Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Simelsblogging: Procol Harum

Until he gets his feet under him technologically, allow me to post an article steve sent me a couple of weeks ago.

Ladies and gents -- the first lengthy piece of mine to be published in a national magazine. Who amongst us cannot recall where we were the first time we read it?

Okay, seriously...here's how it happened.

In the summer of 1972 I was looking for work, and more to the point, to find a way to keep getting free albums in the quantities I had become accustomed to during my run as rock critic at my college paper. I had just begun writing freelance reviews for a NYC freebie rag of the day, which was fun, but unfortunately they took their freebie status seriously enough that they never actually paid me (although I was grateful to them for expanding my clip archive and making me look like I was a bigger shot than I really was. Plus, they let me review not just rock albums but comic books as well, which nobody else to my knowledge was doing anywhere except in fanzines).

I'd also just had a review accepted by Fusion (their motto: "We pay our writers a pittance, but at least we really do pay, unlike that stupid freebie rag you're scribbling comic book reviews for, jerk.") Fusionbbbbb was a wonderful Boston-based (mostly) rock oriented mag which was giving Creem a run for its money at the time and which I particularly loved for having serialized the fabulous Raymond Chandler homage "The Big Kiss-Off of 1944," a novel that was the first sign of incipient genius from future Hollywood hotshot Andrew Bergman (auteur of "The In-Laws," among other terrific movies). Imagine my chagrin, then, when I ran to the newsstand at the appointed time, opened up the new issue to the review section and found my magnum opus -- a pan of a band and album now lost in the mists of memory -- printed with a byline not my own. Oh the indignity -- my first professional sale credited to somebody else!!!

Desperate (for money, as I plainly recall), I then sent off a couple of my (least awful) pieces and a really snotty note to Stereo Review (a magazine I'd read avidly, off and on, since the early 60s) advertising my services as potential in-house rock critic guy (I believe I suggested that they were horribly out of touch and desperately needed me). To my surprise, I was soon summoned to the old One Park Avenue offices of Ziff-Davis Publications, where I found myself, totally intimidated, in the presence of two actual SR editors. Fortunately, since I didn't obviously drool, they were nice enough to offer me a spec assignment before I left. "Write an appreciation of some band you think is important," Music Editor Jim Goodfriend told me, "and if we like it we'll pay you five hundred bucks" (a lot of money back in those days, and an unimaginably huge sum to my young and empty wallet). Somewhat shell-shocked by the experience, I staggered home, spent a week or so toiling obsessively on the essay below, mailed it in, and parked myself by the phone. The call arrived in a few days; not only did the editors like the piece, they invited me to have another similar go at a retrospective on another band. I didn't realize it at the time, but these were essentially audition pieces; immediately after I finished the second one (on the Kinks), I was invited back to the office and offered the job of Pop Music Editor, and the rest is history blah blah blah.

Incidentally, after a few months on staff I found some inter-office memos (pre-dating my hire) between Goodfriend and Editor in Chief Bill Anderson; turns out the reason I got the gig was not so much because they thought I was a particularly great writer, but because the word had come from the corporate honchos upstairs that SR needed to hire some young snot to give the mag a patina of hep. Also, they knew they could get me, as opposed to an established name, for dirt cheap. A blow to my ego, to be sure, but since at that point I was once again getting all the free albums I could possibly want, I let it go.

In any event, enjoy the following, written in the naive, unskilled fullness of my youth. Re-visiting it now, my basic reaction is "I've read worse," but on the other hand, it's kind of inspirational; if I could sneak this thin gruel into a national magazine and get paid for it, pretty much anything is possible. The footnotes, obviously, represent my current thoughts on specific idiocies I haven't bothered to edit out or revise. -- S.S

(From: Stereo Review December 1972)
PROCOL HARUM: A Retrospective Look at the Finest Band in Christendom

One of the (for some reason) rarely discussed perks of being a rock-and-roll obsessive (as opposed to casual fan) is that you get to root for the underdog. The story is familiar: you get knocked out by an unknown or unpopular group, so you buy their infrequent albums with an almost religious fervor and make a nuisance of yourself by playing the B side of one of their flop singles for all your friends who really only want to hear Neil Young (1) for the 800th time. If you're a real zealot, you also put out a fanzine devoted to your idol's career (or lack of one) and write nasty letters to Rolling Stone. When the group finally clicks, you smile your best I-told-you-so smile. If, instead, they fade unheralded, you wipe your nose, mutter "ahead of their time" under your breath, and feel sensitive. A wonderful game because you can't lose.

