Tres Songs – Procol Harum

Every now and again I like to do a three song mini-set, usually comprised of songs by three different artists. But then I thought, hey why not do one with songs by one artist?

Procol Harum are (yes, apparently they’re still around in some fashion) one of those bands that initially flowered (so to speak) in the Sixties. In 1967, you literally could not turn on the radio without hearing their Bach-inspired tune “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” According to Wikipedia, that single is one of fewer than 30 to have reached the “10 million sales” club. (And yet, what does it mean?)

The band continued to release albums in subsequent years but never had anything like that level of hit again. And I bet if you asked the casual music listener about the band, that is likely one of the few Procol Harum songs they know.

But the band actually went on to become a staple of FM radio. And interestingly, while they still trafficked in that moody, psychedelic stuff, as the ’70’s progressed they developed a harder, rockier sound due in no small measure to their great guitarist Robin Trower.

Trower had been a founding member of the band going back to 1964 when they were known as the Paramounts. But he rarely took a solo and one would be hard-pressed to call this in any way, shape, or form a guitar band.

But that changed somewhat in 1970 when they released their fourth album, Home. Organist Matthew Fisher, who had co-written “Pale,” left the band to be replaced by Chris Copping, an original Paramounts member. The hope was to get back to the original R&B sound they once favored.

Kicking off the album was this smokin’ number co-written by Trower. Called “Whisky Train,” this one left old Bach spinning in his grave.

You want to know the Music Enthusiast’s street address? Guitar-driven blues rock. The alpha and the omega.

I’m gonna lose these drinking blues
I’m gonna find a girl to make me choose
Between lovin’ her and drinking booze
I’m gonna lose these drinking blues

Spotify link

From the same album, the song “About to Die” seems to plumb some of the same territory that songwriter Keith Reid explored in their great tune, “Conquistador.” Like Robert Hunter of the Dead, Reid was a non-playing member of the band and acted as primary lyricist. Some nice piano here by singer Gary Brooker:

Spotify link

In 1971, Procol Harum followed up Home with an album called Broken Barricades. From it I’m choosing a hot little tune called “Memorial Drive.” This is another Trower co-written ass-kicker. Trower also does a song on this album called “Song For A Dreamer,” dedicated to his idol Jimi Hendrix who had died only months before.

There is a Memorial Drive in Cambridge, MA which runs right down the Charles River. I seem to recall reading once that the band played Boston, heard of that street and named the song after it. I can find no corroborating evidence of this whatsoever so I hereby declare it to be true anyway.

Alas, for a reason that passeth understanding, this album is not on Spotify. I am taking the unusual step of posting two YouTube versions of the song, one studio and one live in the hopes that you’ll be able to hear at least one of them.

Broken Barricades was Robin Trower’s last album with Procol Harum. In the Seventies, he became one of the outstanding blues-rock based guitarists in the world. Why he has not made it to Rolling Stone’s top 100 list is a mystery to me.

I saw him in concert in Boston about a year and a half ago and it was a great show. Hmm, I wasn’t that far from the stage. Should have asked him about “Memorial Drive.” Another missed opportunity!

As to Procol Harum, they’re finishing up a tour of Europe in Paris next month. Original vocalist Gary Brooker (who has been a neighbor to and played with Clapton quite a bit) is the only original member. A look at their recent setlist reveals they play none of the tunes I featured, only “Conquistador” and “Pale.” Too bad.

 

40 thoughts on “Tres Songs – Procol Harum

  1. Yeah, this stuff represents their metamorphosis from psychedelia into more of a blues-rock phase which is pretty representative of that early ’70’s post-Beatles, pre-Ramones area. They finally unleashed Trower. But go back to say, their first album and – minus Brooker’s voice – it won’t even sound like the same band.

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  2. I thought Procol’s two phases blended together nicely (the Gothic, organ period followed by a heavier guitar sound). The change was subtle, not as abrupt as some other bands who change their sound. “Shine On Brightly” and “A Salty Dog” are my favorite albums, although certain later songs stand out, like “Whisky Train” and “Simple Sister.” I give Trower a lot of credit for striking out successfully on his own. He’s on my Top 10 list of rock guitarists (I’ve seen him perform 4 times… he flicked his guitar pick at my wife (then girlfriend) at the one show, and we still have it). I agree, he’s way underrated. I’m not too surprised that RS ignored him. His Hendrix similarities, I think, put him in disfavor with certain pompous critics, but in-the-know guitar fans like you and I more than make up for critics’ slights!

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    1. It’s interesting that a band like, say, the Moody Blues went from a more traditional R&B or rock sound to symphonic whereas Procol Harum went somewhat the other way. Those are a couple of good albums one of which I have on vinyl somewhere. My chums and I back in the day were big Trower fans but never got to see him. As soon as the opportunity came up, I was there. I agree totally he’s got the Hendrix feel and has admitted as much. Funny that at the show I got talking to a guitarist and mentioned that influence. “No,” he said. “I’ve been studying Trower and he’s not Hendrix-influenced at all.” I’m not 100% sure the guy knew Hendrix well enough, but ok.

      As to, “in-the-know guitar fans like you and I more than make up for critics’ slights!” well, as a friend of mine used to say, fuckin’ ay!

