Graded on a Curve: Procol Harum,
Greatest Hits

Speaking solely for myself—and John Lennon, who considered it the one song of the period that wasn’t crap, and who called it “that dope song… You play it when you take some acid and… whoooooooo” —Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” is one of those extremely rare songs of which I’ve never tired. It never fails to transport me to a Magic Mountain in the remotest Alps of my mental circuitry, thanks to Matthew Fisher’s impossibly baroque and ethereal didgeridoo and—what’s that?—Fisher isn’t playing the didgeridoo? He’s playing the… organ? You’re kidding, right? That’s not a didgeridoo? Well I’ll be a purple-assed baboon’s nether regions.

Not that it changes diddly, mind you. I still love “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” and “Whisky Train,” and “Shine On Brightly,” and “Homburg,” and “Repent Walpurgis,” but not so much “Conquistador.” I mean, I wouldn’t go so far as to kick it out of bed, although I might give it the bum’s rush out the door afterwards, saying, “Get down!/Get up!/Get out!” like Rod Stewart in “Stay With Me.” This love for Procol Harum flies in the face of everything I know about myself, because the lads from Southend-on-Sea, Essex, formed perhaps the first prog-baroque-symphonic rock band (their second LP, 1968’s Shine On Brightly, included the groundbreaking 17-minute “In Held ‘Twas in I”) and my general feeling for such bands is summed up by the hoary Russian adage, “Your German: He may be a nice enough fellow. Still, it is better to shoot him.”

Put together by the legendary Guy “There are only two Phil Spectors in the world and I am one of them” Stevens, who named the band after a friend’s cat then blew a fortune by failing to get the group signed, Procol Harum’s classic line-up included Gary Brooker, piano and lead vocals; Keith “Bernie Taupin” Reid, lyrics; Robin “This Critic Used to Own a Green 8-Track of His Bridge of Sighs” Trower on vocals and guitar; Matthew Fisher on didgeridoo, I mean keyboards; David Knights, bass; and B.J. “Not That Kind of B.J.” Wilson, drums. Remarkably, the Harum hit pay dirt during their very first session in Olympic Studios in 1967 with “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” which went to the Toppermost of the Poppermost in the U.K. and reached No. 5 in the U.S. Even more remarkably, “Pale” was not included on the band’s U.K. version of its eponymous 1967 debut. Talk about hiding your light beneath a bushel.

The songs on Greatest Hits were culled from Procol Harum’s first five studio LPs (ending with 1971’s Broken Barricades) and its 1972 live LP, Procol Harum Live In Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. By that time, Fisher, Trower, and Knights were history, their places taken respectively by Chris Copping, Dave Ball, and Alan Cartwright. I picked the band’s Greatest Hits for the obvious reason that Procol Harum’s studio LPs could all be called Greatest Hits and Misses. Even the critically hailed A Salty Dog includes such relative mediocrities as “Juicy John Pink” (one of the least salubrious song titles, well, ever) the painful “Crucifiction Land,” and “The Devil Came From Kansas.” Unless you’re a hardcore acolyte, all of your Procol Harum needs will be met by this single-LP greatest hits.

The LP opens with the live “Conquistador,” which I don’t like as much as the studio version. Sure, the longer live version boasts a great guitar solo by Dave Ball, and Chris Copping’s closing organ work is exquisite, but those trumpets drive me mad. They make me think of Blood, Sweat & Tears, and that isn’t good. Before you know it I have the unspeakable “Spinning Wheel” stuck like a leech to a very important part of my cerebellum, and there’s simply no way to pull it off. Sometimes it plays spinning in my head for days.

Fortunately, “A Whiter Shade of Pale” follows. “Pale” opens with one of the most transcendently beautiful organ riffs I’ve ever heard, and Brooker’s vocals are its perfect complement. And Keith Reid, who brought us the embarrassing “reek of purity” in “Conquistador,” outdoes himself on this one, mixing Chaucer, 16 vestal virgins, and those wonderful opening lines: “We skipped the light fandango/Turned cartwheels cross the floor/I was feeling kind of seasick/The crowd called out for more.” I have no idea what Brooker’s singing about, but those opening lines bring to mind The Band’s “Stage Fright.” It’s said J. Lennon used to drive around London in his multi-colored Rolls Royce with this windows down and this baby cranked at full volume, and I wish I could have been with him as Fisher’s ethereal organ serenaded pie-eyed pedestrians from Piccadilly Circus to Paddington.

Amazingly, the great “Homburg” never appeared on a Procol Harum studio LP, but was released as the follow-up single to “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” A slow and stately piano- and organ-driven song, Fisher and Brooker again dominate, with the help of Keith Reid’s lyrics, which do a magnificent job of setting the scene: “Your multilingual business friend/Has packed her bags and fled/Leaving only ash-filled ashtrays/And the lipsticked unmade bed.” As for the chorus, it’s cryptic but sounds just right coming out of Reid’s mouth: “Your trouser cuffs are dirty/And your shoes are laced up wrong/You’d better take off your homburg/’Cause your overcoat is too long.” Bottom line: Best song about a hat ever. Better than B. Dylan’s “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,” Steely Dan’s “The Fez,” Randy Newman’s “You Can Leave Your Hat On”—better even than Men Without Hats.

“Whisky Train” is a propulsive and hard-rocking blues from the hand of Robin Trower, who sings and plays frenetic guitar throughout. B.J. Wilson’s drumming is magnificent, and what else is there to say, except that this is about as far as you can get from progressive rock, but that it does offer a foreshadowing of Trower’s future solo career? And “Whisky Train” has its complement in “Simple Sister,” a slower but still hard-nosed rock number that features pneumatic piano and great vocals by Brooker, some fantastic guitar by Trower, and more hot drum work by Wilson, all of it meshing into a great instrumental jam that culminates in a mighty crescendo of strings and horns as the song departs at stage right.

