The members of Procol Harum and the Dukes of Stratosphear have taken charge of their vintage works by steering the albums’ reissues on CD. The albums come from the original master tapes and offer generous collections of bonus tracks selected by the artists.
Procol Harum, of course, is the English band best known for the haunting 1967 hit “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” one of the most popular songs in rock history. Their first two albums proved hugely influential, inspiring Queen, Pete Townshend, the Band as well as the genres of prog rock and (to some extent) heavy metal.
The Dukes of Stratosphear, on the other hand, were influenced by pretty much anyone of note in Britain’s 1960s psychedelic scene. The fictional band dropped their cover story in the liner notes to the resissues of their two CDs and are now fully identified as members of the 1980s band XTC — not that the XTC side project was ever much of a secret. The two reissues of recordings from 1985 and 1987 comprise the totality of the Dukes output.
Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and “Shine on Brightly” are leaving for the U.S. coasts this week as part of the 40 Years reissue series from Britain’s Fly/Salvo labels. Those albums, plus “A Salty Dog” and “Home,” have been available in Europe since April and May.
The new version of the oft-changed debut album can be identified by its shocking pink (Italian) version of the cover. All of the reissues are marked with “40 Years” labels on the covers. Some online retailers have made a mess of the proper CD release dates and song listings of these albums, so make sure you’re getting the new ones.
Procol Harum leader Gary Brooker and lyricist Keith Reid helped the record label with the reissues, while Brooker curated the generous bonus tracks for these albums. “Procol Harum” includes the group’s two initial singles, “Whiter Shade of Pale” and “Homburg,” which weren’t on the original album (typical of the times, see the Beatles).
“Shine on Brightly” was among the group’s best albums, tight and mysterious. Guitarist Robin Trower had joined the band at this point (his best work would come on the “Broken Barricades” LP, also set for rerelease on Salvo). The “Shine on Brightly” cover, unfortunately, is not the one U.S. audiences remember from back in the day (the psychedelic green art with the mannequin and the piano).
The Procol Harum reissues come from the original masters and return production elements of the sound that haven’t been heard on previous digital versions. Early reviews rave about the audio but point out that the albums are in the original mono. Some of the bonus tracks are in stereo.
(Update: The Salvo “Shine on Brightly” speed is incorrect, too fast.)
The unreleased “Understandably Blue” song on the debut album’s bonus tracks is another draw for fans and collectors.
The Procol Harum CDs are said to include online bonus materials, a la Blu-ray Live, although the label’s web site refers to a lack of content so far.
The Dukes of Stratosphear reissues also come from the original analogue tapes. Group members Dave Gregory, Colin Moulding and Andy Partridge wrote individual liner notes that are informative and typically odd. The sound seems more wide open and detailed than on the previous CD release, a compilation called “Chips from the Chocolate Fireball” from 2001.
The original Dukes record, “25 O’Clock,” was an EP with six songs. The follow-up work, “Psonic Psunspot,” was a full album. Neither has been released individually on CD until now. A healthy serving of alternate versions and demos fills out both CDs, released by Ape Records.
“25 O’Clock” is named after the bogus group’s best song, while “Psonic Psunspot” is a more realized project. “Psunspot” songs derive from obvious influences (Electric Prunes, the Kinks, early Pink Floyd, Brian Wilson, the Beatles). It leans on the whimsical side of the psychedelic genre — think “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” not “Tomorrow Never Knows” — “See Emily Play,” not “Echoes.”
The vibe would carry over to XTC’s masterpiece, “Skylarking,” produced by Todd Rundgren.
Partridge, XTC’s leader, noted with a big wink: “The Dukes were the band we all wanted to be in when we were at school. Purple, giggling, fuzztone, liquid and arriving. If you want to know where those cheap charlatans the Beatles, Pink Floyd, the Byrds, the Hollies and the Beach Boys stole their ideas from, well just listen to this and weep.”
The somewhat reclusive bandleader Andy Partridge did a long interview with the Chicago Tribune’s Mark Caro that’s worth a read for any XTC/Dukes fan.
Partridge had this to say about old-school psychedelic music:
“I think a lot of the allure of that psychedelic thing and specifically psychedelic singles was that kind of compact magic, all these effects that people hadn’t heard before and everybody looking for new ways of mashing up conventional sounds in the studio. And of course these days you’d just lean on a button, and there it is; it’s all sampled and pre-screwed-up for you. But then you really would have to play an electric saw at the bottom of a well and then have that spun in backwards and stuff like that.”
Of the two Dukes records, Partridge says: “To me they just look like the next XTC records. Because ‘Skylarking,’ which happened between the two Dukes releases, is like the missing Dukes album, or vice versa. ‘Psonic Psunspot’ is the missing XTC album after ‘Skylarking.’ There’s no barrier.”
“Skylarking,” produced by Rundgren in infamously stormy recording sessions, no doubt will find a place on the Top 50 Psychedelic Albums list, along with “Psunspot.”
Both new Dukes CDs feature the promo videos for each album’s single. The packaging is sublime, bringing to mind small hardcover books printed with great care. All collectors editions should look so good.