Just about every real rock fan of my acquaintance has at least one such mania to his credit. Myself, I used to conduct lonely vigils at record stores for Kinks albums, this in the days when their sales were so uninspiring that Reprise was seriously considering dropping them altogether. Now, to the delight of RCA, their cult following has expanded to the point where they've become a viable commercial entity, and I figure my taste is an idea whose time as come.

More recently much the same has begun to happen to Procol Harum, another cult band that many of my critical confreres have been pulling for since 1967, but with a notable lack of success. Yet, as of this writing, the group's sixth album (seventh, if you count their released-only-in-England greatest hits collection), Live in Concert with the Edmonton Symphony, is in Billboard's Top Ten (2), the first such achievement in their history, and "Conquistador," the single excerpted from it, is doing similarly boffo biz. This radical reversal of the band's fortunes is especially ironic in the face of larger current pop culture trends toward anti-intellectualism (see much recent rock criticism) and extravagant camp theatricality (as perpetrated onstage by the likes of Alice Cooper, David Bowie, and the Rolling Stones).

The Procols, image-wise, have always tended toward invisibility. Their act, such as it is, is limited to an occasional one-liner from singer/pianist Gary Brooker, and what little mystique surrounds them stems from the compulsive morbidity of lyricist Keith Reid, about whom fans play a little guessing game: is he as screwed up in real life as the songs suggest or what? I once did an interview with the group during which Reid spent the whole time huddled in a corner muttering to himself, and this kind of behavior, while interesting in itself on a number of levels, is nevertheless not quite the stuff of which pop legends are made. (3) And though, being British, they do possess a sort of built-in flash, by and large there's really nothing terribly impressive about them except their music. But despite an occasional zinger from people who should know better (I think of Nik Cohn's brief dismissal of them as one-hit [the gazillion selling "A Whiter Shade of Pale --you may have heard it] wonders in his Rock from the Beginning, or the remark by Robbie Robertson of the Band - with whom they're often and superficially compared - to the effect that everything they do "sounds vaguely like that Percy Sledge thing"), that music is as significant a body of work, in terms of emotional depth and all-around smarts, as can be found in contemporary pop/rock. For those of us who've been convinced of this all along, their metamorphosis into genuine headliners is, in many ways, a vindication. The question then becomes, where have they been all your life?

Procol Harum's recorded output is still relatively small (they've confined themselves pretty much to one album a year) (4), and it divides itself handily, as a by-product of some personnel juggling, into three distinct periods. For their first three LPs, the band was a five-piece starring the organ and piano of Matthew Fisher and Gary Brooker, the bass of David Knights, the guitar of Robin Trower, and the drums of the ubiquitous B.J. Wilson (not to be confused with B.J. Thomas)(5). This line-up set the basic template for their work, with the compositional chores divided between Fisher, Brooker, and Trower. (It is interesting to note, parenthetically, that a good deal of the material from this early period remains a part of their performing repertoire.)

In 1969, David and Matthew departed, to be replaced by one Chris Copping, a clever lad who could play Matthew's organ lines with one hand while negotiating a keyboard bass with the other. As a quartet, the band recorded Home and Broken Barricades, and it became apparent that a lot of the weight had fallen on Robin. Whereas previously he had functioned almost exclusively as a solo voice, he now unleashed a scathing Hendrix-style attack that more than compensated for the reduction in manpower and began to gain him a measure of notoriety. We can, with some justification, label this the band's Blue Period. (It is also interesting to note parenthetically that this version of PH was a de facto reunion of cult R&B Brit faves the Paramounts, under which moniker all four of the Procols had previously played . The Paramounts never sold many records, but no less authorities than the Rolling Stones famously pronounced them their favorite R&B band) (6). Finally, last year, the inevitable happened: Robin, visions of superstardom dancing in his head, trotted off to form his own combo, and was promptly replaced by David Ball (full-time bassist Alan Cartwright came in at the same time). Full circle, with their original instrumentation intact, it was this band that moved out to cut the live effort which has so unexpectedly propelled them into the public eye.

