Thursday, November 10, 2011

November 10-11, 1969: Winterland, San Francisco, CA: Procol Harum/Pink Floyd/H.P. Lovecraft

The picture sleeve for the UK 45 of Procol Harum's "A Whiter Shade Of Pale," released in May, 1967
The so-called "British Invasion" of the mid-60s, led by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, effectively introduced Americans to American music. Although the popular English rock bands all put their own styles onto American rock, rhythm and blues and country music, the likes of John Lennon and Keith Richards were firmly rooted in an American sound. Thus when A Hard Day's Night caused a legion of folk musicians to grow their hair and start playing rock and roll, those folk musicians had already grown up with the music. It took a few more years for a distinctly British rock sound to arise, linked to but separate from the American roots of rock and roll and rhythm and blues. Thanks to the rise of FM rock radio, the best of this British music was almost instantly popular. One of the earliest major concerts exemplifying the new British sound was a concert at San Francisco's Winterland ballroom on November 10 and 11, 1967, featuring Procol Harum and Pink Floyd. Both bands had only released their first albums, and were on their first American tour, and yet they were headlining the 5,400 seat Winterland because they were already too big for the Fillmore Auditorium.

Procol Harum
The best exponents of returning American music to Americans were the Beatles, although they were followed closely by a raft of others, such as The Stones, the Yardbirds, the Animals, Them and many others. Paradoxically, since access to American music was limited for most English teenagers, the likes of Paul McCartney and John Lennon had to get the most out of whatever they heard. American teenagers, in contrast, got to choose between rock, country and soul stations, with all the attendant cultural distinctions that went with it. This left English teenagers much more able to see how much Carl Perkins, the Everly Brothers and Muddy Waters shared, rather than seeing them as distinct. By the time of Rubber Soul and Revolver, the Beatles seem to have merged all American music styles in their vocal and instrumental palette. Being the Beatles, once they had climbed the mountain, they simply found a new one.

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was a groundbreaking album for any number of reasons, most of which I won't attempt to detail here. However, many songs, particularly the epic final song on the album, "A Day In The Life" presaged an entirely different kind of music. On one hand, it had a rock beat and a touch of R&B vocals, so it was firmly rooted in the rock tradition. Conversely, it did not have a conventional verse/chorus structure, and was heavily orchestrated. To top it off, it had some weird electronic effects, which were unprecdented for a popular group at the time. The lyrics themselves were quite serious yet elusive, while not at all in the metaphoric style of Bob Dylan. Since The Beatles were enormously popular, regardless of whatever experiments had been going on in the rock world (and there were a lot), all of a sudden people's ears got opened to the idea that all rock music didn't have to sound like a Carl Perkins tune sung by the Everly Brothers.

Sgt. Pepper's was released in June of 1967, and one forward looking song from around that time was already becoming a hit in the UK. "A Whiter Shade Of Pale," full of mysterious lyrics and a classically influenced organ theme, recorded by an unknown English band called Procol Harum, had been released in May. Soon it was zooming up the charts, first in England and then in the United States. Procol Harum was a pretentious name, a sort of fake Latin name, but such names were common in the 1960s.

Procol Harum singer and pianist Gary Brooker had been in an R&B cover band called The Paramounts from 1964 to 1966, but they hadn't made much headway. He had gotten hooked up with an aspiring lyricist named Keith Reid, and along with organist Matthew Fisher they concocted the glorious "Whiter Shade Of Pale." Ried's lyrics were evocative and literate without being too specific, and they were perfectly set off by the gently melody and Fisher's Bach-cantata-inspired arrangement on the organ. Brooker's soulful, knowing vocals embedded the song with an emotional complexity that magnified its power while retaining its mystery:

But I wandered through my playing cards

and would not let her be

one of sixteen vestal virgins

who were leaving for the coast

and although my eyes were open

they might have just as well've been closed

And so it was that later


as the miller told his tale

that her face, at first just ghostly,

turned a whiter shade of pale
"A Whiter Shade Of Pale" was an instant hit in England when it was released. John Lennon supposedly said "why didn't we think of this," or words to that effect, although of course within a month "A Day In The Life" would be released. In fact, Procol Harum hardly even existed when the record came out, but "A Whiter Shade Of Pale" was such a striking song that the three band members instantly formed a band to go with it and set out on tour. Guitarist Robin Trower and drummer BJ Wilson, both former members of The Paramounts, rejoined Brooker, and along with Fisher and bassist David Knights they immediately set out on tour (lyricist Keith Reid did not perform, but sometimes accompanied the band on the road).

Thanks to KMPX-fm and the rise of album rock radio, by the time Procol Harum got to San Francisco, they were headlining for three nights, Thursday night at the legendary Fillmore (Nov 9) and on the weekend at the much larger Winterland (Nov 10 and 11). By this time, Sgt. Pepper's was playing on every turntable in the land, and the Beatles had carved out a distinctly English style of rock. Procol Harum was the first English group playing in this style to launch a major tour of the United States, and thanks to KMPX the band was huge in San Francisco.

A 1999 cd by South Carolina bluesman Pink Anderson, one half of Syd Barrett's inspiration for Pink Floyd's name (the other being North Carolina bluesman Floyd Council)
Pink Floyd
Second on the bill was another distinctly English band, Pink Floyd. Although the name Pink Floyd had been inspired by an album featuring two bluesmen (Pink Anderson and Floyd Council), the band's music was very far removed from the R&B inspired music of most English bands in 1965. There was an underground music scene in London and a few other places, comparable in certain ways to the Fillmore scene in San Francisco. The two main bands were Pink Floyd and the Soft Machine. The Soft Machine are a fascinating story in their own right, but the Floyd were bigger, more important and arrived in America first.

