Posts Tagged ‘Procol Harum’

‘The Room Was Humming Harder . . .’

October 8, 2019

Sometime recently – and I cannot provide anything more specific – a television show I was watching with the Texas Gal used for its background music Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade Of Pale.” Hearing it reminded me of this piece; it ran here twelve years ago this week. It’s been condensed and revised a little bit.

It was the summer of 1967, and I was doing my normal eight-week stint in summer school, an enrichment program designed to provide kids a chance to learn things they wouldn’t be exposed to during the school year. So, just as I had for the nine months preceding, I spent another two months hauling myself every day to the bus stop a block north of our house and riding the two miles to South Junior High for mornings of enrichment.

On one of my rides home during that summer, someone had a radio on the bus tuned to one of the two Twin Cities’ Top 40 stations, almost certainly KDWB. This might have been a regular thing, music in the back of the bus, but I’m not sure. What I am certain of is that I listened with the other kids that day as the radio played the strangest-sounding song any of us had maybe ever heard.

It began with a ponderous and spooky organ solo, with drums and cymbals providing punctuation. And then a reedy voice entered: “We skipped the light fandango, turned cartwheels ’cross the floor . . .” It was, of course, Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”

We looked at each other, then back at the radio as the voice went on to tell a surreal tale in a setting that combined the ancient world with the medieval, although I doubt that any of us could place it that accurately back then; we just knew it wasn’t in our time, what with vestal virgins and the miller’s tale.

What did it mean? We had no idea, but it sure was strange . . . and cool. We liked it a lot, even I, who was still a couple of years away from digging very deeply into pop and the Top 40. Over the years, the meaning of the words – written by Keith Reid – has been assessed maybe way too many times. At its website, Procol Harum provides a link to a discussion of the lyrics, where listeners and fans – who seem to call themselves “Palers” – indulge themselves in deep and far-fetched theorizing.

The last word on the lyrics, it would seem, comes from the top of that page of theories, where one finds organist Matthew Fisher’s comment from an interview with the BBC:

“I don’t know what they mean. It’s never bothered me that I don’t know what they mean. This is what I find rather hard, that, especially in America, people are terribly hung up about lyrics and they’ve got to know what they mean, and they say, ‘I know, I’ve figured out what these lyrics mean.’ I don’t give a damn what they mean. You know, they sound great . . . that’s all they have to do.”

The song was so odd, so different from anything on radio at the time, that beyond its lyrics, it spawned another discussion: Where did the music come from? Was it a lift from a classical piece? If so, which one? (Something by Bach was always considered most likely.)

I recall reading a piece about the song that included a quotation from a fellow who at the time was a classical music critic for a London newspaper. He said that he and a colleague spent an entire morning whistling the melody from “A Whiter Shade of Pale” back and forth to each other before deciding that it probably wasn’t Bach but a theme that sounded very much like his work.

And that’s pretty much the case. At the Procol Harum website, there’s an excerpt from a radio interview with Fisher in which he notes that the song certainly refers to two Bach pieces but is nevertheless an original work. Those pieces are “Air for the G String” and the choral piece titled in English “Sleepers, Awake!” (For those so inclined, the Procol Harum website also provides a link to Bach expert Bernard S. Greenberg’s formal analysis of “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and its links to the two Bach pieces.)

Of course, the other bus riders and I didn’t know all that as we listened for the first time to “A Whiter Shade of Pale” on that bus carrying us home from summer school. It was just a cool song. And it still is. It’s also a popular song for cover versions: The website Second Hand Songs lists more than 170 covers by folks ranging from Noel Harrison, Flash Cadillac and R.B. Greaves to Annie Lennox, Bonnie Tyler and the Canadian Brass. (There are also several versions with the lyrics in French, Finnish, German and Swedish that I know I’m going to check out.)

Here’s Greaves’ version. It was released as an Atco single in late 1970 and spent two weeks in the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 82. I like it.

Saturday Single No. 554

August 19, 2017

I was short on time this morning, so I’m getting to this a bit late. I ran some errands, and I spent half an hour at our Unitarian Universalist Fellowship helping a handful of the fellowship’s children learn Ringo’s “Octopus’ Garden.” They’re going to lead the fellowship in singing the song during the first service of our new year in a few weeks.

Running late, then, I glanced at the Billboard Hot 100 for August 19, 1972, a date forty-five years now past (though it seems to me, as it no doubt does to many, as if it were 1972 just yesterday). The No. 1 record was Gilbert O’Sullivan’s omnipresent “Alone Again (Naturally).” And not a lot that followed in the Top 40 was unfamiliar, surprising or forgotten.

