November 1, 2020

Ah, here we get onto one of those albums which has accrued a reputation as one of those ‘unloved stepchild’ albums, through a mixture of material, circumstances and timing. And sometimes, as in the case of ELP’s Love Beach, the cover art! In that regard this, the final Procol album before their initial split in 1977, is in good company. Most major bands have at least one locked up in the attic and fed with raw meat: Queen with Hot Space, Yes with Tormato, ELP with the aforementioned Love Beach, Genesis with Invisible Touch, Gentle Giant with Giant For A Day, Jethro Tull with Under Wraps, Metallica with St Anger, Uriah Heep with High And Mighty… to a greater or lesser extent, they divide the fans and critics alike between a minority of lovers and a pitchfork-wielding mob of detractors. Procol’s example is a particularly extreme one, however, as not only was the album critically mauled with a ferocity normally reserved for feeding time in the lion enclosure, it even earned itself the nickname of ‘Something Tragic’, which has weighed it down for the last four decades. The collapse of the band soon afterward was not entirely unrelated. So, with this expanded and remastered reissue, is it time to reappraise the album, and remove the ‘tragic’ label at last? The answer is, partly yes – though not without some reservations.

One of the striking images from the package

One thing which certainly isn’t a factor this time is the cover design, which is a rather splendidly surreal gatefold illustrating a headless woman on the deck of a ship with a goldfish bowl floating away, as if some bizarre kind of space helmet. It’s the kind of picture which screams ‘prog’ at you, and it still looks classy. No, the kicking it received can partly be put down to some weak material, but largely down to the fact that a new Procol Harum album, with an 18-minute piece filling one whole side, was as welcome in the climate of 1977 as a mouse in your bacon sandwich. The critics dropped it and ran, shrieking ‘take it away, take it away!’, which kind of doomed it. The fans’ reaction would have saved it if it had been a misunderstood classic, but few could make that claim either. No, this was in fact a decent enough album which had some great material but had to be exceptional to thrive in the prevailing conditions.

We will come to the 18-minute ‘epic elephant in the room’ in a moment, but the first half of the album is made up of five shorter songs, and is a mixed bag. The title track opens things up in great fashion, with some of the old Procol fairydust about it in its magisterial swagger. There’s a bit of a dip, however, with the next track Skating On Thin Ice, which is an orchestrated waltz-time ballad which is slightly too laboured in its execution for its own good. I’ll say it again – an orchestrated waltz-time ballad in the year of Pretty Vacant and God Save The Queen. It was never going to fly, and even now it outstays its welcome a little, pleasantly done as it is. The worst offender, however, is the single Wizard Man, which was added to the album so late that it was left off the cover and label tracklisting, and announced by a hastily printed fake sticker on the front. It should have stayed off, frankly, being a would-be good-time rocker with handclaps and cheesy backing vocals which is really something to skip once you’ve heard it once – though it is mercifully short!

Things pick up after this, however, with the final two songs closing things on something of a high. The splendidly titled Mark Of The Claw was guitarist Mick Grabham’s first (and last) ever composition for the band, and it’s a nice moody, slow rocker built around an insistent and creepy guitar riff. The final minute has a stop-start section with the riff interrupted by noises ranging from creaking doors to a woman’s scream. Great stuff, although those effects should have been mixed rather louder to increase the effect. The closing Strangers In Space may be a little overlong at six minutes plus, but it is a beautifully atmospheric piece conveying the feeling of being alone and adrift, and it is easy to find yourself getting lost in it. It isn’t spectacular, there are no big crescendos or booming codas here, but it is quietly very effective at what it does. Now, however, we come to the point where the album would be flipped over and many of the troubles began.

Procol Harum, 1977

The Worm And The Tree, all eighteen minutes and three sections of it, consists of a seven verse poem by lyricist Keith Reid which is recited rather than sung by Gary Brooker, one verse at a time, with the spaces in between filled with different instrumental musical sections. The poem, literally about a large worm infesting a tree and killing it, only to be destroyed by fire so that other trees may be reborn, depends very much on your sense of fantasy and whimsy. Some will see it as an entertaining fairy tale story which very probably has deeper metaphorical and allegorical meaning, but others (and there were legions of these) will find it to be aimless twaddle. Personally, I lean toward the former camp: it’s well recited by Brooker, entertaining to listen to, and fun to probe for a deeper meaning in the listener’s imagination. Might have been better sung, but that isn’t a deal-breaker. Musically, however, this is much, much better than its reputation. There are great musical ideas going on here, from the keyboard passages of Part One to the powerful guitar work of Part Two and the big finish of Part Three. If nothing else it was a hugely courageous move to attempt this at the time, and to these ears it is a very enjoyable epic to sink into. I applaud it, without doubt, and regard it as the high point of the album. Three bonus tracks have been added for this release: Backgammon was the unremarkable instrumental B-side to Wizard Man, while two unused demos crop up in the shape of the fiddle-driven hoedown of This Old Dog and the real jewel in the crown which is You’d Better Wait, a classic Procol track which would have improved the album enormously in place of the already hastily-added Wizard Man.

A second disc here contains a BBC In Concert recording of a show in London, which is well worth having. Featuring the whole album, except for The Worm And The Tree, and also a rollicking This Old Dog, it also ladles on the classics with Conquistador, Nothing But The Truth, Grand Hotel, Pandora’s Box and a closing Whiter Shade Of Pale. Something Magic and Mark Of The Claw are stronger than their album counterparts, while Strangers In Space, despite not really being suited to the live environment, includes some superb guitar work from Grabham.

All of the original artwork is included here, with a poster displaying the illustrated verses of The Worm And The Tree from the album inner gatefold in all its glory, while the accompanying booklet contains an essay with new interviews with Brooker and Reid shedding light on all of the twists, turns and difficulties of the recording. The album is remastered as well, and sounds excellent. With the live show added on, and the sumptuous packaging, this is the time to revisit this album and reassess it with the benefit of time and hindsight. If you’re one of those who always liked this, it’s never been better. If you happen to be one of those Procol fans who shied away or wrote this off quickly first time around – give it some open ears. It may not be entirely magical, but there is certainly little hint of tragedy here. File under ‘definitely underrated’.