Listening #9

In the town where I grew up there were two places to buy records: a family-owned department store and the local Woolworth's, both long gone. The first record I ever bought, the 45rpm single of Roger Miller's "King of the Road," came from the former in 1965. I was 11 years old.

Those stores and the 7" records they sold got a lot of attention from me and my friends, but we didn't start buying LPs until a few years later. For one thing, we couldn't afford albums, which cost three dollars and change—a little less for mono when the choice existed—as opposed to 99 cents for singles. For another, we generally didn't want LPs—up to a certain point in time, most pop albums comprised little more than the artist's most recent hit or two, packaged with a lot of filler: weak B-sides, spiritless performances of hit songs by competing artists, those sorts of things.

Chuck Berry's 1965 album Fresh Berry's (sic, Chess LP-1498) is typical: It combines his latest single, the fine "It Wasn't Me," with such Berry throwaways as "Every Day We Rock & Roll" and "Merrily We Rock & Roll" (yes, they're virtually the same song), and wig-flippingly bad renditions of "One for My Baby" and "Vaya con Dios." Even the liner notes are awful: You can feel the writer's pain as he scratches, desperately, for something good to say.

The idea of a pop album as a consistent collection of good songs, let alone the idea of a pop album as a complete artistic statement, was in the future—defined, for our purposes, as 1967. That was a year of transition, when retail sales of 7" records began to soften and young consumers began buying LPs in increasing numbers. That was also a time when two records in particular seemed to be on everyone's turntable: a new album by the Beatles, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the debut single by another English group, Procol Harum.

Oceans of ink have been spilled on the former, but the latter remains underexposed, in spite of Procol having just released their 11th album of new material in March of this year (The Well's On Fire, Eagle ER20006-2). From the other end of the timeline, their debut album, Procol Harum, has now been reissued on vinyl by those saints at Classic Records, in glorious mono (LRZ-1001).

Procol Harum started life as a songwriting team: lyricist Keith Reid, a flamboyantly bookish young man with an interest in the music business, and Gary Brooker, a composer, singer, and pianist with a distinctive, Ray Charles-inspired vocal style, which he honed during his years in an R&B band called the Paramounts. (The Paramounts very popular on their native Southend turf, and even snagged a local hit with their recording of Leiber and Stoller's "Poison Ivy." The young John Atkinson was sometimes in their audience.) Within weeks of their meeting, Brooker turned a packetful of Reid's lyrics into a couple dozen distinctive rock songs—uniquely catchy things, some with unexpected melodic twists and chord sequences not generally heard in rock—and one of the songs made an impression at Deram Records, a subsidiary of Decca.

That song, with its four verses of Dylanesque whimsy and a musical framework that recalled both Bach's Air on a G String and Percy Sledge's "When a Man Loves a Woman," was "A Whiter Shade of Pale." Whacked down from its original four verses to two and framed with an organ line fashioned by the group's Matthew Fisher from another J.S. Bach piece ("Wachet auf," from Cantata 140), the song became the biggest international hit of June 1967, and the fastest-selling single in Decca history.

Instant success was not in anyone's plans, however, and chaos ensued. In June, new management was brought in. In July, guitarist Ray Royer and drummer Bobby Harrison were sacked—the latter hadn't even played on their hit, but was in fact passed over during the session in favor of Bill Eyden, who was Georgie Fame's drummer at the time—and when the pair threatened to sue, lawyers stepped in and began to grab all the money in sight. Two of Brooker's old mates from the Paramounts were recruited, raising both the level of musicianship and the sense of Procol as a real band rather than a session group, but the latter was the impression the UK music press took hold of, and they stayed with it, souring on Brooker and company from the start.

There was an even more pressing matter at hand: How do you follow up a single like "A Whiter Shade of Pale"? It wasn't the first song Brooker and Reid had written together; in fact, by June 1967 they had more than two dozen fine originals in their repertoire, some of which, like their 1976 single "Pandora's Box," wouldn't see the light of day for years. A number of those songs had already been recorded by the original version of the group—including the magnificent "Homburg," which would be the follow-up single—but not enough for a whole album. So the reconstituted Procol Harum entered London's Olympic Sound Studios in late July and quickly recorded the bulk of their debut album, with producer Denny Cordell opting for a live-in-the-studio feel, with little overdubbing and nothing in the way of strings, effects, or exotic instrumentation.

That first, eponymous album was a stunner, but no one heard it until early 1968: Procol Harum's new management wanted it held back, at least partly because they didn't want the record to interfere with new releases by other acts in their roster. As if losing the momentum of the year's biggest single weren't bad enough, Deram decided to leave both "A Whiter Shade of Pale" and "Homburg" off the album (footnote 1). That was a common practice with established acts such as the Beatles, who could afford to leave "Strawberry Fields" and "Penny Lane" off their new album, and was defensible in light of the record-buying public's quaint reluctance to pay to own the same song twice. But in this case it was commercial suicide, leading to the hitherto unthinkable: a hit group whose first album didn't even chart.

There's even more: Some folks who did buy Procol Harum, and not a few critics, complained about the album's Spartan production values, suggesting that the Beatles had raised the stakes with Sgt. Pepper's—which they had, of course. What the hell kind of psychedelia was this, without so much as a single backward guitar solo?

Footnote 1: But they caved in to pressure from their US distributor and put "AWSOP" on the Stateside version.