/ 31 May 2012

A darker shade of rock

Procol Harum's Whiter Shade of Pale.
Procol Harum's Whiter Shade of Pale.

You all should know A Whiter Shade of Pale with its enigmatic, semiliterary lyrics and descending, Bach-like bass figure. But does anyone in the country except me cherish Procol Harum’s other material, including 13 studio albums over 45 years?

The innovative progressive-rock outfit was the main reason to pay good money for the “British Invasion” concerts this weekend — until, that is, the band’s lead singer and founder member, Gary Brooker, severely injured himself after a fall in Cape Town on Tuesday night. He was reported to be in a serious but stable condition.

It is a frank obscenity that the tour has been constructed around those low-talent, high-bombast, part-time hippies, the Moody Blues (although the remaining act, 10cc, are, or were, experimental, tongue-in-cheek art rockers that command some respect).

Rolling Stone got it right when it blasted the Moody Blues for having “relentlessly purveyed nonsense … were it not for the titanic success (70-million sales worldwide) they might easily be dismissed as an odd, overlong joke”. Like Neil Diamond and Bryan Adams, the lush rockers tap straight into the South African white music market’s inner Twakkie.

Procol is a much more challenging, harder-edged proposition. Having passed through many permutations, the band now features just two of its founder members: poet and full-time lyricist Keith Reid and long-time keeper of the flame, Brooker, ace keyboard man and possessor of the blues-soaked baritone that lends Whiter Shade its weird appeal.

Key influences in shaping both progressive rock and symphonic rock in the late 1960s and early 1970s, ­Procol draw on baroque harmony — but their R&B roots, particularly in their acclaimed first two albums, tend to counterbalance any Muse-style descent into the soft-focus, portentous and overblown. Many of their best songs have a stripped-down, hard-driving quality.

The classical infusion also came via Matthew Fisher, Brooker’s intermittent collaborator on organ and, more recently, antagonist in a royalties battle that saw Fisher’s famous ­countermelody in Whiter Shade ring out at the courts of the Old Bailey.

Also central to Procol’s early sound was Robin Trower, whose psychedelic, blues-tinged Fender Strat guitar work drew on, and has been compared with, that of Jimi Hendrix.

Complementing Brooker’s baleful vocals and Fisher’s cathedral organ is the gothic gloom of Reid’s lyrics, whose relentless pessimism makes a bracing contrast with the limp-dick meanderings of Moody Blues’s Justin Hayward.

Procol may have let their hair down and worn floral shirts, but they never quite bought into the hope- and-dope world view — lyrics such as “Lonely in the dark I grope/ the keys in my kaleidoscope” (Kaleidoscope) and “Heaped-up leaves of bitterness/ grow mouldy down the years” (Nothing but the Truth) point to an altogether darker sensibility.

In 2001 Brooker was photographed with his fellow band members, a grey head among musicians half his age. Here’s hoping he recovers to lead the band to its 50th anniversary.