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  3. A mini review on a really good band. You (and Pete) give a good nod to Robin. I’ve been listening to him quite a bit lately. Love his sound and his music (cut a couple good albums with Jack Bruce). PH is another band that their original recordings sound good today. You mentioned Clapton. I was listening to Kate Bush record a while ago and recognized the organ. It was Gary Brooker. Eric was on the album also. Great choices for the take Doc!

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    1. Yeah, they rock! I listened to them a couple times after posting. Interesting combination of folks on that album you mentioned. Brooker and Clapton go way back. I tell you what, much as I like it I’d hate to have to sing “Whiter Shade of Pale,” for 50 years as the encore to every show. But they do it.

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      1. I hadn’t heard a couple of those songs, so thanks for that. I’ll be spinning more PH . Thanks for the push. Yeah some of these bands pull out those old nuggets year after year. Interesting topic. I know some hate doing them and others don’t have a problem.

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        1. I think if it were me I’d like to have a couple of choices. So yeah, the Stones have been playing ‘Brown Sugar’ and ‘Satisfaction’ forever. But then they can also do ‘Jack Flash’ or ‘Gimme Shelter’ as encores. But PH is kinda stuck with ‘Pale’ forever as Skynrd is with ‘Free Bird.’ I once read that Arlo Guthrie gave some guy his money back at a show because the guy came to hear ‘Alice’s Restaurant’ and Arlo just did not want to play it .

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        2. See, I love those Arlo kind of stories. That’s funny. I was at a show one time and some guy yelled for a song and the singer said “I already fucking played it”. How about the Beach Boys, they play every night don’t they?

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        3. Seems like it. Funny story BTW. Springsteen joined McCartney onstage the other night. They sang “I Saw Her Standing There.” Twice. Considering that between them they’ve written over 600 songs plus probably know every ’50’s, ’60’s tune you think they could have come up with another one.

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        4. You having me laughing at that one. Yeah, twice yet. It is a good song. Again good one on PH. I like those takes. Oh yeah, just remembered I seen Buddy Knox in a bar one time and he sang Party Doll a few times.

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        5. Procol’s “Conquistador” is probably still a crowd-pleaser. The live version shot to No. 16 on the U.S. charts in ’72, and I remember it being all over AM radio. I’m assuming Brooker still does that one, maybe as an encore? I saw Procol in the early ’90s, when Matthew Fisher was briefly reunited, and the only songs I recall are “Whiter,” “Conquistador,” and “A Salty Dog.”

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        6. “Conquistador” is outstanding. I have that live version on my iPod. The perfect marriage of symphony and rock that is so hard to pull off. I actually looked at a few recent set lists. “Conquistador” was part of the set and “Pale” was invariably the encore.

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        7. That is a very cool story. Edmonton has a solid Arts community. Music, theater etc. The folk fest up there was one of the best at one time. Doug Sahm spent a lot of time there. Stony Plain Records i think was based there and had a great line up. Lots of blues. Very good article. The article mentions Lighthouse kinda a cousin of Chicago

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  4. Wow, Procol Harum. I have to admit I‘m among those folks who essentially only have known them for “Pale.” And while one could argue that song has been overexposed at times, to me it remains one of the most beautiful ballads of the ‘60’s. I’m still not tired of it!

    That being said, the tunes you highlighted here are pretty awesome! I wasn’t aware of any of that music and will be sure to check out the corresponding albums. I also didn’t know the band is still around. Cool stuff!

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    1. Yeah, even when these albums came out, I wouldn’t say they’d been forgotten but they weren’t the flavor of the month anymore. But how do you top that song? But they were still kicking out some great stuff for sure. You just had to know where to look.

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        1. You know it’s a funny thing but I actually hadn’t listened to “Home” in a long time. I went back and listened to it and yeah, it’s a good album. There were whole swatches of lyrics that I remembered. “Whaling Stories” is a really good tune. Also, in my travels I stumbled on this video of the band playing “Still There’ll Be More” in what looks like a TV recording of some sort. It kicks some ass and shows what a good drummer B.J. Wilson was. (Died of a drug overdose). Page tried to recruit him into Zep before they got Bonham. The guitarist here is the very good Dave Ball who took over from Trower and plays on their live Edmonton album that we’ve been discussing. That’s a good one.

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    1. Yeah! Forgot to mention that. He says it’s Christmas or something and then proceeds to unleash the least Christian barrage you’re likely to hear. He says “I’ll piss on your door” coolly like he’s saying “I’ll meet you for a coffee.”

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  5. One of those great groups that I tend to forget about for awhile. Enjoyed your song choices, gives us a chance to hear some of those no so famous kick ass songs. I’ll have to pull out some PH. As one who has seen Trower back in the late 70’s and about 10 years ago he sure is better then a lot of the artists Rolling Stone has in it’s top 100. One of the many reasons why I quit reading the magazine, Another reason is how could they leave Carl Palmer off of their top 100 drummers list..

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    1. Yeah, I hated to see such great tunes that still sound good languish in obscurity. People SHOULD hear them. And now they have. At least within the limited reach that I have but hey, better than nothing. As to today’s Top 10. any random song from my or your blog is better than most of that treacle. And I did not know and cannot believe Carl Palmer is not on RS’s list. He is on Modern Drummer’s Hall of Fame list. I think we know which one has more credibility.

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    1. I see it but I can’t understand this. I went over to Spotify before posting, searched for the album. Nothing. Searched under Procol Harum. No mention of this album. And yet there it is. Is there some parallel universe over there? I don’t get it.

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