'The songs have titles that read like paperback novels... Gary Brooker is extremely fond of descending chord structures and slow tempos and an atmosphere of resignation, and sadness, combined with a certain strength pervades their work. Melody Maker July 1969
I must be getting on. With the passing of time I've found myself becoming amenable in turn to Jazz, Folk, Country and now it seems I'm dipping my toe in Prog which this record and band seem to be generally labelled as. Originally I wanted this album primarily for its cover which is a wonderful example of the artistic power of the medium. It also took me back to my childhood where it had caught my attention on carefree afternoons leafing through a book of album sleeves as a ten year old in Richmond Junior Library. However, a couple of plays on headphones at work recently while I debated ordering it warmed me to it and now I have it, it goes on every couple of weeks and always works its spell.
The band itself of course will always be chiefly known for their debut single A Whiter Shade of Pale, a high water mark for Psychedelia which is with Sgt. Pepper pretty much the definitive sound of The Summer of Love. It arrived at Number One in the UK in June 1967 and stayed there for the course of that summer.
'Famous in the pop world for taking portentious meaningless to rococo lengths (a fact which did not prevent it justly delighting the British public enough to keep it at Number 1 for six weeks).'
The song must be hard-wired to the brains of millions of people from that time. Lennon apparently had it on repeat play in the back of his Rolls throughout the Summer of '67. It's soundtracked umpteen documentaries and nostalgia fuelled movies ever since. It's one of the most utterly ubiquitous records ever made. I appreciate it myself, and will stick it on my pub jukebox once in a while, though saying this is slightly at odds with my inherent musical snobbery because over the intervening 50 years it's been played and played and played again to the point of utter cliché. At this remove it's almost impossible to hear it and make a rational judgement on its quality and imagine how remarkable it must have sounded when it first came out. It's a record forever laden down with the weight of its own cultural importance.
For most people Procol Harum's story began and ended with that record. They only had one more Top Ten single, follow up Homburg. They did however, proceed to a relatively successful career as an albums band, their natural medium going on to record ten albums and limp on to 1977 when lack of interest finally led them to split. This, their third, is generally considered their best. I think it's a beautiful album,. A concept of sorts on the theme of sea-faring as the cover suggests a theme they happily keep returning to though many of the tracks barely fit within that remit.
It is consistent though in terms of a general sense of nostalgia, regret and melancholy, and most of all deeply ingrained Britishness. It draws on Folk and Blues, Rock and Classical music and remains diverse and spirited throughout. It features marimbas, recorders, tablas and bosun's whistles. Three songwriters contribute so the mood and tempo shifts. Robin Trower, Gary Brooker and Matthew Fisher divide the tracks between them fairly democratically and the resultant diversity keeps the record buoyant. There are moments, particularly on Brooker's songs where the Prog label makes some kind of sense but I think as a whole it's too good a record to reduce to that term.
And I think it's a very good record. Anchored in solid songwriting and thoughtful lyrics by non-band member Keith Reid who supplied them with their words throughout the band's career. It verges on pretentious at times sure, but never ceases to have warm lifeblood flowing through it and is nothing in comparison with the pretension that lay ahead proceeding to run amok in the early Seventies when the mantle of Prog settled on the band from which they never quite recovered. They're almost forgotten now but it's telling that Nick Kent mentions them in his NME review of Marquee Moon, in 1977 of all years.
‘Guiding Light’ is reflective, stridently poetic – a hymn for aesthetes – which, complete with piano, reminds me slightly of Procol Harum in excelsis.'
The band have lost any cultural weight they might have had since then. Perhaps they made their greatest mistake by refusing a slot at Woodstock because it clashed with Brooker's summer holiday plans. In any case in the intervening years they've sloped off to the margins of rock history. Nevertheless for me at least this statement endures.
There's an innate songwriting talent running through each of the ten songs to keep the listener engaged. The longest track here just breaks the five minute mark. There's also a beauty in it that remains and stands the test of nearly half a century. At the beginning of Side 2 with Juicy John Pink they wander off into the blues as every British band of the period tended to at some point but generally the mood is a great deal more pastoral, resigned, less urgent.
Part of the appeal of the record to me is that it conveys it's time so effortlessly. A time that's clearly gone. Over the introductory credits of landmark eighties film Withnail and I, the I character smokes a joint and stares into space sound tracked by King Curtis's version of A Whiter Shade. It puts us straight away into an unmistakeable place, time and mood. It's a film that focuses amongst many other things on the turn of the decades from the Sixties to the Seventies and everything that will be lost in that moment of turning. There's a moment towards the end of The Wreck of The Hesperuswhere the guitarist breaks in to a solo that's eerily reminiscent of the ones Brian May went on to plague the Seventies with during his time with Queen. This being a band that leaves me utterly cold, it's my least favourite moment of the whole album. It's a sign of what's to come. The empty pomp and grandeur of so much Rock music during the Seventies. But then it's overtaken by the sound effect of an enormous ship breaking through waves and the record's back on course.
Procol Harum, as much as any band I can think of are preserved in aspic in the time when they made their first and defining records. They themselves were looking back even in their early days. The record cover is a pastiche of the Players Navy Cigarette pack, the lyrics hark back continually to Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century shipwrecks. The band name translates approximately from Latin as "of these far off things". Their songs are drenched throughout with deep nostalgia.
There's a moment in penultimate track Crucifiction Lane where Robin Trower slips into minor key melancholia that Eric Clapton and George Harrison would have approved of. Generally the mood is more introspective and resigned. Perhaps the band didn't really have the stomach for the fight with the era's major players. Fisher's instantly recognisable organ sound continually drifts into the mix reminding the listener that their defining moment is already almost a couple of years behind them.
For the last couple of months I've set myself a target of writing up one of these album reviews on Sunday morning giving myself a twelve o'clock deadline. I'm running out of time on this one. I struggled with it, probably wrestling with the word Prog, a genre of music I'll always be wary of. How could I like such a record so much. Where were my NME Eighties generated boundaries? I shouldn't have worried as the album I've focussed on defies such narrow categorisation. It's a record that has more than sufficient songwriting craft, warmth, emotion, melody and lyricism for me to be able to recommend it wholeheartedly. Procol Harum, you Flower Power Hippies, you Salty Dogs! I salute you!