Three from Procol Harum: Rick’s Retroarchy

Trailing the superior box set Still There’ll Be MoreEsoteric Recordings has unleashed three further Procol Harum reissues — two underrated classics from the 1970s, plus the first of the group’s periodic reunion albums.

1972’s Live In Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and its swaggering single “Conquistador” propelled Procol Harum into the Top 20 for the first time since “A Whiter Shade of Pale;” in response, Chrysalis Records threw money at the follow-up.  When guitarist Dave Ball and the band parted ways in the studio, the new material was re-recorded with successor Mick Grabham; Gary Brooker went all in on orchestral and choral arrangements; producer Chris Thomas got free rein with further bells and whistles; and the group was flown to Manhattan in top hats and tails for the new album’s over the top launch party.

To their credit, Procol Harum didn’t succumb to the excess; on Grand Hotel they harnessed it, examining the pursuit of pleasure from the perspective of the morning after, and counting the cost without flinching.

Well-honed and witty as always, Keith Reid’s lyrics forego his previous trademarks of psychedelic imagery and Dylanesque obfuscation.  What’s left are mordant tales of self-indulgence, decadence, dysfunction — and regret for what the taletellers lose as they succumb.  Writing all the music for the first time on a Procol album, Brooker rises to Reid’s challenge, conjuring up haunting, memorable melodies and fresh, sophisticated chord sequences throughout.  The tunes veer from deliberately overripe salon music (“Grand Hotel”, “A Rum Tale”) through bluesy hard rock (“Toujours L’Amour”, “Bringing Home the Bacon”) and astringent folk (the mock-jaunty “A Souvenir of London” and the cod-calypso “Robert’s Box”) to the brilliant core of the album — affecting, classically-tinged elegies for a man in “For Liquorice John” and a romance (or maybe a civilization) on “Fires (Which Burnt Brightly)”.

With Grabham, organist Chris Copping, bassist Alan Cartwright and the extraordinary drummer B.J. Wilson locking in around Brooker’s soulful singing and two-fisted piano, and Chris Thomas adding apropos seasonings — Christiane Legrand’s soaring, wordless Baroque vocalese on “Fires (Which Burn Brightly)” is the most stunning example — Grand Hotel compels from start to finish; it’s an inviting, disturbing, richly satisfying listen.  Rough bonus tracks (including the title track without the orchestra) and a DVD of a Belgian TV performance proves that the band and the material were just as powerful without all the extra layers, too.

So powerful, in fact, that following extensive touring, Brooker, Reid et al refocused on Procol’s core unit for the next album; 1974’s Exotic Birds and Fruit displays the band rocking robustly and firing on all cylinders.  The opener “Nothing But the Truth” sets the pace, barnstorming through barrelhouse piano/organ hooks, multiple keys, and a hint of Motown (find the Four Tops lick) in just over three minutes.  While the soundscape is less lavish than Grand Hotel, the stylistic range gets broader: Brooker and the band conjure a Slavic folk feel for “Beyond the Pale”, take “As Strong as Samson” to church in the backwoods (albeit with Wilson tossing in explosive fills at every opportunity), and get outright weird on “The Thin End of the Wedge,” a horror movie cue with warped Chopin piano and slashing power chords.  Echoing the mood of a Britain racked by wage disputes and energy shortages, Reid’s lyrics are less abstract and more pointed, with seething frustration to the fore (not least in the punchy “Butterfly Boys,” an brutally candid call-out of the band’s management).

While the album finishes on a pensive note with the gorgeous soul aria “New Lamps for Old,” Procol Harum rocked on in Exotic Birds and Fruit’s wake; the new reissue’s bonus CDs capture two great radio concerts, recorded in London (stately and soaring) and in Dallas, Texas (a scorching, steamroller set that dives deeper into their catalog).  But with only lower sales to show for their efforts, they surrendered the reins of their next two albums to hit producers — who failed to produce hits.  Thus, the band quietly dissolved in 1977, on the 10th anniversary of “A Whiter Shade of Pale’s” release.  Until …

After 15 years, Brooker and Reid came together again (in Bronxville, New York of all places), their new work motivated by B.J. Wilson’s final illness and premature death,  assisted by simpatico producer/co-writer Matt Noble.  With charter members Matt Fisher on organ and Robin Trower on lead guitar, along with bassist Dave Bronze and Big Country/Pete Townshend drummer Mark Brzezicki, The Prodigal Stranger proved a surprisingly refreshing update of Procol Harum’s core sound.   The vintage majesty, mystery and mojo cuts effortlessly through the de rigueur programmed rhythms and glossy female backing vocals of 1991; Brooker’s singing testifies from start to finish, and his tunes mesh elegantly with Reid’s detailed, weighty words.

Quality songs abound: the African-tinged “Holding On”; full-throated ballads “(You Can’t) Turn Back the Page” and “Perpetual Motion”; “The King of Hearts,” a ethereal callback to “A Whiter Shade of Pale”; Trower’s killer workout “All Our Dreams Are Sold.” “Learn to Fly” epitomizes uptempo Procol’s classic audacity, with R&B organ, a Stones groove, chorus chords lifted from a Bach prelude, and a gleeful Jerry Lee Lewis piano break.  Then closer “The Pursuit of Happiness” captures the band’s moodier side — Brooker launching Reid’s reflective refit of Jefferson and Shakespeare into the stratosphere, Trower following him upward over Fisher’s luxurious Hammond chords, piano and organ entwining throughout, Brzezicki dropping bombastic fills like Wilson in his prime.

While The Prodigal Stranger didn’t light up the charts — Procol’s day had definitively passed in that regard — it proved an effective springboard for renewed live shows spurred by Internet fandom, along with 2003’s The Well’s On Fire (probably the best late Procol album) and 2017’s Novum (where Reid was replaced as lyricist by Cream’s Pete Brown, with Brooker and an all-new band rocking harder than ever).

In sum, three fine albums from an inexplicably underrated band, all well worth your time and your cash.  Available direct from Esoteric Recordings or from Burning Shed.

— Rick Krueger

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Three from Procol Harum: Rick’s Retroarchy

  1. Good write-up, I love “Grand Hotel” and “Exotic Birds” and your post inspired me to listen more to “Prodigal Stranger” which I’m not that familiar with. Did see them in 1993 with Matthew Fisher in the fold, opening for (and outshining) Jethro Tull at an outdoor show.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. kruekutt

      Thanks! I wouldn’t argue that The Prodigal Stranger is the equal of Procol’s first 8 albums (up through Exotic Birds and Fruit), but it’s better than I’d realized. You can tell there was an implied mission to add some pop gloss — Steve Winwood’s Back in the High Life came to mind — but you can also tell that Brooker & Reid stayed in control of the project; that unmistakable identity and sound cuts right through the frills! Douglas Adams (yeah, the Hitchhiker’s Guide author) was apparently a major Procol fan, and thought the song Holding On was equal to anything they did in their golden years.

      Liked by 1 person

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