Then I got close to the middle of the chart, and what I noticed wasn’t surprising for its place in the chart, but it was surprising for what I learned about it moments later. Procol Harum’s live version of “Conquistador” was sitting at No. 46 on its way down the chart after peaking at No. 16, and I wondered when I’d last featured the track, which is one I liked a fair amount back in 1972.

And the answer? Never. And I’ve mentioned it only a handful of times.

Now, Procol Harum was never a favorite band of mine. I liked “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” when it came out of friends’ radios on its way to No. 5 in 1967. And when “Conquistador” came humming out of speakers during the summer of ’72, Procol Harum was still a mystery, a band that was more album rock than Top 40, and album rock was a territory I was only just beginning to explore.

So even though I liked the track, I didn’t run out and get the single or the album. I had other musical business at hand. That summer of 1972 saw me completing my Beatles collection and adding the double album Eric Clapton At His Best. And as it turned out, I didn’t get any Procol Harum until the 1990s, when I acquired the group’s 1967 self-titled debut, 1969’s A Salty Dog, and finally – in 1998 – the 1972 live album with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. None of those survived the Great Vinyl Selloff last winter, but I have most of it covered digitally and plan to get the rest (as well as more of the group).

Anyway, it was a nice reminder to see “Conquistador” listed in that long-ago chart, and it was – as I said – a surprise to see that I’d never featured it here. That neglect ends today, and Procul Harum’s “Conquistador” – recorded live with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra – is today’s Saturday Single.

Celebrating Vinyl At 45 RPM

July 27, 2011

Originally posted August 12, 2008

I thought hard as this summer meandered, trying to decide how to mark Vinyl Record Day 2008, the 131st anniversary of the invention of the phonograph by old Tom Edison. (A reminder: You can find updates on all the posts in today’s blogswarm at The Hits Just Keep On Comin’, whose proprietor, JB the DJ, organized the event this year and last. Thanks, JB!) The vast majority of my record collection is LPs, but I took an exhaustive (and likely exhausting, for many readers) tour through the albums last year, so finding a new hook for a post based on LPs seemed difficult at best.

Besides, as I’ve mentioned before, we’re planning to move, and I anticipated that the LPs would be packed before August 12. (And so they have been, filling about sixty liquor boxes.)

So I turned to the poor stepchildren of my record collection: my 45s. My singles are split into three groups: There are the four singles by the Beatles whose B-sides weren’t released on the original albums by the Fab Four on Capitol/Apple (a state of events I discussed during the celebration of last year’s Vinyl Record Day). There are about fifteen other singles that I prize for various reasons; they include a Danish 45, my copy of the Mystics’ 1969 regional hit, “Pain,” and some other stuff that rarely gets played but has sentimental value. And then there are the two carrying cases.

Those metal cases, eight-inch cubes with handles on top, are home to about a hundred singles. Some are remnants of my sister’s small collection in the early 1960s. Some of them were gifts from Leo Rau, the jukebox operator who lived across the alley when I was a kid. Some of them I got at a south Minneapolis garage sale during the 1990s when I bought one of the two carrying cases; I bought the case for a quarter and got about twenty 45s that were still inside. And some I got in one of those sequences that sometimes happen to collectors.

While I was working for the Eden Prairie newspaper during the early 1990s, I was assigned to write a story about a local organization called Bridging Inc. Its founder, a retired fellow named Fran Heitzman, showed me around a warehouse filled with furniture, household goods, clothing and more. The idea, he told me, was to provide a figurative bridge between folks in the generally well-off southwest suburbs who had things to donate and organizations elsewhere in the Twin Cities that served folks who needed things. Donations came into Bridging for a number of reasons: from people who redecorated and had used but good furniture to give away, from people who moved and had to downsize their household holdings, and – frequently – from sons and daughters whose parents had passed on and whose households were being dissolved.

The way it worked, Fran told me, was that an organization, maybe the Salvation Army in north Minneapolis, might need a double bed and two twin beds help to re-house a family. Workers at the Salvation Army would call Bridging, and Bridging would check its warehouse and – more often than not – be able to fill those needs. Fran had started Bridging on his own, and I marveled as we walked through the warehouse at the good work that one determined person can do. (In the fifteen or so years since then, the organization has grown, as one can see at its website.)

As we walked, I noticed several boxes of records, mostly LPs but some 45s. “People send you records?” I asked.

“Sometimes people clean out entire houses,” he said, “and we get everything they’ve got, including records. We can’t use them, of course.” I must have looked at him with a question on my face because he explained: “Well, the Salvation Army never calls us and says, ‘We have a family that needs some records.’”

