Listening #9 Page 2

The final blow was one that Procol delivered themselves: a complete and utter absence of visual appeal. Bandmembers appeared in concert and on TV dressed in fringed boots, Mandarin caps, and cheap-looking satin tunics and capes, looking less like pop stars than medieval Chinamen from outer space. Moreover, Procol Harum shows weren't shows at all, and notwithstanding the group's superb musicianship—"Repent, Walpurgis," a downtempo instrumental by Fisher that sounded like nothing else in pop, seldom failed to get an ovation—they didn't give the audience a whole lot to look at. Fellow downtempomeisters Pink Floyd would eventually solve this puzzle for themselves by touring with their own sound system and light show, garnering more money and attention in the process, not undeservedly.

So what can we make of that first PH album? As others have suggested, it's a rare debut that sounds this mature and fully realized. Procol was often compared to that other twin-keyboard outfit, the Band, but the latter's Music from Big Pink, brilliant though it is, is a mishmash by comparison. While it contains examples of what would become the Band's signature sound—the loose, call-and-response singing, the half-time drumming, the almost Ivesian background wash of Garth Hudson's Lowrey organ—the song selection betrayed a few stylistic dead-ends, too, such as the riff-happy "Chest Fever" and the group's uncharacteristically lightweight cover song, "Long Black Veil."

By contrast, although the material on Procol Harum describes a wide range of moods, there's a pretty strong vibe running throughout: intelligent, inventive, outrageous, a tiny bit pretentious here and there...not unlike what the Beatles were doing with "Strawberry Fields." Even the lyrics that sound dated—portions of "A Christmas Camel," "Kaleidoscope," and "Cerdes"—are carried along by Reid's literate attitude and cinematic perspective, the freshness of which allows the occasional slip into youthful pretentiousness to be overlooked, I think.

Just as important, the songs share a common sound, irrespective of tempo: that stately, almost churchy combination of piano and Hammond organ, punctuated—but no more—by the contrasting sound of Robin Trower's fuzzy take on the basic Steve Cropper electric guitar style (he hadn't yet discovered Hendrix) and propelled by the nimble drumming of the late, great B.J. Wilson. Even on the more lighthearted numbers, the playing is singularly intense.

Is it "progressive rock"? That depends on how you define it. The melodies and arrangements go beyond the typical pop fare of its day, but then, Procol never went in for long keyboard solos, meaningless time-signature changes, or lyrics about wizards driving spaceships full of fairies to and from Stonehenge. Noting Brooker and Fisher's reliance on minor chords and generally slow tempos, some folks labeled the band "gothic"—but given that term's appropriation by obese, mall-wandering teens in black lipstick (not to mention JA's least favorite band, the Smiths), that doesn't fit, either. "Procol Harum music" will have to do.

A Classic example
Mike Hobson, president of Classic Records, told me about his adventures in bringing his reissue of Procol Harum to market (footnote 2), and the story has some unexpected twists of its own.

First, because the recording was never mixed for stereo—although most copies that made it to the US were remastered in horridly fake two-channel sound—Hobson decided that the Classic reissue should be mono as well. He also decided that the only proper way to do the album would be to follow the original UK running order—which is to say, without "A Whiter Shade of Pale" or "Homburg."

There was a surprise waiting for him. The opening track on the original UK album was "Conquistador," but when Hobson cued up the equalized and leadered production master, the first song he heard was "Homburg," with "Conquistador" relegated to the No.4 spot on side 2. What had happened? With so many people involved in producing the original, and with 35-year-old memories being somewhat faded, it's hard to say for sure. One good guess is that, late in the summer of 1967, "Homburg" was chosen as the album opener, but during the nearly half a year the album sat in the can, someone had a change of heart—perhaps wanting to prevent another lawsuit by the musicians who'd been let go, since they'd played on "Homburg."

Replacement drummer B.J. Wilson recalled going into the studio with Procol not long after "Homburg" was recorded and re-doing the drum part using the original four-track tapes. That newer version, sometimes heard in a very good stereo mix, turned up on a number of compilations over the years and may even have been used to master the single version in some markets, but apart from the better drumming—and less reverb added to the vocals during mixing—it's the same performance as the original.

Back to Mike Hobson—who wanted to do a "correct" reissue of the first Procol Harum album but who also had reservations about ignoring the group's most famous song. Eventually, he hit on an idea: do the album purist-right, but package it with an additional 12" record, that one with "A Whiter Shade of Pale." They could even couple a 33rpm cut on one side with a higher-fidelity 45rpm version on the other, in what has become a recent Classic tradition, if you'll pardon the three-way oxymoron.

Footnote 2: Classic Records catalog number is LRZ-1001, price is $50 for the 2-disc set.