate in the joint billing is the further assumption that Bach and the Procol Harum belong on the same ball team. They don't. And it is this assumption that is symptomatic of a growing pretentiousness that may ultimately destroy rock as a constructive force.

When rock made its initial impact in the 50s, its strength derived from the primitive rhythmic beat it wedded to the traditional wellsprings of American pop music: Negro blues, country music and, latterly, jazz. As it became more sophisticated, however, it also became also more eclectic, more ambitious, until, in the person of such groups as the Procol Harum, it began using the structural tools and even the very music of the masters.

I can think of no better example of the bankruptcy of this trend than the centrepiece of the Procol Harum's Stratford program: In Held ’Twas in I. Described as ‘an eighteen minute, mind-bending hallucination', this piece is, in reality, an embarrassingly inept attempt by Keith Reid (words), Gary Brooker and Matthew Fisher (the group's organist) to create a rock cantata, complete with chorus, solo narratives and orchestra.

There are fresh ideas in In Held ’Twas in I, some moments of clever irreverence, but they are vitiated by pseudo-sophisticated echoes of Beethoven, Bach, Handel and company. What could be more antithetical to the primitive strength of rock than piano bridges of watered-down Moonlight Sonata and a choral finale, complete with trumpets blaring – a veritable Hallelujah Chorus?

There is, it seems, a moral here. Rock will continue to survive as long as it acknowledges its primitive roots. When its disciples start fraternising with art music, applying their limited technical equipment to complex problems, the product will likely resemble what the Procol Harum produced in In Held ’Twas I [sic]: Kitsch.

More about Procol Harum at Stratford, 1969 

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