Procol Harum and Robin Trower
Reviewed on this page:
A Whiter Shade Of Pale - Shine On Brightly - A Salty Dog -
Bridge Of Sighs -
Long Misty Days - In City Dreams -
Best known for their huge 1967 hit single "A Whiter Shade Of Pale," Procol Harum was one of the most musically complex and emotionally earnest 60s prog rock bands.
Like King Crimson, they featured a full-time lyricist (Keith Reid) who drew heavily on Bob Dylan and 19th century romantic poetry.
Like Traffic, they tried to wed American blues and soul stylings with traditional British folk and music hall elements.
Like Jethro Tull, they had a hot young blues guitarist (Robin Trower) who followed in the footsteps of Eric Clapton.
But unlike any of these bands, they fabricated a unique sound that emphasized frontman Gary Brooker's melancholy vocals and the haunting mix of his classically-trained piano and Matthew Fisher's elegant, church-like organ.
Despite the black humor and unpredictable experimentation that often surfaces on their discs, they eschewed the drugged-out psychedelia of Pink Floyd, the instrumental bombast of the Nice, and the open pop influences of Yes.
Their material, mostly by Reid and Brooker, was uneven, but consistent enough to carry most of their early albums.
I can't say their catalogue is as memorable or even accessible as what some of their competitors produced, but the band's musical integrity and inventiveness make them well worth hearing - they're a million times better than, say, the Moody Blues.
Brooker and Trower had been in a band called the Paramounts since 1961, which from 1963 also included drummer B. J. Wilson.
The group recorded some singles that didn't get very far, and then changed their name in early 1967, added Fisher and bassist David Knights, and recorded their masterpiece "A Whiter Shade Of Pale."
The single reached the Top 10 in both the UK and US, giving them room to record their debut LP.
Their follow-up single "Homburg" also did well, but after that they weren't much of a chart presence, despite recording arguably their best LPs around 1969 - 1970.
Unfortunately, the group suffered from numerous personnel changes, and their albums through the early and mid-70s were less and less successful.
They managed a surprise hit in 1972 with a live re-recording of "Conquistador," but then staggered along until folding in 1977.
They reformed for a one-off album in 1991, and since then Brooker has led various incarnations of the band (often joined by Fisher and/or other Procol Harum veterans) in occasional live performances.
Meanwhile, Trower left the band in 1971, laid off for a while, and then emerged as a major figure on the 70s guitar hero scene, peaking out early with his classic second album Bridge Of Sighs (1974).
Trower's career trajectory makes a remarkable story: initially just another British blues-rocker, albeit one with a harsh, piercing guitar tone, after going solo he seems to have become obsessed with Jimi Hendrix's late-period guitar technique and production style.
On his best records he pulls off such a remarkable and consistent homage that you could swear Trower had absconded with all of Hendrix's electronic equipment and a good chunk of the man's brain.
Unfortunately, Trower's records are marred by weak lyrics, cheesy soul-man vocals by sidekick James Dewar, and a disturbing lack of creativity - not once does he step outside of the Hendrix formula, except when he wallows in impersonal 70s rock clichés.
Trower also continued to release weaker and weaker efforts for years after his commercial peak.
Still, though, I think Trower's mid-70s solo work is every bit as worthwhile as the initial Procol Harum discs.
There's an extensive fan-run band web site called Beyond the Pale that appears to have no major competition.
There's also a fantastic Robin Trower web site. (JA)
Gary Brooker (vocals, piano), Matthew Fisher (organ), David Knights (bass), Keith Reid (lyrics), Robin Trower (guitar), B. J. Wilson (drums).
Wilson was replaced on the "Whiter Shade Of Pale" single (early 1967) by Bobby Harrison; Ray Royer (guitar) also appears on the recording.
Fisher and Knights left, 1969, replaced by Chris Copping (bass, organ).
Trower replaced by Dave Ball, Alan Cartwright (bass) added, Copping moved to organ, 1971.
Ball replaced by Mick Grabham, 1972.
