Procol Harum

the Pale

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The Octopus and the Hot Bath


Roland from BtP

Not everybody who has enjoyed the famous Procol Rockpalast show will know why Gary Brooker refers to BJ Wilson in terms of an octopus and a bathtub. Until they read on ...

I wish I had been at Procol's Queen Elizabeth Hall concert in September 1971 to judge their performance for myself. Instead I found myself trying to rely on the following reviews. The first is by Phil Symes: sadly I no longer remember which rock newspaper I tore it from.

'Procol Harum played their first London date in a long while last Friday at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and judging by the tremendously appreciative applause a couple of thousand people, at least, would be very pleased if the group won't leave it quite so long before they return.

As far as the audience were concerned Procol could do no wrong; they were cheered as they started each number and cheered even more heartily when they finished. But I couldn't help feeling disappointed. Perhaps it's been too long since I last saw them live but I mourned the passing of the sophisticated Procol and winced at the new noisy, loud band.

They still did some of their old songs, the lovely keyboard-dominated things like Magdalene, Salty Dog and Quite Rightly So on which organist Chris Copping really steals the show. But now most of the songs also include raucous guitar work which reduces them to the level of other bands around who rely on noise rather than skill.

Power Failure was such a number, but that was saved by an awe-inspiring drum solo from BJ Wilson. But regardless of how you feel about what they actually play, Procol must be credited for their musicianship. Each member certainly works full out, and although for me the music wasn't particularly satisfying, I can see why the audience were so lavish with their applause. It could be that I came away feeling a little unhappy because I wasn't prepared for such a great style change.

First half of the concert was little short of disastrous. Andy Roberts played a pretty embarrassing half an hour. His musicians were very noticeably unrehearsed and his choice of programme pretty strange. On one hand he sang his own songs like Keep My Children Warm and Richard which had some pretty boring lyrics and were slightly folksy, then a rocker Creepy John, and finally a Tammy Wynette song D-I-V-O-R-C-E which really didn't suit him at all.

Roberts must make up his mind just where he's going. It certainly won't be upward if he sticks to singing that kind of song.'

Joe Mitchell, in Record Mirror, offered the following brief review (see here also)

Seeing 'Procol Harum' at the top of a concert bill in London is so rare the audiences here might be excused for wondering if the group is still in circulation.

Yet they still have enough name power to pack the Queen Elizabeth Hall, as they did on Friday, and in spite of continual line-up changes there is still a majestic sweep to their music which is original and powerful.

Friday was another debut for them. As the group's leader, Gary Brooker said, "Every time we play here, it’s a debut". Because of that it was not surprising that it took time to find the right blend – new guitarist David Ball began by drowning out even Brooker.

But as the evening wore on, things fell more and more into place with Brooker very much in charge of things. Both vocally and visually, he is not unlike a smoother version of Joe Cocker, and I can't help feeling that if the band's career had taken a few different turns, Brooker Power could have been a major influence in pop too.

Instead they are forever saddled with the success of a record which must now seem like something that occurred way back in the past when the group was just a child prodigy. The music still throws up echoes of the old Whiter Shade, but it has gained authority.

But this is how Steve Peacock reviewed the same show in Sounds

'I'm reluctant to say it, because I'm sure that they are capable of a lot more than they managed at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Friday, but the parts of Procol Harum's concert that stay in my mind are the parts that I didn't enjoy. The sound balance at the start was pretty dire, and though it got better during the evening the problems were never fully resolved. It would be comforting to blame that alone for my disappointment, but I'm afraid that wasn't all.

With his singing and piano playing, Gary Brooker alone reached high points of technical and expressive musicianship, while maintaining a consistently plausible performance. Chris Copping (organ) and Alan Cartwright (bass) didn't plumb any depths, but they didn't exactly come on with inspired performances either, while both BJ Wilson (drums) and Dave Ball (guitar) managed moments of crass insensibility [sic!] to their music and their surroundings that I found hard to believe.

For instance, Ball's guitar work on Shine On Brightly had me in fits of horrified laughter as he obliterated everything else with a one-note crescendo, and at times Wilson thrashed about like an octopus in a hot bath, distracting your attention totally from anything else that was going on.

The songs were all good ones - a kind of best of Procol Harum show – and there were moments where they almost got the kind of sound and feeling I was expecting – Wee Small Hours Of Sixpence, Salty Dog, and one or two others – and I had the feeling that if it had been just Brooker with a subdued rhythm section I would have enjoyed the whole set without reservation.

But as I said at the start, it is the unpleasant parts that stay in my memory, and overall the concert was a great disappointment. The encore too was an example of insensitive, boring, melodramatic musical megalomania unworthy of Procol Harum's deservedly strong reputation.'

No less a personage than Cozy Powell (at that time drumming with Jeff Beck and later (if I remember aright) to team up with the post-Procol Dave Ball) sent Sounds this response to the 'octopus' review.

Read Dave Ball's 1999 commentary on the article above, and the letter below

'With reference to your review of Procol Harum's concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, I feel I must make a few points. Firstly I must say that I, and judging by the reception given, the audience enjoyed an excellent performance by some fine musicians. The fresh and dynamic approach by new guitarist Dave Ball added sparkle to the performance. The co-ordination between Chris Copping and Gary Brooker was excellent and so was the subtle and obviously well-rehearsed bass passages by Alan Cartwright.

Finally I must own up about some very fine and certainly entertaining drumming by BJ Wilson. A few so called 'heavy drummers' ought to go along and see him and perhaps they might learn a few points on technique.'

On the same page of that issue (2 October 1971) the following letter from David Evans, a fan from Anglesey, was published:

'I had to write to commend Procol Harum on their latest album Broken Barricades. Gary Brooker's keyboard playing and vocals are worth listening to for hours. Robin Trower offers a high class of lead guitar playing. BJ Wilson also shows his expansive talent on drums while Chris Copping backs up superbly on bass and organ. So people of Britain, take notice. Procol Harum are an even greater force these days.'

Quite amazing, eh? Rock journalism just isn't like that any more.

More Procol press

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