The convoluted game of musical chairs might well suggest we have several Procol Harums to deal with, but remarkably, the sense of continuity from record to record is very strong. This is not to say that they haven't experimented or grown (their most recent stuff, such as the forthcoming Grand Hotel, is increasingly full of conscious attempts at non-mould material), but rather that a particular vision has guided the band since its inception. That vision, not surprisingly, is most formally exemplified by the music of their eponymous debut album. Procol was not the first to attempt the elusive fusion of rock and classical techniques, but they are still the only ones to have pulled it off, and never quite so effortlessly as they did in that seamless merger of Bach and Ray Charles. One recalls similar attempts at fusing "serious" music with jazz - the so-called Third Stream of Gunther Schuller and others - and more recently the work of such rock bands as the Nice and King Crimson. It's generally agreed that what resulted in all these cases was a basically sterile music in which the styles never really meshed, but merely alternated with each other. Procol Harum never fell into this trap - largely, I think, because first and foremost they're rock-and-rollers, and they consequently adopted only those elements of classical music that are most compatible with those of rock, the harmonic language and the tight structure in particular. With this in mind, the quintessential Procol Harum track would have to be "Repent, Walpurgis," a shattering instrumental from that first album in which, against a melancholy Bachian organ-and-piano background, Robin Trower's solo guitar screams out in the purest kind of rock-and-roll language. The juxtaposition is moving in the extreme.

The man who provides the words for Procol is the previously mentioned Keith Reid, who can, at his best, achieve as cunning a synthesis with seemingly divergent verbal traditions as the band can with its musical ones. His work is terribly literary in the academic sense (in some ways it's even more self-consciously poetic than that of, say, Paul Simon), owing to a fondness for classical imagery and the sort of modernist anxieties you might associate with T.S. Eliot. And yet he's also extremely funky, a rock poet demonstrably in the line that runs all the way back to Chuck Berry. He has often been compared to Dylan, and indeed there are times when his surrealistic narrative style recalls the Dylan of the early electric albums (as in "Ramblin' On"). But more often than not he's simply his own man. "Still There'll Be More," one of the niftiest cuts from Home, provides a good example of his approach. The song centers around a prototypical macho fantasy that has been common in rock since Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love," and it has roots in blues that are considerable older. But Reid's kind of skinny, and he's been to college, so it comes out like this:

I'll bathe my eyes in a river of salt
I'll grow myself right up to the sky
I'll sing in the forest and tear down the trees
Foul all the fountains and trample the leaves.
I'll blacken your Christmas
And piss on your door
You'll cry out for mercy
Still there'll be more...
Point taken, Keith.

Overall, his viewpoint is unrelievedly pessimistic; in fact, his lyrics of late have been sicklied over with such an alarmingly graveyard cast that the band (which considers him an equal member, incidentally) reportedly postponed an album until he could turn out something a little more upbeat. Practically speaking, this may have been a good idea: Broken Barricades, after all, was about nothing less than the decline of Western civilization, an awfully tough act to follow. But I think they needn't have worried. Even at his gloomiest, he seems unable to avoid flashes or mordant wit and healthy self-mockery. And if his vision is a dark one, it is never trivial; if he has not been quite the Compleat and Perfect Songwriter (7), he has rarely been anything less than a very good one:
There's too many women, and not enough wine,
Too many poets, and not enough rhyme,
Too many glasses and not enough time.
Draw your own conclusions.

The next few steps for the band are obviously going to be crucial. Procol is now in the enviable position of coming off a hit album just as their record contract expires. They are, I'm sure, well aware of the power this gives them; a strongly supportive label (which is something they've never really had at their disposal) can be an important factor in their continuing to reach the mass audience that suddenly seems to have discovered them. And they are probably equally aware that the next album had better be damn good or there goes the ball game. Odds are, or course, that it will be; let us not forget that Procol boasts, in Gary and BJ, a vocalist and a drummer who are arguably among the most powerful in the business.

Meanwhile, the new band has had more than a year to get its chops in shape, and the evidence of the last tour is that they're playing, if possible, even better than ever. (A measure of this can perhaps be gleaned from the most recent concert of theirs I attended, at which the Staten Island audience sat in stunned silence for a full ten seconds after an encore of "Repent.") Nonetheless, Keith Reid is likely at this very moment to be off somewhere reading a lamb's entrails for confirmation.