Cartwright left, Copping switched to bass, Pete Solley (organ, synth) added, 1976.
Group disbanded, 1977, reformed, 1991-1993.
Wilson died, 1990.
A Whiter Shade Of Pale (1967)
In mid-1967 the bombastic, deadly serious title track suddenly became a major international hit, going to #1 in the U.K. despite the group's lineup on that record already having disbanded.
Brooker reformed the band and quickly recorded an LP that spotlights his collaborations with Dylan-influenced lyricist Reid - Fisher gets in just one instrumental ("Repent Walpurgis").
They mine much the same formula on every track, and it works: hook-heavy tunes, soulful Brooker vocals, interesting interplay between his piano and Fisher's swirling electric organ, and moderate amounts of soloing by the teenaged Trower, whose mastery of then-current guitar effects is already impressive.
They don't vary the tone much, apart from a plodding Dylan-style blues ("Something Following Me") and two music hall-influenced sendups ("Mabel"; "Good Captain Clack"); and the catchier tunes either have a dated-sounding 60s dance beat ("Conquistador"; "Kaleidoscope"), push the Dylan plagiarism to an extreme ("Salad Days (Are Here Again)"), or are just plain repetitive ("A Christmas Camel").
But Fisher's musical sense is solid ("She Wandered Through The Garden Fence"), and on stately, acidified numbers like "Cerdes (Outside The Gates Of)" they've clearly hit upon a unique, intriguing sound.
Uneven, but extremely promising.
The same year their single "Homburg" was a moderate hit on both sides of the Atlantic.
Like the next three discs, this one has recently been reissued with a bunch of bonus tracks; however, I've never seen those versions in stores. (JA)
Shine On Brightly (1968)
On the heels of two major hits, this time the band was given much more time in the studio.
So in typical late 60s fashion, they pad out all of side 2 with a convoluted multi-part experimental suite ("In Held Twas I").
It mixes up a mock-Buddhist dirge, "Revolution #9"-style sound effects, a spooky poetry reading, a melodramatic riff that appears both as a raga and as a monster movie theme, and a bombastic fade with a vocal choir.
Amazingly, they pull it off: the instrumental parts are bearable, and there are several good, full-blown vocal segments like their goofy "teatime at the circus" comedy number; another stately Brooker epic with a powerful harpsichord line; and a beautiful ascending quasi-classical melody that apparently spotlights Fisher on vocals.
The half-dozen tunes on the first side are solid, with several in the same solemn, Dylan-meets-the-Yardbirds style of the first album (title track; "Rambling On"; the Gilbert & Sullivan-influenced "Magdalene (My Regal Zonophone)," complete with an a capella "horn" solo).
The highlights of that batch are the uplifting, Band-like "Quite Rightly So" and dynamic, hard-hitting title track.
Trower is much more aggressive throughout, but he's still standing in the shadow of Eric Clapton (the lurching, gospel-flavored blues "Wish Me Well").
And they flop with a labored psychedelic music hall number in the style of the 1966-era Stones or Beatles ("Skip Softly (My Moonbeams)").
Fascinating, but scattershot.
Like their first album, this was produced by Denny Cordell, who's assisted here by Tony Visconti. (JA)
A Salty Dog (1969)
My mom loves this record, and I can see why; it's crafted, clever, and rarely loud enough to offend.
The band by now was being produced by Fisher, and drew most of its inspiration from the Beatles and the mellow British folk of Traffic ("Boredom"). So they're close in sound to Jethro Tull, but a heck of a lot more interesting.
Brooker's bluesy baritone is a less idiosyncratic and more expressive than Ian Anderson's; there's hardly a hint of Anderson's snottiness in Reid's poetic lyrics; Brooker and Fisher add a playful variety of instruments and some majestic orchestral arrangements (title track; "Wreck Of The Hesperus"); and Trower has finally matured into a major-league talent.
Even his occasionally brash, Jimmy Page-like guitar parts don't overwhelm the band, as on the march "The Devil Came From Kansas" - although his down-tempo Chicago blues "Juicy John Pink" doesn't really fit in.
