Classic Music Review: Procol Harum

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Expensive! Click to buy if you’re wealthy.

The two records that really dominated the airwaves during The Summer of Love were Sgt. Pepper and ‘Light My Fire,’ not The San Francisco Sound.
(from my beloved Father, still ethnocentric after all these years)

When my dad gave me that answer in response to a question about The Doors, all kinds of alarm bells went off in my little blonde brain. The bells finally stopped ringing long enough so my memory could convey the message that triggered the alarm:

That was true in the United States, but not in Jolly Olde England.

Only half of my father’s assertion would ring true for a British veteran of The Summer of Love. Sgt. Pepper dominated the airwaves the world over, but “Light My Fire” only rose to #49 on the UK Singles Chart. The song that infused the air over Britain that summer and was recognized as the most publicly played song in the last 75 years in the U. K. was Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”

You dumb fucking blonde! Even after moving to France you still think that the USA is the center of the fucking universe? You can’t do The Summer of Love without Procol Harum! 

Fortunately I discovered my grievous omission before it was too late. I’d just finished my review of Strange Days and was relieved to find that Procol Harum came out the very same month in the U. S. (it was held back a few months in the U. K.). This allowed me to slip in the review just before Forever Changes and maintain the integrity of the chronological timeline. So, I updated the Psychedelia post, had a relaxing drink and a cigarette, and then the alarm bells went off again.

You’re going to do fifteen psychedelic albums? Your brain will be like that egg in that Public Service Announcement! “This is your brain on drugs.” No! No! No!

I was really starting to freak out, so I decided to take my first run through Procol Harum to estimate how much damage my cerebellum might incur. To say I was relieved would be an understatement. Gary Brooker could sing! Keith Reid could write! Matthew Fisher could play! Robin Trower could set the night on fire! My brain cells will regenerate! Hooray for me!

There is a major difference between the U. S. and U. K. releases. The U. S. version of the album included “A Whiter Shade of Pale” while the Brits excluded it based on their no-singles-on-albums tradition. The British version opens with “Conquistador,” and contains “Good Captain Clack,” which was dropped from the U. S. release (I guess the 92-second length pushed the album over some kind of import quota). I simply have to review “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” so I’m going to open with that and then review the British version in its proper sequence. Capiche?

A Whiter Shade of Pale

John Lennon played the song constantly in his Rolls-Royce. Paul McCartney interrupted his busy schedule to catch their act after hearing the song on the wireless. “A Whiter Shade of Pale” seemed to stop the British listening public in their tracks, drawing as much attention as Sgt. Pepper, which was released around the same time. The song shot up to #1 and remained there for six weeks. How did a song by an unknown band manage to compete for attention with The Beatles’ magnum opus?

The structure is modeled on a bit of Bach’s Mass in B minor with a touch of Air on the G-String, integrated by organist Matthew Fisher. The combination of the simple majesty of the rhythm and Fisher’s perfect tone result in a sound that is uniquely striking and instantly compelling. Beneath the organ, studio drummer Bill Eyden gives a good strong performance with hints of Ringo on the skips and rolls, further moving the old melody into the present. Gary Brooker’s vocal timbre clearly evokes soul and R&B, taking the song further out of the classical and providing another invitation for the contemporary listener to embrace the music. Brooker’s feel for the song is natural and full of power; I love how he refuses to rush the phrasing, allowing the relatively long pauses between the lines to do their work and letting the listener savor each lyrical fragment. The choral drama is heightened by Brooker’s sailing vocal and Fisher’s organ magic, and in one of the best decisions ever made, they allow the song to fade instead of trying to come up with some hokey Bach-like ending, allowing the listener to glide into a state of reflection.

The first thing you wonder about as you ruminate over the experience is the meaning of the song. The lyrics are unusually compelling and full of concrete imagery, but the meaning feels elusive and mysterious. If you go to the Beyond the Pale website, you will find several alternative interpretations of “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” from Chaucerian to erotic to psychedelic. I laughed with delight at what organist Matthew Fisher had to say about the lyrics:

I don’t know what they mean. It’s never bothered me that I don’t know what they mean. This is what I find rather hard, that, especially in America, people are terribly hung up about lyrics and they’ve got to know what they mean, and they say, “I know, I’ve figured out what these lyrics mean.” I don’t give a damn what they mean. You know, they sound great . . . that’s all they have to do.

I have to agree with him in part: the lyrics are a perfect fit for the music and the imagery itself is very striking. I do not detect any cosmic meaning here, but I do find “A Whiter Shade of Pale” a compelling story told in a series of impressionistic images. What the lyrics call up for me is a place like Rick’s in Casablanca, where a man and a woman have cleared the dance floor with their version of the fandango, a couples dance somewhat like the tango in terms of drama and energy, but played in 6/8 bolero time. There are many version of the fandango, but it would be easy for a couple to clear the floor if they were doing a particularly hot version with a theme of seduction-as-battle. So the first verse describes the dance, the roaring crowd and the call for another drink.

