Sunday, July 28, 2019

Favorite Artists, Part 6: About Procol Harum

Of all of the bands and artists that I write about in this series, I'm pretty sure that Procol Harum is the one I experienced first.

I've written before about my grammar school friend Bob, and how I learned a lot about music from him and (by extension) his two older brothers. Procol Harum was probably the first band they taught me about. And the first track they taught me about was the masterful suite, "In Held 'Twas in I".

I was probably in 5th or 6th grade at the time, still into The Monkees and AM radio. But that was about to change.

"In Held 'Twas in I" is basically a mini epic fantasy. I'm not sure of exactly what story the band was trying to tell with the song. The one I learned was made up by one of Bob's older brothers. I don't remember all of it, but it involved a daring hero with a magic carpet who rescues a beautiful woman from a one-eyed giant, only to discover that she is, in fact, a hideous shape-shifting demon. In the end, the hero does penance in the land of the dead for his pride and his arrogance.

I never knew that music could tell a story like that. Soon thereafter, I'd be exposed to The Who's Tommy, and I would really learn just how full a story rock music could actually tell. I'd also be exposed to another epic (albeit shorter) Procol musical saga, "Whaling Stories".

Procol Harum was the perfect  band for me at that time of my life, for a variety of reasons. They featured a vocalist with a distinctive and (for me, anyway) engaging voice, in Gary Brooker. They also featured a lot of piano (again, thanks to Brooker), an instrument I've always found especially beautiful. They showcased one of the best guitarists in the business, who later went on to have a pretty distinguished solo career of his own, Robin Trower. They featured a second vocalist that I liked who regularly took the lead on one or two songs an album, in Matthew Fisher. And possibly most importantly, they included as a regular band member a poet whose imaginative lyrics featured daring adventures taking place in strange and exotic places, in Keith Reid. Is it any wonder they quickly became my favorite band for the next five or so years, or that they still hold a special place in my heart today?

Procol Harum originally formed in the early 1960s in Southend-on-Sea, Essex, England. They played mostly covers of blues, soul and pop songs, and had a hit with their version of the Leiber and Stoller classic, "Poison Ivy". Brooker, Trower and drummer B.J. Wilson then recruited Reid, Fisher and bass player David Knight to form Procol Harum. In 1967, they had a huge international hit with the iconic "A Whiter Shade of Pale", and followed it up with a more modest hit, "Homburg". They released their eponymous first album in 1967, and followed it up with a more adventurous second effort, Shine on Brightly. This one featured the title track, which seemed to be the fever dreamed ramblings of a psychotic baby Jesus (or maybe it was just somebody who thought they were baby Jesus), as well as their aforementioned 17-plus-minute opus "In Held 'Twas in Eye".

Reid's lyrics were amazing. Whether it was the deranged revenge fantasy "Still There'll Be More", (wherein the singer threatens to blacken his enemy's Christmas and piss on his door, and that's not nearly the worst of it), the fanciful sea tale "A Salty Dog" (which seems to have been inspired in equal part by Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner", and any number of pirate stories), or the deranged tale of gleeful sibling spite "Simple Sister", Reid's lyrics could always be counted on to take you to another world. There were tales of ancient gods, anecdotes of maggots who dreamed they were men, conquered slave women who compared stories of which one's husband had died the most horrific death, and later, songs about grand hotels, fallen idols and winged horses. This was so far beyond "She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah" that my adolescent brain could barely wrap itself around it.

Procol recorded regularly between 1967 and 1977, by which time I'd moved on somewhat to more musically complex bands like The Who and Jethro Tull. They later reunited to record new studio albums in 1991, 2003 and 2017. The later albums have some worthwhile tunes, although by 1991, Reid had put aside his more fanciful material to write lyrics about social ills and other more mundane topics. (And for 2017's Novum, Reid was blasphemously replaced by lyricist Pete Brown.)

I still consider Procol Harum to be one of my favorite bands. I admire Trower's guitar, and although he only lasted for the first five albums, then reunited with the band in 1991 for The Prodigal Stranger, Procol has always had strong Trower-like guitarists to replace him. I like Fisher's organ, his few vocals, the songs that he wrote, and his spoken word appearance on "In Held 'Twas in I". ("Held close by that which some despise..."). I love Brooker, for his songwriting, his distinctive voice, and that often-exquisite piano. But if I'm honest with myself, I think the Procol member I admire the most is Keith Reid. He sparked my imagination as a teenager, and prepared me for literary works such as Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and Stephen R. Donaldson's The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, which became important in my life.

So while I can't say that they're still my absolute favorite band, for me, Procol Harum is still right up there.