“So what happens to them?”

He shrugged. “We throw them out.” I tried not to wince. I was there on assignment, after all. But Fran noticed. “You want them?”

I nodded, told him I was a collector, and he said that anytime Bridging got records in, he’d call me at my office. And for about four years – until shortly after I left the Eden Prairie paper and Fran cut back his hours at Bridging – I’d get a call every couple of months and stop by Bridging and pick up a box or two of records.

Mostly, it was LPs. Generally, about one-third of the records I got were things that I wanted for the collection, a third I already had, and a third didn’t really interest me. I’d pull out the stuff I wanted, sell a few things at Cheapo’s and then donate the remaining records to the Salvation Army store near my home. And along the way, I ended up with another metal carrying case and some 45s that came with it.

So, for this year’s celebration of Vinyl Record Day, I thought I’d dig through those two cases of 45s and see what might be interesting. As it turned out, some of the most interesting records are so hacked up that they’re unplayable: They include a four-song EP by Chuck Berry released on the Chess label in 1958 and a Fats Domino EP on Dot from 1957. But as I sorted through the boxes, I did find some stuff that was interesting. Some of it pleased the ear, and some of it brought winces.

So here’s a Baker’s Dozen of 45s, all ripped from vinyl, of course. There will be some noise here and there, but I think it’s worth it.

I have quite a few Herman’s Hermits’ singles in the boxes, most likely from the records I got from Leo Rau. I like a few of the band’s singles when they’re mixed in with other oldies, but Herman’s Hermits always seemed kind of lightweight. And then I flipped over one of the most lightweight singles the band ever did, “Dandy.” And I was pleasantly surprised. Speed on!

“My Reservation’s Been Confirmed” by Herman’s Hermits, MGM 13603, 1966

Another Rau record was one of those traditional pop numbers that sometimes showed up in the mid-1960s, this one squeezing its way onto the charts to No. 10, where it sat between Martha & the Vandellas and Gerry & the Pacemakers.

“Red Roses For A Blue Lady” by Vic Dana, Dolton 304, 1965

One of the silliest records in my collection – which I ripped some time ago when I moved it from the carrying case to the “sentimental favorites” shelf – was one my sister owned, having found it in one of those “ten 45s for $1.29” deals in 1963 or so. It spent two weeks at No. 2.

“Limbo Rock” by Chubby Checker, Parkway 849, 1962

And as long as we’re talking silly, here are the two of the numerous records by the Royal Guardsmen that were inspired by Snoopy the beagle, one of the central characters in Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, which was quite likely the most popular comic strip in the world in the mid-1960s. The first was No. 2 for four weeks and the second reached No. 15.

“Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron” by the Royal Guardsmen, Laurie 3366, 1966

“The Return of The Red Baron” by the Royal Guardsmen, Laurie 3379, 1967

Here’s another pair, two sides of a Beach Boys’ 45. The sound on these is not all that good, but I couldn’t resist sharing them anyway, as this might be the worst pair of songs ever released by a major band on one record. “Wild Honey” was the A-side and went to No. 31.

“Wild Honey” by the Beach Boys, Capitol 2028, 1967

“Wind Chimes” by the Beach Boys, Capitol 2028, 1967

I know it’s been released on CD, but I’m not sure that the B-side of Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” was ever released on an LP. (This was a Leo Rau record; sorry about the noise near the end.)

“Lime Street Blues” by Procol Harum, Deram 7507, 1967

With the remarkable exception of “You Don’t Own Me,” Lesley Gore spent a lot of time in the early 1960s trying to please boys, especially that rat Johnny, who made her cry at her own party and then dropped Judy to slink back to Lesley once she had a hit record. Here’s Lesley’s utterly non-feminist manifesto on how to excuse boys’ bad behavior. It went to No. 12.

“That’s The Way Boys Are” by Lesley Gore, Mercury 72259, 1964

The oldest single I found in those two cases was the most unhip and the most shameful. When rock ’n’ roll hit big in the mid-1950s, too many record companies had their white artists cover songs originally released by artists with darker skins. In this case, it didn’t work entirely: Pat Boone’s version of “Long Tall Sally” went to No. 8 on the fragmented charts of the time, but Little Richard’s original went to No. 6.

“Long Tall Sally” by Pat Boone, Dot 15457, 1956

The Four Aces had used their sweet pop harmonies to score seven hits between 1954 and 1956 on those same fragmented charts. They tried again in 1958, this time using the magic words “rock and roll” in an attempt to be unsquare. It didn’t work; the record did not chart.