If anything, the band end up presaging Elton John's early orchestrated rock formula here, avoiding any of prog rock's later excesses despite the orchestration.
It's too bad that the record did little to win them a new audience.
But in any case, thanks mom. (JA)
With Fisher gone, the band uses much less organ and ends up with a dark, spartan, almost nightmarish sound that's even more reminiscent of Traffic (minus any flute or sax).
Trower's galloping, heavily Cream-influenced, one-riff blues workout "Whiskey Train" is the most memorable track, and his other contribution is just superb (the brutal, cathartic "About To Die," with a soaring, notably Band-like chorus).
But there are plenty of other spotlights.
Brooker's stately, sorrowful haunted house ballads are darker than ever but work well ("The Dead Man's Dream"; the tense, driving "Piggy Pig Pig," with Trower again pulling a Jimmy Page).
And he whips out a joyful, propulsive tune - one of the band's more memorable - that completely belies its sadistic lyrics ("Still There'll Be More").
He's also lighthearted on the somewhat Carole King-like anthem "Your Own Choice," another key track and one that would have fit right in on Sesame Street.
There are some relatively weak cuts here that work in their usual style, but they're still intriguing ("Nothing That I Didn't Know," which even features accordion; "Barnyard Story," very much like any contemporary Steve Winwood piano ballad; "Whaling Stories," which just gets weirder and more threatening until it ends with a rather silly and bombastic symphonic coda).
So you really should go out of your way to find this record, at least if you agree with me that the late 60s and very early 70s marked the peak of rock's creativity and relevance.
Their first album with Copping instead of Fisher and Knights; produced by Chris Thomas, who stuck with them all the way through Exotic Birds And Fruit. (JA)
Broken Barricades (1971)
Trower left after this one. (JA)
Live In Concert (1972)
The band is backed here by the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, and Dave Ball is on guitar.
Side 1 has just four tracks, including "A Salty Dog," and side 2 has a full version of "In Held 'Twas In I."
Their only gold album, powered by a live rendition of "Conquistador" that became a Top 40 hit in the U.S. (JA)
Grand Hotel (1973)
The first studio album without Trower. (JA)
Twice Removed From Yesterday (Trower: 1973)
Trower's solo debut was produced by Matthew Fisher. (JA)
Exotic Birds And Fruit (1974)
Produced by Thomas and entirely written by Brooker and Reid.
Well-known pedal steel guitarist B. J. Cole guests. (JA)
BBC Live In Concert (rec. 1974, rel. 1999)
An 11-song set recorded during a single show.
Most of the tunes are drawn from the their last studio album or from their other early 70s LPs; they also do "Conquistador" and "Whaling Stories." (JA)
Bridge Of Sighs (Trower: 1974)
Trower's first massive commercial success and most critically acclaimed effort.
As on his later discs, it's mostly an excuse for his subtle and exacting imitation of Jimi Hendrix's drizzly, haunting, 1969 and 1970-era guitar tone and technique ("Day Of The Eagle," the best tune and very close to, say, "Dolly Dagger").
But unlike his later discs, it's at least completely consistent, with all of the songs being fairly well thought out and bassist James Dewar rarely embarassing himself with his sensual, self-important Paul Rodgers-style white soul vocals.
Matthew Fisher's production is fairly basic, with just a few studio gimmicks like phasing ("In This Place," based on a seductively hypnotic arpeggiation).
So you won't hear the multiple overdubs, backing vocals, or additional instrumentation of a real Hendrix record.
Worse, Trower's lyrics are generic; the tempos often crawl; the faster numbers, all working in the same narrow mock-Hendrix style, are often merely adequate ("The Fool And Me" and "Lady Love," both co-written by Dewar); and when Trower stretches out on the rocker "Too Rolling Stone," where he's trying for Hendrix's exciting studio jam sound, there's no real arc to his playing.
Still, though, Trower's work is gorgeous on the slow stuff (the dreamy, blues-based title track, one of his best tunes; "About To Begin," a romantic, almost jazzy waltz), and he blazes on "Little Bit Of Sympathy."
