29 July 2010

Procol Harum

Procol Harum circa 1967


In April 1967, Gary Brooker formed one of my favorite bands of all time, Procol Harum, with poet/lyricist Keith Reid, Hammond organist Matthew Fisher, guitarist Ray Royer and bassist David Knights. The British rock band, from Southend, England, first performed as The Paramounts.

The band has been recording and touring in various incarnations since 1967. They recorded "A Whiter Shade of Pale" and it was released May 1967. That classic, which they are still identified with, has a structure reminiscent of Baroque music with its countermelody based on J.S. Bach's cantata no.140 played by Fisher on his Hammond organ. Brooker's vocals were often mistaken for being those of a black "soul" singer. Keith Reid's mysterious lyrics opened up all kinds of interpretations.

"A Whiter Shade of Pale" reached #1 on the UK Singles Chart and made it to #5 in the United States. The song sent them out on the road and their live debut was opening for Jimi Hendrix in 1967.

Their follow-up single was "Homburg" which was #1 in the UK but not a hit in the U.S. That recording after included former Paramounts B.J. Wilson on drums and Robin Trower on guitar. That lineup is what most Harum fans consider to be the "classic" lineup.

Their first album, the eponymous Procol Harum,  was recorded soon between the two hit singles, but wasn't released until early 1968.

The second album was Shine on Brightly (1968) and the third was A Salty Dog (1969). It was their first album to sell well in the UK and the the title track was an FM radio hit in the U.S. Procol Harum became known as an art rock band with some classical roots.

Some of those classical roots were ripped up when Matthew Fisher, who produced Shine on Brightly, departed the band soon after its release.

Another former Paramount, Chris Copping, joined on organ and bass in 1970, and from late 1972 until 1977, the group's guitarist was Mick Grabham. Grabham replaced Robin Trower who went on to record a number of hard rock albums, several of which were produced by Fisher.

The band fronted by Gary Brooker continues to tour and often performs with orchestras. 

There have been a number of explanations for the unusual name. I have been a fan of the band since the beginning. (Ask me one day about my weekend as a roadie for Procol Harum and Mott the Hoople.) I have collected the origin stories and here's the etymology.

Guy Stevens, their original manager, suggested the name based on a friend's Burmese cat. They thought it was Arabic, but found that it was Latin. Then they were told that they had misspelled it and that it should be procul harum. 

What does it mean? One translation was "far from these things."  But I have also seen students of Latin say that the phrase is "dubious, since procul is followed by the ablative case not the genitive."

Translating it as "beyond these things" sounds good for a 1960s band, but then I read that "beyond these things" would translate as procul his.

Another translation I have seen is that it means "of these far off things" (harum is in the feminine, genitive, plural) but procul would not be followed by a genitive in Latin.

The definitive source of Procol Harum knowledge (including current members and tour dates) is ProcolHarum.com . That site has an interview with founder Gary Brooker that includes this answer about the name:
We didn't invent it, our manager at the time 'phoned up and said he'd found a name. We said, 'What is it?' 'Procol Harum.' 'Oh, great.' And it sounds like us, in fact, sounds like what we sound like, so that was that. He didn't just pluck it out of the air, it was the pedigree name of a cat of a friend of his. And ... er ... of course everyone went, 'What does it mean? What does it mean?' We didn't know it, so we had to find out. We did find out that we actually had got the name wrong over the telephone, we spelt it wrong. But in Latin, the cat's name was 'Procul' with a 'u' and 'Harun' with an 'n' on the end, 'Beyond these things' in Latin. We got round to saying that Procol Harum in fact meant 'Beyond these things', which was a nice coincidence: at least it didn't mean, 'I'm going to town to buy a cow' or something.



  1. A Salty Dog was their THIRD album, Shine On Brightly was the SECOND one.

  2. Jim,

    You are correct. Information changed. Thanks.

  3. Anonymous10/24/2014

    The silliest claim was from an old friend who thought it meant, "Without women"; in other words, 'men only'. I think he was confusing 'harum' with 'harem' and botched 'procul' to mean 'without' in the sense of 'lacking' whereas, it meant 'without' in the sense of 'outside' or 'beyond' as in 'There is a green hill far away without a city wall'. He used to call stag nights, 'procul harum noctes'. I tentatively told him he was mistaken, but he wouldn't have it. There ought to be a punishment for Latin abuse. :P

  4. A Salty Dog


All comments need to be approved by the admins. Spam will be deleted.