Great Debut--Procol Harum

This is a reprint of an album review I wrote on March 1, 2016. It was part of a series about the best debut rock albums.

The eponymous Procol Harum album was released in September 1967 right after the incredible success of the single “A Whiter Shade of Pale”. Interestingly, the hit does not appear on the original album, although the U.S. release did include it and subsequent reissues also include it (with other bonus tracks as well.) Procol Harum reached number 47 in the U.S. and number 26 in the UK.

Procol Harum is a band with an unusual membership; only a very few include a non-performing lyricist as a band member, in this case Keith Reid. Robert Hunter/Grateful Dead, Bernie Taupin/Elton John, Pete Sinfield/King Crimson come to mind as well. Reid’s lyrics are intellectual, mysterious, suggestive, moody, wicked, humorous–sometimes all at the same time.

The musicians in the band are all excellent. Robin Trower’s guitar playing, while not as evident here, developed into a style similar the Jimi Hendrix which fueled a very successful solo career after Procol. B.J. Wilson is one of the most underrated drummers of all time (underrated by the public, not by his peers). Gary Brooker’s voice is unmistakable as is Matthew Fisher’s Hammond organ playing and David Knight’s expertise on bass. These guys sounded like seasoned professionals from the outset.

Here’s a rundown of the tracks from the Procol Harum…Plus release:

“Conquistador” starts off the album on a serious note. How’s this for a first verse on a 1967 first album:

“Conquistador your stallion stands in need of company and like some angel’s haloed brow you reek of purity I see your armour-plated breast has long since lost its sheen and in your death mask face there are no signs which can be seen”

“She Wandered Through the Garden Fence” is the story of an imaginary (?) woman who, on the surface, appears to want to help (...’I’ve brought at great expense a potion guaranteed to bring relief from all your suffering.’) but after some torture, ultimately does nothing: (“But she could see what I was then and left me on my own again.” All in a very bouncy 3/4  time and a tasteful organ line throughout.

“Something Following Me” starts the recurring Keith Reid theme of paranoia:

“While standing at the junction on 42nd Street I idly kick a pebble lying near my feet I hear a weird noise, take a look up and down The cause of the commotion is right there on the ground Imagine my surprise, thought I’d left it at home but there’s no doubt about it, it’s my own tombstone.”

All set to a slow, blusey, almost nonchalant style that is in opposition to the lyric.

Next, is “Mabel”, a fun, wicked, suggestive jaunt. Atypical of most of the record. It sounds like they are having as much fun recording this as the Beach Boys had with Barbara Ann. But then you get this:

“Don’t eat green meat it ain’t good for you you know it killed your brother, killed your sister too even fresh fried chicken on new-mown sand can’t beat red beans eaten outa your hand”

Then, this happy tease turns sour in the the last verse:

“Put the peas in the pot, put the pot on the hot In the cellar lies my wife, in my wife there’s a knife so tote that hammer, lift that pick and banish inhibition with a pogo stick”

Hopefully, you are sufficiently curious about the rest of the album. It is a wonderful ride into the mind of Keith Reid and contains some of the best lyrics of his Procol Harum career. The full album is available on YouTube and the lyrics to all the songs are available at the fantastic Procol Harum fan site Beyond the Pale at procolharum.com.

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