Tag Archives: 60s

Searching in Vain by Candlelight: Procol Harum’s Shine On Brightly

Today, I want to talk to you guys about Procol Harum. But first, here’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale”:

This song actually isn’t on the album that I want to talk about, but it sort of sets up everything that runs through their second album, Shine On Brightly, and is the song that the band managed to smash into the long-term memory of popular culture. The dominance of the organ, Gary Brooker’s conversational vocals and the psuedo-intellectualism inherent (the chord progression and melody is lifted from Bach, and the lyrics reference Chaucer among other things) in the song perfectly set the stage for their more confident second album (though the actually recorded “A Whiter Shade of Pale” before even their first album came out, so it took them two, in my opinion, to catch up to their debut single).

Shine On Brightly was my first real experience of the band and it strikes me as curious now as to why I didn’t pick their debut first, as most versions have “Pale” tacked onto it, which is the logical one to go for – also because I like to start listening to an artist I plan to spend multiple albums with with their first one, but not here it would seem. Oh yeah, I remember why now. More on that later.

With a good balance of classical aspirations and psychedelia, the album has the band in an incredibly potent state, with the organ leading every step of the way – providing the simple intro and core for “Quite Rightly So”, and burbling up through the noise in the title track with that shows Matthew Fisher’s tastefully light touch while deftly handling a solo in the middle without going nuts proving virtuosity. “Shine On Brightly” to me is the key track here, as it shows off every great facet of the band in a 3-minute and 30-second window. While the aforementioned organ keeping things moving, B.J. Wilson is adding some electric ‘hot space’ with his stop start introduction to the verses, while Gary Brooker talks about his ‘befuddled brain’ and creates some grand chords on the piano. This all lays foundation of the best one-note riff I’ve ever heard as Robin Trower peels his guitar off with a most exquisite tone that serves as the platonic of the 60s British psychedelic sound.

The music really seems to bounce along in the piano-led “Skip Softly (My Moonbeams)” whole Trower is barely keeping his guitar under control underneath the verses before we come to a frilly piano interlude that underpins their classic leanings while the rest of the band exercises their right to launch into freak-out before someone shouts “HEY!” and the whole group fades out on a super-quick version of the Russian Sword Dance. While the songs don’t really go madly off in all directions (one song excepted), there’s a lot of creativity to be found within what seem to be straightforward tracks, as Sgt. Pepper’s had come out the year before and band’s were just going bonkers. The fact alone that the prior song bumps up against a good ol’ blues stomp in “Wish Me Well”, with a shouted twin lead vocal, gives you the impression that there are a lot of facets at play here, and the journey is not going to as simple as it seems.

And indeed the most-faceted are yet to come. The discovery of this album, to me, came in that summer where I dove headlong into progressive rock and tried to get right down into it, as much as possible. I was ultimately unimpressed with the message boards I’d been inhabiting that got me there, but a lot of the good stuff stayed with me. This album, of course, is regarded as the first to feature a 20-minute long multi-part suite of a song, with distinct sections and a hell of a delusion of grandeur. In the prog world, length seems to be king, as it aligns the music with that classical, that most legitimate of musics, as demonstration that serious art is happening and this ain’t just a three-minute pop song (which, honestly, by this time was already becoming an art in itself). The fact that I ended up liking the whole thing was a bonus.

“In Held ‘Twas In I” (the first lyric taken from each of the five sections forms the title) starts off with sitar and a spoken story about a monk going to visit the Dalai Lama to discover the meaning of life, and just goes up from there, expounding on the curiosities and intricacies of life with further spoken word sections of downtrodden spirits wondering about their place in the world. “‘Twas Teatime at the Circus” with shouting from the whole band and appropriately goofy music talks about the act of saving face despite confusion and “In the Autumn of My Madness” muses on the encroaching problem of age as the fear sets in that they will not remain as they are for much longer (very much in the vein of Pink Floyd’s “Time”), with a wistful guitar in the background peaking just as Matthew Fisher’s high vocals do (“Bring all my friends unto me/And I’ll strangle them with words”). This, of course, required a klaxon going off in the middle of it for reasons that are perfectly apparent. For all the pop-philosophy and metaphors upon metaphors, however, it really is the band’s finest hour, as the gravity of the piece is upon them and the required songwriting sophistication is on full display here (as well as Brooker’s crowning vocal moment, in “Look to Your Soul”), managing the transitions well and stepping outside of any of the blues-rock trappings they’d displayed earlier.

For an aspirational album with a touch of psychedelia, it’s hard to top Shine On Brightly. Every member of the band is working to create something new in the wide old world of 1968, when the onus of creativity much outweighed that of the playing, and the resulting content is much more accessible to anyone who’s curious to listen. The entire album contains the strength of what made “A Whiter Shade of Pale” such a big deal, only writ larger and with an incredible confidence at the centre of it.

“Shine On Brightly”:

“Skip Softly (My Moonbeams)”:

“In the Autumn of My Madness/Look to Your Soul/Grand Finale”:

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God save strawberry jam and all the different varieties: The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society

Having watched The World’s End the other day, it put me in mind, of course, of Hot Fuzz. That, in turn, put me in mind of Village Green Preservation Society, the only album I know by the Kinks and the only real non-Beatles British Invasion-er album I know intimately. It was Hot Fuzz that first put onto the album, with the title track appearing during Nick Angel’s morning jog through the town, foreshadowing the town’s obsession with its old British ways and fear of change. The album deals with very much the same thing, 40 years earlier.

