237. Engelbert Humperdinck – The Last Waltz (1967)

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September 1967, and the Summer of Love was over. This was certainly reflected by the number 1 single for most of the month. But first, a look at the news at the time…

On 6 September, the UK’s first supertanker Myrina was launched in Belfast. It was the largest ever ship built in the country at that point. Three days later, former Prime Minister Clement Attlee MP was hospitalised with a ‘minor condition’. It turned out to be more serious than that. Attlee died of pneumonia on 8 October, aged 84. Presiding over the most radical government of the 20th century, his legacy is among other things, the welfare state and the NHS. A true legend. 20 September saw the launch of RMS Queen Elizabeth II, better known as the QE2.

In the worlds of television and radio, surreal cult TV series The Prisoner starring Patrick McGoohan was broadcast on ITV for the first time on 29 September. The following day, in the wake of the banning of pirate radio stations, the BBC overhauled its radio programming. The Light Programme was split between Radio 1 and Radio 2, the Third Programme became Radio 3, and the Home Service was now Radio 4. Radio 1 was modelled on the pirate station Radio London, and wisely deciding it needed to be hip, picked Flowers in the Rain by the Move as the first ever track to play. Had it used the number 1 at the time, it might not have been seen as rather square.

Engelbert Humperdinck was back, pop pickers. The mighty Release Me had been the year’s biggest seller and held even the Beatles at bay, but his follow-up There Goes My Everything couldn’t topple Procul Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale. And so Humperdinck, songwriters Barry Mason and Les Reed, and all the straights who wanted revenge on these drug-taking hippies teamed up to end this run of psychedelic anthems at number 1. Or something like that.

And what dastardly results they conjured up. The Last Waltz was number 1 for five long weeks, and suddenly we’re back in the world of light entertainment ballads that could have been written years previous.

But the problem with The Last Waltz is the singer, not the song. It’s got a nice, Bacharach & David-style piano led tune to begin with. It’s Humperdinck that ruins it, and its made me realise I perhaps went a little easy on him when I reviewed Release Me. Humperdinck is right to bristle at the idea of being called a crooner – he certainly has a hell of a set of lungs on him – but what use are they if you’re going to ignore the emotion of the material and sing every song the same way?

The Last Waltz is a man recalling the day he met an ex-lover, who he danced with at the end of the night. Then it jumps (such a big jump it doesn’t create much of a dramatic effect) to their final waltz together. He sounds exactly the same throughout. And then, to top it all off, he starts a jolly little ‘la la la la la…’ over the melody. Doesn’t exactly create the impression Humperdinck gives a toss about her, to my ears. I’m not saying he needs to be wailing in sheer agony, but it takes more than a great voice to impress me.

Clearly though, in a world that was rapidly changing,  the majority of record buyers were ready for the safety net of some easy listening once more. Humperdinck was the pop star of 1967, ratcheting up 11 weeks as top of the pops. 1968 was another great year, with A Man Without Love and Les Bicyclettes de Belsize in the top ten, as did Winter World of Love in 1969.

As the 1970s progressed the singles slowly began to chart lower and lower. However his albums still did well, and in 1972 he presented the BBC One variety show Engelbert with The Young Generation, featuring the Goodies as regular guests. With the advent of disco, Humperdinck proved very popular in the US by adopting the ‘Philadelphia Sound’ and would perform his stage show on Broadway.

The 80s saw Humperdinck spend most of his time in the US, either performing in Las Vegas or making cameos on cheesy TV shows such as The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. Album releases continued and he became involved with lots of charities including the Leukemia Research Fund, the American Red Cross and various AIDS relief charities. So say what you like about his music, but at least he has a heart.

He also proved he had a sense of humour in the 90s. During the lounge revival he sang Lesbian Seagull on the excellent Beavis & Butt-head Do America in 1996. His career has continued into the 21st century, with a greatest hits compilation, Engelbert at His Very Best reaching the top five in 2000. He was nominated for a Grammy in 2003 for his gospel album Always Hear the Harmony: The Gospel Sessions. To mark 40 years since Release Me and The Last Waltz he released an album of songs by British composers called The Winding Road in 2007. He missed out on appearing on the Gorillaz album Plastic Beach, released in 2010 when his management declined on his behalf without him ever hearing what Damon Albarn had in mind. He was said to be gutted by this and would like to work with them one day. Would make for an interesting listen.

In 2012 Humperdinck found himself representing the United Kingdom in the Eurovision Song Contest in Baku, Azerbaijan. Unfortunately the appeal of a big-name star held no sway and Love Will Set You Free was voted second to last. But Humperdinck carried on regardless and released a double CD of big-name duets in 2014. Engelbert Calling featured Cliff Richard, Smokey Robinson, Elton John and Il Divo. His 50th anniversary of becoming a star was marked with another best of, and a new album. 2017’s The Man I Want to Be featured covers of tracks by contemporary stars Ed Sheeran and Bruno Mars.

Now aged 82, Gerry Dorsey, aka Engelbert Humperdinck, shows no signs of slowing down. Back in the mid-90s, a friend and I wrote a sitcom. Called Life’s a Drag, it was our attempt at an ever weirder version of The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. The main character, played by Rodney Bewes, was to be a tired, daydreaming middle-aged man working for a cigarette company (get it?). His boss was to be played by Tom Baker, and Bill Oddie would be a wise old tramp living in his back garden. His son was to be called Engelbert, as his wife would have been a Humperdinck obsessive. One day Bewes was starring in a play in our town, so once it was over we marched into the theatre to present Bewes with our script. He stared at us, totally baffled, and needless to say, we never heard back.

Written by: Barry Mason & Les Reed

Producer: Peter Sullivan

Weeks at number 1: 5 (6 September-10 October)

Births:

Actor Toby Jones – 7 September
Actress Tara FitzGerald – 18 September
Lexicographer Susie Dent – 21 September
Businesswoman Denise Coates – 26 September
Actor Guy Pearce – 5 October

Deaths:

Physicist John Cockroft – 18 September 
Conductor Malcolm Sargent – 3 October
Politician Norman Angell – 7 October
Prime Minister Clement Attlee – 8 October
Chemist Cyril Norman Hinshelwood – 9 October

234. Procol Harum – A Whiter Shade of Pale (1967)

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We’re now into the Summer of Love, and in the final, stormy week of June 1967 a landmark event happened, involving, erm, Reg Varney from On the Buses. The comedy actor became the first person to use a cash machine in the world, at Barclays Bank in Enfield. Trippy, man. Two days later Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones was jailed for a year for possession of drugs, and Mick Jagger was sentenced to three months for the same offence.

July began with BBC Two transmitting the first colour TV broadcasts in Britain, during live coverage of the Wimbledon Championships.  It was the final year in which the competition was amateur, and Australian John Newcombe won the men’s tournament, with American Billie Jean King winning the women’s. During Wimbledon, on 7 July, Parliament decriminalised private acts of consensual adult male homosexuality in England and Wales with the Sexual Offences Act.

In the singles chart, after months of rather lightweight pop ruling the charts, Procul Harum went to number 1 with their woozy, hazy classic debut single A Whiter Shade of Pale, on 8 June – the same day the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band topped the album charts for the first time. For the counterculture, it must have felt like the future was theirs for the taking.

Procul Harum formed from the ashes of the Paramounts, a beat group from Southend-on-Sea in Essex. They had reached number 35 in 1964 with their cover of Lieber and Stoller’s Poison Ivy, but split in 1966. Their singer, Gary Brooker, formed his new group in April 1967, and the line-up featured Keith Reid, a poet who would write their lyrics, Matthew Fisher on Hammond organ, guitarist Ray Royer and bassist David Knights. Their manager, Guy Stevens (later to come up with Mott the Hoople’s name and co-produce the Clash’s album London Calling) said they should name themselves after producer Gus Dudgeon’s cat. Dudgeon produced classic work from the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, David Bowie and Elton John. His Burmese pet’s ‘cat fancy’ name was Procul Harun, so they just switched the last letter.

A Whiter Shade of Pale originated at a party Brooker attended. He heard someone say to a woman’ you’ve turned a whiter shade of pale’, and the phrase stuck in his mind. Although the lyrics are full of Bob Dylan-style, mysterious imagery, it’s clear the song is about a man, a woman, and sex. Brooker admitted in the February 2008 issue of Uncut that it was a ‘girl-leaves-boy story’, wrapped up in evocative imagery. He also said that although he may have been smoking at the time, the song was inspired by books, not drugs. Reid must have also had a say in the words though, as he recieved co-credit at the time and didn’t play an instrument.

