Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Band Named For A Cat: Procol Harum

As I have often mentioned those who have exposed me to various musicians and musical styles, I again invoke the name of Jim Roach of WDVE. Jim’s Sunday night program that featured 3 hours of music from one artist was listened to religiously, taped completely, and later played enthusiastically. At the time Jim featured Procol Harum, I was familiar with their two biggest American singles and had just received a copy of their fourth album, “Home.” The show provided me an opportunity to expand my horizons of a band that happened to be named for a cat.

Yes, believe it or not, Procol Harum was named for a friend’s Burmese cat. A bit stranger than a band being named Procol Harum is the fact that someone named a cat after a poor Latin translation of “beyond these things.” The band burst on the scene with a classically influenced sound at the same time as their American label mates, the Moody Blues. Incidentally, Procol Harum may have been the first band to incorporate a lyricist (Keith Reid) as full member of the band – this was two years before King Crimson did the same with Pete Sinfield.

A Whiter Shade of Pale

Released in 1967, Procol Harum's best known recording, “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” was based on Bach’s Cantata #140. The LP and single were the only Procol Harum American releases on London Record’s subsidiary label -- Deram.

London (Decca UK, Ltd.) was given the opportunity to release the album in the US after Capitol waived its rights. The LP was originally released in the UK by Regal Zonophone, one of Capitol’s sister EMI labels. A&M picked up the option beginning with the single “Homburg” and continued as their US label through 1972. I found this album in the cut out bin in the mid 70s.

“A Whiter Shade of Pale” predominately features the Hammond B3 organ of Matthew Fisher and the piano and vocals of Gary Brooker. The combination of keyboard instruments proved that you could have piano and organ without a church service. It was a number one hit in the UK and peaked at #5 in the US and may be the only song most people think of when they hear the name of the band.

Here’s a live version from December 2003; it was organist Matthew Fisher's last concert performance with the band. His use of glissando effects and the speeding up and slowing down of the Leslie rotating speaker (that big cabinet to his right) is awesome.

A year after leaving the band a second time, Matthew Fisher sued Gary Brooker for 50% of the music composer’s royalties for the song (25% of the writer’s share). From 1967, only Brooker and Reid were credited with writing “Whiter Shade of Pale” and each received 50% of the writing royalties. One would be hard pressed, however, not to see Fisher’s contribution to the tune.

The court ruled in Fisher’s favor, but only granted him 40% of the composer’s royalties (20% of the total writing royalties). In addition, the royalties could only be back dated to when he originally filed suit - 2005.

In an appeal by Brooker, the court upheld the writer’s credits for Fisher, but denied him any royalties as he had waited 38 years to file. Fisher appealed to the House of Lords in 2009 and that body upheld the original ruling reinstating Fisher’s right to receive royalties from 2005.


Released also in 1967, Procol Harum’s follow-up single “Homburg” was not originally issued on an album, but later appeared on several compilations. The song was criticized for sounding like their previous single, but it managed to score a top ten hit in Britain; however, it only charted at #34 in the US. It is not generally known in America and I heard it first on Jim Roach’s show back in 1973.

I always felt that Alice Cooper ripped off part of “Homburg’s” verse melody for his 1975 hit “Only Women.” By the way, a “homburg” is a felt hat with a crease down the crown’s center and a curled brim. It was named for Bad Homburg in Hesse Darmstadt, Germany where King Edward VII frequented the town's spa.

A Salty Dog

The title cut from their nautical themed third album, “A Salty Dog” is one of my favorite pieces by the band. Matthew Fisher produced this LP - his last with the band until he later rejoined in 1991.

There was something about this nautical theme that I really liked. I didn’t know at the time I first heard this tune, but my third great-grandfather was a decorated British naval officer during the Napoleonic wars and the War of 1812. My love of this song must have been something genetic.

A Salty Dog: William Owston (1778-1857) Royal Navy Master

I will have to commend the creator of the video by synchronizing the lyrics to corresponding scenes from “The Bounty.” Very appropriate – indeed.

Nothing That I Didn’t Know

Procol Harum’s fourth LP “Home” was the first album by the band that I ever owned.  When their albums are discussed, it is generally not considered one of their best; however, I feel that it is a masterpiece that shows a variety of musical styles to which the band was able to adapt.  I will agree that the cover art is not the best and this may be why the album is largely ignored.

I love this very sad, sad song. While it has a depressing theme, it shows that they can almost be an acoustic band as well as a classically progressive band. Bassist Chris Copping plays organ in place of Fisher who exited the band prior to this LP.

Simple Sister

Procol Harum’s fifth LP “Broken Barricades” from 1971 is usually hailed as their best – it rocks. Guitarist Robin Trower really shines and shows that he has begun to develop the style that would be exhibited on his solo albums and with BLT over the next 15 years.

This was my third PH album. I had an 8-track version of it that I got with a number of other tapes after I bought a 1976 Chevy Monte Carlo loaded with an 8-track player.


The second best known Procol Harum tune was a song that originally appeared on their debut LP in 1967, but was not released as a single until 1972. The ’72 version was a live recording with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra at the Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium in Edmonton, Alberta. The live orchestra really makes this tune. According to Keith Reid, it was one of the few Procol Harum songs in which the music was composed prior to the authoring of the lyrics.

“Procol Harum Live with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra” was the band’s best selling LP and was their only RIAA certified gold album in the US. The single placed at #16 on Billboard’s Hot 100 Charts, while it only reached #22 in their homeland.

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