UK-based reissues specialist Union Square Music (www.unionsquaremusic.co.uk) is reissuing expanded digital versions of Procol Harum’s classic albums Grand Hotel, Exotic Birds and Fruit, Procol’s Ninth and Something Magic on November 1st allowing fans of sophisticated music the chance to re-evaluate one of rock’s most consistently innovative bands.
Careful remastering has brought out hitherto elusive nuances; judiciously-selected bonus tracks offer a unique insight into the compositions of Gary Brooker (music), Keith Reid (words) and their less-frequent collaborators, and into Procol Harum’s studio methodology.
The releases will be supported by a number of US dates as detailed below
Released in March 1973 in a busy year for classic albums (Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, Paul McCartney’s Band on the Run, and a brace of albums apiece from Elton John, Bruce Springsteen and Roxy Music.) Grand Hotel once again proved Procol worthy of their place among those major players. The album reached No. 21 in the Billboard charts in 1973, was certified Gold and remained in the album chart for 7 weeks.
Many were surprised that the theme of the Grand Hotel did not extend over the whole album – to form, dare one say it, a concept album. But Keith Reid confined his concept to the title track: “‘Dover sole and oeufs Mornay; profiteroles and peach flambé…’ I was very pleased that no-one had come up with that rhyme before,” Keith told sleevenote writer Patrick Humphries.
Certainly Grand Hotel is a brilliantly evocative moment. Brooker’s stately melody supports Reid’s gorgeously decadent lyrics, and as with Liza Minnelli’s Cabaret the previous year, there was something louche and slightly illicit about what Procol was promising here. Elsewhere, the poignant For Liquorice John, the wry A Souvenir of London (a single that was banned by the BBC as it concerned catching an STD, albeit none too obviously) and the elegant Fires (Which Burnt Brightly) offered further proof of the band’s astounding versatility.
NME acknowledged the title track as ‘a masterpiece of musical perfection and lyricism’, while Richard Williams, in a glowing Melody Maker review, reckoned it ‘stands with Whaling Stories and A Salty Dog as the group’s finest achievements (they are, too, almost unique in that the more ambitious they get, the more they succeed)’.
The digital release is augmented by two previously unreleased bonus tracks selected by Gary Brooker from the session tapes – raw versions of Grand Hotel and Bringing Home The Bacon without the orchestra.
Exotic Birds And Fruits
“Is it on, Tommy?” guitarist Mick Grabham can be heard enquiring chirpily of long-time Procol Harum producer Chris Thomas – even before the album proper begins… And then with a jolt, the thunderous Nothing But The Truth lets rip, providing a roistering opening to Procol Harum’s eighth album, a powerhouse set entitled Exotic Birds & Fruit.
The strangely exotic nature of this record was signalled both by its title and by the use of Jacob Bogdani’s 17th Century painting for the cover – in itself, an unusual choice for a new LP from a band like Procol Harum. Except of course, that then, as now, there really weren’t any other bands like Procol Harum.
Procol’s preceding album, 1973’s Grand Hotel – a grandiose effort that recalled earlier majestic achievements like A Whiter Shade Of Pale and A Salty Dog – had been hallmarked by its symphonic sweep. But for 1974’s Exotic Birds & Fruit, Procol Harum can be heard going back to basics. This was clearly an album custom built for a working band on the road.
“We made the live album with an orchestra,” (1972’s Procol Harum Live In Concert With The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra) Gary Brooker recalled. “We’d then taken an orchestra into the studio on Grand Hotel and did a lot of work with that in easier surroundings – we could work on it for a week instead of only one night. But I think after Grand Hotel and a few concerts… we said we’d had enough of orchestras. Let’s get back and just be a band again.”
The original Side 1 (Nothing But The Truth, Beyond The Pale, As Strong As Samson, The Idol) was as fine a selection of songs as Procol had ever lent their name to – and indeed, as powerful an opening as any long player of the decade. The formidable Brooker and Reid partnership had once again triumphed. Even today, The Idol seems a prescient and strangely timeless piece… And thus, back in the day of three-day weeks, Kung Fu Fighting at No.1, and hot pants everywhere, Side 1 of Exotic Birds & Fruit drew to its majestic close.
The remainder of the tracks were reminiscent of a lighter shade of Procol. Monsieur R. Monde (a reworking of 1967’s Monsieur Armand), was a tongue-in-cheek catalogue of afterlife visitors including Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde and that perennial festive party-pooper, Ebenezer Scrooge. On the upbeat Fresh Fruit we get Gary singing the praises of Vitamin C, as well as the delights of seeds, juice and pulp. “It was very much based on the sort of thing the Coasters might have done,” he later said.
Coincidentally, those prime Coasters songwriters Leiber & Stoller would be brought in to produce Procol on their next album.
Meanwhile, the current album wound down with Butterfly Boys, a none too subtle dig at the band’s then-label Chrysalis (whose logo was a butterfly). And finally, the stately ballad New Lamps For Old, which supplied a dignified end to an extraordinarily varied album.
