Courtesy of a couple more pleasant evenings on the deck — hey, for once, or twice, it didn’t rain — I’ve spent some time recently listening to Procol Harum.
That U.K.-originating band is one of many groups marking its 50th anniversary this year, testimony to what a watershed year 1967 was in regard to The Music. But that’s a matter for another post, in a week or two.
My evening al fresco audio excursions covered three of PH’s original albums, and one greatest hits compilation. The last of those features some of the band’s earliest, and most memorable, recordings.
Chief among those is “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” the band’s first Top 40 hit in the U.S. But it was more than a successful single — it kind of turned the culture on its ear.
But backing up, let’s look at Procol Harum’s origins. The band started out in 1964 as the Paramounts, founded by three of the four members of the band’s classic lineup: musicians Gary Brooker, Robin Trower and B.J. Wilson. They had a No. 35 U.K. hit in “Poison Ivy,” penned by legendary U.S. songwriters Lieber and Stoller.
But the group was unable to follow up on that success, and disbanded. Some of the original members reorganized two years later, with the addition of lyricist Keith Reid.
The latter apparently was the icing on the cake, because Procol Harum’s lyrics as much as anything distinguished them from the mid-to-late-60s Top 40 run-of-the-mill. No less of authorities than Ken Kesey, the Merry Pranksters and the Grateful Dead — you can look it up in Thomas Wolfe’s “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” — were wowed by “Whiter Shade.” Beatle John Lennon played it on the car stereo in his Rolls Royce.
That 1967 release — 50 years ago a couple weeks back — was distinctive, in part because it did not conform to the strictures of pop songwriting. Not only was there no moon-June-spoon rhyming scheme, there was little or no coherent lyrical structure.
Consider that I, who has heard the words of this song for 50 years, don’t actually know all of them. For instance, per LyricsFreak: “If music be the food of love/Then laughter is its queen/And likewise if behind is in front/Then dirt in truth is clean.”
But it turns out that those lines are not on the recorded version — another Procol Harum quirk. What would one expect from a group that created a song that classic music experts say borrows from Bach, and others say is heavily influenced by Percy Sledge’s classic soul gut-buster, “When a Man Loves a Woman”?
Anyway, “Whiter” was a No. 1 hit in most of the world, and got to No. 5 in the U.S. It was the most-played song in public places in the U.K. over the past 75 years, and also the most-played record by British broadcasting.
Procol Harum’s follow-up hit, “Homburg,” seemed to continue the concept of turning the language on its head: “The town clock in the market square/Stands waiting for the hour/When its hands they both turn backwards/And on meeting will devour/Both themselves and also any fool/Who dares to tell the time.”
But the initial success from that debut album didn’t prevent significant changes in the band’s lineup, including the return of Paramounts members Trower and Wilson . That didn’t seem to change the impact of the group’s second album, “Shine on Brightly,” which took the stand-it-on-the-ear meme and moved it to another level.
“Shine” featured more of Reid’s tongue-in-cheek/off-the-wall lyrics, most notably in “Ramble On” and the extended “In Held Twas in I.” The former takes the protagonist from donning a pair of Batman-inspired wings and climbing a wall, to “actual” flying: “I must have flown a mile, or maybe it was eight/Thought to myself pretty soon I'd hit the Golden Gates /Just then a passing bird for no reason I could see/Took a peck at my wings and that was the end of me /I went down, hit the ground faster than the speed of sound /Luckily I broke no bones only tore my underclothes.”
That was trumped by the 17-minute “In Held Twas in I,” which was an opening shot in what later would be called progressive rock, and an early example of the extended rock suite. Most familiar with the cut will remember the Dalai Lama’s response to the pilgrim who spends five years in contemplation waiting to find out the meaning of life, only to be asked, “Life is like a beanstalk, isn’t it?”
But the concluding track on the album — its title was, unsurprisingly for this band, an acrostic — had lots more in store, after that first movement. The third movement, “In the Autumn of My Madness,” includes the absolutely brutal “When all my thoughts are spoken (save my last departing birds)/Bring all my friends unto me and I'll strangle them with words.” The last movement ends with something that sounds like a British national anthem.
But the group’s chemistry got even crazier after that, with Trower leaving a couple years later for solo and other projects. One of Procol Harum’s most successful singles, “Conquistador,” surfaced around that time — but it was a cover from the group’s first album, recorded live with a symphony orchestra, and was hardly the cream of their crop.
The band at times still could summon up the lyrical magic that brought it to fame, an example being “Strong as Samson,” from the 1974 album “Exotic Birds and Fruit”: “Ain't no use in preachers preaching/When they don't know what they're teaching/The weakest man be strong as Samson/When you're being held to ransom.”
But the record sales and critical acclaim were fading, and the band formally broke up in 1977, 10 years after it had helped change the face of The Music. There were, of course, reunions, even before the present-day “Geezer Tour” gold mine developed.
Disregarding those eternally-touring legacy/clone bands, Procol Harum offers the time-traveling music aficionado a look at how The Music changed, 50 years ago this year. If you have a way of listening to the band’s late 1960s-early ’70s work, do so.