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Burmese Blue

Updated: Feb 24, 2022

The headline for a review of a Procol Harum gig in The Independent from early December 2014 suggested that Procol Harum should be considered on an equal footing to Pink Floyd 'in the prog rock pantheon' but I’d have issues with this even if I held The Independent in any regard. Founded in 1986 by disaffected Daily Telegraph journalists, The Indy (as it liked to be known) maintained the banner "free from party political bias, free from proprietorial influence" until 2011 but always retained a pro-market predisposition. Fellow Barrovian Chris Blackhurst became editor in 2011 after circulating around the business pages of a number of Tory rags; Blackhurst was a student in my form at school whose father was a Conservative councillor and, though he says he originally was in favour of the comprehensive school system, wrote an op-ed for his paper in 2012 asking for the resurrection of Grammar schools. Owned by oligarch and former KGB Foreign Intelligence officer Alexander Lebedev since 2010, the standing of The Independent plummeted further in my eyes.

Forget my issues with the newspaper’s ownership and editorial bias. Procol Harum (named after a Burmese Blue cat that had been misspelled, the cat was meant to be called Procul Harun, ‘beyond these things’) do have a potential claim to a place in progressive rock history: In Held 'Twas In I, from their second album Shine On Brightly released in December 1968, is an almost side-long multi-part suite that some might consider to be the first prog track. Procol are obviously most famous for A Whiter Shade of Pale, the most played song on UK radio, a track that was released before but didn’t appear on their eponymous debut album. The most striking thing about this single which came out before the album, is Matthew Fisher’s organ figure, a loose approximation of Bach’s Air on a G String and there’s nothing like it on the entire debut LP. Fisher, from South Croydon, had spent two terms at the Guildhall School of Music but had decided musical studies didn’t suit him. However, I think the best tracks on Procol Harum are those which most feature Fisher: the excellent Conquistador; the instrumental Repent Walpurgis (which was written by Fisher but does include some nice guitar); and She Wandered Through the Garden Fence, where the organ is gospel-jazz. Not even the classical motifs can hide the blues that dominate the rest of the album; the lyrics are almost all throwaway despite the strong vocal performance from Gary Brooker but the playing is always solid. With the possible exception of Conquistador, none of this is prog, or even proto-prog territory. The more psychedelic songs sound a little bit like the shorter Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack offerings from The Nice but compared to Piper at the Gates of Dawn-era Floyd, there’s no sonic exploration and even Syd Barrett’s lyrical whimsy, within the context of the dawn of psychedelia, comes across as something new and different. Perhaps this is because the Floyd were less established as musicians; Intending to become a song writer, Brooker had originally ended his playing career (with The Paramounts) in 1966 when Pink Floyd were only just settling on a steady line-up and managing to get paid bookings. Both bands played to their strengths: Procol were a very British R&B group and Pink Floyd were plotting their course towards space rock.

Much of Procol’s second could have been written for their first album. The exception is the near 17 minute masterpiece In Held 'Twas In I which, though it wasn’t the first side-length proto-progressive track (Ars Longa Vita Brevis had been released a couple of months beforehand), it incorporated a broader sonic palette including sitar and harpsichord and exhibited musical and theological influences from the East. It was both thought-provoking and fun and one of my student-day party pieces was to recount the opening section Glimpses of Nirvana: “Well, my son. Life is like a beanstalk. Isn’t it?” The piece was a composite; shorter songs very neatly segued together to produce the full track but it is nevertheless a pretty successful and fulfilling piece of music. Matthew Fisher was again invited to provide material and he also sings on the section that he penned, In the Autumn of my Madness, which has a very memorable melody.

I first heard this song on Live In Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, owned by one of my older brother’s friends. It was released in 1972 and featured a much-revised line-up from the original, and it happened to coincide with my discovery of progressive rock. I eventually bought this live album from Our Price in Lewisham in 1980 because it contained some of what I’d describe as Procol’s best work, the epic In Held 'Twas In I and a really good version of Conquistador. Along with a copy of Exotic Birds and Fruit (1974) that I’d picked up for a bargain somewhere shortly after arriving in London, this represented the sum total of my Procol Harum collection for a very long time. I subsequently gave my copy of Exotic Birds and Fruit away to a local charity shop, having only played it a couple of times in more than twenty years and deciding I didn’t really like it. I had heard a friend’s copies of Grand Hotel (1973) and Something Magic (1977) on more than one occasion, and thought the latter was acceptable thanks to the side long track The Worm and the Tree. Arriving in the dog days of progressive rock, much of the music on Something Magic reflected a lack of musical adventurousness. I bought Exotic Birds and Fruit without a prior listen, assuming that an album released in 1974 from a band linked to the beginning of the progressive rock movement would be decent enough to be worth buying at a bargain price. It turned out to be a poor assumption because Procol had abandoned orchestrations and returned to more blues-based rock.

Meanwhile, Pink Floyd had gone from strength to strength, embraced long-form composition and recorded a studio album with an orchestra and choir, Atom Heart Mother (1970), then gone on to break records with the chart longevity of The Dark Side of the Moon. The Floyd were outward looking, Procol Harum were inward looking.

In 2005, former organist Matthew Fisher launched a legal battle against pianist and vocalist Brooker over the musical copyright of A Whiter Shade of Pale. His initial success recognising that he had written the organ introduction and counter melody and therefore deserved royalties was challenged by Brooker at appeal and it wasn’t until Fisher took the case to the Law Lords, where he argued that a win without royalty money was never going to be recognised as a win at all, that Fisher emerged victorious. Baroness Hale, one of the five Law Lords involved in the hearing said in her contribution to the rulings: "As one of those people who do remember the Sixties, I am glad that the author of that memorable organ part has at last achieved the recognition he deserves."

The headline of Pierre Perrone’s article seems to imply that the direction of travel of rock music in the late 60s led only to prog, and that’s something I can’t agree with. I’d suggest that Pink Floyd were only playing progressive rock between 1969 and 1975, and Procol Harum were never actually a prog act. Just because A Whiter Shade of Pale, Conquistador and In Held 'Twas In I are prime examples of adventurous music written and recorded in the late 60s doesn’t actually make them prog but equally, it doesn’t diminish their status as fine pieces of music that I continue to enjoy.

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