Beyond These Things: In Praise of Procol Harum

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(Wikimedia Commons)

As far as band names go, Procol Harum’s is not all that weird — not as weird as, say, Moby Grape or the Electric Prunes. It is cryptic, however, like Scritti Politti (actually the name of a tract by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci) or King Crimson (whose lyricist said it was a loose translation of Beelzebub, which it isn’t). The band has said that it is Latin for “beyond these things” or “beyond all that”, which is not the case: “procul his” would be more accurate. At one point Procol’s lyricist, Keith Reid, said that it was actually the name of their dope dealer’s cat. Which makes more sense, precisely because it doesn’t. Cryptic indeed.

What Procol went “beyond” was the conventions of late-60s blues-based rock. They were certainly well-versed in that genre: four of the members of Procol Harum previously constituted an R&B outfit called The Paramounts. They certainly could rock out: “Whiskey Train” from their fourth album Home is a riff-based bluesy number, written by guitarist Robin Trower, which easily could have been mistaken for something by Mountain or Ten Years After. And on tracks like “Quite Rightly So” and the pre-chorus of “About to Die” Gary Brooker sounds a lot like Rick Danko of The Band. But Procol’s deeper roots were in European symphonic music, with its emphasis on soaring melody and counterpoint. Rock has always been at its best when it owns up to its eclectic, syncretistic nature, and Procol were masters of that. Their uniqueness was in reaching back across the Atlantic from America to England, and were, as far as I can tell, the first to do that — to include a fundamentally non-American sensibility in a genre still recognizable as rock.

Procol, despite the nod to classical music, are misunderstood if thought to be “progressive rock.” I do not share the Pitchfork-and-Rolling-Stone cognoscenti’s disdain for prog: much of prog, especially in these days where music is numbingly market-driven and formulaic, is refreshing because of its unapologetic devotion to sonic complexity and musicianship. But prog also exhibits a pronounced jazz and fusion influence, which generally Procol did not show. You could construct a playlist where Yes and Mahavishnu Orchestra, or Gentle Giant and Weather Report, peacefully coexisted, but Procol clearly wouldn’t belong there. And another point of contrast is the quality of Procol’s lyrics, actually penned by an accomplished poet, Keith Reid. Most prog lyrics dwell somewhere between pretentiousness and godawful unintelligibility. Few musicophiles love Yes more than I do, but I defy anyone either to explain the meaning of the lyrics for “Roundabout” or “Close to the Edge” (“Total Mass Retain”? Seriously?) and to defend them aesthetically. Procol Harum knew what they were doing lyrically, which was closer in spirit to Dylan or Bowie than anyone working in English prog rock.

A Whiter Shade of Pale” comes close to being a perfect rock song, despite its lack of funk and swing. The introductory riff, derived from Bach’s Orchestral Suite №3 in D major, a.k.a. “Air on the G-string”, and verses and a chorus unremitting in their bittersweet beauty. It is a song-pattern that Procol Harum frequently employed — melodies and lyrics that were at once bittersweet and regretful yet uplifting: “A Salty Dog” , “Homburg” , and countless others. This juxtaposition of sorrow and sublimity is hard to pull off in popular music, but it is a key element in romantic symphonic music — Beethoven and Brahms come to mind. Procol Harum did it with ease, and in a Rock environment.

Their masterpiece, I think, is the aforementioned fourth album Home. Their original keyboard player, Matthew Fisher, who defined their early “Whiter Shade” sound, had left the band along with the bass player. Procol recovered from this attrition by re-recruiting Chris Copping, an original member of The Paramounts, to serve on both bass and Hammond B3. The sound changed subtly — it became darker and more ominous. This is putting it mildly: the album is saturated by the theme of death. Every song either alludes to death or places it center stage. The melancholy of the first three albums is replaced by dread and angst. Yet, oddly, it is not a “downer” album: Home, whose title is almost Augustinian in its allusion to earthly life as a pilgrimage into a vale of tears, suggests that the light at the end of the tunnel of despair is that of hope. As Samuel Beckett, that Augustinian malgre lui once put it, “I must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” Death is a portal, well, beyond these things.

The track “The Dead Man’s Dream” is a bone-chilling piece straight out of Poe. It makes death-metal seem pitifully insincere. The album’s centerpiece, “Whaling Stories”, musically depicts a storm at sea reminiscent of Rossini’s storm in William Tell, but lyrically describes what seems to be the end of the world, a vision straight out of John of Patmos’s Revelation. For me, however, Home’s exquisite center has to be “Barnyard Story”. A very simple, plaintive melody and arrangement (only Brooker’s piano and Copping’s organ), and eight lines of verse, aa-bb-cc-dd rhyme pattern. But its power is overwhelming. Give it a listen here, and read the lyrics:

Chicken in the farmyard, there’s an oven in your bin
You’re growing old with sorrow, you’re growing fat with sin
I was living in the graveyard, I was hanging from the wall
I was living in the desert, I was trying not to fall

Once I stood upon Olympus, then the heavens opened wide
I beheld that flaming chariot and I saw the sacred bride
Now and then my life seems truer, now and then my life seems pure
All in all, my thoughts are fewer — maybe death will be my cure

Is this about Jesus? Prometheus? Some other Greek or Roman mythological hero? Yes. And all of us. The tearfulness of life — the lacrimae rerum — is unavoidable for all of us, and in a way death would count as a cure, whatever it betokens. But there is also something majestic and wonderful about the human being reflecting on his or her life while judging a chicken and anticipating its fate.

That a rock band can evoke this mood is high, high praise.

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