It makes sense that if they’re doing fandango, the locale is southern Spain, the traditional haunt of the British tourist. After experiencing the fandango and the alluring looks the woman tossed in his direction, the man (likely a Brit on holiday, like Norman in The Kinks’ “Holiday Romance”) probably thinks he’s going to be getting some serious action from a babe who can’t wait to give him the time of his life. Alas, he forgets that in Spain, displays of sexuality do not always signify an invitation or even desire. What opens is eyes to this disastrous dénouement is her reaction to the miller’s tale—a metaphor for a dirty joke that the man or a companion related after the dance and a few more drinks. Chaucer’s original is the most risqué of all of The Canterbury Tales, at one juncture describing a situation where a man (Absolon) is tricked into placing his mouth on a woman’s sweet spot (Middle English translations courtesy of Harvard University):

Derk was the nyght as pich, or as the cole,
Dark was the night as pitch, or as the coal,
And at the wyndow out she putte hir hole,
And at the window out she put her hole,
And Absolon, hym fil no bet ne wers,
And Absolon, to him it happened no better nor worse,
But with his mouth he kiste hir naked ers
But with his mouth he kissed her naked ass
Ful savourly, er he were war of this.
With great relish, before he was aware of this.
Abak he stirte, and thoughte it was amys,
Back he jumped, and thought it was amiss,
For wel he wiste a womman hath no berd.
For well he knew a woman has no beard.
He felte a thyng al rough and long yherd,
He felt a thing all rough and long haired,
And seyde, “Fy! allas! what have I do?”
And said, “Fie! alas! what have I done?”
“Tehee!” quod she, and clapte the wyndow to.
“Tehee!” said she, and clapped the window to.

And how does his dance partner react to this bawdy tale? “And her face at first just ghostly turns a whiter shade of pale.” This dude ain’t getting any tonight! She even tells him so: “There is no reason and the truth is plain to see.” But he won’t give up, running through his playing cards (seduction options), refusing to believe that the woman he lusts after belongs to some kind of religious claque on its way to a religious retreat or even a convent (sixteen vestal virgins). The guy only gets it in retrospect: “and although my eyes were open, they might have just have well been closed.”

Whatever meaning you derive from the song, “A Whiter Shade of Pale” is a timeless masterpiece and certainly one of the most impressive debuts ever.

Procul Harum (UK Version)

Although Procol Harum was recorded with multitrack technology, the UK release was mono-only, and while that limits the ability to clearly hear specific parts in an arrangement, I’d rather hear mono than that “rechannelled stereo” crap that the Americans tried to market on several 60’s albums. Mono does bring greater focus to the holy trinity of lyrics-melody-rhythm, and I found it rather refreshing for a change.

The album proper begins with the original version of “Conquistador,” which would become a hit five years later when performed with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. I despise the orchestrated version, which is completely over the top, and prefer the less melodramatic original. Matthew Fisher provides more than enough energy on the organ, particularly during the choruses, and Robin Trower’s understated guitar piece adds a nice texture. The combination of piano and organ is an unusual one, but the two are never in competition, with Brooker primarily supporting the rhythm. The lyrics have some strong imagery but sort of poop out before arriving at a meaningful conclusion. Still, it’s a strong opener and avoids the juxtapositional mistake of “Homburg,” which sounded too similar in style to “A Whiter Shade of Pale” to broaden perceptions of the band’s capabilities.

“She Wandered Through the Garden Fence” features a pleasant melody structured to support a continuous flow narrative. The sadomasochistic experience described in the lyrics is too close to home for me to give an objective interpretation, so fuck it, I’ll give a subjective one. Here are the lines that snuffed out my detachment:

She wandered through the garden fence
and said, ‘I’ve brought at great expense
a potion guaranteed to bring
relief from all your suffering.’
And though I said, ‘You don’t exist,’
she grasped me firmly by the wrist
and threw me down upon my back
and strapped me to her torture rack

I interpret “potion” as “Love Potion #9” rather than a drug; the BDSM paradox covers the rest (pain is pleasure, suffering relieves your suffering). So, the guy is strapped to the rack and hey! He likes it! Mikey likes it! I love it when my 1001 Classic Commercials DVD comes through!

And, without further argument
I found my mind was also bent
upon a course so devious
it only made my torment worse

At this point, things get a little blurry, but what I think happens is the dominatrix orders him to speak and instead of speaking the truth, he tries to bullshit her. Any good dominant can spot that crap in a New York minute, so she walks out and leaves the little bastard strapped to the rack. You go, girl! Whether any of this is what Keith Reid had in mind is beyond me, but I’ll use my interpretation to give the song an enthusiastic thumbs-up.

“Something Following Me” is a surreal tale of hyper-awareness of one’s mortality with a hint of bluesy jazz in Gary Brooker’s piano attack. The lyrics are a bit awkward and this modern-day translation of “Hellhound on My Trail” simply lacks the overwhelming darkness of the Robert Johnson classic. The arrangement is curious because every now and then you hear Robin Trower throwing in a distorted note, leading you to expect more action on an anticipated solo. As it turns out, the solo isn’t much—too brief and not particularly demanding. It’s followed by “Mabel,” a music hall piece that I guess was supposed to serve as comic relief, but when you have a punch line like “In the cellar lies my wife, in my wife there’s a knife,” neither your shrink nor Henny Youngman can help you.

