Top 10 Procol Harum Songs

Procol Harum Songs

Photo: By Mzopw (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The origins of the band Procol Harum began in 1964 when Gary Brooker and Robin Trower formed a band called the Paramounts. The group had a minor hit with a cover of the song “Poison Ivy.” The band went through various name and personal changes. In 1967, Gary Booker took the name of Gus Dudgeon’s cat and formed the band Procol Harum. At the time of formation, the band consisted of  Gary Brooker, Ray Royer, David Knights, Matthew Fisher, Bobby Harrison, and Keith Reid. Original Paramount members Robin Trower and B.J. Wilson would replace Ray Royer and Bobby Harrison after the band’s debut album.

The band’s debut album, released in 1967, spawned the biggest hit of their career, “Whiter Shade of Pale.” The song had initially been released as a stand-alone single and was not included in the U.K. version of the album. However, it was included on the U.S. album. Robin Trower appeared on every track except “Whiter Shade of Pale.”

The band released the album Shine On Brightly a year later, in 1968. Procol Harum continued releasing records almost every year until 1977. Robin Trower left the band in 1971 after recording five albums with it. In 1991, the band reformed to record another album featuring original members, including Robin Trower. The album was dedicated to B.J. Wilson, who had passed away.

The band would release two more records, both many years apart. In 2003, they released The Well’s On Fire; fourteen years later, they released Novum.

Our Top 10 Procol Harum Songs list looks at different points in the band’s career. It attempts to include their biggest hits but also covers the different periods of this great progressive rock band.

# 10 – I Told On You

We start our Top 10 Procol Harum songs list with a stunningly beautiful track from the band’s most recent album entitled Novum. The album was released in 2017, fifty years after the band’s debut album, released in  1967.  The song “Last Chance Motel” appeared as the second track on the record. Listen to that stunning piano introduction. It’s fascinating how the whole band crashes into the peaceful soundscape that opens the song.

# 9 – A Rum Tale

How can you not love this song? It’s the ultimate escape song. “A Rum Tale” was released on the Grand Hotel album in 1973. I love that tremendous bouncy piano opening lick. There’s nothing like hearing a great piano riff underneath a spectacular vocal line while the organ slowly creeps into the mix. The band explodes onto the scene when the second verse hits the listener, making this great track an all-time favorite. This one is just so emotional.

# 8 – Nothing But The Truth

This great Procol Harum song was released on the band’s 1974 album, Exotic Birds and Fruit. The song “Nothing But The Truth” was released as the album’s only single. This one always reminded me of Elton John or at least the song’s excellent opening riff and arrangement. Even the chorus had that big-time Elton John sound.

# 7 – Simple Sister

This great song opened with a guitar lick to die for, from a time when musicians learned to play their instruments and inspired countless musicians to practice. Listen to the interplay between Robin Trower and Gary Brooker. The track “Simple Sister” appeared on the band’s 1971 album Broken Barricades. On the album, one can hear the impact of Jimi Hendrix’s death on Robin Trower. Just listen to the song’s opening guitar riff.

# 6 – Grand Hotel

At the halfway point in our celebration of the music of Procol Harum, we turn to this hauntingly beautiful masterpiece, “Grand Hotel.” The song served as the title track to their Grand Hotel album, released in March 1973.  We don’t like to throw out the term “epic” too easily, but if one song deserves to be described as epic, it’s this one. The album featured musicians Gary Brooker on vocals and piano, Mick Grabham on guitar, Chris Copping on organ, Alan Cartwright on bass, and B.J. Wilson on drums.

# 5 – A Salty Dog

Procol Harum recorded some of the most breathtaking songs in classic rock history. “A Salty Dog” was the title track from the band’s 1970 album A Salty Dog. It was also the first single released from the album. This stunning piece of music was composed by Gary Brooker and Keith Reid. We have included the incredible live version here in the presentation of this legendary song.

# 4 – Whiskey Train

Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Robin Trower! Listen to Robin’s legendary guitar during the song’s opening lick. I have always felt that Robin Trower was one of the most underrated guitarists in classic rock history. He was quite popular among rock fans in the 1970s, but his legacy has often been ignored by many classic rock stations that play nothing but Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and Black Sabbath. So many greats in the 70s have gotten lost in time. If you ever caught one of Robin Trower’s live shows in the 1970s, I’m sure you were blown away by his greatness.

# 3 – Homburg

“Homburg,” released by the English rock band Procol Harum in the wake of their groundbreaking hit “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” stands as a significant follow-up single that cemented the band’s reputation for crafting songs with surreal, poetic imagery and melancholic themes. Written by the band’s pianist Gary Brooker and lyricist Keith Reid, “Homburg” achieved commercial success, peaking at number 6 on the UK Singles Chart, and enjoying popularity in various international markets, notably reaching the top spot in the Netherlands.

The song’s title, “Homburg,” refers to a style of hat that originated from Bad Homburg in Germany, adding an element of intrigue and sophistication to the track’s identity. Musically, “Homburg” showcases Matthew Fisher’s distinctive Hammond organ playing, which, while less directly inspired by Bach than “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” still carries a rich and resonant sound that became a hallmark of Procol Harum’s style. The arrangement in “Homburg” also gives greater prominence to the piano and guitar, diversifying the band’s sound palette and adding depth to the overall composition.

