Omnibus Press 2013
One of the greatest rock enigmas gets dissected but not entirely deciphered as befits a legend.
A song might be both a blessing and a curse, especially for those who penned and perform it, and no-one knows that better than PROCOL HARUM who stormed onto the music map just before the Summer of Love with “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” which, since then, has become a part of many a life. And that’s about the only aspect of it that Henry Scott-Irvine doesn’t explicitly touch upon in his brilliant, albeit nor perfect, biography of the British band. He gets it wrong from the off, from the book’s title, because spectral apparitions reflect something or someone that’s gone yet fails to fade out, while the collective created by Gary Brooker and Keith Reid still play somewhere out there, and it’s this wrongness running throughout their four-decade-plus career that makes “The Ghosts” such an interesting read.
Built chronologically, with a chapter per album for the most part, it offers both a story of the ensemble and analysis of their songs. And it is far from boring because the author carefully stays away from getting his own opinion across and relies on other journalists and, so crucially, on the musicians themselves who give the pieces’ background, whereas Scott-Irvine artfully constructs it all in such a way that his reader’s bound to dust off a copy of, say, "Something Magic" to listen to the familiar compositions with an enriched knowledge. Myth-busting in play, now we know the fate of Liquorice John and the “Souvenir Of London” provenance: it’s about a venereal disease, after all, whereas some questions are left unanswered, like what was the reason for “Il Tuo Diamante,” an Italian version of “Shine On Brightly,” or why the band had re-record all of the "Grand Hotel" if they needed to change guitar parts only.
Also beyond the scope remained an anecdote of guitarist Dave Ball’s “beheading” on the cover of the latter LP, as well the depiction of much more shenanigans that were there save for the ones that do get honorable mention in the book, including the invention of a cocktail called “Toujour L’Amour” that saw PROCOL take to the Japanese stage in a rather adventurous state. It’s very strange, then, to see in a tome as exhaustive as this, and with so considerable an input from the key players, a phrase “according to some accounts” regarding Brooker’s potential stint with THE HOLLIES. The author’s account is quite straight anyway, and not only calendar-wise; he firmly keeps in focus the main line, the group’s communal existence and, while weaving in notes on the musicians’ solo projects, doesn’t distract the reader from his collective protagonist. When their precursors, THE PARAMOUNTS’ gigs are listed, fatigue may set it between the lines, yet such an approach perfectly conveys – as many other passages do for other related subjects – the tiredness felt by the band in their pursuit of fame and fortune, which came with that song.
“Pale” is “the most out there” PROCOL’s creation, in Brooker’s words, and the author quietly, if relentlessly, dispels the misconception of the ensemble as prog rock avatars: despite Reid’s often cryptic imagery and a distinctive piano-and-organ template, the group have always been a rhythm-and-blues combo. Perhaps, that’s why, in getting to the meaning of their perennial classic, the author quotes an extraneous critic at length whose guess of what the song’s about is as good as any – among speculations of the vestal virgins numbers there’s not a thought of the “sixteen” phonetic layer – and it’s here that Scott-Irvine’s own thoughts would be welcome. Once he gets personal, talking of his encounters with the group, it’s riveting; opting for the universal drift, though, he sometimes lapses into a fan-betraying superlatives, a needless embellishment given that the highest praise for the band is not even the overtures from Martin Scorsese and Alan Parker, but this book itself.
Cinematic aspect is scrutinized here in excessive detail that takes in the movies’ summary and elevating Brooker’s part in “Evita” to a co-star status, yet it’s all a part of the “Pale” legacy as the author sees it. But it’s there, towards the book’s end, that the quality begins to slip, particularly when the song’s covers by Glenn Hughes and Dick Heckstall-Smith are concerned – and if not the mentioning of MANASSAS, we wouldn’t have known of Stephen Stills’ role in the PROCOL story for he’s called “Steven” on the page – with some of the text overlapping with the tome’s appendices. More so, another part of this legacy is a lawsuit filed against Reid and Brooker by original organist Matthew Fisher who won a copyright percentage once the case reached The House Of Lords. But ultimately it only goes to show the impact the band’s had on a modern culture.
At about 300 pages, this book looks like a mere skeleton of what Henry Scott-Irvine’s able to come up with to flesh out for there’s much more mysteries in PROCOL HARUM’s closet; a skeleton, or a ghost, indeed, as the music which rises from the paper can haunt you for ages.