“The world was all smiling beat bands. We were moodier. We were serious about it”: The limitations and strange decisions of Procol Harum’s landmark debut album

Procol Harum
(Image credit: Getty Images)

In 1967 Procol Harum emerged from the ashes of a modest Southend beat group to score an all-time best-selling single. But instead of milking A Whiter Shade Of Pale, their debut album wove epic fantasies into a proto-prog classic. We explored the story with the late Gary Brooker in 2012.

When your first single is one of the most lauded in history, there’s a possibility it can overshadow not just your inspired debut album, but your entire subsequent career. Gary Brooker, who co-wrote and sang A Whiter Shade Of Pale for Procol Harum, isn’t one to moan, however. 

“I think anybody would be happy to have such a success,” he shrugs. You’d think so, but musicians in comparable situations tend to whine. Brooker’s not having that: “Oh no,” he says. “Suddenly, everything was available. It was only ever a dream to go to America at the beginning of 1967. I would imagine playing in San Francisco, but I didn’t really even know where San Francisco was! But within a few months, there we were. So it opened a lot of doors...”

As did Procol Harum, their first album, which laid some of the foundation stones of what was to become progressive, or symphonic, rock – even though Brooker thinks of it mostly as “modern blues for its time, often with a dark edge.” Recorded after the stratospheric success of A Whiter Shade Of Pale, its original release did not include that one-off smash, and sales suffered. Wasn’t that a strange decision?

“I’d entirely agree with you – today,” says Brooker. “In fact, even a year later, I would have. But the point was, that had sold enormous numbers. I should think that everybody – I’m not exaggerating, everybody – had it. So we felt it would be cheating people to make them buy it again. That was our logic. It made perfect sense at the time.”

Various reissues over the years, and even of-the-time releases in other territories, have had the track-listing meddled with, often including the underrated follow-up single Homburg too; but it’s the band’s original, pure debut album we’ll discuss here. “I have to cast my mind back 44 years,” says Brooker, “but I gave it a listen this morning and I heard a lot in it, considering...”

By ‘considering,’ he means the production. “You have to see through it – it’s disappointing. For some reason, it came out in mono. Which, as stereo had been around for a few years, is hard to believe! One can blame Denny Cordell, the producer, for that. And the four-track machine. So there are limitations, just in the sound of it.

“The guitar solo in Kaleidoscope seems to have got completely lost. When you can hear Robin Trower’s solos they’re absolutely magnificent, ground-breaking. We were live in the studio: he’d be blasting it out, BJ Wilson would be thrashing like an octopus in a bathtub – we were doing things there that people hadn’t done before. So there were high points...” 

There certainly were. From the dramatic opening gambit of Conquistador (re-recorded with a symphony orchestra, a hit in ’72 – although Brooker wrote it with The Beach Boys in mind), through the strangely warped rock of Something Following Me and Cerdes (Outside The Gates Of), to the epic instrumental early set-closer Repent Walpurgis, it fuses riffs, bass lines, classical tropes and psychedelic detours, plus surrealist lyrics, into a pulsating, prescient whole.

Probably just a year before, something like Frank Ifield had been number one. Procol Harum seemed very, very different

“It wasn’t typical,” says Brooker. “Neither were we. Where the world was at was ‘smiling beat bands,’ and it certainly didn’t have that atmosphere. Probably just a year before, something like Frank Ifield had been number one. Procol Harum seemed very, very different. That’s how things felt. We were moodier. We were serious about it.”

The album’s genesis was about Brooker and Keith Reid “getting together a bunch of musicians. We had a concept of what we wanted: bluesy guitar, bass and drums, a Hammond organ, then me on piano and singing.” After cutting his teeth as a Southend teenager playing with The Paramounts (seven singles; tours with the Stones and The Beatles), Brooker had ‘retired’ at 21 to become a songwriter. “I’d been bashing around in the van on the road for years. I’d retired from active duty to sit at the piano.”

Conquistador (2009 Remaster) - YouTube Conquistador (2009 Remaster) - YouTube
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Introduced to lyricist Reid by producer Guy Stevens, the pair clicked instantly as a creative unit. Demoing their new songs, they realised Brooker was the best man to sing them. They were the core of a new band before they knew it; Brooker’s retirement was short-lived.

With a name suggested by Stevens in honour of a friend’s blue Persian cat (the cat’s name was a misspelling of the Latin phrase for “beyond these things” – Procul Harun), they sought players with influences ranging from Booker T & The MG’s to Dylan to Bach and Tchaikovsky. It took two or three months, but musicians were selected, and the debut single got them off to a flyer.

I suggested BJ Wilson and Robin Trower… Everyone realised they were great. I’d known that anyway

The album was well under way, but “we decided that it wasn’t quite hitting it,” Brooker recalls. “It wasn’t gelling in certain areas.” So changes were made. “We’d already auditioned a lot of people. Some had turned out to be heroin addicts; all sorts of problems. So I suggested BJ Wilson as drummer and Robin Trower as guitarist, both of whom I’d played with in The Paramounts. Everyone realised they were great. I’d known that anyway, but hadn’t wanted to say, ‘I’ve found the boys, take it or leave it!’”