Matthew Fisher didn’t receive a credit for his integral organ contribution until 2009 in a court ruling. As interesting as the lyrics are, it’s fair to say the song wouldn’t be as famous as it was without his playing, inspired by Bach’s Air on the G string.

Procul Harum convened to record their first single at Olympic Sound Studios in London soon after formation. So soon, they hadn’t yet found a drummer, so session musician Bill Eyden took up the sticks. Produced by Denny Cordell, it was quickly wrapped up in two takes. A few days later they had a drummer, Bobby Harrison, and tried a new version, but opted to release one of their earlier takes in mono only. Cordell was worried about the single’s length and slightly muddy recording, until he sent an acetate to Radio London. John Peel was working for the station at the time, and fell immediately in love with it.

WIth its stately pace, dreamlike feel and surreal lyrics, A Whiter Shade of Pale is a perfect example of a song capturing the zeitgeist. It’s a great song, but it could only have been number 1 for six weeks at that moment in time. The fact it was there at the start of the Summer of Love has elevated its status, possibly making it a touch overrated, but it’s a very impressive debut and a great time capsule of flower power.

Much of British psychedelia harked back to an earlier time, to childhood memories, or even further back to Victorian and Edwardian styles. But the chorus of A Whiter Shade of Pale goes even further back, to Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale from the 14th century. Critics may complain the words are meaningless, but frankly, they need to get out more. It’s about the feeling they create, rather than a story being told. There’s some excellent acid-laced lines, including the introductory ‘We skipped the light fandango’ and ‘One of sixteen vestal virgins’. When performed live, the song sometimes featured a further two verses, which I’d be interested to hear.

Brooker’s vocal is also great, with his soulful, mournful tones adding to the elegiac tone. In fact, if you ignore the lyrics and just listen to the sound, there are some similarities to Percy Sledge’s beautiful When a Man Loves a Woman.

Procul Harum shot several promotional videos for the single, and if you click above you can see the first, which the band minus Harrison shot in the ruins of Witley Court in Worcestershire. Peter Clifton’s film was banned by Top of the Pops due to the splicing in of footage of the Vietnam war.

Following A Whiter Shade of Pale‘s immense success, Procul Harum were one of the bands of 1967. The single was loved by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, with Lennon in particular becoming obsessed that summer. Their first gig saw them supporting the Jimi Hendrix Experience. The line-up soon changed, with Harrison and Royer leaving to form Freedom. They were replaced by former Paramounts BJ Wilson and Robin Trower respectively. Follow-up single Homburg, released that September, reached number six, despite Peel preferring it to their previous 7-inch. They finished the year with their eponymous debut album in December.

It wasn’t until September 1968 that their second album came out. Shine On Brightly is considered one of the earliest examples of a progressive rock album, with the album closer, In Held ‘Twas in I, lasting over 17 minutes. 1969’s A Salty Dog went further down that route, and Fisher, who produced it, departed soon after. and was replaced by another former Paramount, Chris Copping.

In the 1970s, they fell into a pattern of further line-up changes and ever decreasing album sales, embarking on a full-on symphonic progressive rock sound. Their final top 20 hit was Pandora’s Box in 1975. They split up in 1977, but two months later they were performing at the BRIT Awards, when A Whiter Shade of Pale was named Best British Pop Single 1952-1977, along with Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.

Procul Harum reformed in 1991, and have remained together ever since, with Brooker the only constant throughout. In 2017 they released their 13th album, Novum. While they were unable to continue with their initial popularity, A Whiter Shade of Pale is still considered one of the best songs of that heady summer, when music branched out and for a while it seemed as though anything was possible.

Written by: Gary Brooker, Keith Reid & Matthew Fisher

Producer: Denny Cordell

Weeks at number 1: 6 (8 June-18 July) 

Births:

Darts player Kevin Painter -2 July
Television writer Paul Cornell – 18 July

Deaths:

Actress Vivien Leigh – 7 July
Cyclist Tom Simpson – 13 July