❉ Martin Ruddock on the band ‘that sounded like they could kick your head in, but do it in a very clever way’.
“A square peg of a band, not quite psychedelia, not quite prog – with fingers in the pies of orchestral pomp, R&B, and outright heavy rock in places – they were just as likely to pull out a fugue played on a Hammond as a snarling guitar solo. Musically playful, sarcastic, jokey and a bit edgy, they were named after a cat and had a resident poet for crying out loud. This was a band that sounded like they could kick your head in, but do it in a very clever way.”
Sometimes, opening your career with a hit single can be the worst thing that can happen to you. But when your first single’s a monster, adopted as a generational anthem, what do you do next?
Over 50 years on, Procol Harum still enjoy a complicated relationship with their evergreen debut, A Whiter Shade Of Pale. A stately, soulful ballad with strange, opaque lyrics – depending on your opinion it either gave them a lot to live up to, or a long, rich career off the back of it. Had singer-pianist Gary Brooker, lyricist Keith Reid, and (now-credited, albeit contentiously, after a court case) organist Matthew Fisher not written it, Procol might have been toast by the end of the 60s. Still There’ll Be More, a new career-spanning box set from Cherry Red shows what happened next for Procol. A square peg of a band, not quite psychedelia, not quite prog – with fingers in the pies of orchestral pomp, R&B, and outright heavy rock in places – they were just as likely to pull out a fugue played on a Hammond as a snarling guitar solo. Musically playful, sarcastic, jokey and a bit edgy, they were named after a cat and had a resident poet for crying out loud. This was a band that sounded like they could kick your head in, but do it in a very clever way.
Opening, inevitably with The Hit, the first three CDs are a whistlestop tour of Procol’s highlights, taking us right up to 2017’s Novum. With highlights plucked from all of their albums, it’s the early 60s material from the classic line-up (a cut-throat bunch, Procol had ditched a guitarist and drummer between their first two singles) that’s the best. The first disc is a best of by any other name. The psych non-sequiturs of Homburg, the doomy groove of Cerdes, the anthem to insanity that is Shine On Brightly. I will however have to mark Cherry Red down 50 joyous psychedelic pop points though for the crime of omitting She Wandered Through The Garden Fence, a jaunty piece of pop twisted enough for no less than Harry Nilsson to cut an exuberant cover. Perhaps our esteemed editor could include it here to show you cats what you’re missing.
Joking aside, compilations like this aren’t going to please everyone. However, classy torch ballad out-take Understandably Blue is a nice treat – featuring just Brooker, his piano, and Tony Visconti’s lovely string arrangement, nothing else in their catalogue sounds anything like it.
By third album A Salty Dog, Procol were maturing into a bizarre, arty bar band of sorts. The astonishing title track remains their peak – a haunting, stirring saga of pirates lost on the high seas, with Reid abandoning his usual puns and misdirection to pen a quietly stunning lyric, delivered beautifully by Brooker.
“Reid’s wonderfully bizarre, if occasionally troubling prose is somewhere between undergraduate humour, surrealism, and is sometimes just plain terrifying. The startling revenge saga Still There’ll Be More features Brooker menacingly snarling “I’ll blacken your Christmas and piss on your door”, and that’s one of the less nasty lines. Yikes.”
Also included is its feral b-side, Long Gone Geek, a deranged garage bash, where Hendrix-obsessed guitarist Robin Trower unleashes a riff of such volume that it’s a wonder the studio didn’t collapse on him. Meanwhile, The Devil Came From Kansas and The Milk Of Human Kindness are perfect showcases for Brooker’s howling vocal and Reid’s wonderfully bizarre, if occasionally troubling lyrics. Reid’s prose is somewhere between undergraduate humour, surrealism, and is sometimes just plain terrifying. The startling revenge saga Still There’ll Be More features Brooker menacingly snarling “I’ll blacken your Christmas and piss on your door”, and that’s one of the less nasty lines. Yikes.
By now, Procol had succeeded in losing a couple more members, including Fisher, (by now the band’s producer), who took his signature solemn organ sound with him. Fisher’s own Pilgrim’s Progress is included here to mark the moment, it’s the only track on the whole box not sung by Brooker. The generally underemployed Trower (he gets two notes to play on Shine On Brightly, you can almost hear him gritting his teeth) hung on long enough to add sludgy heaviosity to tracks like the monolithic Simple Sister and proggy Whaling Stories before getting his coat. The line-up changes only accelerated from here on.
Around this time, Procol highlights on record become fewer and further between. They always remained interesting and musically adventurous, but didn’t quite manage to recapture old glories, preferring to go for the grandiose, like the epic crescendos in the middle of Grand Hotel, or their bombastic, pre-Live and Let Die orchestral live reinvention of Conquistador. By the time of their original split in the late 70s, they’re coming over basically as a more cerebral, less fun version of ELO.
Reuniting in 1991, a version of Procol has remained active since, although nowadays, Brooker is the last man standing, even Keith Reid has been replaced by Cream lyricist Pete Brown. Their more recent recordings also have their moments, but in all fairness, let’s say it now – aren’t a patch on their first five albums.
The set is rounded off with some fine collector-candy in the form of several unreleased live sets from over the years. Most of these are on the DVDs included in the set, which also include various vintage TV appearances, with the pick of the bunch being the unexpurgated session tape of Procol’s full live set from a performance on Beat Club in 1971.
The raw recording, stripped of its chromakey effects and tricky camera work shows them at their deadly best as a live act, with the endearing spectacle of Brooker and drummer B.J. Wilson sweetly conferring over intros – whilst short-lived guitarist Dave Ball plays the hell out of everything, but looks awkward at being a surrogate for the recently departed Trower, and absolutely bored shitless at playing two notes on Shine On Brightly.
It’s far from exhaustive, but as a bluffer’s guide to Procol Harum, Still There’ll Be More is a great place to start.
❉ Procol Harum: ‘Still There’ll Be More – An Anthology 1967-2017’ (8CD) is released by Estoteric Recordings/Cherry Red Records on 23 March 2018, RRP £69.99. CLICK HERE TO ORDER.