Monday, March 15, 2010

The Whaling Blues of Robin Trower: Procol Harum's In Held T'Was In I

Although they became widely known, and defined by their 1967 hit “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” Procol Harum has a long musical history dating back to the days of the British Invasion when they were known as the R&B band The Paramounts. Nevertheless, with a classical baroque sound, they took up the piano/organ combination made popular by Bob Dylan on Blonde on Blonde (1966) and released a succession of albums filled with cryptic tales of sea journeys, death and conquistadors.

On their second album, Shine on Brightly (1968), they attempted an epic cantata called “In Held T’Was In I” (an acronym that uses the first word of each movement's lyrics in order to create the title) that chronicled a descent into madness and its affirmative resolution. While Bach was the presiding spirit here, the wild card in the band (dating back to The Paramounts) was guitarist Robin Trower. In the concluding section, where the narrator affirms his quest for salvation, Trower’s guitar reminds you of salvation’s price. In the cantata's finale, his solo sounding, as critic Paul Williams once accurately described it, like “a banshee trapped in Hell but vainly crying for release,” Trower introduces the whaling blues of Albert King to the stately measure of Bach.

While he would leave Procol Harum after their 1971 album Broken Barricades to a solo career that essentially worshipped at the shrine of Jimi Hendrix, Trower's playing, economic and sparse, yet soulful, was best realized in the group. He would make his mark in further Procol songs like "The Devil Came From Kansas," his own "Whiskey Train," the ripping intensity of "Piggy Pig Pig," or the mastery of his cascading solo on "Simple Sister." But the stinging notes that conclude "In Held T'Was In I" had a way of tempering the celebratory chorus that surrounded it.

It continues to take my breath away.

You can hear the cantata's conclusion here on YouTube. (Just ignore the unimaginative slide show that comes with it.)

From: Shine on Brightly by Procol Harum. Repertoire CDs.

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.


  1. "In Held Twas In I" was NOT mistitled, just to let you know - It is a combination of the first word from each of the sections of the piece.

    1. Kevin comments: Thanks Gary. It was first clarified for me in Henry Scott-Irvine's biography and I've made the change.