Procol Harum

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Procol Harum invented a sound based on two keyboards (the equivalent of coupling a church organ and a gospel organ) but used it only to dress up stately, elegant and classical-sounding arias such as A Whiter Shade Of Pale (1967), Homburg (1967), Conquistador (1967) and Salty Dog (1969). The five-movement suite In Held Twas In I (1968) showed their limits, not their strengths.
(Translated from my original Italian text by Martin Clare)

Procol Harum were part of the "neo-classical" contingent of British rock music in the latter part of the 60s. Unlike the Nice, who invented the genre, Procol Harum used classical music to compose elegant songs, not experimental pieces. Their boldest compositions are melodic fantasies. The theme album became their speciality.

Procol Harum evolved, rather than were formed, in 1966 from an R&B band, The Paramounts, who had released their first single in 1963 and whose repertoire was to be brought together on A Whiter Shade of R&B (Edsel, 1983). Their début single was A Whiter Shade of Pale (10 million copies sold), a psychedelic Hammond organ version of a Bach cantata, an aching slow number which took the world by storm in April 1967. The first album, Procol Harum (Deram, 1967), is a collection of imposing melodies supported by martial rhythms and solemn organ tones: Homburg (released as a single in October of that year) perhaps their classic par excellence, an airy refrain which winds in languid and ethereal coils with a melancholy and apocalyptic measure; Conquistador, pinnacle of their orchestral "baroquisms"; Salad Days; and the instrumental Repent Walpurgis.

That fluid, majestic sound was born in fact of extraordinarily diverse components: the epoch-making two-keyboard line-up, which gave a grave and solemn feeling to the sound, brought together the cathedral organ of Matthew Fisher and the blues piano of Gary Brooker; the Ray-Charles-spiritual-like voice of Gary Brooker (writer of almost all the repertoire) duetted with the Claptonesque guitar of Robin Trower.

With Shine On Brightly (A&M, 1968) the group began to understand their strong points, and so put more emphasis on aching passion (Shine On Brightly, 1968) and titanic epics (All This And More)[sic]. Having gained confidence, they rambled romantically through the eighteen minutes of mystic asceticism of In Held ‘Twas In I (1968), a suite in five movements.

The group soon acquired a name for calm, "real-life" stories of separation and loneliness, and especially of sea-faring life, such as Salty Dog (1969) and Whaling Stories. The arrangements on A Salty Dog (1969) hit the greatest balance between neo-classical ambitions and rock dramatics (The Devil Came From Kansas, Wreck of the Hesperus, Boredom).

With Fisher gone, Home (1970) marked a change of direction, embracing hard rock (Whiskey [sic] Train); and Broken Barricades (1971) which in fact featured the same line-up as the old Paramounts, passed the band’s crown decisively to Trower, who creates images ranging from the syncopated soul-boogie of Simple Sister to the noble psychedelic vision of Song For A Dreamer.

For all it was agreeable, this excursion into hard rock went against the band’s nature, and they sacked Trower and took refuge in the format of the concept album. The first of these was dedicated to the Grand Hotel (Chrysalis, 1973), an atmosphere which with its imposing luxury and splendour made an ideal host for their music. There followed Exotic Birds And Fruit (1974), perhaps better. But then the band decided to entrust the recording of Ninth [sic] (1975) to the American light music composers Leiber and Stoller, and Something Magic (1977) did still worse.

Both Brooker and Fisher also released solo albums, but the only member of the band to achieve solo success was Trower, considered by many the natural heir to Jimi Hendrix on account of the number of effects he spreads over his powerful pieces. After the initial Twice Removed From Yesterday (Chrysalis, 1973), which introduced his psychedelic / dreamlike style, (I Can't Wait Much Longer, Hannah, Daydream), Trower produced his masterpiece (and one of the great "guitar albums" of all time) with Bridge of Sighs (Chrysalis, 1974), which contains a fistful of classics: Too Rolling Stoned, Bridge of Sighs, Little Bit of Sympathy, Day Of The Eagle, Fool And Me, In This Place, Lady Love. Fundamental to it was the contribution of the singer Jimmy Dewar (who died in 2002).

Trower became a world-famous "guitar hero" from the time of For Earth Below (Chrysalis, 1975), which contains Shame the Devil and Alethea, besides the ferocious Gonna Be More Suspicious. It was the first of a series of albums that sold in their thousands: Long Misty Days (1976), equally divided between dreamy pieces (Long Misty Days and Same Rain Falls) and rockier ones (Caledonia and Messin' the Blues); In City Dreams (1977), which swings decisively, however, towards a relaxed "lounge" sound (In City Dreams, Sweet Wine of Love, Bluebird); Caravan To Midnight (1978), still more baroque and mannered (Lost In Love, I'm Out to Get You, Caravan To Midnight); Victims of the Fury (1980), which reverted to the earlier style (the title-track, Jack And Jill).

Jack Bruce (of Cream) played bass on BLT (1981), which contains Into Money, and Truce (1982), and then Trower went back to his routine on Back It Up (1983), the last album with Dewar; the live Beyond The Mist (1985); Passion (Atlantic, 1987), perhaps the best of this period (with the romantic No Time); Take What You Need (Atlantic, 1988), as much romantic as it is atmospheric; In The Line Of Fire (Atlantic, 1990), which features an organist for the first time. The Collection (Castle Communications) is a Robin Trower anthology. Trower staged a comeback with 20th Century Blues (V12, 1994), Someday Blues (V12, 1997), and Go My Way (V12, 2000), which is surprisingly heavy.

Brooker, Fisher, Trower reformed the group to record Prodigal Stranger (RCA, 1991). Brooker continued to lead the band without Trower and eventually released The Well's On Fire (Eagle, 2003).

Brooker died in 2022.

(Clicka qua per la versione Italiana)

The Collection (Castle Communications) is a Robin Trower anthology. Trower staged a comeback with 20th Century Blues (V12, 1994), Someday Blues (V12, 1997) and Go My Way (V12, 2000), which is surprisingly heavy.

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