What does it sound like?:
I loved Procol Harum right from the start – I thought “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” was the most amazingly brilliant record, because it sounded like the perfect cross between classical and pop music (ELP didn’t exist yet and I had yet to hear The Nice). And, in retrospect, I realise it has such a wonderful feel/groove from the drums (the drummer, Bill Eyden, was a British session jazz drummer who played with, amongst others, the Ray Ellington Quartet on The Goon Show). Procol’s drummer at the time, Bobby Harrison, was deemed not quite up to it (a la poor old Ringo on The Beatles first session) so producer Denny Cordell hired Eyden, who’d played on Georgie Fame’s hit Yeh Yeh, which DC had produced.
Then there’s the famous organ part, which for me, as an aspiring young 13 year old keyboard player, gave me goosebumps. And it still does. Matthew Fisher was one helluva player. The sound of the Hammond organ is immediately appealing – soulful and dusky, and MF plays a beautifully conceived melodic line over a classic baroque descending chord sequence. It’s just so satisfying to listen to. Whenever the harmony changes he lands on a third or tenth, the most pleasingly consonant harmony in Western music, whether you know it or not. By the time the intro has finished, all 16 bars of it, we’re perfectly in the mood for Gary Brooker’s voice singing the famous lyric “we skip a live fandango…” And then MF continues his lovely accompaniment after the intro, through the verse of the song, before the glissando into the chorus. It’s a spectacularly perfect example of organ playing, on a piece of music he would have had no model on which to base his playing. He was 21 years old at the time.
(And then, strangely – 40 odd years after the song came out – Matthew Fisher took writers Gary Brooker and Keith Reid to court, claiming a percentage of royalties for having composed the intro. I’m still at a loss, as is GB, to know why he waited that long. I also can’t decide if he’s justified or not. He didn’t write any of the lyrics or compose the melody, yet that intro is totally identified with the recorded version of the song).
But back to 1967, and hearing this record on the radio in New Zealand. As well as being thrilled by the music, even though I was never a lyric person I could HEAR all the lyrics and loved the surrealism, loved the classical references. It was INTELLIGENT pop music, and I could possibly impress my parents with this…
AWSOP naturally kicks off this 5 CD (and 3 DVD) retrospective, which contains selections from all their studio albums spread over CDs 1-3, and then a couple of live concerts on CDs 4 and 5. The latter are are splendid – Procol were a great live band. I heard them a couple of times when I lived in the UK in 1973-74. I never owned a Procol album, although 10 years ago I bought the then 40th anniversary edition of their first album. And I really liked the singles Homburg, A Salty Dog and Conquistador when they were released. But apart from that, they’re pretty unfamiliar. So hearing the selections on this box set was a bit of a revelation.
Here’s some general observations.
1. Gary Brooker is a great, really great singer. His voice has a lovely soulful quality, not in the “white boy sounds black” Steve Marriott sense, just its timbre. Also his diction is really clear, and his vocal is usually up in the mix, so you can hear all the words…
2. …which is kind of important, because it’s GB and lyricist Keith Reid who ARE Procol Harum (think Elton John and Bernie Taupin, in terms of the singer/performer + lyricist concept. Not stylistically of course). Keith Reid’s lyrics are surreal, obscure, funny and very un-pop. There’s no sha-la-la’s or baby-babys. There’s very rarely what you’d call a hook, and hardly ever any backing vocals.
3. The basic Procol lineup was always a five piece – GB on vocals and piano, plus organ, guitar, bass and drums. Like an English version of The Band. Although the lineup changed over the years, most musicians stayed for several albums, like organists Matthew Fisher and Chris Copping, guitarists Robin Trower and Mick Grabham, bassists David Knights and Alan Cartwright and drummer BJ Wilson.
In their pre-Procol incarnation as The Paramounts, formed in 1964, they were yer average British R’nB combo. You can hear that once they become Procol Harum, they knew about groove and feel and the guitar and organ licks are rooted in American R’nB. There’s a song from Procol’s album “Home” on this compilation called “Whisky Train”, written by Robin Trower and Keith Reid – it’s so much Trower’s song, basically a bluesy jam over a guitar riff. Trower also gets an extended solo spot on “Skip Softly (My Moonbeams)” from their second album “Shine On Brightly”. You can see why he left in 1972 to go solo.
Trower’s replacement, (after Dave Ball for the “Edmonton Symphony Orchestra” album), was Mick Grabham, who stayed through to the band’s break up in 1977. He’s heard to great effect on CD 5 here, which is a live concert from Bournemouth Wintergreens in 1976. The band is fantastic, they’re tight, together and totally comfortable with the material. When I saw “The Blue Danube” in the tracklist I must say I was apprehensive, but they manage to take this old warhorse and play it brilliantly. Grabham, in particular, is outstanding.
I never really thought of PH as a “prog” band, but every now and then they embrace it wonderfully. On CD 2, there’s a version of “In Held ’Twas I” that is just glorious pompous OTT British prog. And on CD 2, from the album “Grand Hotel” they embrace the grandiose again – the title track is a lovely decadent piece in waltz time. And then they do “Robert’s Box” (which, contrary to my earlier observation, actually has a hooky chorus) – its extended outro reminds me of Elton’s “Funeral For A Friend” with its majestic build up and soaring guitar.
Unfortunately (to my ears) by the time of “Exotic Birds and Fruit” in 1974 the songs had lost their originality, and “Procol’s Ninth”, from 1975, produced by Lieber/Stoller (yes, I was surprised too) was just Not A Good Idea. But the band play so well, and one song in particular “Strangers In Space” has a beautiful melody.
As I mentioned earlier, the two live CDs, from 1973 and 1976 are probably a reason to buy this set. The band is in top form, and GB’s singing just draws you into the songs.
What does it all *mean*?
My review copy did not include the 3 dvds or the usual lavish illustrated book, but if you are a box-set kind of person (like me) who liked PH back in the day (like me) – I’d recommend this package.
Goes well with…
A glass of NZ Pinot Gris
Might suit people who like…
Procol Harum, sixties/seventies “album” music, the great transition from British R’nB to classic British pop – ie The Small Faces, The Who, The Kinks.
Oh yeah, and The Beatles…