Procol Harumís performance at the Royal Festival Hall in London (3
March 2017) was the inaugural date of a European tour that stretched over
eight months, thirty-six gigs in all:
Fiftieth-Anniversary European Tour Schedule
Of those, only the eventful opening act featured an orchestra and choir,
though Gary was at the piano for an engagement in Estonia on July 29, when
David Firman conducted the Haapsalu Symphony Orchestra and the Haapsalu
Chamber Choir, a collaboration that drew an audience estimated at five
thousand. The tour schedule, mercifully, in hindsight, called for a
two-month hiatus between the first and second concerts. By the time Gary and
cohorts took to the stage at the Queenís Hall in Edinburgh, on 6 May, the
Commander had recovered from the tumble he took at the Royal Festival Hall
and was by all accounts in top form. The Edinburgh show ended a forty-year
absence north of the border, with at least one Scottish fan (that loyal BtP
correspondent, Charlie Allison) bidding Procol Harum 'Haste ye back!'. In the
month that followed, six English bookings included performances in London on
two more occasions before a three-month lull saw them leave for the
continent. There they played a ten-week circuit of twenty-seven gigs,
beginning in Tallinn on 2 September and closing in Paris on 12 November, the
final thrust in a mega fiftieth-anniversary tour.
I drooled over the itinerary. Alas, given prior commitments, there was only one feasible venue I could make: Berlin, 9 September, a Saturday, but a mere two days before start-of-term bedlam at Queenís University. My colleagues in Canada, however, I reckoned would be none the wiser, not least because an ongoing research project made a visit to the Ibero-Amerikanisches Institut in Berlin mandatory. The stars lined up nicely.
Poster for Wim Wenders's film Wings of Desire
Der Himmel Łber Berlin
I'm in 'The Sky above Berlin' Ė literally what the Wim Wendersí film, Wings of Desire in English, translates as. In the company of Angel Damiel (Bruno Ganz) I hover over the city as the 'plane circles until given clearance to land. At Tegel airport, I hop on a bus that takes me to Ernst-Reuter-Platz, where the U2 subway line runs six short stops to Mendelssohn-Bartholdy Park. I exit the station, cross a bridge, walk along a leafy embankment, and check in at Grimmís Hotel, home base for the first part of my week-long stay, ideally located close to Potsdamer Platz and a stoneís throw from the Ibero-Amerikanisches Institut. The following morning I present my credentials, secure a readerís card, and log up three days in a library that houses the largest collection of materials related to Latin America in all Europe. I then take the train to Leipzig, where I consult correspondence in the universityís Special Collections. Another three days at the Bibliotheca Albertina advances my quest to track how so much Latin American patrimony (stately pre-Columbian monuments and rare colonial-era manuscripts among the purloined) ended up in European repositories, far from those of the countries where they originated. 'Stealing them blind,' opines a line in As Strong as Samson, especially 'when youíre being held to ransom'. Keith Reid got that one right.
Poster for the Berlin production of Cabaret
On my return to Berlin, I billet myself at the Hotel Leonardo on Bertolt-Brecht-Platz, a five-minute walk from the Admiralspalast on Friedrichstrasse, the venue for the Procol Harum concert. I have an evening to spare. My motherís love of musicals having rubbed off on me, last time in Berlin I got to hear Brechtís Dreigroshenoper (Three-Penny Opera) performed at the Berliner Ensemble, a renowned repertory theatre only a block from the Hotel Leonardo. I have a little farther to walk to be treated to a superb production of Cabaret, staged in a magnificent marquee, the Tipi Am Kanzleramt, pitched on a park along the River Spree close to the Reichstag The seedy ambience of the Kit Kat Klub is as lovingly created as the songs of John Kander and Fred Ebb are by a talented five-man combo, whose members on occasion lay down their instruments to assume a brief role in the onstage drama.
