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Sunday September 11, 2005

Forgotten but not gone

Music Myths & Legends by Martin Vengadesan 

IT was widely assumed in the early 70s that Procol Harum was history. Losing organist Matthew Fisher was bad enough (and prompted a decline after 1969’s A Salty Dog) but the departure of guitarist Robin Trower, who had dominated Procol’s fifth album Broken Barricades, seemed to sound the death knell for the band.  

Still, PH had a strong reputation as a live band, and with replacement guitarist Dave Ball in tow, set off on a North American tour.  

A recording with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra in November 1971 proved so vibrant that the group decided to release it as an album, but with little expectations. To the astonishment of just about all concerned, the album spawned a surprise hit single in a live version of the stormy, brassy Conquistador, which had first seen the light of day as the opening track of PH’s first album! 

Still, PH were definitely in a state of flux. Ball pulled out to be replaced by ex-Plastic Penny guitarist Mick Grabham, while bassist Alan Cartwright signed on a long term member and Chris Copping switched to full-time organ playing to complement the established trio of Gary Brooker (vocals/piano), Keith Reid (lyrics) and the effervescent drummer B.J. Wilson.  

In the midst of all this, PH left A&M Records for Chrysalis.  

The Chrysalis years proved to be an unexpected second run of glory. It kicked off with Grand Hotel, a very consistent album that remains a fan favourite to this day. The powerful title track proved to be an opulent orchestral work-out reminiscent of the classic A Salty Dog, with a waltz break, and Gothic choral vocals thrown in for good measure. Perhaps more importantly, Toujours L’Amour and Bringing Home The Bacon were powerful rockers that showed just how quickly Grabham had settled.  

With melancholic piano-led rambles A Rum Tale and For Licorice John, the humourous A Souvenir Of London (a light-hearted tale of venereal disease) and another classic in Fires (Which Burn Brightly), a tune boosted by the spectacular vocals of guest singer Christiane Legrand, Grand Hotel was a stunning return to form.  

(It was a rather timely one too, for Trower had found his voice as a solo artiste, and was embarking on a run of successful albums that began with the classic Bridge Of Sighs, which was produced by Matthew Fisher!) 

Suddenly, PH were on a roll, concert tours beckoned, and they followed Grand Hotel with the equally acclaimed (and, in my opinion, marginally superior) album Exotic Birds And Fruit (1974). An engaging, occasionally challenging hodgepodge of tunes, it saw the band rocking out on Nothing But The Truth and Butterfly Boys (which has some scorching work from Grabham), doing a polka on the Balkan-influenced Beyond The Pale, brooding through the slow-burning epics The Idol, walking on the edge with the truly avant-garde The Thin End Of The Wedge, and making merry with the playful Fresh Fruit.  

It was the heart-breaking anthem As Strong As Samson, however, that proved to be highlight of Procol’s 70s output. With outstanding performances from Copping and Wilson in particular, the beautiful hopelessness of the song still rings true today. 

The next year saw one of the comical episodes in Procol’s long history. Brooker and Reid were big fans of veteran American rock producers/songwriter Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller (yup, the guys who wrote Hound Dog) and made it known to their record company.  

Lieber and Stoller agreed to work with PH, but a surprise was in store when they turned up at the recording studio, expecting the band to cut an album of Lieber/Stoller songs! While this misunderstanding was cleared up, the resulting album is a curiosity in that it is the only Procol Harum to feature actual cover material.  

Despite the initial problems, Procol’s Ninth has some superb songs on it, none more so than the opener Pandora’s Box. With marimba, dancing flute, searing organ and mystic lyrics, Pandora’s Box was to become the last bona fide PH hit single.  

Just months before the album emerged though, another classic PH moment occurred when the band were on a US tour with Rick Wakeman and Gentle Giant (man, what a concert line-up). PH’s equipment truck broke down, and they were planning to play with GG’s instruments but Wakeman vetoed the idea, which led to backstage squabbles and tit-for-tat accusations by Wakeman and Brooker/Reid on a local radio station! 

Unfortunately, internal friction was also becoming a factor, and this resulted in Cartwright’s departure. His replacement was synthesizer wizard Pete Solley, and this had the double effect of moving Copping back to bass, and giving PH’s established two keyboard sound a drastic twist.  

Sadly, 1977’s Something Magic was heavily criticised as, in the midst of the punk revolution, PH tried to return to progressive rock experimentation with the epic spoken-word The Worm And The Tree. While the album was unfairly savaged (the title track, jovial Wizard Man and eerie Strangers In Space are decent tunes), I must admit that it was PH’s weakest effort to that point. 

Then, it all fell apart. Aware that the record companies wanted to ditch its “dinosaurs”, PH felt pulled in many directions. When Grabham walked out, the rest of PH decided to call it quits too, with an ironic farewell performance of A White Shade Of Pale, at the British Record Industry’s Britannia Awards, where it was named joint (with Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody) Best British Pop Single 1952-1977! 

Still, it wasn’t over. After spending the 80s cutting “misfit” albums like Lead Me To The Water and Echoes On The Night, Brooker decided to re-form PH in 1990.  

Sadly this was soon after the death of Wilson, and the 90s PH only featured real involvement from Brooker, Reid and Fisher along with “new boys” Geoff Whitehorn, Matthew Pegg and Mark Brzezicki.  

The two new studio albums The Prodigal Stranger (which had some token contributions from Tower) and This Well’s On Fire, were fine nods to nostalgia, but offered little in the way of true-blue PH classic tunes.  

Still, this majestic band continues to delight fans with frequent reunion tours and one-off performances, none of which were more poignant than the 30th anniversary concert at Redhill in 1997, which saw no less than seven Procol legends take the stage. 

Not a bad career then, for a band that was set up to capitalise on a one-off baroque single way back in the summer of ‘67. 


  • Martin Vengadesan, a music lover and history buff, combines his two passions in his fortnightly column. If you have any interesting stories you want him to research, drop him a line at starmag@thestar.com.my  

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