Procol Harum

the Pale

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What happens when you look at Procol through Prog eyes

Dave Connolly online at Progrography

A Whiter Shade of Pale
Then her face, at first just ghostly, turned a whiter shade of pale. Played out with a solemnity rarely seen in rock, Procol Harum’s first single struck the same collective chord as The Moody Blues’ Nights In White Satin. Keith Reid’s lyrics offer tantalizing bits of imagery that dissolve on close inspection (shades of Cream’s Peter Brown) while Matthew Fisher borrows a line from JS Bach and ends up with something that sounds an awful lot like When A Man Loves A Woman as sung by Van Morrison. I was never crazy about this song, and yet inexplicably Harum has never escaped its shadow. The closest they came to the US Top 20 again occurred with the unlikely live version of Conquistador, the two songs being released together as part of A&M’s Forget Me Nots reissue series in the ’70s. For more on A Whiter Shade of Pale, visit Songfacts. The original B side, Lime Street Blues, is no more than a period piece: slightly psychedelic blues that may appeal to the people who buy Elvis Presley’s film scores. It later appeared on The Best of Procol Harum (undeservedly). Of very minor interest, the Deram #45-7507 single spells Keith Reid's last name as 'Reed' and gives no track times for the songs. (In case you're wondering, the A side remains unchanged at a little over four minutes, the B side clocks in around three minutes.)

Whisky Train (single)
As proof of my peculiar mania, I asked my brother for a stopwatch this Christmas (ask and ye shall receive, which I did). The attraction to time? Labels are notoriously bad about recording the correct track times, especially on singles. Case in point: Whiskey [
sic] Train runs about three minutes (I could give you an exact amount, but why rub it in?) but is listed on the single as running 2:27. I know ... who cares? (Me, and the stopwatch and I couldn’t be happier together.) In A&M’s defense, the B side has the correct time. But what does the single sound like? Bah! Minutiae to a mind that has tasted the Tardis of track times! Not really. Whiskey Train is a blues rock number similar to Steve Miller, About To Die is more in line with the band’s too-rich mixture of sound (think of a heavy Traffic). Both songs come from the album Home.

Conquistador (live)
With the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra in tow, Procol Harum released their first live album and scored a surprise hit (I was surprised anyway) with their live version of Conquistador. As ELO could tell you, finding a balance between orchestral pomp and pop music isn’t easy, and as good a song as it is, Conquistador in person isn’t nearly as impressive. The same could be said for A Salty Dog, where again the audience waits until the end to applaud, as if unsure whether they’re at a rock concert or a classical performance. With pretentious offspring like this, it’s no wonder many critics grew tired of the prog movement.

Live with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra
A bloated white whale of a record. Procol Harum only has the one song that I’d want to hear in an orchestral setting, and it isn’t here. Instead you get a boatload of mediocrity covered in baroque ornament like the side-long In Held Twas I [
sic] or tentative tales like A Salty Dog. An ELP can get away with this, Crimson too if they wanted, but not Procol Harum. Outside of a few scary moments on Whaling Stories or patches of In Held Twas I, prog’s dark chess pieces stay in check. Someone should have told Gary Brooker that he simply doesn’t have the voice to offset an orchestra. He treads water some of the time, sinks under the surface others, and is only occasionally rescued by a nice drum fill from BJ Wilson or guitar solo from Dave Ball. Honestly, prog live albums were as much about spectacle as sound, and there are very few I actually listen to often (ELP, Rush and Yes come to mind). Live In Concert will be going back upon the shelves soon to die a quiet and dusty death. It’s not just a bad record, it’s laughably bad in spots, a postcard of poor taste from the heights of pretension. When the audience erupts into applause at the end of In Held Twas I, you wonder whether they’re pleased or relieved. All that said, Live In Concert charted remarkably well in the US, sold over a half-million copies and produced a hit single in the live version of Conquistador. I admire that Procol Harum tried to elevate their medium with an orchestra and chorus, I just don’t like the results.

Exotic Birds and Fruit
The Naga rattled her tail and squinted at the speakers. 'Uriah Heep?,' she said. 'You’re wrong,' said I. 'Barclay James Harvest?' 'Nope,' I answered. 'Jim Capaldi?' 'Sheesh, now you’re just guessing,' I said, removing the blindfold from her eyes. 'Procol Harum,' I revealed. Sometimes the Naga comes by to help me with these blindfolded taste tests, since she’s got a much better nose for sniffing out prog rock than I do. Right or wrong, she’s got a point about this music scratching at the door, but is it genuine prog? I don’t usually like to define things, but since I asked the question, I’ll answer it with a general prog maxim: If you have to ask, it ain’t. That bit of unpleasantness out of the way ('Yes, we’re done for now, you can go put Lamb Lies Down back on'), what to make of Exotic Birds And Fruit. It’s generally regarded as one of Procol Harum’s better efforts. Since I live in a tiny crystal shell, I haven’t heard any Procol Harum before this, so my opinion is – well, I don’t even have an opinion really. I like this album (LIKE, I re-emphasized, shrinking from the moony glow in your eyes) as much as I like Heep, though for different reasons. These songs are smarter than Heep, thanks in part to a dedicated lyricist in Keith Reid (no Easy Livin’ on here), and more ambitious in scope. At its best, as on The Idol and New Lamps For Old, Chris Copping’s organ can take your mind on a magic carpet ride. Yet it’s hard escaping the fact that Procol Harum, like BJH, has trouble establishing an identity of their own on this album. Bits of Bob Dylan (Lay Lady Lay), Buffalo Springfield (Mr. Soul), King Crimson and Elton John are still identifiable even after being run through the blender. Also, great music always seems to come easy to great bands, and Procol Harum simply works too hard for small triumphs to be considered a great band. If I sound disappointed with my first foray into the world of Procol Harum, I guess I am a little. They’re not doing anything here that other bands haven’t done better. You have to admire the effort on songs like Nothing But The Truth (which nearly recalls Gentle Giant), As Strong As Samson and The Thin End of the Wedge, but cherishing this in a universe chocked full of great prog music? Well, that’s just Naga happen.

The Chrysalis Years (Compilation)
Nothing magic here, just another idol turned to grey. These CEMA Special Markets are usually as quiet as dormice [
sic], squeaking under the cracks and snuggling into the cutout bins. The Chrysalis Years were waning ones for the band, offering the challenge: Is there really a market for a Procol Harum compilation that didn’t include A Whiter Shade of Pale, wasn’t called A Whiter Shade of Pale, and didn’t have a catchy sticker on the cover that read 'Including the hit A Whiter Shade of Pale?' They did hook me, for ninety-nine cents, but a tape has to sink pretty low to go for under a dollar. Obviously, there wasn’t even much of a 'special' market for Procol Harum’s later songs, which I could have told you for free. Pandora’s Box was the lone hit, the rest of these tracks coming from Grand Hotel, Exotic Birds, Ninth and Something Magic with favoritism for the failed singles (Bringing Home The Bacon, Nothing But The Truth). I still wouldn’t call myself a fan of Procol Harum, but I am curious, so the chance to sample fresh fruit for under a dollar is a temptation I’ll indulge every time. While I got my money’s worth, what I didn’t get is the itch to dig deeper into the story. There’s no fire for Grand Hotel in me, no need to hear the Ninth, and nothing enchanting about Something Magic that calls me from The Chrysalis Years. It’s not unlike when I read The Mystery of Edwin Drood; I didn’t know the ending and I didn’t care. I feel the same about Procol Harum; it’s not a story I followed that closely. If you are interested in their story, be patient. I might be selling my copy for fifty cents some time soon.

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