A band that influenced The Beatles - Procol Harum's debut reissued on rare mono vinyl for Record Store Day 2019
The landmark debut album by England's Procol Harum -- featuring 1967 Summer of Love smash hit A Whiter Shade of Pale -- has been an audiophile challenge for decades. But before I dive into the minutiae about this recording, some background is in order about the band as I suspect there are quite a few of you reading this who have no idea what Procol Harum is (they are still touring!).
Indeed, I have met many newer music enthusiasts these days unfamiliar with this group, so a tidbit culled from the liner notes of the Fortieth Anniversary CD of this record may offer some perspective:
‘The Beatles went on to watch Procol Harum make their first UK concert hall appearance when they played at the NEMS Saville Theater in London on June 4 as a support to The Jimi Hendrix Experience. According to The Beatles' press agent, the late Derek Taylor, A Whiter Shade of Pale would later inspire John Lennon to write I Am the Walrus.
This detail is also reaffirmed on the wiki page for the legendary Beatle song (click here for that)
That 4 June show was one of Hendrix's earliest in London and is notable because he opened it with a cover of The Beatles' Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, an album which had only been released less than a week before the show.
Perspective: Procol Harum was right in the thick of swinging London at that time and no doubt one of the hot bands people were watching at the time.
Musically, Procal [sic] Harum's eponymously titled album is a great record in any form you can find it. Here in America, we were treated to a version of the record that was, however, somewhat sonically maligned from the start (as were many early-to-mid-60s pop recordings). In this particular instance the recording -- which was originally made in Mono -- was electronically re-processed into Stereo for the release here in America. For those of you reading not in-the-know, ‘electronically re-processed’ means ‘Fake Stereo’ in 21st Century parlance.
That US version of the album -- issued in August 1967 -- also had an altered track listing compared to the original English version of the album (which came out in January 1968... got that?) adding in the band's breakthrough hit single A Whiter Shade of Pale at the beginning. That latter decision was probably wise in order to sell more albums; at the time in England, singles were considered a unique entity in their own right, so it was not included on that version of the album (I still find this a curious phenomenon).
So.... for those of you wondering why the 2019 Record Store Day re-release of the U.S. track listing version of this album is significant, that is because it was essentially the first version of their album to be released. According to liner notes on the Fortieth Anniversary CD, the delay in the UK hurt them there and the album did not chart when it was finally released -- it eventually reached #27 on the charts when the 1972 ‘Doubleback’ (aka ‘Toofa’) series reissues came out...
Those original US fake Stereo versions of this Procol Harum album are generally OK but when you finally hear the real mono mix you realise just how wonky all that electronically processed jibber jabber they did to the recording back in the day really was (basically pushing low frequencies to one speaker and higher treble sounds to the other).
But wait, there's more: all this is compounded by the fact that there was in fact a monaural release of this album in the United States, but it is difficult to find in any condition. By 1967, stereo was fast becoming the dominant format over mono and thus the fake stereo editions are mostly what you find these days. Thus, a re-issue of that particular mono version of the album was long overdue.
The original mono American version of Procol Harum's debut was reissued for Record Store Day 2019 as a beautiful two-LP set in full fidelity mono sounding fuller than previous reissues I have come across.
In fact, comparing this new reissue to my 1972 ‘Toofa’ reissue, this new edition sounds markedly better, apparently mastered off the original analog tapes for the first time since 1967! It really sounds it with crisp highs, deeper lows, and overall good mid range balance.
Now some of you audiophiles might be mortified to know that this limited edition (of 1000) release was pressed on standard weight, multi-color vinyl -- hey it was a recording from the dawn of the psychedelic 60s right? Well you can rest easy knowing that the pressing that I got actually sounds really terrific, quiet and well centered and with no apparent sonic anomalies getting in the way of the music.
And what a joy it is to hear Procol Harum's early neo-gothic proto-prog psychedelic rock pop sounding this good. Gary Brooker's lead vocals are rich and round while Matthew Fisher's signature organ swells are lush in a way that I've never heard before on this album. It’s haunting! The mono mix is really tight, with the drums and bass forming a hotter rhythm bed than on the fake stereo versions.
This new version is so much better I really think I have no reason to hold on to my old original US pressing (its only appeal as a collector's piece is that it is still in the original shrink wrap and has the original ‘hype sticker’ on the cover).
Speaking of hype stickers, early pressings of the original album came with a giant size poster and that alone is something that is next to impossible to find out in the wilds of record collecting, at least at a reasonable price. So for the $40 price of admission on this reissue you get both sight and sound wonderment including a full size reproduction of the poster as well as the two beautiful multi-colored vinyl LPs. The bonus disc features one side of monaural rarities and the other side has stereo rarities, many of which have been previous released on CD -- this new re-issue sounds much better than the earlier CDs.
On Tidal, Procol Harum is available in its UK configuration as a 16-bit, 44.1 kHZ CD quality stream (click here for that). The recent true Stereo mix of A White [sic] Shade of Pale is also on Tidal, pulled from the Record Store Day 12-inch EP the band issued in 2017 as a prequel to this new 2019 release. Click here for that song and click here for my review of that EP.
From the hype sticker on the new LP, only 1,000 copies of this reissue were made, sold primarily at independent retailers. It’s not on Amazon as far as I have found but you may find copies on Discogs or eBay. Most stores in San Francisco sold out of this quickly but I found my copy at near by Mill Valley Music (note: this is a great record store carrying on the tradition begun by John Goddard's legendary Village Music. Owner Gary used to work there, thus the continuity). Mill Valley Music does do mail-order business so reach out to them to see if they can hook you up with a copy if you can't find one near you!