5 Captivating Songs by Procol Harum Apart from “A Whiter Shade of Pale”

In 1967, Keith Reid dropped out of school to pursue songwriting and formed Procol Harum—which translated to “beyond these things” in Latin—with bandmate and co-writer Gary Brooker soon after. That same year, the pair co-wrote the band’s biggest hit “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” along with Procol bandmate Matthew Fisher.

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Reid found the title of the song after overhearing someone use the phrase at a party when he heard a woman say “You’ve turned a whiter shade of pale,” and it remained the band’s biggest hit, topping international charts and peaking at No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100.

As the band’s chief songwriters, the two often worked in tandem with Brooker on piano composing, while Reid wrote the lyrics. Together, the duo also penned the band’s “Grand Hotel,” “Shine on Brightly,” and “A Salty Dog,” and the majority of the band’s songs before Procol Harum broke up in 1977, following the release of their album Something Magic.

[RELATED: 5 Songs You Didn’t Know Procol Harum’s Keith Reid Wrote for Other Artists]

Drawing from blues, soul, and something more baroque, beyond Procol Harum’s momentous hit, Brooker and Reid also composed some of the most mesmerizing and conceptual lyrics and arrangements in rock within the band’s earlier decade-long run.

Here’s a look at just five of their more enchanting tracks from the band’s late 1960s through early ’70s era.

1. “Homburg” (1967)
Written by Gary Brooker and Keith Reid

The meaning behind one of Procol Harum’s earliest songs, “Homburg” may remain a mystery, but “Homburg” was a healthy follow-up single to “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” The single gave the band a Top 40 in the U.S. Though the title and lyrics refer to the formal felt-covered Homburg hat, which was manufactured in Germany, the song is powdered with some surrealist imagery and cites the passing of time.

“I love surrealist imagery,” said Reid of the “Homburg” lyrics in 2010. “I used it a lot in my early songs, ‘Homburg for example: The mirror on reflection has climbed down from the wall.’ I don’t use it too much now. I go for a more conversational style of writing but still try to be poetic.”

Reid added, “This can be quite hard to achieve. But I can definitely remember what all the songs were supposed to be about, I just can’t remember all of them and have to be reminded.

Your multilingual business friend has packed her bags and fled
Leaving only ash-filled ashtrays and the lipstick, unmade bed
The mirror, on reflection has climbed back upon the wall
For the floor, she found descended, and the ceiling was too tall

Your trouser cuffs are dirty
And your shoes are laced up wrong
You’d better take off your homburg
‘Cause your overcoat is too long

Town clock in the market square stands waiting for the hour
When its hands, they both turn backward and on meeting will devour
Both themselves and also any fool who dares to tell the time
And the sun and moon will shadow, and the signpost cease to sign

As for the meaning of “Homburg,” it may be centered around a collection of stories, or “moods” within one. “I don’t write the words, so it’s sometimes a bit hard for me to explain, [especially] his [Reid’s] words, because they are his words, they are from his experiences,” said Brooker, trying to explain “Homburg” in 1967. “He knows what they mean. But I don’t think they mean anything, literally.”

Brooker continued, “If you take each line, not that you’re meant to split it down, but if you do take each line the sort of the way the words are used, they create little feelings, little moods.”

2. “Conquistador” (1967)
Written by Gary Brooker and Keith Reid

Outside of their hits “Homburg” and “Whiter Shade of Pale,” the opening track of Procol Harum’s debut album also remained one of the band’s most popular songs. First released on their eponymous debut, “Conquistador” made the Top 20 in the U.S. chart at No. 16. The song was later released as a single in 1972, from the band’s live album Procol Harum Live: In Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra

“Conquistador” was an earlier track, written before Brooker and Reid formed Procol Harum. “Gary and I, before we formed Procol Harum, when we were just working together as songwriters and getting into it, we had this regular deal where he lived about 40 miles from London near the ocean, and I’d jump on a train once a week and go visit him,” said Reid in 2009. “He’d have a bunch of my lyrics and he’d play me whatever he had been working on. This particular time, though, I’d got down there and he’d been working on a tune. He said, ‘What does this sound like to you?’ and I said, ‘Oh, ‘Conquistador.'”

