It was at an agricultural camp in the Fenlands where I discovered that it was OK to like Procol Harum. Although I’d revered them in 1967, I’d subsequently turned my back on the group from Essex because they’d had the temerity to release 7" singles. One of them had gone to No.1. And stayed there for several weeks. In the summer of 1973, I was n-n-nearly n-n-n-nineteen, after all, and as a mature album freak, I spurned commercial singles.
But one evening, one of those limpid summer evenings when you could look right across the flat lands of East Anglia and catch sight of Ely cathedral shimmering on the distant horizon, my friends and I from school, who’d come to pick strawberries, gathered around a bearded longhair who liked to pontificate at the end of the working day. Like Socrates, he would talk about diverse things to anyone who cared to listen. That particular evening, he sang the praises of Procol Harum. Ah, so it was all right then, after all.
Later that summer, back in Bath at my grandparents’ house where we’d decamped en famille after Belfast, I treated myself to a cheap Procol Harum compilation on the Music for Pleasure label. The longhaired sage was not wrong. The music was good. Very good. Soon after, I graduated to their full first four albums, twinned as ‘doublebacks’ by the Fly label. The lovely poppy first album of 1967 came with A Salty Dog from 1969, while the second, Shine On Brightly, was conjoined with their fourth, Home.
It’s hard to pick a personal favourite. The first album is full of quirky songs like ‘Conquistador’ and ‘A Christmas Camel’ and I’ve always had a very soft spot for the harder, darker edge of Home. Shine On Brightly came close, but the long suite on the second side was a bit too ambitious and not entirely successful as a consequence. The later Exotic Birds And Fruit had some fabulous melodic moments, like ‘The Idol’ and ‘Strong As Samson’ (without a ‘p’). A Salty Dog tends to garner the critics’ votes – and, generally speaking, I’d say they’re right.
It’s a very diverse album in which everything works, as if they’d learnt from the mistakes of the ‘In Held Twas In I’ suite on the second album and come out fighting. The songs are nearly all memorable and range from epic to ditty via blues-rock and the kind of soulful pop in which the band excelled.
It was not an ordinary band. Lyricist Keith Reid (like Pete Sinfield of King Crimson) was a kind of silent (sixth) member, who could concentrate on dreaming up vivid if somewhat opaque words set mainly to the music of the band’s twin keyboard-playing vocalists, Gary Brooker and Matthew Fisher. With quite different styles, they kept themselves mainly to themselves. Rarely the twain would meet except in the playful Fisher-Brooker-Reid’s ‘Boredom’ (here) and in the suite that didn’t quite work.
While Brooker and Reid contributed all but one number on the first album, here they contribute only twice as many as both Fisher and Reid and, for the first time, guitarist Robin Trower and Reid. The latter’s ‘Juicy John Pink’ and ‘Crucifiction Lane’ (one of Reid’s characteristic plays-on-words) are almost Cream-like. I’ve always rated Trower as a really fine guitarist and was not disappointed when I saw him in the context of a post-Procol power trio at a Reading Festival. It was heavy music, but heavier on atmosphere and resonant, ruminative chords than it was on metal. So it would come as little surprise to discover his 1997 album, Someday Blues, which reveals Trower arguably as the equal of Eric Clapton and Peter Green when it came to interpreting da blooz.
It’s an odd quirk of this album that Brooker and Fisher both composed a kind of singalonga Coleridge maritime epic in ‘A Salty Dog’ and ‘Wreck of the Hesperus’ respectively, each one (tastefully) arranged by its author. Keith Reid must have been reading a history of Britain’s navy or some such tome at the time.
Their different vocal styles are almost like the two sides of John Cale. Brooker’s ‘The Milk of Human Kindness’ and ‘The Devil Came from Kansas’ on Side 1 here prefigure the darker tone of Home. Matthew Fisher, however, whose first solo album, Journey’s End, could almost have been written and sung by the more melodic and whimsical John Cale of Paris 1919, brings things to an airy conclusion with ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’: a lovely light confection featuring the soaring ecclesiastical organ sound he lent to ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’.
And therein, of course, lies a tale. Fans of popular music’s litigious folklore will remember that it all ended in tears. In Journey’s End, Fisher sung cryptically and sardonically on ‘Going For a Song’, ‘You can put piranha in my swimming pool… but please don’t make me sing that song again’. Many years later, after a second spell in the band, he would air his grievances in court. After much appealing, the House of Lords ruled that he was entitled to a (40%) credit for ‘Whiter Shade’ – though without the retrospective royalties he sought.
However… that was now and this was then, or some such variation. His arch rival, Gary Brooker, now has a holiday home in this part of France. A friend of mine decorated it for him and promised to introduce me to the great man. The nearest I got was a concert in Cahors by Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings, when our Mr. Brooker turned up as a special guest star – to play, among other things, a memorable duet on that song with Georgie Fame.
Things were certainly not sweetness and light back in 1969 and Fisher would quit after A Salty Dog, to be followed by Trower after the band’s fifth, Broken Barricades. The guitarist would build a solo career for himself that was rather more successful than Matthew Fisher’s, ironically aided by his former band mate’s production on the gold-rated Bridge of Sighs.
But the Essex boys and the interloping organist from Surrey did manage to hold it all together long enough to produce an album that, if not quite a bona fide masterpiece, was certainly one of the best to grace the initial golden age of British pop-rock.