Gary Brooker – who along with Robin Trower was an original founder of Procol Harum – died the other day of cancer at the too-young age of 76. Not only a consummate musician, for my money he had one of the great voices in rock music. As a tribute to him, I am re-publishing a post I did a while back.
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
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:
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.