Like “Simple Sister,” “Power Failure” is off 1971’s Broken Barricades, and it boasts lots of slanted and enchanted guitar by Trower and more excellent drumming by Wilson. Perhaps too much excellent drumming, in fact, in the form of a solo that dominates the song’s midsection. It’s a quirky thing, this solo, and when it’s over a crowd applauds, and this on a studio LP! I don’t dislike “Power Failure,” but I would call it the slightest track on Greatest Hits. Meanwhile, “Boredom” opens with reindeer bells, an acoustic guitar, flute, and xylophone, and the atmosphere, what with the xylophone and Miller’s congas, is vaguely Caribbean. Brooker sings, “Some say they will and some say they won’t/Some say they do and some say they don’t” until the very melodic chorus, on which he throws out the Dylan-like, “All in all/It’s all the same/But call me if there’s any change.” The second verse is followed by a very long instrumental jam—with members of the band calling out here and there—that takes the song home.

Organ, drums, and Brooker’s vocals dominate “In The Wee Small Hours of Sixpence.” It moves at a pop pace, with lots of organ flourishes, and Brooker sings, “In the wee small hours of sixpence/And the lighted chandelier/Stands a rusty old retainer/Whose eyes are full of tears.” There’s a short instrumental break, then Brooker sings some more, and it’s over. “Repent Walpurgis” is one of rock’s great instrumentals, becoming increasingly furious as Fisher’s opening Hammond organ leads to Trower’s guitar ravings. A brief piano interlude follows, then the organ comes back in along with Wilson’s drums, and Trower really stands up and lays a few tricks on ya until the pounding drum, piano, and organ crescendo.

“A Salty Dog” is a letter-in-a-rum-bottle tale about sailors shipwrecked on a desert island, and opens with organ and Brooker singing, “All hands on deck/We’re run afloat/I heard the captain cry/Explore the ship/Replace the cook/Let no one leave alive!’/Across the straits/Around the horn/How far can sailors fly?/A twisted path/Our tortured course/And no one left alive.” Why he wants to replace the cook is beyond me, but there’s no gainsaying the crescendo that occurs when Brooker sings, “How far can sailors fly?” or later when the sailors find themselves safe on firm soil. A moody, atmospheric song, with lots of strings and horns, “A Salty Dog” is a thing of beauty, from its quiet opening to its seagull-dominated end.

As for “Whaling Stories,” it’s a tale of apocalypse or some such, with Dylanesque lyrics that are both cryptic and ominous. It opens with cocktail piano and Brooker singing, “Pailing well after 16 days, a mammoth task was set/Sack the town, and rob the tower, and steal the alphabet.” There’s lots of stop and start, Trower’s guitar is all menace, and Brooker shouts the lyrics about fire and brimstone, etc. Then Trower really takes off, playing piercing riffs against the backdrop of Copping’s organ and Wilson’s drums until everything quiets and Brooker sings by himself until a whole chorus bursts into, “Shalimar, the trumpets chorused, angels wholly all shall take/Those alive will meet the prophets, those at peace shall see their wake” and this glorious song comes to its end.

This leaves the wonderful “Shine On Brightly,” the title track of Procol Harum’s 1968 sophomore LP. Trower plays a staggeringly awesome riff throughout, while Fisher’s organ, Brooker’s piano, and Wilson’s drums provide the perfect backdrop. Meanwhile Brooker sings the song of a crazy person, ending every verse with a line about how his befuddled brain “shines on brightly quite insane.” He sings about his “Prussian blue electric clock,” the three wise men, a spinning ferris wheel, and his “eunech friend” before coming to the end and repeating, “Shine on, ha! Shine on, ha!”

Procol Harum weren’t immune to the hard rock vapidities of the era, as Broken Barricades’ “Playmate of the Mouth”—a title so Spın̈al Tap it’s hard to believe it’s not parody (it isn’t)—aptly indicates. But then “Playmate of the Mouth” isn’t on Greatest Hits, thank God. And the songs that are demonstrate Procol Harum was a top-notch band. Only “Power Failure”—and the horns of “Conquistador”—mar my total listening pleasure, and they’re not bad songs per se. Indeed, “Conquistador” was good enough for Michael “Killdozer vocalist” Gerald’s Party Machine to cover, and that’s good enough for me.

Procol Harum could do it all, and that was their greatest strength and their biggest weakness. Like Mott the Hoople, which went from prog-lite to hard rock to Glam to Dion DiMucci covers, Procol Harum may have been too diffuse for its own good. But any band capable of producing “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” “Whisky Train,” “Homburg,” and “Repent Walpurgis” is hunky-dory by me. And by John Lennon too, which he’d happily tell you but he’s dead.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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  • Martijn

    Reading this grooviest of reviews took me eight listenings to ‘Whiter Shade’, a further six of ‘Homburg’, three trips to the fridge for reinforcement troops, two spells of dancing slowly up & down the room, thirteen minutes of silently gazing in the distance thinking about The Past and fifteen laughs. It blew my clean out of my Homburg.

  • Michael Little

    Martijn: You are the sweetest. I’m so glad you liked the review, and even gladder you like Procol Harum. I didn’t know I liked them until I listened to their greatest hits because I only knew two songs, “Pale” and “Conquistador.” Blew me clean out of my Homburg too!

  • Martijn

    Michael Little Since toddlerhood, I’ve had a single of Whiter Shade of Pale with Homburg on the B-side and loved them in equal parts. But that doesn’t matter… your writing does.

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