Jerry Garcia is fond of quoting the "I Ching" to the effect that perseverance pays, and though personally I find both book and guitarist unreliable, there's still a little grain of truth in there somewhere. God knows Procol Harum has persevered, and it looks like it just might begin to pay. For an old cultist like me, that's got to be a cause for a couple of loud huzzas at the very least.
Postcript: All that was written a couple of weeks ago and, as the alert reader may know, a great deal has gone down since then. God knows what may happen before this finally sees print, but as we go to press (in early November) this is the scoop: the band is now on the WB/Chrysalis label, A & M is reissuing the first album and - most important - they've shuffled lead guitarists again. Ball has apparently pulled an Eric Clapton, quitting the now successful group to play the blues, and his replacement is Mick Grabham, formerly of the English country-rock band Cochise. How the personnel change will affect Grand Hotel is at this point anybody's guess, but I can report that in concert, at least, things are working out just fine. Stay tuned.(8)

1. I love (and loved at the time) Neil Young, but I was sort of sick of Harvest when I wrote the piece. Sorry.

2. Ouch. Since I have of late poked considerable fun (to my mind, well deserved) at NY Times critic Kelefa Sanneh for his inexplicable quest to work a reference to the Billboard charts into seemingly every piece he's ever written or will write, this is -- how you say -- embarrassing. Mea culpa. Although I still think Sanneh's got some kind of a problem.

3. I know, I know, what was I thinking. In my defense, at the time I worked on this, Brian Wilson was not yet widely known to be bonkers; neither was Syd Barrett. And c'mon -- if somebody had come to me while I was writing it and said "Just wait -- thirty years from now, Michael Jackson will be more famous for dangling a baby out of a window than for his music" I would hardly have believed them.

4. "One album a year". Sheesh. Remember when major-label bands had a work ethic?

5. This joke totally embarrasses me, as it should you.

6. Full disclosure: this aside does not appear in the original article, for the simple reason that I was unaware of the Procol's Paramount past at the time I wrote it. Incidentally, the Paramounts complete recorded output (i.e., their single A and B sides) is currently available on a Brit import CD; I wish I could say that your life is the poorer without it, but alas, like the work of most obscure 60s rock bands that you haven't heard, it's not particularly memorable. Another one of those great club acts whose live show didn't really transfer to tape, apparently.

7. Too cute for words. I would have changed it to something, er, less cute for words, but I decided to leave it in as a memo to myself: things too silly to be said can only be sung.

8. It just dawned on me while revising this that nowhere in the piece do I make even a glancing mention of A Salty Dog, Procol's third album and generally agreed both then and now to be their magnum opus. For what it's worth, I haven't a clue as to the why of the omission. Maybe I was still smoking pot at the time (heh heh). In any event: let me finally say it now -- it's an all but perfect album, one of the best of its era for sure.

Steve Simels regrets the error.

See, this is what happens when you're a real writer....


dave™© said...

Great stuff, Steverino... can't remember if I read this in the original, but I do remember your review of "Grand Hotel."

And I love "A Salty Dog"!

Anonymous said...

I decided to leave it in as a memo to myself: things too silly to be said can only be sung.

ergo, silly love songs

what's wrong with that....:-)

Anonymous said...

Love you, steve, and welcome to the blogosphere, but Procol Harum?


Though I'm prevented from seiously badmouthing them by memories of a dear friend whose favorite band they were; he was an early victim of the AIDS epidemic....

Saw Brooker play with Ringo on one of the latter's All-Starr tours a few years ago. He was all right.

rorschach said...

Who is this simels character, anyway?

Anonymous said...

That's great steverino. Welcome back.

NYMary said...

To be fair, Gummo, it's a period piece.

But I still think the best line about Procul Harum came from The Commitments: "Poxiest bleeding lyrics ever written."


Anonymous said...

I like the review and I also love the phrase "patina of hep"

Mister Pleasant said...

This Procol Harum piece predates my addiction to your SR reviews by at least one year. Thanks to your writings I am a card carrying Kinkophile and walking Zombie. I stumbled onto PH on my own but am damn proud to find that we both think they are the bees knees. Cheers, and happy blogging on this great site.