March 12, 2024

A milestone release in the history of progressive rock … a year before King Crimson’s debut, and at a time when Pink Floyd were still doing A Saucerful Of Secrets and The Nice had yet to formulate their Five Bridges suite, and yet we have an 18-minute multi-part epic here accompanied by a whole raft of clever, dramatic and beautifully arranged shorter songs.

I must confess, this was a release which immediately made my head pop up like a meerkat when I heard about it. I’ve been a Procol Harum fan for just about 50 years now, since I got both a budget compilation and also a second-hand copy of Exotic Birds And Fruit back in the mid-1970s. Obviously since then I’ve owned the albums in different formats, including the Esoteric deluxe CD reissue of this one from a few years ago, but I have to confess I’ve never had Shine On Brightly on vinyl. In fact, come to that, I’ve never actually seen a copy of the original 1968 US gatefold release (different in design to the UK version which had a nice front cover, but no gatefold and the rather shoddy rear cover design still typical of the time). Normally I like to see original UK designs used for reissues by British bands, and vice versa for US bands, but in this case the decision is absolutely the right one, and makes this a real prize for many UK fans who, like me, have never had this in their collection. Plus the fact, of course, that the US release came three months before the UK got it…

It has to be said that, especially for its time, this album was and remains a milestone release in the history of progressive rock – something which Procol Harum, and their undeserved ‘one hit wonder’ tag which always followed them around, never really got enough credit for. This, remember, is 1968, a year before King Crimson’s debut, and at a time when Pink Floyd were still doing A Saucerful Of Secrets and The Nice had yet to formulate their Five Bridges suite, and yet we have an 18-minute multi-part epic here accompanied by a whole raft of clever, dramatic and beautifully arranged shorter songs. The progression from Procol’s own debut album the year before is enormous in itself, and in Robin Trower, Matthew Fisher and Gary Brooker, they had among the most distinctive guitar, organ and vocal sounds to be found anywhere. And this album, certainly for me, is the point where it all came together – the most consistently impressive of their studio releases until well into the ’70s, and even then arguably more so. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, let’s have a look at what was, and still is, on offer here.

The no less surreal rear gatefold…

This is, of course, a replica vinyl reissue, so there are no bonus tracks to contend with here, rather simply the original album ‘as nature intended’, and while previous CD reissues have benefitted by the addition of the odd gem such as In The Wee Small Hours Of Sixpence or Monsieur Armande, what’s here still stands up very very well on its own. The first side opens in glorious fashion with the one-two hit of the scandalously unsuccessful single Quite Rightly So and the timeless title track Shine On Brightly. Quite Rightly So opens with a marvellous swell of the organ from Matthew Fisher and, although it is a downbeat tale of lost love, the music remains soaringly uplifting in its way, without compromising the lyric. It’s one of Procol’s really underrated classics, without doubt, and sits easily alongside the successful hit singles Whiter Shade Of Pale and Homburg. If that opened things in a grand and majestic manner, however, Shine On Brightly takes it on and runs with it to another level entirely, from Trower’s still-amazingly huge-sounding chiming guitar riff to the massive organ-driven chorus. And snaking right through the middle of both tracks is Gary Brooker’s unique and peerless voice – one of the top echelon of rock singers who can be picked out immediately whatever he is singing. The ahead-of-its-time ‘prog’ content is ramped up with the bizarre yet brilliant Skip Softly (My Moonbeams), which opens as a slight yet jolly sort of tune before switching halfway through as Trower delivers a dramatic solo like a man possessed, and the band kick up their heels and follow him. Finally, as if that wasn’t enough for the one song, it all ends up with a manic sort of ‘rave up’ vamp on Sabre Dance. All in less than four minutes!

If there is a slight dip it comes at this point, as Wish Me Well lumbers along unspectacularly in a sort of bluesy plod. It’s definitely the weak link here – one thing Procol Harum rarely excelled at was the blues, which didn’t stop them trying. The side closer Rambling On, however, is much better. A truly surreal tale involving a man who, inspired by a Batman film, elects to get a pair of wings and head to a tall building. He is told by a concerned citizen that this is, in fact, A Bad Idea, as a crowd gathers, and he feels he has to go through with it so he leaps. And flies. For seemingly several miles before a passing bird pecks at his wings with malice aforethought, and he plunges to unexplained miraculous survival at ‘the speed of sound’. I’m sure it’s some sort of allegory for something – although lyricist Keith Reid did tend to write some unintelligible twaddle at times – but somehow the chorus still manages to be inspiringly uplifting melodically once again. The title seems odd until the coda which consists mainly of repetitions of ‘I’m rambling on’, which fades to a false ending before returning with renewed, and catchy, force. It’s utterly barking mad, of course, but it works despite, or perhaps because of that

The striking, though non-gatefold, UK cover

Another short track opens the second side, with Magdalene (My Regal Zonophone) being named after the band’s original record company, the EMI imprint Regal Zonophone. It’s another very nice song, but seems to exist as a sort of curtain-raiser to the real main course, the 18-minute, five-part In Held Twas In I. The meaningless title actually derives from the first word of the lyric of each of the five parts, but that doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that this is a piece crafted a full four years before its spiritual successor Supper’s Ready – and if Genesis ever claimed not to have listened to this then a mass chorus of ‘liar liar, pants on fire’ would honestly be the only reasonable response. The opening part, Glimpses Of Nirvana, features some spoken-word poetry, which manages at different times to appear deep and meaningful and yet also a sharp parody of the earnest sort of verse the Moody Blues would deliver, for example. Twas Tea-Time At The Circus provides the blueprint for the Supper’s Ready interlude Willow Farm, while the big finish of Look To Your Soul leading into Grand Finale also points the way in terms of mood to the climax of that piece. It’s hard to glean any sort of coherent meaning to the whole thing as I see it, despite different suggested interpretations over the years, but that was often the case with Procol (I once had the privilege of interviewing Gary Brooker not too long before his passing, and he admitted that he had no clue about Keith Reid’s words much of the time – and when I enquired why he didn’t ask him, his reply was that he was ‘scared to know the answer’!) This really isn’t too important, however – it can mean whatever you want it to mean to yourself, or it can mean nothing, but the piece remains one of the most influential compositions of the 1960s in terms of the development of progressive rock. A fact restated when the supergroup Transatlantic did their own version on their debut album. The definitive rendition of the piece is arguably on the later Procol album Live With The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, but it’s fine margins, and this was the groundbreaker.

Along with the surreally nonsensical yet atmospheric photos on the front and back of this US facsimile, you also get the inner spread with another band photo (monochrome, holding sparklers), the lyrics of Quite Rightly So and Magdalene, the credits, and finally the original line notes by vintage US rock critic Paul Williams – though he does drone on remarkably oddly about The Band, and the influence Procol Harum apparently had on their first album (given that Tbe Band defined the New Americana, while Procol Harum were about as English as Test Match Special on BBC Radio, this seems rather like claiming that house bricks were influenced by feathers, but what do I know?)

This is a splendid reissue all told. English buyers get the less familiar cover, and the gatefold; the art can be appreciated as it was meant to be in full size; and finally and most importantly, it sounds crystal clear, as good as any CD transfer I’ve heard, and superior to the vinyl versions of some tracks I previously had on compilations. Any serious devotee of progressive rock, or student of rock history, needs this album. It is crminially undervalued in many circles, and that’s a real shame which should be redressed. Timeless.