Procol Harum

the Pale 

PH on stage | PH on record | PH in print | BtP features | What's new | Interact with BtP | For sale | Site search | Home

Procol Harum 1967

Reviewed at by Joshua Pickard

Prog rock isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Admittedly, there are many more bands who fall victim to its excess and ambition than who use it in any functional way, but occasionally, you’ll come across a band whose music owes more to their own sense of creative direction than to any of the overtly theatrical and often distractingly fey aspects inherent to the genre.

But that doesn’t mean that the genre isn’t without its innovators—artists who take these prescribed rhythms and fashion something completely unique and utterly captivating. Although they’re generally relegated to soundtrack fodder based on the strength of just one song, British rock group Procol Harum was among the first progressive rock bands to expand and break down the borders of the genre.

The history of the band extends all the way back to 1964, when English band The Paramounts, led by Gary Brooker and Robin Trower and including musicians Chris Copping and B.J. Wilson, had some small success with their version of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s hit song Poison Ivy. They were subsequently called The Pinewoods for a very brief time, but as the band had no further success after Poison Ivy, they disbanded in ’66. But the members would not forget their time together and would find themselves thrown back into the mix a short time later.

In April 1967, Brooker began working as a singer-songwriter and eventually formed Procol Harum to début his new material. He brought on poet/sound engineer Keith Reid, organist Matthew Fisher, guitarist Ray Royer and bassist David Knights. Their original manager, Guy Stevens, named the band after a friend’s pet cat. And from this simple explanation, the name took on numerous interpretations and analyses—most of them dealing with the variations of its Latin meaning (which was a derivation of "beyond these things").

The band’s first major hit was A Whiter Shade of Pale, their début single that was released 12 May 1967. Backed by session drummer Bill Eyden and Fisher on organ, Brooker sang Reid’s otherworldly lyrics, and Procol Harum’s lineage was established with just one song. After this initial success, the band decided that they’d tour and began their time on the road by opening for Jimi Hendrix. After a lineup change brought in former Paramounts members Wilson and Trower, the band released their follow-up single, Homburg. The track would go on to chart in the UK, Canada and the US. During the time between these two singles, the band recorded their self-titled début record—although it was held back from release until 1968.

With this album, Procol Harum began the move away from the foundations that prog rock was built upon and started to incorporate a more varied stylistic approach. The airy melodies, bursts of guitar and subtle folk tendencies were still there, but they had been subtly altered, making them capable of change and sudden adaptation. Songs like album opener Conquistador and Cerdes (Outside the Gates Of) showcased the band’s ability to work within these melodic confines while still adding their own distinctive musical touches. You could hear the prog underpinnings, but it wasn’t as clear-cut as it was on many other records of the time.

Even the psych rock aspect of the music was muted a bit, giving the songs a chance to breathe and expand at their own pace. These songs needed time to reveal themselves. Prog music has always been shrouded in mystical stereotypes and a bloated sense of self-importance, but on their début, Procol Harum never had to rely on these genre touchstones to make a connection with their listeners. The music felt alive and vulnerable, even approachable in way that had not been explored by previous bands who shared the same rhythmic inclinations. It was a curious amalgam of genres, drawing from pop, prog rock, folk and psych to create something that sounded of its time but also somewhat removed from that same time—a curiosity of tone and execution that felt genuine and refreshing in a genre that’s generally notable for a having a lack of both.

As for A Whiter Shade of Pale, most people associate it with their début record, but the song wasn’t actually on the original pressing. It was only added later on the US version. Granted, it is a graceful and subdued piece of '60s pop nostalgia, but it shouldn't define the record to the degree in which it does for most people. With that being said, if it does bring more people to recognise the impact and creative ingenuity that Procol Harum explored on this release, maybe the song's instant recognition isn't such a bad thing after all.

Procol Harum will continue to be well-known for their greatest success—but if you look a little deeper into these songs, you’ll find an album steeped in the history of a handful of genres. You’ll find a band who weren’t limited by the confines of any particular set of musical guidelines. They took the reins of their own rhythmic direction and carved a new path, one that would be followed by countless other musicians over the next five decades. You can call them prog, even symphonic rock, but Procol Harum was the influence—they weren’t standing on the shoulders of past artists. Listen to this record and you’ll hear the sound of thousands of musicians suddenly becoming interested in making music.

More about this album | Procol Harum reviews

PH on stage | PH on record | PH in print | BtP features | What's new | Interact with BtP | For sale | Site search | Home