“Rock and Roll Rhapsody” by the Four Aces, Decca 30575, 1958

The best record I found in the metal cases – even with a little bit of noise – was a B-side:

“Daddy Cool” by the Rays, Cameo 117, 1957

After I ripped it to vinyl, I noticed something I’d not seen the few other times I’d handled it. There was a name and address stamped on the record: “Clifford J——, 9145 Meadow View Road, Bloomington 20, Minnesota.”

The last name was not a common one. In fact, as I used an online search, I learned that there are only twenty folks listed with that name in Minnesota. One of those listed was Clifford, in the exurban city of Mound, west of Minneapolis. I dithered for a few days, then called Friday evening and left a message.

Saturday noon, I called again and left a more detailed message, explaining that I had a 45 with Clifford’s name on it. Within fifteen minutes the phone rang, and I found myself talking to Lloyd J. He told me Clifford had been his father, gone since 2004, but the record had been Lloyd’s.

“My dad had a stamp with his name and address,” Lloyd said, “and I used to stamp my records before parties and so on.”

I’d done some digging through the other 45s since I’d seen the stamped record, so I asked Lloyd, “Did your sister, Julie, mark hers with her name written on adhesive tape?” He laughed and said she had in fact done so, and I told him I’d found a couple of her records in my collection, too.

He said, “Julie was the one who cleaned out the house in Bloomington when Dad moved out, and I imagine she just gave everything away.”

“To Bridging?” I asked.

“Yes, to Fran Heitzman. He’s a long-time friend of the family.”

I thought to myself, “How circles sometimes close!” And then I asked Lloyd about records and rock ’n’ roll.

“I think between us,” he said, “we had seventy-five to a hundred records. That was when Elvis was big, and I remember the Crew Cuts, but they were a little earlier. I graduated from high school in 1960, and the records were [from when I was in] junior high school and high school, sock hops and so on.”

Now 66, Lloyd has spent his career in banking and stays involved in banks in Mound and in Delano, a small town west of Mound. “It gives me a place to pick up the mail,” he said with a laugh. And he still listens to music.

“I listen to the Fifties on my XM radio,” he said. “It’s still my favorite music. There was a piece on the news the other night about how music brings back memories more than anything, even pictures. And music does jog the memories.”

So what song remains Lloyd’s favorite from the Fifties?

“I don’t recall the title, but it was about the fellow out for a walk and the shades pulled down and he sees the couple inside . . .”

I nodded, and flipped over the 45 that Lloyd had stamped more than fifty years ago. “That’s the A-side of the record of yours that I have,” I told him.

“It’s still my favorite,” he said.

And here it is for you, Lloyd:

“Silhouettes” by the Rays, Cameo 117, 1957

Edited slightly on archival posting July 27, 2011; YouTube videos, which are not my rips, added February 26, 2014.

A Baker’s Dozen Of A&M Singles

June 27, 2011

Originally posted May 7, 2008

I remember being aware of three record labels when I was a young listener, between the ages of ten and thirteen. Not record labels as in business concerns but as in the designs on the paper at the center of the record, be it an LP or a 45.

There was the yellow and orange yin/yang swirl at the center of the one 45 I claimed ownership of (half ownership, actually, with my sister): the Beatles “I Want To Hold Your Hand/I Saw Her Standing There.” Other records to come would have that swirl, but that 45 in February 1964 was the first. (That swirl popped up the other day when I was wandering through the CD’s: Rhino copied it lovingly for its 1990 issue of The Rutles.)

Then there was the very old logo that RCA Victor used: the dog Nipper leaning over the Victrola, listening to “His Master’s Voice.” (There truly was a Nipper who listened to the gramophone; some of his story is told here.) The label RCA used was a little cluttered: Nipper and his Victrola and the LP’s title were above the spindle hole with data to either side of the hole and track listings and more data below. That was the label on my copy of Al Hirt’s Honey In The Horn, which came to me for my eleventh birthday.

And finally, the third of the labels I was aware of early on was on A&M records, the company started by Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss. Looking today at the design on the first A&M record I owned – Whipped Cream & Other Delights by Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass – I’m impressed by its clean look: the tan background, the very simple A&M logo. (The example shown here is from another album, obviously. As I don’t have a scanner, I find graphics where I can on the ’Net; this one came from BSN Publications, a treasure trove of LP discographies and history, including the histories of many label designs.)*

I don’t know that I had a favorite at the time, but it was during this period – the years from eleven to thirteen – that I began to play around with designing logos for imaginary sports teams, and in doing so, I began to look at typography and design. (Somewhere in a box in the closet is a folder full of logos that came from my pen.) And I recall looking at the A&M label one day and pondering its design as the sounds of Herb and the boys came from the stereo. I’m sure I came to no conclusions, except perhaps the one that might matter most of all: A nice label design is good, but it’s even better when it comes with good music.

