“Procol Harum” by Procol Harum (1967)
Lyricist Keith Reid told author Claes Johansen about his inspiration for what stands as one of the most recognizable, respected and oft-played songs in rock history:
“Some guy looked at a chick and said to her, ‘You’ve gone a whiter shade of pale.’ That phrase stuck in my mind. It was a beautiful thing for someone to say. I wish I’d said it.”
And so it was that later, the band he wrote for, Procol Harum, combined Reid’s words with a melody reminiscent of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major.” Released as the band’s debut single, the song went to the top of the charts in most of the civilized world. And none other than John Lennon took to playing the tune constantly in his Rolls-Royce.
Suddenly the band with the odd name – the group’s manager, the late Guy Stevens, named it after a friend’s cat – was in high demand; its live debut was opening for another hot act at the time, the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
To capitalize on the success, Procol Harum entered London’s Olympic Studios for a coupe of days in June 1967 with new members Robin Trower on guitar and B.J. Wilson on drums to record on album’s worth of material.
The result is a collection of songs that display an impressive amount of diversity, melodicism and maturity for a band that had been together only a couple of months. True, several of the members had played together previously as the Paramounts (and as such had opened several shows for the Beatles), but that aggregation’s forte was rhythm and blues.
Procol Harum combined elements of the nascent psychedelic scene, particularly Reid’s often-arcane lyrics, with a sophisticated instrumental approach spearheaded by Trower, lead singer Gary Brooker’s piano and especially Matthew Fisher’s Hammond organ, the dominant instrument on “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”
The debut alum opens with “Conquistador,” which became a major hit several years later via a live version recorded with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. The original studio version, though, conveys a similar theme of urgent grandiosity using only the instruments available at Olympic.
Reid remains well-known for his morbid sense of humor, as his lyrics to “She Wandered Through the Garden Fence” attest: “And though I said, ‘You don’t exist,’ she grasped me firmly by the wrist/And threw me down upon my back, and strapped me to a torture rack.”
The sense of foreboding continues with “Something Following Me,” with Trower’s guitar driving hard-edged instrumental backing for a tale about a man who keeps encountering his fate: “I went into a shop, and bought a loaf of bread/I sank my teeth into it, thought I’d bust my head/I dashed to the dentist, said, ‘I’ve got an awful pain’/The man looks inside my mouth and screams, ‘This boy’s insane!’/Imagine my surprise, thought I’d left it at home/But there’s a lump in my mouth with my own tombstone.”
“Mabel” seems to lighten the mood with a short burst of music-hall cajolery, but Reid sneaks in this line: “In the cellar lies my wife/In my wife there’s a knife.”
Trower really cranks up his Stratocaster on “Cerdes (Outside the Gates Of),” getting a distinctively distorted sound by running one amplifier (Selmer Little Giant) into another (Fender). Lyrically, Reid creates a fantasy world complete with his own characters, such as Sousa Sam, Peep the Sot and the immortal Phallus Phil.
The LP’s second side starts with “A Christmas Camel,” which despite its title never seems to make it onto holiday compilations. That’s no wonder, with lyrics like “While some Arabian oil well/Impersonates a padded cell.”
“Kaleidoscope” always has been one of my favorite Procol Harum songs, with Fisher’s organ the dominant instrument on a catchy slice of hard rock. Reid doesn’t kill anyone off in the lyrics, but the paranoia remains: “Still out in the dark I grope/The key’s in my kaleidoscope.”
Reid returns to a favorite subject in “Salad Days (Are Here Again),” writing of a couple: “The sun seeps through the window to see if we’re still dead/To try to throw some light around the gloom upon our bed.”
The brief “Good Captain Clack” leads into the apogee of “Procol Harum,” if not the band’s entire career: Fisher’s epic instrumental “Repent Walpurgis,” which begins as another Bach-inspired melody before Trower steps in with his raging Fender fury. Brooker takes the foot off the accelerator with a relatively light piano arpeggio before the full band returns with a vengeance, finally wrapping up proceedings with in an extended, highly dramatic fashion.
It’s no wonder Procol Harum often played “Repent Walpurgis” as an encore, even into its 21st-century incarnation.
One knock against “Procol Harum” – and I’d have ranked it higher if this weren’t the case – is that the album exists only in monaural form. The situation was rectified somewhat by the 1999 CD release of “Pandora’s Box,” which contains true stereo versions of several songs, and also features two versions of “Repent Walpurgis,” the latter clocking in at more than seven minutes.
“Pandora’s Box” also features a stereo mix of “A Whiter Shade of Pale” that sounds infinitely superior to the single version and plays out to its natural conclusion instead of fading in the middle of Brooker’s vocal on the chorus.
Procol Harum went on to record a series of highly regarded albums – “Shine On Brightly,” “A Salty Dog,” “Home” and “Broken Barricades” – before Trower left to pursue a successful solo career. Reid and Brooker continued to write music together, and probably still do ’til this day.
But they and the rest of the band may have peaked right there at the very beginning, certainly commercially and perhaps artistically.