Lyrically, “Homburg” shares the dream-like, surreal quality of its predecessor, with Reid’s words painting a picture of resignation and existential contemplation. The song’s imagery and thematic content drew comparisons to “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” leading to some criticism for the perceived similarity between the two tracks. Despite this, “Homburg” was well-received, with Cash Box praising its “haunting quality” in both melody and lyrics, which echoed the successful formula of their debut single.

The B-side of the “Homburg” single, “Good Captain Clack,” taken from the album Procol Harum, further showcases the band’s range and ability to weave intricate narratives through their music. The single’s performance on the charts, with top ten placements in countries such as Australia, Belgium, Ireland, and Malaysia, as well as its number one status in the Netherlands, underscores Procol Harum’s international appeal and the universal resonance of their music.

# 2 – Conquistador

“Conquistador” stands out as one of Procol Harum’s most celebrated songs, encapsulating the band’s ability to blend classical influences with rock music. Initially featured on their 1967 self-titled debut album, the song was later released as a single from their 1972 live album Procol Harum Live: In Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. This live version brought “Conquistador” to the forefront of the band’s discography, earning it a spot as their third Top 40 hit in the U.S., following the iconic “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and “Homburg.”

The creation of “Conquistador” showcases a unique approach within Procol Harum’s songwriting process. While the band typically wrote lyrics first, this song was an exception. Gary Brooker composed a piece imbued with Spanish elements before the band’s formation, setting the stage for Keith Reid’s evocative lyrics about a fallen conquistador. The song’s narrative is delivered from the perspective of someone addressing the deceased adventurer, juxtaposing initial mockery with a reflective sense of pity for the conquistador’s unfulfilled ambitions and solitary demise.

The live version of “Conquistador,” recorded with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra in Alberta, Canada, in 1971, added a grandiose layer to the song’s presentation. Despite logistical challenges, including a delay in the band’s equipment and limited rehearsal time, the performance was a triumph. The song’s live rendition was notably enhanced by Ed Nixon’s principal trumpet, lending it a mournful yet majestic mariachi flair that complemented the song’s thematic depth.

Upon its release, “Conquistador” received widespread acclaim, with the live version peaking at #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 and contributing to the commercial success of the live album. Critics lauded the song, with some considering it a match for the band’s seminal hit “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”

The personnel involved in the creation of “Conquistador” evolved from the 1967 studio version to the 1972 live recording. The original lineup featured Gary Brooker’s vocals and piano, Robin Trower on guitar, Matthew Fisher on organ, Dave Knights on bass, and B.J. Wilson on drums, with Keith Reid providing the lyrics. The 1972 version saw Dave Ball on guitar, Chris Copping on organ, and Alan Cartwright on bass, alongside Brooker, Wilson, and Reid.

# 1 –  A Whiter Shade Of Pale

Procol Harum’s signature song, “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” was released as a single before the band’s UK debut album was released. The song was included on the United States version. The single was released on May 12, 1967. The song “A Whiter Shade of Pale” became the number-one record in ten countries, including the United Kingdom. The song reached number five on the Billboard Hot 100 in the United States. The single has sold over 30 million copies. If we were to send a CD into outer space representing the 10 best Classic Rock songs of all time, “A Whiter Shade of Pale” would be on that list.

“A Whiter Shade of Pale’s” global appeal is underscored by its sales, which exceed 10 million copies worldwide. Its influence is evident in the more than 1,000 cover versions it has inspired.

The song is distinguished by its Bach-influenced instrumental melody, soul-stirring vocals by Gary Brooker, and the sad yet compelling lyrics from Keith Reid. The music’s genesis was unusual for Procol Harum, as it typically began with lyrics; however, “A Whiter Shade of Pale” started with Brooker’s music, inspired by a piece of Spanish-flavored composition he had written before the band’s formation. The narrative within the song was then crafted by Reid, who conceived the lyrics after being struck by the phrase “a whiter shade of pale” at a party, which led to the creation of this enigmatic and poetic song.

The song’s recording at Olympic Sound Studios in London was produced by Denny Cordell, with the initial version completed in just two takes. The lack of a regular drummer led Bill Eyden, a session musician, to play the drums for the track. “A Whiter Shade of Pale” stands out for its Baroque rock style, heavily influenced by classical music, particularly Bach’s “Air on the G String” and his Orchestral Suite No. 3, which lent the song its iconic organ riff played by Matthew Fisher.

Over the years, “A Whiter Shade of Pale” has garnered significant accolades, including a joint win with Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” for “The Best British Pop Single 1952–1977” at the Brit Awards in 1977 and induction into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998. Its recognition by the Phonographic Performance Limited as the most-played record by British broadcasting over 70 years and its ranking by Rolling Stone among “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time” further cement its status in music history.

The song’s lyrics, with their allusive and referential nature, invite various interpretations, often viewed as depicting a narrative of seduction veiled in nautical and mythical metaphors. This complexity, coupled with the song’s haunting melody and distinct Baroque influence, has made “A Whiter Shade of Pale” a timeless classic, continually resonating with audiences and influencing musicians across generations.

Read More: Robin Trower: The ClassicRockHistory.com Interview

Updated June 16, 2024

Top 10 Procol Harum Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2024

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