The digital release is augmented by two bonus tracks selected by Gary Brooker and Keith Reid – Drunk Again and As Strong As Samson
When a top band has been on the road for some years, with a catalogue of successful recordings behind them, it is sometimes helpful to bring in fresh blood in the pursuit of new horizons. When Procol Harum came to record their 1975 album Procol’s Ninth, they decided on a drastic change of policy. The result was an unexpected collaboration between Procol and one of America’s top producer/songwriter teams, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.
Since the 1950s the duo had written a vast number of hits for the likes of Elvis Presley, Ben E. King and The Coasters. Gary Brooker had grown up listening to these hits and when he discovered that they were in Britain producing the debut album for Stealer’s Wheel, he asked them to work with Procol and was thrilled when they agreed. “The album was named after Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which was a bit tongue-in-cheek, but it was in fact our ninth album. As it turned out there was a huge difference between this one and our previous albums,” says Gary.
While there were a few tussles about material, with the producers trying to persuade Gary and co. to record songs they’d recently written for Peggy Lee (Procol eventually recorded their tune I Keep Forgetting, a hit for Chuck Jackson the previous decade), Leiber and Stoller made a significant difference to the band’s sound, which had greater clarity in the ‘mix’. This was immediately apparent on Pandora’s Box, the somewhat mysterious, Latin-tinged opening cut, which took Procol back into the singles charts, reaching No. 16 in the UK, and led to three appearances on Top of the Pops.
Other album highlights include Fool’s Gold, with excellent work by Mick Grabham on guitar and pounding chords from the twin keyboards of Chris Copping (organ) and Brooker (piano); Taking The Time, on which the piano and guitar are augmented by vintage brass riffs that make the band sound like Duke Ellington’s Orchestra; and The Unquiet Zone, which takes a left turn into what can quite easily be described as Latin funk territory, with diverse rhythms and nifty cowbell from the always exciting drummer BJ Wilson.
Procol’s Ninth reached Number 52 in the US chart. The album also made a little piece of history when it became one of the very first by a serious rock group to be released in Poland. Procol were also the first group to visit the country, since a Rolling Stones concert in the 60s, which led to a ban on all ‘decadent’ western rock music.
The digital release is augmented by three previously unreleased bonus tracks selected by Gary and Keith from the session tapes – raw versions of The Unquiet Zone, Taking The Time and Fool’s Gold.
Something Magic’s side-length suite – The Worm & the Tree – and surrealistic sleeve may echo earlier glories, but Brooker and Reid themselves harboured no retrograde intentions. An immediate follow-up might have revealed this album as a fruitful mutation, not an evolutionary dead-end; but injury and exhaustion took their toll, and the band dissolved unceremoniously after the promotional tour. Knowing now that Procol Harum regrouped in the early 90s, released three concert DVDs and two further studio albums, and is currently (2010) performing and recording exciting new material, we are well-placed to reconsider Something Magic as an intriguing milestone. The album was made in America, where Procol had previously recorded only individual numbers like Wreck of the Hesperus and Long Gone Geek. Miami’s Criteria Studios then had an impressive track record, boasting more singles in the top ten than New York and LA combined; its clients included Clapton, The Bee Gees and The Eagles. Following the 1975 success of Pandora’s Box (recorded in London under Americans, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller) Procol Harum was once more a chart band, and as they took up residence on Ocean Boulevard in Golden Beach they hoped the Criteria producers would work something magic for them again.
In the market-place Procol may have been ‘swimming against the tide’, as Reid observes in Skating on Thin Ice; in other respects they were in fertile flow. The tracks that originally made up side one are stuffed with detail – distinctive middle-eights, multiple changes, strong lyrics – although Wizard Man (chosen for single release) employs just three chords, staples of the flourishing pub-rock movement.
The suite, The Worm & the Tree, features strong melodies and ingenious harmonies is essentially romantic music, worlds away from the fussy histrionics of Prog, though the shifting time-signatures and demanding keys do require real concentration onstage, from the pianist in particular. Some see The Worm as a 19-minute piano piece, decorated with rock-band and orchestral colouring; others rate its stylistic breadth alongside 1968’s celebrated In Held ’Twas in I. Either way it makes for fascinating listening, an ambitious and fitting end to Procol Harum’s first ten years.
The digital release is augmented by three bonus tracks selected by Gary and Keith from the session tapes – Backgammon, You’d Better Wait (live) and This Old Dog (live)
2010 TOUR DATES
Thursday 4th November – Whitaker Center Presents at the Forum, Harrisburg, PA
Friday 5th November – Capital One Bank Theater, Westbury, NY
Saturday 6th November – Scottish Rite Auditorium, Collingswood, NJ
Procol Harum reunite with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and the Da Camera Singers for the third and last time:
Tuesday 9th November – Winspear Centre, Edmonton, Canada
Wednesday 10th November – Winspear Centre, Edmonton, Canada
Friday 12th November – Snoqualmie Casino, Snoqualmie, WA
Saturday 13th November – The Lobero Theatre, Santa Barbara, CA
Sunday 14th November – The Orpheum Theatre, Los Angeles. CA
Procol Harum and the Delaware Symphony Orchestra:
Saturday 4th December – The Grand Opera House, Wilmington, DE