The Pink Floyd were an underground cult hit throughout London, playing "happenings" with light shows and other innovations for London's hippest. They were signed in February 1967. For all their penchant for long jams and feedback, lead guitarist Syd Barrett had a brilliant ear for pop music, and their second single, "See Emily Play" was a huge hit in England, reaching number 6. The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, Pink Floyd's debut album, was released in August 1967, and it too was inspired. Pink Floyd joined Procol Harum and other groups in defining a uniquely British approach to rock music. Pink Floyd also received heavy airplay on KMPX-fm, so they too were popular in San Francisco before almost anywhere else.

Pink Floyd had been scheduled to make their United States debut on October 30, 1967, at the Fillmore. However, due to visa problems, the band did not arrive until a few days late. In fact, Pink Floyd made their US debut opening for Janis Joplin and Big Brother and The Holding Company at Winterland in San Francisco on November 3. Amazingly, Pink Floyd appeared on American Bandstand the next day, and returned to Winterland that night (November 4). This was followed by an appearance on the Pat Boone show and a show at the Cheetah in Santa Monica (November 5).  The next weekend Pink Floyd would return for a showcase performance with Procol Harum at Winterland, after a Thursday shakedown cruise (November 8) at the smaller Fillmore.

Wish You Were Here
In the last 40 years, a style of British rock has evolved that is distinct from its American counterpart. It's most popular formation has been in so-called "progressive rock," which indeed was progressive at one point, and also in a kind of baroque pop that Americans have difficulty pulling off. Plenty of English musicians play music that owes more to American roots music, but groups like Pink Floyd and Procol Harum, along with the Beatles, carved out a path that was traveled on by the likes of Yes, Genesis, Supertramp, Radiohead and dozens of others. A time traveler would very much like to see it when it all began, with two of English rock's original exponents on their first American tour.

Procol Harum, 3/5 of whom were the former Paramounts, were a pretty steady performing unit. There are tapes from the early days of Procol Harum, if not quite this early, and they could rock pretty hard when they needed to, always helpful when playing a big place. Drummer BJ Wilson was so good that Jimmy Page tried to steal him a few years later for his new band, but when Wilson stuck to his mates in Procol Harum, he got an unknown named John Bonham who played in a similar style, so you can take Page's word that Wilson could drive that train.

As for Pink Floyd, they were years ahead of their time, but Syd Barrett, genius that he was, was not ready for stardom and the physical exhaustion of heavy touring. By the time of this tour, Barrett was not comfortable on stage, and Pink Floyd suffered dramatically for it. I don't think it had quite reached the stage that it did on the subsequent English tour, when Barrett would barely touch his guitar, and another player (Davey O'List from The Nice) had to play the parts on stage, but San Francisco fans would surely have found Pink Floyd a far cry from their glorious first album. At the time, it would have seemed that Procol Harum was on a path to become huge, while Pink Floyd already looked like a one-hit wonder.

Unfortunately, we don't have a tape or even an eyewitness account of the Winterland shows that I am aware of. Procol Harum were a solid live band, since most of them had been knocking out R&B in The Paramounts, so they were battle tested. Pink Floyd, on the other hand, were at a low ebb with a very fragile Syd Barrett as the most important member of the group. I doubt they played well, and most people there probably figured that Procol Harum had the ticket to ride. The opening act, H.P. Lovecraft, from Chicago, was also an excellent group. They, too, were not wedded to the blues, and they featured two vocalists, one operatically trained, so despite being from the States they pre-figured the English style that Pink Floyd would later help to define as "English" in the 1970s. So between Lovecraft and Procol, fans probably had a pretty good time, and they must have known they were seeing something really different than the blues and folk based rock that was prevalent in San Francisco at the time. 

Aftermath
Procol Harum had a pretty good career, releasing 10 albums through 1976, but they never quite topped their first hit. They had a few other hits, including a 1972 remake of their early song "Conquistador," but they never got over the hump. They broke up and reformed, as groups do, and a version of the band still tours. Sometimes Gary Brooker has even been known to sing the rarely heard third and fourth verse of "A Whiter Shade Of Pale."

Pink Floyd, of course, replaced Syd with David Gilmour. Usually, replacing a band's lead singer, chief songwriter and lead guitarist is a recipe for disaster, but not if you have Roger Waters as your bass player. Pink Floyd went on to become one of the biggest bands in the world, and one of the all-time concert attractions. Indeed, one of their biggest albums was essentially about Syd Barrett himself, the unforgettable Wish You Were Here, released in 1975. The Floyd pretty much epitomizes the English style of rock in all its respects, having opened the door in 1967 and much to everyone's surprise having wound up owning the house.

2 comments:

  1. At least on one night, both Procol Harum and Pink Floyd were great. (Couldn’t say which night, but I’m pretty sure it was Winterland, not the Fillmore.)

    I can say this very confidently; not that my own taste is infallible (but it wasn’t bad), but my companion had deep knowledge—the first record she owned, at the age of 13 or so, was a Howlin’ Wolf album—and excellent taste. And she remarked, listening to H.P. Lovecraft, “this group isn’t so good”. I said “Well, not as good as the other two, but pretty good”, and she assented, but I’ve always suspected she was just being polite, by her standards they weren’t so good, absolutely.

    Anyway Procol Harum played their soulful lush melodic music, and rocked; Pink Floyd was visionary and beautiful, for both of us. And I, at least, enjoyed H.P. Lovecraft too. Wonderful concert.

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  2. We were there at Winterland as well and surprisingly remember Procol Harum and H.P. Lovecraft as both being great, but very little recollection of Pink Floyd. Winterland was dark, moody and ethereal that night.

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