The title track has the narrators claim to be parts of groups with increasingly silly names, all of which are concerned with sticking to the status quo and trying to upkeep old traditions (“God save little shops/China cups and virginity”), while at the same time preventing any progress or change that might encroach on that goal (“The Office Block Persecution Affinity”, “The Skyscraper Condemnation Affiliates”). Upon hearing this in full for the first time, I was bowled over by the tongue-in-cheek nature of the song, but also the close harmonies and cheery, pastoral feel to the proceedings.

As I implied, it was my first exposure to much if any non-Beatles British Invasion music, and it surprised me hearing the more observational lyrics rather than the Beatles’ love and psychedelia – it gives a little more of a picture of what 60s Britain might have felt like and what the perception of the youth of the time was. Village Green Preservation Society was clearly a dig at the previous generation’s traditions and outrage at the actions of the next one. It’s a tale as old as time, but fascinating from this particular vantage point.

It’s not only a look back at people’s outdated, rural notions, but also of people gone by as well. “Do You Remember Walter?” recounts a childhood friendship, when “We said we’d fight the world/so we’d be free” and “buy a boat/and sail away to sea”. the first part of the song builds up all of the optimism and ambition of youth that, as we get towards the last verse, slowly deteriorates as life gets on – to the younger generation, very much a betrayal of the notions they still hold dear. “I bet you’re fat and married/and you’re always home by half-past eight” ponders the narrator, content in the fact that “people often change/but memories of people can remain” – another example of the way things used to be being much better than they are now.

“Last of the Steam-Powered Trains” was always my favourite track. It has a kickin’ harmonica riff, and, instead of a key change near the end, the song kicks up the tempo and gets faster, which I did and still do think is a brilliant way to kick it up a notch. The narrator goes on about he’s “the last of the good old renegades”, for whom “all this peaceful livin’/Is drivin’ me insane”. “Johnny Thunder” tells the tale of an old renegade – a badass who wouldn’t listen to reason and wouldn’t ever grow up and rejects everyone else pleas for reason, but is still prayed for by “sweet Helena”. Over and over on the album, these youthful figures of badassery are portrayed, but always surrounded by nothing to rebel against and quite alone in their quest – the ultimate fear of your ideals and anger fading away, ’till you’re not quite sure what you’re holding onto any longer.

With a solid 15 tracks – each memorable, cheeky and deftly played – Village Green Preservation Society is an album that I will always return back to every now and again when I’m in the mood, and I always manage to get a little more out of every time. It’s successfully been catalogued with the ‘nostalgia’ stuff in my brain, it’s been long enough. I intend to explore more Kinks’ albums in the future, as their talent becomes more and more apparent as I re-listen, but this album is always going to hold a special place for me in their oeuvre.

“The Village Green Preservation Society”:

“Last of the Steam-Powered Trains”:

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Beyond the Pale: Getting Into Reggae

It was one of those nights, y’know. You’re sittin’ around, playing video games or chatting or what-have-you, and the laptop gets passed around, and each person gets a turn at picking a track on YouTube to serve as the evening’s soundtrack for the next however many minutes, which is both terribly exciting and terribly frightening all at once. You get the chance to sneak in another of your best kept musical secrets, but at the same time it has to fit both the mood of the evening and keep in line with what’s been played previously. It has to progress, like a thinking playlist, and evolve based on similar themes or musical motifs. Anyhow, standard practice. And then my friend Bryce puts on this track.

Now, my experience with reggae is spotty, at best. I’d mostly heard Bob Marley echoing from the dorm rooms of stoned neighbours back in first year, and the playing of Radiodread to the crowd gathered on campus during 4/20; I’d also listened to the Police. Beyond that I never really got any closer, as there wasn’t much that really captured me any time I’d listened to it. And then my friend Bryce puts on this track: “Poor Me Israelites” by Desmond Dekker & the Aces.

After asking Bryce who it was, I was intrigued, as he wasn’t Bob Marley or Peter Tosh or Jimmy Cliff (about the extent of my knowledge of reggae at the time). It made me aware that there might be an entire world I didn’t know about. But more on that later. This song swept me away! Maybe it was the repetition of “Poooooor meeeeee Israelite” after each refrain that turns your ear towards the story of a man wishing to suffer as little as possible. Maybe it was the brisk pace compared to most reggae I’d heard before, or the dramatic slow introduction before the song kicks off. Maybe it was Dekker’s high voice, syncopating all over the place. Maybe the boppin’ bassline. Whatever it was, the moment this song entered my head, it would not come out for at least a month afterwards.

Having it go round and round in there got me to thinking that I could maybe give this reggae thing a try now. I checked out the album the song came from (1968’s Intensified) and Catch A Fire by The Wailers on a friend’s recommendation. After that, as far as I could tell, I was hooked. Wanting to see what was going on in the genre currently, and after goggling at the fact that Bob Marley was still atop the Billboard reggae charts (I don’t know why I was surprised, but it caught me off guard, as my intention was to educate myself in “more than just Bob Marley” by seeing the current trends, with the acknowledgement of how huge Marley is in reggae), I pulled a couple of interesting looking albums (working on Hawai’i 13 by The Green currently), and have been about there ever since (apart from, in that period where I was listening obsessively, I went and recorded a reggae-flavoured song).

The thing that confounds me still, however, is this – did I just hear the right reggae song that got me into it or had I built up enough appreciation for some of the musical tools that it used via other music that the time was now right to accept a reggae song and, perhaps, the whole genre now? I don’t think I’ll ever quite know, but “Poor Me Israelites” gets played in my ears constantly to this day, and I’m expanding knowledge and appreciating the reggae I do hear much more than I used to, which I only figure could be a good thing.

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