The line-up was completed with bassist David Knights and Hammond player Matthew Fisher (credited as sole writer of Repent Walpurgis and a man who, along with Brooker, presumably knows something about the minutiae of writing credits after the infamous legal case regarding his contribution to A Whiter Shade Of Pale). They went back into the studio and re-recorded everything. And so a 60s landmark ensued?

Cerdes (Outside the Gates Of) - YouTube Cerdes (Outside the Gates Of) - YouTube
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“People generalise about ‘the 60s.’ It was 10 years. But ’67 was a landmark... things did change. Like the attitude of young bands creating the music. Was it all long hair, drugs and Carnaby Street? Well, yes, it was! It was part of life in that era. 

“What we thought could work became different. The building blocks came from my influences of rock, blues, classical, everything – but when we were asked what ‘sort’ of music it was, we said, ‘Well, it’s our music.’ That was the only answer there was!

We decided we’d do an 18-minute-long semi-connected suite – ‘the great work,’ we called it

“‘Progressive’ rock was a title that was made up a couple of years later. I’m not sure who was the first to be actually called that. But it did involve a lot more movement and thought about the chords and the bass lines. And I think that’s evident from this album.”

Brooker finds if hard to say whether he noticed its influence on others. “We went to America: the album was very big there. They weren’t all that interested in A Whiter Shade Of Pale – they loved these songs. I’ve met musicians over the years who’ve said it really woke them up. If you’ve got somebody who has a different way of doing things and has a big off-the-wall hit, I’m sure others thought: ‘Well, we’ll try doing that!’

A Christmas Camel (2009 Remaster) - YouTube A Christmas Camel (2009 Remaster) - YouTube
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“I was putting my classical influences in, little quotes here and there, which strengthened it. On our second album, A Salty Dog, we decided we’d do an 18-minute-long semi-connected suite – ‘the great work,’ we called it. Sound effects; an orchestra. That was very unusual at the time, and after that King Crimson and Yes showed you can do anything...”

Reid’s lyrics were also unusual, displaying a determination to open up doors of perception. People still debate their meaning. Try A Christmas Camel, which offers not only ‘some Arabian sheikh most grand impersonates a hot-dog stand,’ but also ‘some Arabian oil well impersonates a padded cell.’

Some of the great minds have pondered over what they mean, these ‘hard to understand’ lyrics – but they’re easy

“Don’t forget I start that one with, ‘My Amazon six-triggered bride…’” Brooker points out. “They were challenging, yes, but that’s what I liked about them. Different, yes; yet I understood all the colours, the images. Everything about them rang a chord with me. I didn’t find it weird. On reflection, how on Earth can you start a song singing about your Amazon six-triggered bride? Or sing, ‘Outside the gates of Cerdes sits the two-pronged unicorn’?

“I wouldn’t say I understood them, in the sense of seeing exactly what was being said, but in Keith’s words there were a lot of references to mysterious women. There’s often a mysterious woman involved.”

Was such material harder to sing than ‘ooh baby baby…’? “The question is not was it difficult, but was it in fact a stroke of genius to be able to sing those things and make them believable? I’m being immodest here, but I made those things sound like: ‘Yeah, here’s a lyric, here’s a song.’

Repent Walpurgis (2009 Remaster) - YouTube Repent Walpurgis (2009 Remaster) - YouTube
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“When Keith gave me Something Following Me, I just thought: ‘Well, it’s the blues.’ This guy’s got a problem, but it’s not that he woke up this morning and his car had gone. It’s just that this guy’s tombstone is following him everywhere and he’s right on the edge. Some of the great minds have pondered over what they mean, these ‘hard to understand’ lyrics – but they’re easy also.”

Robin Trower says he hasn’t heard the album for decades and “never really listens to any bands of the progressive rock genre.” He does recall: “The sessions for that album were relaxed and fun, and the combination of players worked very well, with everyone slotting in easily. I find Keith’s lyrics very hypnotic, and Gary came up with excellent complementary music for them. I don’t think I could bear to listen to it today though, as I know I’d be unhappy with my guitar playing.”

It was a semi-conscious bid to do something that wasn’t being done

Brooker isn’t. He praises Knight’s bass (“fantastic”), highlights the contrasts (“Mabel was light relief between all the drama”) and says that when Procol Harum play live now, and 20-year-olds call out for She Wandered Through The Garden Fence, a part of him thinks, ‘Oh, it was worth it...’

Just the start of a career that’s been so much more than the bridal train of A Whiter Shade Of Pale, that debut record – a prog dawn – has been praised by everyone from Jimmy Page to Elton John. Paul McCartney would bring the other three Beatles and Pete Townshend to see Procol Harum play.

“They liked what we were doing,” says Brooker. “From the writing point of view, it was a semi-conscious bid to do something that wasn’t being done, and perhaps everybody else picked up on that.”

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has written about music, films, and art for innumerable outlets. His new book The Velvet Underground is out April 4. He has also published books on Lou Reed, Elton John, the Gothic arts, Talk Talk, Kate Moss, Scarlett Johansson, Abba, Tom Jones and others. Among his interviewees over the years have been David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Bryan Ferry, Al Green, Tom Waits & Lou Reed. Born in North Wales, he lives in London.