I don’t know about you, but I am fascinated by the development of ‘Progressive Rock’ in the period between 1965 and 1973. There were massive leaps from Pop and Blues Rock, to Psychedelic and then to the classic Progressive genre that happened in a remarkably short period of time. From the very first wave of albums appearing in 1966/’67, it was in the blink of an eye that by 1973 timeless masterworks, including Close to the Edge, Dark Side of the Moon and Selling England by the Pound, were being released.
All the bands that were active during that time can be said to be influential in the meteoric rise in the artistic merit and the commercial success of Prog. They fed off each other’s creativity and as individual musicians moved between groups, influences and ideas proliferating. As much as technical developments in instruments and sound recording also played their part, it was the bands and the leading creative musicians who delivered the wonder of Progressive Rock.
In that context, we have to take albums like Shine on Brightly by Procol Harum, originally released in 1968, very seriously. This release from Cherry Red Records is a remastered vinyl edition housed in the gatefold sleeve design of the September 1968 US release, and comes with a booklet containing contemporary reviews and articles.
The band was formed in 1967 by Gary Brooker and Keith Reid and released A Whiter Shade of Pale as a single in May that year. The song had classical influences, evocative, poetic and metaphorical lyrics, and features Matthew Fisher on Hammond organ. It packs a lot into its four-minute duration and is undisputedly a ‘prog rock’ track. It was released in the same month as the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper and just before Pink Floyd’s Pipers at the Gates of Dawn, so it was in the vanguard of the new Progressive wave.
The eponymous album released in the UK in December 1967 was delayed by management wrangling and, on top of that, the huge success of the debut single created a toxic atmosphere around the newly-formed band. Procol Harum didn’t include A Whiter Shade of Pale in the track list and, although it is a very strong debut album, none of the tracks came close to replicating its impact. The outcome was that in 1968 there would be personnel changes, but Brooker and Reid continued to write and navigate the band towards their follow-up album, which was to be Shine on Brightly.
The style of the song-writing and arrangements are very similar in the follow-up album. The overall sound tends to be a bit more mellow, with fewer of the heavier elements that cropped up in the first album, and it is certainly more experimental, especially as a lot of the focus has been put on the multi-part, 17-minute suite In Held ‘Twas in I on the second side of the album. This piece features many elements that would appear in various guises used by other prog bands over the years, with most of those being heard for the first time in this sort of context. For that in itself, the album deserves to be re-visited. However, this group, now re-united with Robin Trower on guitar and B.J. Wilson (from Brooker’s first band, The Paramounts) on drums was a potent mix of talent and the six shorter tracks that make up the rest of the album play their part.
There is a sense that the band is only just starting to plot a way through the history of its band members’ experiences towards a new sound, but it is nevertheless a bold and engaging album that is always a delight to listen to.
The first two tracks on side one, Quite Rightly So and Shine on Brightly, are of similar structure, each carrying elements of the signature Procol Harum sound. They have strong melodies carried along by the organ, keyboards and guitar and are underpinned by the understated but effective rhythm section. The overall effect is one of simplicity but there is such a lot going on that is only revealed by careful and repeated listening. The lyrics are poetic and opaque and suit Gary Brooker’s soulful voice and his natural and fluid delivery style perfectly.
Skip Softly (My Moonbeams) is a sketch of an idea with a false ending ushering in what sounds like an improvised instrumental section, the first sense that the band is intent on diversifying its range. However, Wish Me Well harks back to the blues rock elements of the previous album, this time featuring Robin Trower on guitar and sharing the lead vocal, and the first side ends with Rambling On, a stream of consciousness lyric sung above another bluesy style soundtrack in the vein of a Mid-Western bar room house band. It’s an interesting, if inconsistent first side, and so far, frustratingly, it’s not showing much development in the band’s style and tone.