So the disc is well worth hearing despite - or really because of - its amazing derivativeness.
The drummer this time is Reg Isidore, and Geoff Emerick engineers. The next three LPs also went gold and rose high in the U.S. charts. (JA)
Procol Ninth (1975)
Produced by legendary rock songwriters Leiber and Stoller (!).
Most of the material is original, but there are covers of "Eight Days A Week" and Leiber and Stoller's "I Keep Forgetting." (JA)
For Earth Below (Trower: 1975)
Long Misty Days (Trower: 1976)
A typical mid-70s Trower effort showcasing his phenomenal recreation of Hendrix's sound.
Add that to a credible Mitch Mitchell imitation by new drummer Bill Lordan ("S.M.O.") and Dewar's usual over-wrought vocals, and you've got a formula for 70s AOR gold.
The only catch is that Trower, like most guitarists, simply can't recreate Hendrix's unpredictable, wide-ranging, and effortless musical creativity; it's impossible to imagine Hendrix playing one dumb riff over and over again for four minutes and calling it a song ("Messin The Blues").
"Caledonia" reworks Hendrix's chattering rhythm guitar style to generate a smoking funk-rocker, and the three ballads are pretty (the "Angel"-like "Sailing," "I Can't Live Without You," and title track). Those four songs show Trower to rank with Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page as a mid-70s guitar hero.
But the rest is just slow-burning, blues-based cock rock that's indistinguishable from everything else that punk rebelled against the same year ("Pride") - it doesn't help much that by now Dewar was writing most of his own lyrics.
The end product tastes a lot better than saccharine, but just isn't that nutritious.
70s obsessives and budding lead guitarists will still want to pick it up if they can find it packaged with In City Dreams on a twofer Trower re-release.
Co-produced by Trower and Beatles associate Geoff Emerick. (JA)
Something Magic (1977)
The last album before Procol Harum took a long break, featuring synthesizers by Pete Solley - previously they'd avoided that prog rock motif.
Co-produced by Brooker and the Albert Brothers, of all people. (JA)
In City Dreams (Trower: 1977)
Despite another lineup change - Rustee Allen is on bass, so Dewar sticks with vocals - this is more of the same, with Trower's astounding Hendrix imitations lifting even the most predictable AOR material (the blues-based, Bad Company-like soul shuffle "Somebody Calling," with wiggy, super-distorted guitar leads).
Allen does have an impact, adding some popping, funky lines (the stately soul number "Love's Gonna Bring You Down, where Trower rips off Jimi's "talking guitar" technique).
And Trower's overall approach is far lighter, piling on a lot of fuzzy, atmospheric leads that are drenched with chorus, wah-wah, phasing, and even a primitive delay effect, and over-using Hendrix's spacey "Angel" ballad formula ("Little Girl"; "Bluebird," not the McCartney song and almost ruined by Dewar's mock-Eastern mannerisms, but damn good anyway).
The unusual emphasis on ballads isn't necessarily a good thing - Dewar's slimey 70s love-man lyrics on the finger-snapping, lite jazz/pop number "Sweet Wine Of Love" are just unbearable, and he's bathetic on the otherwise interesting bolero-based title track.
Worse still, there's an almost embarassingly good-timey, live-in-the-studio cover of the blues standard "Further On Up The Road."
There's nothing here like "Caledonia," but it's hard to argue with chops this good: multi-tracked funk-rock workouts like "Falling Star" and the vaguely Santana-esque "Smile" will leave guitar fans gaping in awe.
Produced by Don Davis. (JA)
Robin Trower - Live! (Trower: 1977)
By now Trower was descending from his mid-70s commercial heights. (JA)
Caravan To Midnight (Trower: 1978)
No More Fear Of Flying (Brooker: 1979)
Brooker's first solo album, and it's a weird mix of high-profile names from the British rock scene: producer George Martin, pedal steel player B. J. Cole, drummer Dave Mattacks, lyricist Pete Sinfield (although Reid wrote the title track).
