Firstly, a caveat – the copy we have for review is the single CD edition, but for the fan there is a 2-CD version available that includes a further 23 tracks of alternate takes and radio sessions. I should also point out that the new liner notes by Procol’s biographer Henry Scott-Irvine are not included with the single CD version, which is a shame. Minor grumbles aside, Procol Harum’s first self-titled album is presented here as it should be in glorious mono, and the remastering is a crisp sonic success, with each instrument readily identifiable in the singular soundstage.
Procol Harum emerged from the remains of R&B band The Paramounts in 1967, and were so named after manager Guy Stevens’ friend’s cat. It didn’t take long before the songwriting partnership of piano player and vocalist Gary Booker and lyricist Keith Reid, this time helped by organist Matthew Fisher married an adaptation of a J.S. Bach tune with Reid’s fantastical poetry to craft one of the most iconic of 1960s singles, A Whiter Shade Of Pale, released in May of that musically unmatchable year. Although omitted from the group’s debut album released in September, it is sensibly included here as one of four bonus tracks.
Many lesser bands would have collapsed under the weight of expectation after such a massive international debut hit single, but these players were way too classy for that. This album is the sound of a band finding its way, and being largely successful in moving on from the song they would always be most associated with.
No album from this era can escape the influence of The Beatles, and Procol Harum was no exception, with British Sgt Pepper jokiness present and correct on Good Captain Clack, although really, the Moptop influence was fairly minimal. Occasionally the spectre of Dylan hangs over some of this record, and overall, were it not for the fact that Music From The Big Pink would not be released until July 1968, you’d think that in places these Southend boys had been taking lessons from the masters of Americana.
Gary Booker’s purity of tone compliments the hints of grandiosity in the music, hints that would soon become fully realised on the band’s second album, Shine On Brightly. That grandiosity is largely supplied by Matthew Fisher’s Hammond organ in tandem with Booker’s classically tinged piano work.
Even though the band was searching for its identity on this debut album, what is never in question is Procol’s sheer musicality. Just listen to the bass line on opening track Conquistador – you can almost see David Knights stooped over the score in the studio. These guys are no amateurs! Clever appropriations from classical works seemed to be Matthew Fisher’s stock in trade in Procol’s early years. There are several moments on this record that make you wonder where you heard this or that snatch of melody before. Just as you think you’ve got it, Fisher morphs it into something else entirely. Very clever indeed.
Aside from the high-brow musical references, Procol Harum were guided by a pop sensibility that sees them cover jaunty numbers like She Wandered Through The Garden Fence and the following plaintive R&B ballad Something Following Me with equal panache, the latter mixing obvious Dylan homage with snatches of Robin Trower’s acidic guitar in a successful if somewhat knowing fashion. Mabel goes all Kinks/Small Faces gorblimey on us, and Cerdes (Outside the Gates of) pre-dates Blind Faith by 18 months, Fisher’s low-key contemplative organ marrying with some bluesy licks from Trower that showcases the guitarist’s obvious talents in that direction. Gary Booker even sounds slightly Winwood on this one. This all harks back to my earlier point that this record is the sound of a band finding their feet, but with their consummate chops taking the record beyond being a mere slave to its influences.
By the second half of the album a recognisable Procol Harum style is developing, with the core of the band using their formative R&B education to good effect. Matthew Fisher provides some great Hammond work, with Robin Trower adding occasional dashes of colour. The throwaway Beatles lark-about Good Captain Clack is followed by one of the band’s better known tunes. The instrumental Repent Walpurgis closes the album, opening with an organ melody not a million miles away from you-know-what. It soon morphs into slow blues with Trower’s guitar again to the fore, before changing tack around a classical piano motif, becoming ever more grandiose. In a way it sums up where the band was headed, and is a great end to a fine if somewhat unfocussed album.
