Always something of the bridesmaid of the 70s crop of British progressive rock bands, Procol Harum burst onto the scene with a hit single, and despite a run of compelling records, never quite had the lasting success as peers like King Crimson, Genesis or Emerson, Lake and Palmer.
This year, however, Esoteric Recordings is continuing their series of Procol Harum reissues with three re-releases: Grand Hotel, The Prodigal Stranger, and my personal pick of the three, Exotic Birds and Fruit.
Let’s set the stage. In 1971, Robin Trower left the band to launch a solo career as a hotshot guitar wizard. Although their breakout single was dominated by electric organ, Trower was key to band’s sound. On songs like “Memorial Drive” and “Simple Sister,” his bluesy guitar crunch was integral to the band’s sound and he’d been there since nearly the beginning; a departure like this can sometimes be what wrecks a band’s career.
However, frontman Gary Brooker kept on and the group’s sound changed with each new record: they did one with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, for example, before going with a simpler, more rootsy sound on Exotic Birds and Fruit.
It opens with the stomping “Nothing But the Truth,” which pairs Brooker’s booming piano with Chris Copping’s droning organ. As the band crashes around, propelled by BJ Wilson’s drumming, Brooker sings and pounds away at the piano. According to the liners, both Elton John and Jools Holland were fans.
Key to the first half of the record is “As Strong As Samson,” a slower number dominated by Coppings organ and a pedal steel played by BJ Cole. Here Brooker sings an almost gospel-inspired number about interactions between people (“Black men and white men, and Arabs and Jews / causing congestion and filling the queues”) and reflects on the problems facing England in the 70s. But in the way Wilson pounds away at the drum fills, the droning of Copping’s organ and the way Brooker slowly plays his piano, the song’s hardly a downer: it sounds like the end credits to one of those 70s Hollywood flicks with heavy social undertones.
Meanwhile, “The Idol” opens with Brooker singing and playing, and the band slowly works their way by the chorus. As the tension builds on the track, Brooker’s voice slows down: “And so they found he’d nothing left to say / just another idol turned to clay.” In the liners, songwriter Keith Reid suggests it could be about a lot of people, “one of them myself.” It builds up to a powerful crescendo, the band crashing away as Brooker’s voice is dubbed over itself and guitarist Mick Grabham gets in a tasty solo.
The album’s second side opens with the slow, moody “Thin Edge of the Wedge,” where Grabham’s guitar meshes against Brooker’s slow chord progression and distorted vocals. But the band kicks into gear on “Monsieur R. Monde,” a rocker that has Brooker’s piano stomping along and Cole playing a rollicking beat. It builds up to Grabham ripping into a bluesy solo and Brooker bashing away at the piano. And from there, it’s “Fresh Fruit,” which comes complete with whistling, a marimba and Brooker singing about squeezing fruit, feeding it to his dog and battling the flu. These three make for an odd trio on the back half of the record, but as Brooker explains in the liners, there’s a method to the madness: “‘Song order’s determined after everything’s finished,” he says, “We could’ve made Fresh Fruit a sombre ballad … but then you’d be talking about the dog dying.”
But the fun and games are over on “Butterfly Boys,” a direct shot at the band’s then-label, Chrysalis. “They say we haven’t got a choice, refuse to recognize our voice, sings Brooker, “yet they enjoy commissions from the proceeds of the joke.” And when the album closes on “New Lamps for Old,” recorded in one evening and with Brooker singing about how everything has an ending.
There’s a couple of nice bonus tracks on the record’s first disc – the rockin’ “Drunk Again,” which was originally a B-side, and an alternate mix of “Strong as Samson.” But the real meat comes on the two full Procol Harum concerts included here. Each shows different aspects of the band, and are worth checking out for hardcore fans.
The first is a BBC recording, taken from March 1974. While it lacks the ebb and flow of a proper live show – each song is introduced by a DJ – it presents the songs in a new context, some of them played with less frills, and others get stretched out.
The second concert is a live-in-the-studio recording from Texas, a few months later. With them in the middle of a tour, they’re back in their element and songs take on a freshness and spontaneity. But while it’s interesting it’s livelier (if not as high-fidelity sound: hey, it’s an over-the-air broadcast from the 70s), it’s also packed with deep cuts: “Mabel,” “Homberg,” and ‘Long Gone Geek,” an obscure B-side from several albums previous. Add in Roland Clare’s informative and lengthy notes, and this is a weighty and overdue reissue of what Chris Copping once called his favourite Procol record. It’s easy to agree. Recommended.