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”: