At first just ghostly, turned a whiter shade of pale

Late May 1967.  Beatles Manager Brian Epstein is throwing a big party to mark the official release of the band’s epic new album, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”  Everyone in the London music industry is there including the Beatles themselves, toasting each other in a festive atmosphere of congratulations.  But someone’s missing.  Where is John Lennon?

It turns out he kept slipping away from the gathering, sneaking out to his well-appointed Rolls-Royce, equipped with a state-of-the-art sound system, so he could sit in solitude to play over and over the new song that had completely blown his mind:  Procol Harum‘s astonishing “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”

I can’t think of a greater endorsement of how transformative this song was.  Inspired by Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Air on a G String,” co-writers Gary Brooker, Keith Reid and Matthew Fisher had found a way to ingeniously merge elements of classical music with rock underpinnings, topped with a trippy, mysterious lyric and bathed in organ riffs. “A Whiter Shade of Pale” became the #1 song in England that month and reached #5 on the U.S. charts a few weeks later.  It was the first shot off the bow for a new genre known loosely as “progressive rock” that dozens of bands would emulate and expand upon over the next decade.

Gary Brooker of Procol Harum in 1969

This week, we learned that Brooker, Procol Harum’s superb lead singer and pianist, has died of cancer at age 76.  It was Brooker’s vocals, songwriting prowess and piano talents that defined the group’s music, which, while not as commercially successful as such later prog rock groups as The Moody Blues, Genesis, Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, has earned the respect and adoration of many critics and fans of the challenging, innovative genre and classic rock in general.

Membership in the group lineup changed multiple times, but Brooker was the constant presence from their founding in 1966 through the 2010s.  His captivating voice, powerfully gruff in places and serenely melodic elsewhere, took the band’s material to new heights over 13 studio albums.  

Procol Harum’s official website issued a statement in the wake of Brooker’s death, praising his talents and leadership.  “A Whiter Shade of Pale” remains a masterpiece, it said, “but he and the group never sought to replicate it, preferring to forge a restlessly progressive path, committed to looking forward, and making each record a ‘unique entertainment’.”

Brooker grew up in London and, at age 17, he formed his first group, The Paramounts, with a young guitarist whose name some readers will recognize: Robin Trower.  The Paramounts enjoyed some success on the club circuit but their recordings went nowhere on the charts, and they disbanded in 1966.  Disheartened by that experience, Brooker was planning to focus solely on songwriting instead, forming a bond with poet/lyricist Reid.  When they couldn’t interest other artists in recording their songs, they decided to form a band after all, choosing the name Procol Harum, which, loosely translated from Latin, means “beyond these things.”

Brooker, a big fan of classical music and the works of Bach and Handel, loved the idea of bringing complex classical arrangements with repeated themes into the songs he was writing.  While his use of classical motifs was more subtle and nuanced than the more overt and bombastic pieces of Yes and ELP, he continued to look for new ways to give Procol Harum’s rock music a classical edge.

It’s interesting to note that, soon after the immediate success of “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” the group’s original guitarist and drummer were replaced, at Brooker’s insistence, with Trower and former Paramounts drummer B.J. Wilson for the follow-up single, “Homburg,” which reached #6 in the U.K. but only #34 in the U.S.  Curiously, their British fan base began dissipating, but Procol Harum built momentum in America through constant touring.  Their 1969 LP “A Salty Dog,” especially the haunting title track, was played often on emerging FM stations, again carried by Brooker’s stunning vocals.

Procol Harum in 1968, with Brooker at far right

Organist Fisher left at that point, replaced by former Paramounts keyboardist Chris Copping.  This lineup recorded “Home” (1970) and “Broken Barricades” (1971), both Top 40 albums in the U.S., but the creative differences between Brooker and Trower proved insurmountable, and Trower headed off to form a power trio and establish an enviable reputation as one of the supreme guitarists of his era.

In 1972, Brooker led Procol Harum through a second commercial peak with a foray into a more symphonic rock sound, captured on “Procol Harum Live:  In Concert With the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra.”  A live version of “Conquistador,” a tune from their 1967 debut album, found itself peaking at #16 on the U.S. Top 40 chart that summer.  The group’s 1973 LP, “Grand Hotel,” ended up their highest charting LP in the U.S., reaching #21.

Three more LPs in the ’70s racked up increasingly disappointing sales numbers, and when 1977’s “Something Magic” stiffed at #150, the band called it quits.

I can’t claim to have been much of a Procol Harum fan in the Seventies, but as I have often done with bands from that period, I developed a newfound appreciation for their repertoire once I immersed myself in their catalog in recent “expeditions.”  As is customary, I have assembled a Spotify playlist (found at the end of this essay) of the tracks that most impress me.    

Brooker’s attempt at a solo LP stiffed in 1979, but he enjoyed collaborating with other artists on their albums and tours, most notably Eric Clapton.  Brooker’s work can be heard on Clapton’s “Another Ticket” studio LP and his “Just One Night” double live album in 1980.

Alan Parsons, who produced “Dark Side of the Moon” for Pink Floyd before forming his own collective, The Alan Parsons Project, recruited Brooker in 1986 to sing lead vocals on “Limelight,” a majestic track on APP’s “Stereotomy” album.  “His performance on that song is one of my all-time favorites,” said Parsons last week.

Brooker in 2012

In 1991, against all odds, Brooker, Fisher, Trower and Reid reunited to record “The Prodigal Stranger,” a great album that got attention and sparked a resurgence of touring in the U.K. and the U.S.  Brooker took a break from Procol Harum in 1997 and 1999 when he accepted a slot in Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band for a couple of high-profile tours.  In 2003, Brooker was a visible, welcome presence at “Concert for George,” the tribute show at Albert Hall honoring the work of George Harrison, who had died the previous year.  Brooker added some spirited piano throughout the show, and was the featured vocalist on the deep Beatles tune “Old Brown Shoe.”

Procol Harum, always with Brooker at the helm, toured often in the 2000s, focusing on European cities and Australia.  I was pleasantly surprised to discover several strong songs on “Novum,” a 2017 LP that was Procol Harum’s first new album in nearly 20 years.  

In 2005, things got ugly when Fisher chose to sue Brooker, claiming his organ playing amounted to co-writing “A Whiter Shade of Pale” that should have earned him royalties.  He ultimately won rights to future royalties (but not the past royalties he sought), but the experience left Brooker bitter.  “Today may prove to be ‘A Darker Shade of Black’ for creativity in the music industry,” Brooker said after the court ruled.  “No longer will songwriters, bands, and musicians be able to go into a studio to give their best in a recording without the possibility of one of them, at any future point, claiming a share of the publishing copyright.”

I think if you listen to the playlist, you’ll appreciate how good Brooker’s voice is, if you’re not already aware.  His peers in the music business certainly enjoyed his work, as evidenced by their words of praise last week.  He is survived by his wife, Franky, to whom he was married for 54 years.

Rest in peace, Mr. Brooker.  You left us a sizable legacy of great music.

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For posterity, I wanted to include Reid’s lyrics to “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” which actually consists of four very literary verses (and a chorus) that tell the evocative story of a man who pursues a young woman for a sexual encounter.  The limitations of pop music in 1967 meant the song was edited down to just two verses (they used verses 1 and 3), but my playlist includes a live version of the tune that includes the second verse as well:

“We skipped the light fandango, turned cartwheels ‘cross the floor, /I was feeling kinda seasick, but the crowd called out for more, /The room was humming harder as the ceiling flew away, /When we called out for another drink, the waiter brought a tray

(Chorus) 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

She said, ‘I’m home on shore leave,’ though, in truth, we were at sea, /So I took her by the looking glass and forced her to agree, /Saying, ‘You must be the mermaid who took Neptune for a ride,’ /But she smiled at me so sadly that my anger straightway died

(Chorus)

She said, ‘There is no reason and the truth is plain to see,’ /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

(Chorus)

If music be the food of love, then laughter is its queen, /And likewise, if behind is in front, then dirt in truth is clean, /My mouth, by then like cardboard, seemed to slip straight through my head, /So we crash-dived straightway quickly and attacked the ocean bed”

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It never felt so good, it never felt so right

As the story goes, a Texas woman named Wilma Oday gave birth in 1947 to “nine pounds of ground chuck,” as Wilma’s husband Orvis described the infant’s reddish appearance.

Marvin Lee Aday soon came to be known by his initials “M.L.,” which also stood for Meat Loaf among those who would bully and tease the boy for his large, chubby frame.

That this kid would grow up to become one of the most unlikely rock stars of his generation speaks volumes about how serendipity, perseverance and a phenomenal voice can combine to create one of the best-selling albums in the history of rock and roll.

Meat Loaf died last week at age 74. There’s no official word on the cause of death but it appears to be due to complications from the coronavirus. What a sad ending to a dramatic life.

