Procol Harum formed in 1967 and comprised of vocalist Gary Brooker, lyricist Keith Reid, guitarist David Trower, bassist David Knights, organist Matthew Fisher, and drummer B. J. Wilson. The band would have a constantly fluctuating line-up, not least with the departure of Fisher in 1969. The band scored a massive hit with 'A Whiter Shade Of Pale', which went to No. 1 in June 1967 and stayed their for six weeks. Their subsequent singles fared less well, as did their self-titled debut album. But albums like A Salty Dog (1969) and Grand Hotel (1973) received critical acclaim and kept them somewhat in the public eye, as least where their fans were concerned. But as the 1970s wore on and the prog movement they helped to found died in the face of punk, the band's reviews crumbled and they called it a day in 1977.
Any compilation has to start with 'A Whiter Shade Of Pale'. And why not? There is a reason why this song has often been voted one of the greatest ever written. It's not as rocking as 'Bohemian Rhapsody' and not as mystical as 'Stairway To Heaven' (supposedly - see past posts on Led Zeppelin IV). But it has a deep emotional quality to it, a resonance that cannot be explained. Fisher's organ washes over Wilson's dynamic drumming, creating the tragedian atmosphere over which Brooker croons his melancholy lines. Like Robert Plant on 'Stairway To Heaven', Reid's lyrics are left open to multiple interpretations: there is a general consensus (it is about tripping on acid from the point of view of the tripper), but there are outside chances too (e.g. it is about the Titanic). It's a song that was way ahead of its time, and perhaps it is that which makes it so endearing.
'Homburg', from 1967, combines the proto-prog influences of the last track and adds some more disticntly psychedelic lyrics into the mix. While Reid's offering on 'A Whiter Shade Of Pale' were bizarre and mystical, here they are straightforwardly English. The chorus - Your trousers cuffs are dirty/ And you shoes are laced up wrong/ You better take off your Homburg/ 'Cos your overcoat is too long - sounds like the kind of line which Syd Barrett would have come up with. Melancholy remains in the form of Brooker, but this is lifted by the presence of an active bass line, courtesy of Knights.
'A Salty Dog', the title track of their 1969 album, opens to the sound of seagulls and minor chords on violins. Again, it's a song steeped in melancholy; again, it's a showcase for Brooker's delivery and Wilson's drums; and again, it's not the easiest thing to listen to lyrically. But this is different from the previous tracks. This is a mood piece, swelling and succinct, which abandons the structure of the first two albums to create something which is truly moving to all but the most Stoical ear. Prog fans will lap this up.
With 'Whaling Stories', we are treated to more of a classic rock style - chiefly because this is taken from Home (1970), the first album without Fisher and thus without organs. The stylish opening features some lovely interplay between Brooker's piano playing and Trower's guitar. From then on it, it gets a bit meandering, but unlike a lot of prog-era records released from hereon in, this is meandering with a purpose. It's a jam, but one which adds texture to the piece and creates an atmosphere, rather than serving as a self-indulgent exercise in improvisation, ELP-style.
'Quite Rightly So' and 'Shine On Brightly' return to the Fisher era; the former quite dramatically. This is an organ heavy piece, which sounds like a dignified version of a Yes song mixed up with bits of Sgt. Pepper-era Beatles. As on a lot of Procol recordings, the production feels distant, perhaps because of the constraints with technology, perhaps out of a desire to appeal to the tripping generation. 'Shine On Brightly', the title track from their 1968 record, sounds even more like a Beatles record; Brooker's delivery and the trippy feeling reminds one of 'Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds'. The lyrics are oblique and forgettable, but it's pleasant enough without them.
Having gone backwards in time, we then rush forward to 1973 and 'Grand Hotel'. For such an orchestral piece, this is surprisingly catchy. The opening lines are quite intriguing in a quaintly inexplicable: ask someone to explain why Tonight we sleep on silken sheets/ We drink fine wines and eat rare meats is so endearing, and they cannot put it into words. And neither can I. While on Home (1970) Reid's insistence on rhyming let him down, here it produces something... well, indescribable. And the changes in time signature - the waltz section in the middle, for instance - work very well to boot.
The first real slip-up comes from 'Bringing Home The Bacon'. For all the rock piano of Brooker, it is clear that from the outset this is a showcase for Wilson and his taste for rhythm. But while Wilson is not self-indulgent like Carl Palmer, his dynamism is best suited to unpredictable fills within tightly organised songs - not unlike his exact contemporary, Keith Moon. This miscalculated emphasis on the drums turns the whole thing into a ham-fisted jam which puts a damper on the rest of their repetoire.
The better and rockier 'Toujours L'Amour' has more of an R&B feel to it, a reflection of Brooker's former outfit The Paramounts who received the backing of the Rolling Stones. It's an acerbic song about love and lost, which features new guitarist Mick Grabham. He provides the foil to both Brooker and the bass guitar, played with an ominous touch by Alan Cartwright. Reid is on top form with lines like She took all the pleasure, and none of the pain/ She took all the credit, and none of the blame.
'Broken Barricades' is the title track from Trower's last album with the band. It features a hooky synthesiser track which paints Wilson into a corner but allows Brooker the room he needs. It has a distinctly pop feel to it, complete with the break in the middle before Wilson is given a chance to breathe. But before one can appreciate it fully, it gives way to an ill-sounding live recording of 'Conquistador'. Taken from the band's 1972 live recording with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra (oh, prestigious!), it's an example of Brooker at his most ornate and, as a result, most off-putting.
The slump continues with 'Nothing But The Truth'. The flaw here is that this is just plain annoying from start to finish. Brooker's delivery succumbs to the temptations of the long notes, turning his melancholy into a pop-rocker's drawl. Taken from Exotic Birds And Fruit (1974), this is bouncy but irritating, the kind of summer song which is instantly forgotten by the time September is through. The violins and grandiose production cannot save this turkey, anymore than they can with 'Butterfly Boys'. Despite Wilson's attractive drumming and the nice piano, this feel empty and is instantly forgettable. Reid's lyrics in particular fails to convey any of his fascinations with sin and redemption - the many mentions of 'savages' go straight over one's head i nthe face of a self-parodying guitar solo.
And so, the closer - for want of a better term. 'Pandora's Box' is an attempt, at least, to return to the glory days. And to be honest, it doesn't do too badly. The sound is familiar, perhaps; on the other hand, this could be seen as a reflection of all the motifs which made the band such a hit. There are hints of other prog acts in here - the flutes from early Genesis, for instance - along with later influence, like the wierd interference-sounding synthesiser later to be employed by The Stranglers.
Procol Harum became famous almost by accident and as such never reached the dizzying heights of success enjoyed by their contemporaries. On the other hand, it is highly unfair to write them off as a one-hit wonder - or one-trick pony, for that matter. Sure, both commercially and critically, the band never matched 'A Whiter Shade Of Pale'. But that is no reason to dismiss them as the predecessors to the one-hit wonders of the X-Factor kind. This compilation, like others, is good not because of its choice of songs - after the hit years it's a question of who's still listening. This is good because it lays the one-hit wonder myth to rest. And that is enough to lead to a full rehabilitation of this heavily underrated band.
3.79 out of 5