Their cameos call to mind a memorable one of Garyís in Alan Parkerís film version of the stage musical, Evita. He sings the part of Juan Atilio Bramuglia, President Juan Domingo Perůnís Minister of Foreign Affairs, who opposed the charm offensive dubbed the 'Rainbow Tour' that the first lady of Argentina made to Europe in 1947. I wonder: could Garyís compositions and Keith Reidís lyrics lend themselves to a musical being made about the life and times, charmed or otherwise, of Procol Harum? Ray Davies adapted his oeuvre with The Kinks for the musical Sunny Afternoon, which I enjoyed immensely when it played at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London. Enacting Procol Harum, as did the Simple Sister dancers Benťdicte Billiet and Jo Ann Endicott at Wuppertal Ė why not? Gary already has a Brooker ballet to his name, the little-known Delta. Choreographed by Laura Dean for sixteen dancers, it was performed on 20 December 1990 at the Royal Theatre, Copenhagen. Thereís a distinct theatricality to many of the bandís albums and songs, fires which burn brightly.
The great German scholars of Mesoamerica, Caecilie and Eduard Seler
(courtesy of the Ibero-Amerikanisches Institut in Berlin)
After the spell of fine, warm weather, the day of the concert is chilly and damp. The rain curtails my wanderings, puts paid to any extensive exploration of a city I have grown to like more and more. On a visit to a bookstore called Antiquariat Schwarz, whose owner, Peter Schwarz, has responded to an inquiry, I get hold of a title Iíve been on the look-out for, an account of the travels through Mexico and Guatemala in the late nineteenth century of Eduard and Caecilie Seler. The husband and wife team revelled in getting off the beaten track, and acquiring archaeological and cartographic treasures exhibited still with considerable fanfare in Berlinís Ethnological Museum. I thank Peter for his services. He tells me who used to live next door to his well-stocked bookstore on Hauptstrasse Ė David Bowie no less (see below) Ė and get back to the Hotel Leonardo in plenty of time to ready myself for the 'Heroes' I prefer to listen to (see below also).
Lofty Peak Forty
(Admiralspalast Theatersaal, 9 September 2017)
A blustery wind blows me over the bridge at Friedrichstrasse to the Admiralspalast. The dimensions and design of this sonic palace remind me of the now-demolished Greenís Playhouse in Glasgow, a victim of the fury of urban renewal after the one-and-only time I heard Robin Trower play as a band member of Procol Harum.
Even an hour before show time, the courtyard entrance to the Theatersaal is packed Ė and so too its spacious foyer, fans swarming around the table where tour paraphernalia are spread out and selling fast. I stand in line patiently and buy a 'Unique Entertainment' badge (see above: a collectorís item, number 453 of 800) and a fiftieth-anniversary souvenir programme. Time on my hands before the music starts, I down a Warsteiner pils while dipping into the programme. Written and edited by co-webmaster Roland Clare, itís an incisive and insightful compendium that features jubilee reflections on Procol Harumís musical legacy; profiles of (and Q and A dialogue with) current band members, a unit since October 2006; and a synopsis of the labours of 'Beyond the Pale', the rich and fruity website thatís the antithesis of boredom, informing us of all this and more, hebdomadally if no longer daily.
For me, perhaps the most noteworthy contribution Ė the historical geographer will out Ė is the time and place 'Procol Pedigree' crafted by Jonas SŲderstrŲm, a family tree 'from the roots of the elder' that documents twenty-four permutations [in the Procol line-up] between the Summer of Love in 1967 to the band we are about to hear tonight. That tree, something magic it truly is, be not dead; from it, fate decrees, new life will spread.
By a stroke of good fortune, the ticket I bought online ages ago (above) turns out to be right next to the sound monitor, aural central as of yore, the illuminated dials of its control panel manned by an audio crew of one, the strategic location guarded by a hefty bouncer. Iím quite far from the stage but have an expansive and unobstructed view. On stage a huge banner has been mounted as backdrop, the words PROCOL HARUM and 2017 NOVUM emblazoned around the rim of a lifebuoy. Icons from the sleeves of recordings made between the bandís first and thirteenth studio albums are represented: an alarm clock from Shine on Brightly (1968), a lighthouse from A Salty Dog (1969), and a cockatoo from the painting by Jakob Bogdani (1658Ė1724) that adorns Exotic Birds and Fruit (1974). A damsel in bliss swoons centrally, the creation of artist Julia Brown, commissioned by manager Chris Cooke to concoct a cover illustration for the new album (see below). Iím hoping tracks from it will momentarily be played. I am not to be disappointed.