And over the years A&M did pretty well with that, as today’s Baker’s Dozen shows.

A Baker’s Dozen of A&M Singles
“This Guy’s In Love With You” by Herb Alpert, A&M 929, 1968

“I Wonder What She’s Doing Tonite” by Boyce & Hart, A&M 893, 1968

“You Are So Beautiful” by Joe Cocker, A&M 1641, 1974

“Is She Really Going Out With Him” by Joe Jackson, A&M 2132, 1979

“Superstar” by the Carpenters, A&M 1289, 1971

“Take The Long Way Home” by Supertramp, A&M 2193, 1979

“Come Saturday Morning” by the Sandpipers, A&M 1134, 1967

“The Captain Of Her Heart” by Double, A&M 2838, 1986

“Homburg,” by Procol Harum, A&M 885, 1968

“Hold On Loosely” by 38 Special, A&M 2316, 1981

“Memphis In The Meantime” by John Hiatt, A&M 2989, 1987

“Don’t You Want Me Baby” by Human League, A&M 2397, 1982

“Strawberry Letter 23” by the Brothers Johnson, A&M 1949, 1977

A few notes:

Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart were better known as a song-writing team than as performers, although “I Wonder . . .” went to No. 8 in early 1968 and was the second of three Top 40 hits for the duo. The LP, titled after the single, seems to be a collector’s item, at least in some circles. I had a copy of it under my arm at Cheapo’s one day in the 1990s, and an eccentric collector followed me around the store for a few moments, asking to look at the record and gushing, when I did, “Do you know how rare this is? What a prize this is?” He handed it back, and I said, “I do now.”

“You Are So Beautiful” is not my favorite among Joe Cocker’s singles on A&M. I would probably opt for “Cry Me A River,” taken from the Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour. But “You Are So Beautiful” is what popped up in a random run of A&M singles. And it did pretty well, reaching No. 5 in the early months of 1975. It was Cocker’s eighth Top 40 single in a little more than five years; it would be his last until he hit No. 1 seven years later with his duet with Jennifer Warnes: “Up Where We Belong.”

I always thought of Joe Jackson as a weird guy who could never figure out what kind of songs he wanted to sing. It wasn’t until years later that I realized that his constant changes were indicative of an inventive mind rather than a lost musician. The new wave textures of “Is She Really Going Out With Him” didn’t grab me much at the time, but then, I was beginning to lose interest in most pop music in 1979. It’s pretty clear to me now that all of Jackson’s oeuvre has had a longer shelf life than much of the stuff that surrounded him at the time.

It was incredibly unhip to like the Carpenters when they came on the scene in the early 1970s. With their squeaky clean image and their music sitting on the softest part possible of the pop-rock sofa, they seemed like what our parents would want us to listen to. But Richard Carpenter was a pretty decent arranger: Some of his work is a bit busy and some a little too gooey today, but most of it now sounds quite good. And Karen Carpenter – poor girl – had a marvel of a voice. I don’t think that “Superstar” is her best performance – I’d probably go with “Goodbye To Love” instead – but she does find the lonely heart of the Leon Russell/Bonnie Bramlett song here.

On those nights when cares and worries keep you up past midnight with the radio playing softly underneath your dismay, the last thing you need to hear filtering from the speakers is Double’s great record, “The Captain Of Her Heart.” The only hit ever for the Swiss duo of Felix Haug and Kurt Maloo (No. 16), the song is guaranteed to increase the intensity of those cares and worries, especially if they’re of the romantic kind. (During the years when I had those kinds of nighttime cares and worries, I generally endured them in silence, just to avoid this sort of song.)

“Hold On Loosely” was 38 Special’s first Top 40 hit, coming before the group dropped the decimal point from its name. It’s a song I wasn’t all that familiar with until the Twin Cities oldies station I listen to shifted its format about a year and a half ago, adding hits and album tracks from the Eighties and trimming the Fifties and Sixties playlists. Angry calls and emails, along with declining ratings, spurred the station to revert to its earlier format not long ago. But “Hold On Loosely” stays in my RealPlayer because the Texas Gal likes it.

It’s entirely possible that some of these mp3s are album versions rather than single edits. If so, I apologize. As always, bit rates will vary.

*At this time, while assembling the archive of posts, I do have a scanner, but several attempts to scan labels on LPs have failed, so I pulled a scan I found online although not, this time, at Both Sides NowNote added June 27, 2011.