Reid continued, “It had a little bit of a Spanish flavor to it. I went into another room and started writing the words there and then. 99 out of 100 of those Procol Harum songs were written the words first and then were set to music. But that particular one, the words hadn’t existed before he had the musical idea.”

Conquistador your stallion stands in need of company
And like some angel’s hallowed brow you reek of purity
I see your armour-plated breast has long since lost its sheen
And in your death mask face there are no signs which can be seen

Though I hoped for something to find
I could see no maze to unwind

Conquistador, a vulture sits upon your silver shield
And in your rusty scabbard now the sand has taken seed
I know your jewel-encrusted blade has not been plundered still
Sea has washed across your face
And taken of its fill

3. “A Salty Dog” (1969)
Written by Gary Brooker and Keith Reid

Told from the perspective of a sailor at sea and their torturous course, the title track off Procol Harum’s 1970 album, A Salty Dog, is one of the band’s more captivating tracks. Experimenting with more sweeping sounds and orchestral arrangements, the nautical theme around the album also featured the cover illustration of a sailor pulled from the early 20th century Player’s Navy Cut cigarette pack.

All hands on deck, we’ve run afloat
I heard the captain cry
“Explore the ship, replace the cook”
“Let no one leave alive!”

Across the straits, around the horn
How far can sailors fly?
A twisted path, our tortured course
And no one left alive

We sailed for parts unknown to man
Where ships come home to die
No lofty peak, nor fortress bold
Could match our captain’s eye

4. “Whaling Stories” (1970)
Written by Gary Brooker and Keith Reid

Running more than seven minutes long on the band’s fourth album, Home, the penultimate “Whaling Stories” tells a more dystopian tale, an end of days, set at sea.

Also worth a listen is the band’s more sweeping rendition of the song on Procol Harum Live: In Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra

Paling well after sixteen days, a mammoth task was set
Sack the town, and rob the tower, and steal the alphabet
Close the door and bar the gate, but keep the windows clean
God’s alive inside a movie! Watch the silver screen!

Rum was served to all the traitors; pygmies held themselves in check
Bloodhounds nosed around the houses, down dark alleys sailors crept
Six bells struck, the pot was boiling – soup spilled out on passers-by
Angels mumbled incantations, closely watched by God on high

5. Grand Hotel (1973)
Written by Gary Brooker and Keith Reid

Running just over six minutes, “Grand Hotel” was the title track of the band’s sixth album, which reached No. 21 on the Billboard 200, and is layered in more pomp and pop piano and grander orchestrations mid-way through.

“The lyric is all about the grandeur,” said Brooker of the song in 2010. “It’s actually an autobiographical Procol Harum on-the-road song, but the grandeur of the words, and then all the expressions used of the food and wine and sparkle and chandelier, I looked at that and thought, ‘Well, you’ve got to conjure up an atmosphere here.’

Brooker added, “And having experienced the same things that Keith had experienced in what he was writing about, I was able to interpret, hopefully, his lyrics into something which enhanced the whole effect.”

Tonight we sleep on silken sheets
We drink fine wine and eat rare meats
On Carousel and gambling stake
Our fortunes speed, and dissipate
It’s candlelight and chandelier
It’s silver plate and crystal clear
The nights we stay at Hotel Grand

Tonight we dine at Hotel Ritz
(A golden dish with every wish )
It’s mirrored walls, and velvet drapes
Dry champagne, and bursting grapes
Dover sole, and Oeufs Mornay
Profiteroles and Peach Flambe
The waiters dance on fingertips
The nights we dine at Hotel Ritz

Photo: Monitor Picture Library/Avalon/Getty Images

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