Side two begins unassumingly with Magdalene (My Regal Zonophone), a ponderous song with an uninspiring marching drum accompaniment. It feels like the celebrated In Held ‘Twas in I has a lot of work to do to make this album stand out and to make it a worthwhile re-release some 56 years later. Fortunately, by dint of the context referred to earlier, and the innovative way the piece is put together, it serves its purpose very well indeed.
The suite begins with spoken word and a short whimsical tale involving a pilgrim and the Dalai Lama. The words portray the timeless themes of the search for meaning and redemption, but in musical terms the message is to expect the unexpected. The lyric is followed by a piano and a sitar-sounding part picking out a gentle melody before another poem with more religious references, perhaps casting some doubt on the benefits of divine intervention, is recited.
So far so prog. Part two is ‘Twas Teatime at the Circus. Clowns and circuses were familiar references in the ’60s; Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Kinks and the Rolling Stones used them to name just a few. There are multiple ways to read meaning into it; a manic episode? Comparing and contrasting the theatrical elements of religious proceedings with those of the circus? There is also a remarkable (coincidental?) foretelling of the downfall of ‘King Jimi’; of course, at this time, Jimi Hendrix was already giving extravagant performances on stage that hid a maelstrom of troubles that ultimately led to his death in 1970. Literally, the torments and tears of a clown.
Following on is In the Autumn of My Madness, which pretty much does what it says on the tin. A storm is the prelude to an impassioned vocal, this time delivered by Matthew Fisher. Various sound effects come into play as an ascending organ melody holds the piece together until fourth section Look to Your Soul takes over and introduces some distorted guitar and a disturbing reprise of the melody featured in part one, Glimpses of Nirvana. Gary Brooker is at his expressive best giving vent to the desperation of the tortured soul accompanied by some powerful drumming and fearsome guitar riffing.
The Grand Finale is a Matthew Fisher composition, opening with the piano and a vocal chorus. Robin Trower delivers a sublime guitar solo and the choir returns alongside the organ to sing out the melody to a resounding climax, providing some much-needed celestial redemption.
Keith Reid credits the album’s engineer Glyn Johns, already a well-established expert in the field with an impressive client list under his belt, with an instrumental role in assembling the track, although the piece as a whole does reflect the fact that it was recorded in 1968. It lacks the fluidity and subtlety that we expect nowadays from this sort of piecemeal and fragmented song construction, however, we have to recognise that this was a pioneering and imaginative progression in the art of story-telling, using all manner of innovative musical tropes. The descent in to a state of madness, or mental torment, is a recurring theme for progressive rock bands, and to re-visit this foundational piece has been a real privilege. It does make a pleasant change to go back in time and listen to music that was genuinely original, and to recognise the earliest examples of the use of phrasing, tones and effects that re-appear in different forms and settings over the course of half a century.
Shine On Brightly is by no means a classic album, but it is a significant and bold part of the story of the progressive development of the music scene in the late ’60s. In all probability, without it the likes of Yes, Pink Floyd and Genesis would still have blown us away in the early seventies, but as you sit down to listen to this album on vinyl again you can well imagine the likes of Jon, Roger and Peter listening to In Held ‘Twas in I for the first time and thinking “you know, there could be something in this for us…”.
01. Quite Rightly So (3:40)
02. Shine on Brightly (3:32)
03. Skip Softly (My Moonbeams) (3:47)
04. Wish Me Well (3:18)
05. Rambling On (4:31)
06. Magdalene (My Regal Zonophone) (2:50)
07. In Held ‘Twas in I (17:31)
(a) Glimpses of Nirvana
(b) Twas Tea Time at the Circus
(c) In The Autumn of My Madness
(d) Look to Your Soul
(e) Grand Finale
Total Time – 39:09
Gary Brooker – Lead Locals (tracks 1-7b & 7d), Piano (excluding 7e)
Robin Trower – Guitar, Co-lead Vocals (track 4)
Matthew Fisher – Organ, Lead Vocals (track 7c), Piano (7e)
Dave Knights – Bass Guitar
B. J. Wilson – Drums
Keith Reid – Lyrics
Record Label: Cherry Red Records
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 23rd February 2024