01. Conquistador (2:40)
02. She Wandered Through the Garden Fence (3:25)
03. Something Following Me (3:38)
04. Mabel (1:54)
05. Cerdes (Outside the Gates of) (5:04)
06. A Christmas Camel (4:49)
07. Kaleidoscope (2:54)
08. Salad Days Are Here Again (3:40)
09. Good Captain Clack (1:31)
10. Repent Walpurgis (5:05)
~ Bonus tracks:
11. A Whiter Shade of Pale (4:08)
12. Lime Street Blues (2:52)
(A&B sides of single)
13. Homburg (3:57)
14. Good Captain Clack (1:30)
(A&B sides of single)
Total time – 47:10
Shine On Brightly
Almost exactly one calendar year passed between the release of Procol Harum’s self-titled debut album and their second, Shine On Brightly, released in September 1968. The development of the band in that short time is nothing short of astonishing. That bold statement is fully justified, for with the 17-minute side-long epic In Held ’Twas In I, the band took popular music to a place even The Beatles had never thought of. This song is what you might call “proto-prog”, long before the dreaded latter part of that abbreviation had been coined. A few years ago I wrote a rambling four-part personal analysis of the development of progressive rock in the UK, and Shine On Brightly was one of a handful of albums to be given the “proto” appendage. I will leave you to make your own mind up on that one!
Leaving the Dylan influences of the debut behind, and this time benefiting from a new-fangled stereo mix, the sound is fuller, and instantly recognisable as Procol Harum, who have by now carved out their own corner in the underground rock cavern. It is easy to get lost in the huge significance of In Held ’Twas In I and forget that this album had a “Side One”. Daft really, when you consider the easy confidence and swagger of opener Quite Rightly So, the grandiose title track, and Robin Trower’s bluesy showcase Wish Me Well. Even the sub-Beatles Rambling On manages to rise above its sources to carry that indelible Procol stamp, led by Gary Booker’s clear tones and ending with some fine guitar wailing from Robin.
However, there is no escaping the epic, is there? It’s what we’re here for after all. The psychedelic cover of the record, depicting a lysergically altered piano is reflected in the opening part of the suite, with Gary Booker reading a narration ending with the Dalai Lama saying “Well my son, life is like a beanstalk…isn’t it?”, and we’re off on a classic-Gothic sequence that mixes symphonic grandiosity and Chopin-esque piano. A second narrator – Keith Reid most probably – continues the story over Booker’s piano. The madcap Twas Tea Time At The Circus is a strange and fun interlude, and it is becoming fairly obvious that In Held ’Twas In I would be a big influence on a certain Peter Gabriel and his mates when writing their own rather famous side-long epic some four years later.
Robin Trower adds a marvellous and menacing guitar figure at the start of the highly psychedelic Look Into Your Soul, a guitar line that will sound familiar to any fan of Gracious! Reprising the main theme on his guitar, Robin is then joined by the rest of the band before a song emerges from the pomp, Reid’s lyrics musing on a grim realisation. More fab guitar work from Trower makes this part of the suite the most compelling. All too soon we have entered the Grand Finale with its angelic choirs and redemptive cadence. In Held ’Twas In I was a highly influential piece of music, that rightly or wrongly set the course for the “prog epic” to this day. It’s sheer majesty leant itself to orchestral accompaniment as the superb version on the 1972 live album Live In Concert With The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra bears splendid witness.
One of the bonus tracks on this single CD variant of the album is an Italian version of the title track that perhaps helped sow the seeds of the Italian progressive rock movement which blossomed only a few months behind its UK parent. As with the debut album, my review copy is the single CD issue, but there’s an expanded 3-CD version available for the completist crammed with outtakes, radio sessions, and alternate mixes.
If you consider yourself a fan of progressive rock, and you do not yet own a copy of this album, you owe it to yourself to invest in a record that pointed the way, probably without the creators even realising it. As for the rest of you, it’s simply great music, regardless of genre, and you need it, oh yes you do!
01. Quite Rightly So (3:42)
02. Shine On Brightly (3:32)
03. Skip Softly (My Moonbeams) (3:47)
04. Wish Me Well (3:20)
05. Rambling On (4:31)
06. Magdalene (My Regal Zonophone) (2:50)
In Held ’Twas In I
07. Glimpses of Nirvana (4:30)
08. Twas Tea Time an the Circus (1:19)
09. In the Autumn of My Madness (3:08)
10. Look Into Your Soul (4:58)
11. Grand Finale (3:42)
~ Bonus tracks:
12. Il Tuo Diamante (mono) (3:29)
(Shine On Brightly – Italian version)
13. Quite Rightly So (3:43)
14. In the Wee Small Hours of Sixpence (3:01)
(A&B sides of single)
Total time – 49:36
David Knights – Bass Guitar
Matthew Fisher – Hammond Organ
Robin Trower – Lead Guitar
B. J. Wilson – Percussion
Gary Booker – Voice and Piano
Keith Reid – Words
Record Label: Esoteric Recordings
Catalogue#: ECLEC 2498 & ECLEC 2501
Year Of Release: 2015