Listening #9 Page 3

It took a while to locate the production master for the single—the original four-track tapes haven't surfaced since 1967, and are presumed forever lost—but along the way someone turned up a box from Advision Sound Studios in London, dated "April 1967" and marked, simply, "Whiter Shade of Pale plus takes." (Charmingly, the label on the box credits someone named Procol Harrian.) Rather than a mixed and EQ'd production master, the box contained an original four-track tape. Careful playback revealed the contents to be three different, unmixed recordings of the song, each slightly different from one another and from the "official" single.

Knowing he had some special tracks in his possession, Hobson looked for an equally special setting in which to mix them. He found it just southwest of London, moored on the Thames: an opulent Edwardian houseboat named The Astoria—or, as present owner David Gilmour, of Pink Floyd, has rechristened it, Astoria Sound Studios. It's quite possibly the finest floating recording studio in the world, and reportedly one of the most well-run studios anywhere, regardless of where it sits. Gilmour's magnificent Neve console is supplemented by such esoteric audiophile gear as ATC monitor loudspeakers, special-built equipment stands from Mana Acoustics, and a number of custom bits designed and installed by UK design genius and all-around tube guru Tim de Paravicini.

In fact, it was Mr. de P whom Mike Hobson asked to cut all the Procol Harum lacquers, at the Exchange, the well-known London mastering house. And when Hobson secured a day at Astoria, he had de Paravicini there with him and producer John Leckie to create something that most people have never heard: a true stereo mix of one of rock's greatest singles.

Everyone who buys the Classic Records reissue of Procol Harum will get two 12" vinyl records: Tim de Paravicini's remastering of the original debut album and his remastering of the original single release of "A Whiter Shade of Pale," both in mono, the latter with a 33rpm side and a 45rpm side. The first 1000 buyers will also get a bonus: a 7" 45rpm single containing John Leckie's remix of the alternate version of the famous single and its flip side—the snappy, R&B-tinged "Lime Street Blues," also discovered on the four-track tape—in full stereo. (After that, I hope that Classic will consider offering the single for sale as a standalone record.)

The Classic package uses the same cover art as the original album—a woodcut by Keith Reid's then-girlfriend, Dickinson, who would design two more covers for the group—but since the new one will contain two and sometimes three records, a gatefold sleeve was chosen; Classic's art department took advantage of this opportunity to include two photos of the group, one showing the lineup that made the single, the other showing the album-track personnel—a nice touch. I only wish they'd gone whole-hog and included a poster version of the cover art, as did the first few thousand copies of the original LP. (I still have mine, but then, I'm a collector—which is to say, I'm sad.)

How does it all sound? Nothing short of glorious.

The original "A Whiter Shade of Pale" sounds great here: both chunkier and more "open" than any mastering I've heard, with an especially clear view of the electric bass line. But where the original is great, the stereo mix of the alternate version is superb. I'd never heard this recording of "AWSOP" before, and while true stereo mixes of the song have surfaced over the past five or six years, I believe those have mostly been from multitrack recordings of live-in-the-studio performances, intended for broadcast.

By contrast, the Classic stereo version is a more "committed" performance, and although the group's inexperience shows—there are some slips in the bass line, and the drum part, by original drummer Harrison and not one of his more accomplished replacements, is overly deliberate and heavy-handed—the song sounds utterly fresh. And the extraordinarily good mastering job lets us really hear, for the first time, what original guitarist Ray Royer, the man with the most ahead-of-his-time hairdo in rock history, was doing in this song: mostly arpeggiated chords, but with some Cropper-esque touches of his own. Cool, cool, and cool.

As for the album itself, it's hard to imagine a more compelling reason to run right out and buy one of the new high-quality monophonic phono cartridges. (God knows I love my Lyra Helikon Mono.) Like the remastering of the original single, the album has the same combination of substance and color that I hear in all the best mono records, and while nothing can be done to correct some aspects of it—what a horrible-sounding room that must have been!—Tim de Paravicini's remastering is by far the least grainy I've heard. In short, it's a great success.

And now that I've listened to it, I'm surer than ever that the song selection on Classic's reissue—with "Homburg" as the first song—is the way the album was intended to be heard. In particular, the version of "Conquistador" here is not the one that came out on the UK and US albums, but is an earlier take (Take 1, in fact) that was intended for release but was pulled in early December 1967 in favor of a performance with a slightly smoother solo by Fisher. (Take 1 is a rare bird, having surfaced on a collector's compilation only three years ago—and it, too, is often heard in a true stereo mix.) A few other changes were made to the running order at the same time the earlier "Conquistador" was pulled—these are noted on the box used for the UK album's master tape—which, again, probably reflect the "luxury" of having an extra six months added to the album's production schedule.

Don't sweat the small stuff: If, like me, you're a collector, this reissue will have you ooh-ing and ahh-ing for months. But the real appeal is to the many thousands of folks who appreciate great sound and truly classic rock'n'roll—and who, of course, are into vinyl. I said it when Classic Records reissued the live Dylan at Albert Hall, I said it when they did the Led Zeppelin BBC Sessions box, I said it when they started their wonderful Heifetz series, and I say it again here: These guys just get better and better.