Side one ends with “Cerdes,” described on Beyond the Pale as “an imaginary thoughtscape from the inner recesses of the Reidian consciousness, peopled by mythological figures and anthropomorphized animals.” Yes! We’re finally going psychedelic! Seems kinda Lucy-ish to me:

Outside the gates of Cerdes sits the two-pronged unicorn
Who plays at relaxation time a rhinestone flugelhorn
Whilst mermaids lace carnations into wreaths for ailing whales
And Neptune dances hornpipes while Salome sheds her veils

I’m happy that Keith Reid had his morning brain constitutional, but fortunately the nonsense lyrics are only a minor distraction. What makes the track work is Robin Trower’s extended solo, loaded with his legendary bends and sharp, punctuated cuts. Even in mono it sounds fucking fabulous, as he counters the loping rhythm with perfect timing and execution.

Side two opens with “A Christmas Camel,” a song that starts out with a piano riff that is way, way too close to Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man” for my comfort level; the appearance of the organ reinforces the after-images of the Dylan piece. The lyrics feature the same surreal imagery as the Dylan song but lack the critical feature that made Dylan’s song a great piece of poetry: a strong theme reinforced by a powerful chorus. “Because something is happening and you don’t know what it is/Do you, Mr. Jones?” is a couplet that dramatizes the relentless assault on the anti-hero’s shaky sense of reality; it amplifies the terror of disconnection from “normal,” in effect humanizing and universalizing the song. Reid’s poetry is just a bunch of weird images that lack purpose and connection.

“Kaleidoscope” also features a stream of images, but here the technique makes sense as Reid describes the barrage of pictures-in-motion as he contemplates life in the city:

Jostle, hassle, elbow bustle
in a swirling rainbow tussle
Caught and frozen, broken sheen
now unites for one brief scene

Lonely in the dark I grope
the key’s in my kaleidoscope

Confused faces change their places
take up stances, exchange glances
Lost in multicoloured hues
there is no whole which I can choose

The energetic tempo reflects the bustle; the song itself is a pretty simple G-C7sus4-C7 structure with a shift in the chorus to a C-Gm7 that resolves on D/Dsus4. B. J. Wilson does some nice work on the drums and Fisher is a demon on the organ. The mix leaves Robin Trower too far in the background, but all in all this is a pretty decent track.

“Salad Days (Are Here Again)” is an ironic title for a song about a couple who have sexual compatibility issues. Easily the most moving song on the album, we really feel for the poor guy who tries to maintain a stiff upper lip when what he really wants is to experience a good stiff prick inside a nice wet pussy. Sadly, his wife is not interested, perhaps because she’s getting some elsewhere:

You come to me at midnight and say, ‘It’s dark in here.’
You know you robbed me of my sight, and light is what I fear
I tell you that I can not see but you persist in showing me
those bangles that I paid for long ago

And though my face is smiling I’m really feeling low
and though you say you’re with me I know that it’s not so

Your skin crawls up an octave, your teeth have lost their gleam
The peaches snuggle closer down into the clotted cream
and for some unknown reason my watch begins to chime
and though I beg and plead with you, you tell me it’s not time

Although we tend to trivialize the experience of those who are denied sexual pleasure (“Whassa matta? Didn’t get any last night?”), it’s really painful to feel unwanted, and here Reid does a brilliant job of exposing that feeling.

“Good Captain Clack” is a minute-and-a-half of English music hall, an inoffensive tale that describes another unsuccessful sexual encounter, most likely due to erectile dysfunction. It’s followed by the album closer, Matthew Fisher’s contribution, “Repent Walpurgis.” This is an instrumental loosely based on a song by the Four Seasons (!) called “Beggin'” introduced by a modified passage from Bach’s Prelude No 1 in C major. The song has a dark, processional feel to it that reflects the “repent” message and the eerie goings-on that mark Walpurgis Night, the time when witches meet in the dark woods of Harz Mountains. The piece is well-composed, suitably dramatic without crossing the line into excess, and features another first-rate guitar solo from Robin Trower . . . a very strong closer indeed.

In addition to the relief I feel at having avoided a significant historical faux pas, I had a great time listening to Procol Harum. Sometimes Reid overdoes it with the lyrics, but the band is tight and the songs both interesting and somewhat off the beaten path. I’d always had Grand Hotel on my to-do list, and now I feel more motivated to explore that record . . . assuming my brain recovers from The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band and Country Joe and I don’t wind up having flashbacks.

GO TO THE NEXT POST IN THE SERIES: FOREVER CHANGES BY LOVE

4 responses

  1. m.blijboom@kpnmail.nl | Reply

    I keep saying that you’re an incredibly good writer! Oh, AWSOP is my all-time favourite song, by the way.

    Like

    1. Thank you! I’m glad we’re of the same mind on AWSOP!

      Like

  2. […] Procol Harum, September 1967 […]

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