Tim Renwick is on guitar and Bruce Lynch on bass. (JA)
Victims Of The Fury (Trower: 1980)
B.L.T. (Bruce/Lordan/Trower: 1981)
I have a copy of this one, which is a collaboration between Trower and veteran Cream bassist/singer Jack Bruce.
Both of them sound much the same as always, which means that they end up recycling the unimaginative blues-rock formulas they held in common. (JA)
Truce (Bruce/Trower: 1982)
A second and last full-blown Bruce-Trower disc. (JA)
Lead Me To The Water (Brooker: 1982)
Self-produced, and with Brooker having just finished a spin as Eric Clapton's keyboard player, there's no set band but instead a ton of guests.
Some of them are big names - Clapton, George Harrison, and Phil Collins - and the rest are mostly middle-rank: Albert Lee, Steve Holly, Chris Stainton, Henry Spinetti, Mel Collins, etc. (JA)
Back It Up (Trower: 1983)
Trower's last solo record before a break. (JA)
Echoes In The Night (Brooker: 1985)
The closest thing up to this point to a Procol Harum reunion, with Fisher and Wilson both being in the band, Brooker and Fisher co-producing, and both Fisher and Reid getting credits on most of the tunes.
Some old Brooker associates here including Renwick (guitar) and Spinetti (drums), with Dave Bronze on bass, Ray Cooper on percussion, and Clapton guesting on one tune. (JA)
Passion (Trower: 1987)
Trower's first studio album in several years is an ill-considered tweak on his formula.
Producer Neil Norman gives him a faceless, predictable, completely insincere mid-80s corporate rock sound (the thumping, Starship-like title track; "One More Word"), although the material is often close to Trower's earlier AOR work ("Won't Even Think About You").
It's essentially a collaboration with bassist Dave Bronze, who has a co-write on all but one tune, sings backing vocals, and plays the fuzzy, irritating synth parts that cheapen most of the tracks.
But Bronze is mostly a non-factor, and singer Davey Pattison, James Dewar's replacement, has an utterly generic macho-man tenor - Dewar oozed just as much slime, but at least his work had camp value.
Drummer Pete Thompson is competent but unremarkable, so the rhythm section often simply flails, whether they're playing New Wave-y rock ("Secret Doors") or Trower's characteristically dumbed-down, chugging blend of soul and Chicago blues ("Bad Time").
And Trower himself is starving for ideas; he recycles his standard, "Angel"-based ballad routine ("If Forever") and rips off Hendrix's intro riff to "Burning Of The Midnight Lamp" on an otherwise unremarkable instrumental ("Night").
He does shine in places (the slow-grinding "No Time"), his facile and understated leads are a million times better than anything a studio hack could have delivered, and the mid-tempo love groove "Caroline" is hummable, brain-dead fun.
But for the most part, the record is yet another sad reminder of rock's worst era. (JA)
Take What You Need (Trower: 1988)
No Stopping Anytime (Trower: 1989)
In The Line Of Fire (Trower: 1990)
The Prodigal Stranger (1991)
The band's high-profile reunion album is widely available but I've avoided it, having seen some savage reviews.
Brooker, Fisher, Reid, and Trower reformed the band here, adding mutual associate Dave Bronze on bass, second guitarist Jerry Stevenson, and drummer Mark Brzezicki.
Co-produced by the band and Matt Noble. (JA)
20th Century Blues (Trower: 1994)
The Long Goodbye (1995)
An album of orchestral remakes of the band's classic-era tunes, produced by Brooker and featuring Fisher and Trower only on one tune ("Repent Walpurgis"); otherwise it's essentially a solo effort.
Several orchestras and guest vocalists appear, and the rhythm section is Bronze and Brzezicki. (JA)
Someday Blues (Trower: 1997)
The Well's On Fire (2003)
A Brooker-Fisher reunion record.
The rest of the band is Geoff Whitehorn (guitar), Matt Pegg (bass), and Brzezicki (drums). (JA)