But I don’t want to dwell on that, because this is a rock music blog, not a medical science forum or political soapbox. Let us focus, if you please, on Meat Loaf’s talents, his accomplishments and his unique story that thrilled many millions of record buyers and concert goers between his dizzying debut LP in 1977 and his passing in 2022.

The man’s name may have been Marvin Aday (which he later changed to Michael), but the entire world knew him as Meat Loaf, which means that, on second reference, I’m supposed to refer to him as Loaf, which seems either awkward or amusing. (The staid New York Times, following its formal newswriting style, would always refer to him as “Mr. Loaf,” which I found hilarious.)

Getting the facts about this guy’s story is a challenge, largely because he relished the opportunity to continually embellish it with fantastic tall tales that contributed to his larger-than-life persona. In most articles published since his death, the authors have conceded that they don’t know for sure which anecdotes are fact and which are fiction.

For example, Meat Loaf himself claimed that when he was 16, he was hit in the head with a 12-pound shot put thrown from 50 feet away, and woke up the next morning with a three-octave voice of great power and nuance. True? It’s never been verified, but it makes great copy. In a 2013 interview, he stated he had survived 18 concussions, eight car crashes and a three-story fall. Any proof of this? Nope.

Here’s another: When his mother passed away in 1966 when Loaf was 19, he insisted that his violent, alcoholic father tried to kill him following her funeral, kicking open Loaf’s bedroom door and coming at him with a butcher knife. “I rolled off the bed just as he put that knife right in my mattress,” he had said. “I fought for my life. Apparently I broke three of his ribs and his nose, and left the house barefoot in gym shorts and a T-shirt.” (Note the use of the word “apparently.” Even Loaf isn’t sure what happened.)

What we do know for certain is that Loaf played tackle on his high school football team but also sang in his high school chorus and appeared in drama productions of “The Music Man” and “Where’s Charley?” His passion for and abilities in the arts led him to Los Angeles in the late ’60s, where he shone in rock and soul bands while also appearing in stage productions. His band Floating Circus warmed up for bands like The Who, The Stooges and the Grateful Dead, and concurrently, he appeared in the L.A. cast of “Hair.” Improbably, this led to a contract with Motown, where he was teamed with Shaun “Stoney” Murphy and, as Stoney and Meatloaf, released one album in 1971 that included a single “What You See is What You Get,” which managed to reach #36 on R&B charts (and #74 on the pop charts).

Meat Loaf in 1971

Overall, though, Loaf found his initial experience in the music business to be unsatisfying. He once said his biggest struggle in life was “not being taken seriously in the music industry. They treated me like a circus clown.”

Consequently, he pursued theater arts again by moving to New York and rejoining the cast of “Hair,” this time on Broadway, and also appeared in several other productions alongside future acting stars like Raul Julia, Mary Beth Hurt and Ron Silver. In 1973, Loaf appeared in an L.A.-based production of Richard O’Brien’s notoriously campy “The Rocky Horror Show,” a chaotic but hugely successful mix of science fiction, B horror movies, transvestism and ’50s rock and roll. When the play was made into the film “Rocky Horror Picture Show” in 1975, Loaf was again cast as the deranged Eddie, a small but important role that led to bit parts in more than 50 movies over several decades. Most were forgettable, but his appearances in “Wayne’s World,” “Black Dog,” “Spice World” and “Fight Club” drew good reviews.

Meat Loaf as Eddie in “Rocky Horror Picture Show” in 1975

In 1973, during his time with “Rocky Horror,” Loaf met eccentric songwriter-producer Jim Steinman, who had been working on developing “Neverland,” a futuristic rock version of the Peter Pan story, for which he had written several lengthy, grandiose songs. Steinman worked with Loaf on the set of the stage show “National Lampoon: Lemmings,” where Loaf served as understudy to John Belushi. Hearing and seeing Loaf sing and perform convinced Steinman that the two should collaborate, and with singer Ellen Foley also involved, they set out to create demos of four of his songs: “Bat Out of Hell,” “Paradise By the Dashboard Light,” “You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth” and “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad.”

Each of these extravagant, theatrical tracks were presented to, and rejected by, dozens of record companies over the next couple of years. They were told the material didn’t fit any “recognized music industry styles,” a typically myopic view that record executives have adopted in almost every decade of the rock era.

