2 January 2016
This is hardly the first review of this now 3-year-old hardcover book. The excellent quasi-official Procol Harum website ‘Beyond the Pale’ lists (at this writing) no less than 19 links to reviews, Amazon and other comments, interviews and other features relating to it, with many more “promised,” so I’m not going to be adding much.
Ghosts is a straightforward chronological account of the life of this enigmatic, fluid (i.e., membership-wise), confounding, wonderful, genre-defying English band. They were founded in early 1967 out the ashes of the Paramounts, one of Britain’s best (and least-known) R&B bands from Southend-On-Sea, an Essex seaside resort town about an hour out of London by train; the town boasts “the longest pleasure pier in the world” and now, I suppose, also boasts that several of their young citizens went on to considerable fame. The Paramounts recorded a couple of dozen songs over their brief career (notably "Poison Ivy"), paying their dues in small local clubs, played further afield, endearing themselves to many fans in south and central England. Their reputation grew to the point of being recognized by the Rolling Stones as their “favourite R&B group” (besides themselves, we presume).
It’s been nearly 50 years since the band was formed after the demise of the Paramounts; briefly, leader Gary Brooker was paired with a young lyric songwriter named Keith Reid, and contracted to write music to Reid’s words (the arrangement not unlike the Elton John-Bernie Taupin collaboration). One of their early efforts (A Whiter Shade of Pale – aka AWSoP) impressed the music publisher, and in early 1967, it was first recorded, and then released as a single mid-year. This is the start of the story as related by Henry Scott-Irvine: although Chapter 1 covers the Paramounts period, it’s really at Chapter 2 the story of Procol Harum starts, and in turn it’s really AWSoP that kicks that story off. AWSoP is a classical example of something being both a blessing and a curse: a blessing, as it vaulted Procol to fame - AWSoP became ubiquitous during the Summer of Love, virtually defining those heady (intentional pun) days. But … also a curse, in that they were never really able to “live it down.” It became Procol’s Citizen Kane, in a way, starting them at the top with the smash hit, which was followed by an eponymous album release in the UK which, bafflingly, did not include the hit single, ensuring its commercial demise. As with Orson Welles’ movies after Citizen Kane, their later music was well respected, but with rare exceptions, unsuccessful commercially. Lots of critical acclaim and peer acknowledgement, especially early on: their next three albums especially were masterpieces, with subsequent intermittent successes as the seventies wore on, but they were, arguably, defeated by the “punk revolution” – seeming to become less and less relevant as tastes changed. Several members reformed the band for an album in 1991, and another in 2002; they have been soldiering on in various forms since then, with only Gary Brooker the one constant throughout their nearly 50-year (with gaps) career.
The beauty of Henry Scott-Irvine’s account is that he’s managed the very difficult job of wrangling together all the various aspects of the band and its members into a coherent narrative. When you think there have been more than 30 members filling four positions (lead singer and piano have always been held by Brooker), several of whom came, went, came back, and left again (Fisher, Brzezicki, for example) plus a stray few for only a gig or two. Then there were at least a dozen guest performers on record, at least a half-dozen each of managers, producers, engineers and roadies (one of whom, the late Kellogs served in three capacities at various times: in addition to roadie, he played bosun-whistle on A Salty Dog (!) and later served as their manager, and was beloved by the band and all who knew him. RIP Kellogs!)
One of the more fascinating parts of the book is towards the end: the long and winding account of the lawsuit concerning Matthew Fisher asserting his composer rights to the famous organ tune portion of AWSoP, eventually winning the co-composer battle but ultimately resulting in severed ties with Brooker and the band in the process. What remains unresolved are the ramifications of legal costs (i.e., the lawyers who, of course, will be the only winners in these matters!)
According to a reliable source, there is almost no chance of a second edition; “Omnibus retains global rights for another seven years.” So, the possibility of a paperback edition is remote. This is a shame, because, like all “first” editions, there are little errors here and there, which publishers have the chance of correcting prior to a second edition. Fortunately, for those who like the format, there are perhaps five eBook editions available, which effectively means it never goes out of print.
Henry Scott-Irvine is the same fellow who wrote the liner notes to the 1997 Westside 30th Anniversary Anthology covering the “First Four” albums plus singles and rarities, the late 90s Westside ‘Plus’ releases, several of the first Salvo 2009 reissues, and the recent Esoteric Records reissues. He rarely repeats himself! He is also responsible for researching the best possible sources for the various reissues; each set of releases has been a genuine improvement over the respective previous editions. Many Procol fans (like me) have multiple editions of the same record as a result!
But for the hardcover, there are only a few left (at the time of writing), so anyone who is a Procol Harum fan should hop to it! Trust me – it’s a winner!