Procol Harum

the Pale 

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Procol Harum 1967

The Progressive Aspect review: Roger Trenwith online here

Procol Harum

Firstly, a caveat Ė the copy we have for review is the single CD edition, but for the fan there is a 2-CD version available that includes a further 23 tracks of alternate takes and radio sessions. I should also point out that the new liner notes by Procolís biographer Henry Scott-Irvine are not included with the single CD version, which is a shame. Minor grumbles aside, Procol Harumís first self-titled album is presented here as it should be in glorious mono, and the remastering is a crisp sonic success, with each instrument readily identifiable in the singular soundstage.

Procol Harum emerged from the remains of R&B band The Paramounts in 1967, and were so named after manager Guy Stevensís friendís cat. It didnít take long before the songwriting partnership of piano player and vocalist Gary Booker and lyricist Keith Reid, this time helped by organist Matthew Fisher married an adaptation of a JS Bach tune with Reidís fantastical poetry to craft one of the most iconic of 1960s singles, A Whiter Shade Of Pale, released in May of that musically unmatchable year. Although omitted from the groupís deebut album released in September, it is sensibly included here as one of four bonus tracks.

Many lesser bands would have collapsed under the weight of expectation after such a massive international deebut hit single, but these players were way too classy for that. This album is the sound of a band finding its way, and being largely successful in moving on from the song they would always be most associated with.

No album from this era can escape the influence of The Beatles, and Procol Harum was no exception, with British Sgt Pepper jokiness present and correct on Good Captain Clack, although really, the Moptop influence was fairly minimal. Occasionally the spectre of Dylan hangs over some of this record, and overall, were it not for the fact that Music From The Big Pink would not be released until July 1968, youíd think that in places these Southend boys had been taking lessons from the masters of Americana.

Gary Bookerís purity of tone compliments [sic] the hints of grandiosity in the music, hints that would soon become fully realised on the bandís second album, Shine on Brightly. That grandiosity is largely supplied by Matthew Fisherís Hammond organ in tandem with Bookerís classically tinged piano work.

Even though the band was searching for its identity on this deebut album, what is never in question is Procolís sheer musicality. Just listen to the bass line on opening track Conquistador Ė you can almost see David Knights stooped over the score in the studio. These guys are no amateurs! Clever appropriations from classical works seemed to be Matthew Fisherís stock in trade in Procolís early years. There are several moments on this record that make you wonder where you heard this or that snatch of melody before. Just as you think youíve got it, Fisher morphs it into something else entirely. Very clever indeed.

Aside from the high-brow musical references, Procol Harum were guided by a pop sensibility that sees them cover jaunty numbers like She Wandered Through The Garden Fence and the following plaintive R&B ballad Something Following Me with equal panache, the latter mixing obvious Dylan homage with snatches of Robin Trowerís acidic guitar in a successful if somewhat knowing fashion. Mabel goes all Kinks/Small Faces gorblimey on us, and Cerdes (Outside the Gates of) pre-dates Blind Faith by eightheen months, Fisherís low-key contemplative organ marrying with some bluesy licks from Trower that showcases the guitaristís obvious talents in that direction. Gary Booker even sounds slightly Winwood on this one. This all harks back to my earlier point that this record is the sound of a band finding their feet, but with their consummate chops taking the record beyond being a mere slave to its influences.

By the second half of the album a recognisable Procol Harum style is developing, with the core of the band using their formative R&B education to good effect. Matthew Fisher provides some great Hammond work, with Robin Trower adding occasional dashes of colour. The throwaway Beatles lark-about Good Captain Clack is followed by one of the bandís better known tunes. The instrumental Repent Walpurgis closes the album, opening with an organ melody not a million miles away from you-know-what. It soon morphs into slow blues with Trowerís guitar again to the fore, before changing tack around a classical piano motif, becoming ever more grandiose. In a way it sums up where the band was headed, and is a great end to a fine if somewhat unfocussed album.

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