Enter Todd Rundgren, songwriter/singer/producer and still one of the true innovators in rock. “They set up in a rehearsal studio, Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf and (singer) Ellen Foley, just the three of them, and they essentially performed most of what turned out to be the first record for me. I saw the whole presentation as a spoof of Bruce Springsteen, a guy who I thought needed to be spoofed. That’s why I decided to get involved. There was a lot of interesting stuff in there.  Steinman kind of wove this sense of humor into the material in a way that Springsteen didn’t.  I was rolling on the floor laughing at how over-the-top and pretentious it was.  I thought, ‘I’ve got to do this album.’”

Rundgren added guitar parts and brought in his bandmates from Utopia, plus Edgar Winter on sax, and even Roy Bittan and Max Weinberg, pianist and drummer with The E Street Band. Rundgren brought an intensity and “Wall of Sound” richness to the production, befitting the bombastic nature of the material.

“Bat Out of Hell” wasn’t well received in the US upon its release. Critics found it overly operatic and ostentatious, and radio program directors didn’t quite know what to make of it. Some DJs embraced it from the beginning, like the great Kid Leo on Cleveland’s dominant WMMS-FM, but it was slow to get any sort of national attention. Intense, persistent marketing efforts by Steve Popovich of Epic Record’s Cleveland International label eventually paid off, and once Meat Loaf and company performed on “Saturday Night Live” in March 1978, the floodgates opened. Suddenly, there was praise. As critic Stephen Erlewine put it, “It’s epic, gothic, and silly, and it’s appealing because of all of this. Steinman is a composer without peer, simply because nobody else wants to make mini-epics like this. It may elevate adolescent passion to operatic dimensions, but it’s hard not to marvel at the skill behind this grandly pompous yet irresistible album.”

“Bat Out of Hell” now ranks third on the list of all-time most successful albums, with more than 45 million albums sold. It still sells something like 200,000 units a year.

Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf in 1978

Meat Loaf and his ensemble toured relentlessly as momentum continued to build, which took its toll on the star, who was diagnosed with a chronic heart condition made worse by his frenetic delivery on stage. He was advised to step away from performing for a while, but he eventually resumed recording, with and without Steinman on hand to write songs for him.

Four Meat Loaf LPs in the 1980s — “Dead Ringer” (1981), “Midnight at the Lost and Found” (1983), “Bad Attitude” (1984) and especially “Blind Before I Stop” (1986) — stiffed pretty badly in the US, although they always seemed to find an appreciative audience in Britain. It wasn’t until Loaf and Steinman reunited fully in 1993 and had the audacity to release “Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell” that they were able to pull off one of rock’s greatest comebacks. The album matched the first one’s grandiosity, reaching #1 in a dozen countries, and its lead single, “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That),” also topped the charts around the world.

Loaf’s 1995 follow-up, “Welcome to the Neighborhood,” did respectably, as did the single, “I’d Lie For You (And That’s the Truth).” But by 2006, it was clear he’d gone to the well one time too many. He and Steinman had had a series of legal disputes that delayed production of “Bat Out of Hell III: The Monster is Loose,” and it showed. Critics pounced, calling it “overblown and frequently ridiculous.” The fact that it’s the only Meat Loaf LP unavailable on Spotify says all you need to know.

Throughout the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s, Loaf seesawed between suffering poor-health episodes (heart attack, shattered leg, exhaustion/collapse) and following a physical therapy regimen that permitted periodic returns to touring. You’ve got to give him credit for staying in the game for as long as he did.

Many people, including my wife, regard the original “Bat Out of Hell” album as life-changing, an absolute classic of teenage angst and bravado, and I’m inclined to agree. I’m crazy about the title song, and the funny sex romp of “Paradise” never fails to liven up a party. Without question, it has earned its place in the pantheon of pivotal rock and roll music. Not bad for a guy who Foley once described this way: “Growing up in a bumfuck Texas town, he might have become a serial killer or the guy who shot up the local 7-Eleven. But the first time I saw him, he walked in with this incredible bravado and confidence, like in his mind he was already fully formed. He had this will that allowed him to do what he had to do to survive and exorcise a lot of his demons through music. But there’s a lot of sadness and anger, which is pretty much at the core of what he does.”

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I’ve assembled a Meat Loaf playlist on Spotify that features songs from throughout his career, many of which, admittedly, I didn’t know until I took a deep dive into his catalog over the past seven days. Naturally, my list emphasizes the “Bat Out of Hell” material, but also includes early tracks like his “Rocky Horror” moment, “Hot Patootie – Bless My Soul,” and other worthy tracks from his later years.