The Fortieth, Part I
'Thank you! Weíre Procol Harum from England. Weíre your brothers, and your friends.' Garyís declaration follows the entry of the band to tumultuous applause, whereupon the very first track of Novum, I Told on You, gets us going. This was one of three new songs we heard at the Royal Festival Hall back in March, but tonight itís tighter and more clearly articulated, Gary playing the piano parts that the injury to his hand Ė he missed a step and took a nasty fall just before the intermission Ė then prevented him from attending to. And thereís no apparent need for him to look so often at Pete Brownís lyrics scribbled on scraps of paper Ė heís got them far better memorised:
I told on you
ícos I heard you praying
Iím not sold on you: I knew what you were saying
I knew you were plotting for your takeover
The notes you were jotting on the way from Dover
I told on you Ö gone cold on you Ö
The lines above notwithstanding, in an interview with Carl Wiser of the online gazetteer Songfacts, former Cream and Jack Bruce lyricist Brown dismisses any notion that there was a plot to take over from Keith Reid as Procol Harumís wordsmith. 'I always liked [Garyís music] and I liked Keith Reidís [lyrics]. Keith and Gary had split up, and when [Procol Harum] were thinking about a new record, they thought about me doing it.'
Songwriter Brooker, talking with Jude Warne of Observer Music, puts it thus:
'Keith mustíve come to a crossroads and made a turn, while we carried straight on. Iíd bumped into Pete from time to time; Iíd seen him at Jack Bruceís funeral in 2014. During the course of this, weíd talked about the future and heíd said that he would be very interested in doing a set with Procol and having a go at an albumís worth of songs. When we were doing the writing process, Peteís name came up a couple of times and so he joined in; he got to see the way we worked.'
Besides invoking a parting of ways with his long-time collaborator, Garyís disclosure, especially his embrace of the royal 'we,' indicates that composing the music for Novum was a much more collective endeavour than previous initiatives. He elaborates:
'Once we decided that weíd make this new record, we thought, right Ė weíll need some new songs. This time I thought I would get some of the others involved in that process. So I got Josh Phillips, the organ player, Geoff Whitehorn on the guitar Ė and we got together and had a go at things. It worked out fine; if one of us had a start of an idea, we would expand it nicely Ė so the combination of involving others in the band to this extent was a great success.'
As for what the lyrics of I Told on You allude to, Brown has this to say of its three stanza/one chorus content:
I sketched out a lot of things quite a long time ago. Time passed by and then we eventually got down to it. I Told on You seems now to be about Brexit and some of the stuff thatís happened because of that. But that was completely unintentional at the time. One of my prophetic songs, you know.
Brownís self-reflection, in an odd way, connects with Brookerís response to
a question asked him in conversation with Jude Warne:
Q: Do you think of Procol Harumís music as being particularly British, or as celebrating British life?
A: No, I donít. Iíve always thought that Procol Harumís music was more European in some way.
The cheers of appreciation that greeted I Told on You after its drop-dead ending would appear to confirm Garyís appraisal, emphatically so. 'Weíll play something old,' he tells the Berlin audience. 'And weíll play something new.' A beguiling Pandoraís Box is opened. It may be something old, but itís got embellishments I donít recall hearing before, a guitar/piano duet in the middle and a fulsome organ at the end. Gary introduces the band, with some generous words for Geoff Whitehorn in particular. 'Lead guitar,' he tells us, before asserting: 'The only guitar in the world. Geoffís gonna start this next one,' whereupon Man with a Mission sees him lick the part perfectly. An allusion to Ravi Shankar as Gary tinkles the ivories, and succumbs to an expletive, foregrounds Canít Say That, with the guitar maestro from Gravesend in his raga-riff element. The lyricist is having fun with this number too:
Donít lay that one down on me, or you wonít make it
For Peteís sake, I wonít take it. You canít say that in front of me
And make my name a mockery.
Before the next offering, as Gary plugs the merchandise for sale in the emporium outside, Geoff interjects to observe, 'Och, itís them two again,' a reference I take to mean heís figured out that the pair of characters mouthing off from the floor is none other than the Tobermory Twosome, Gordon and John. Then comes a third cut from Novum, perhaps the best rendition of the evening.
Asked by Carl Wiser how he came up with the lyrics for Sunday Morning,
Pete Brown replied, 'It was inspired by an old Joe Turner song, Sunday
Morning Blues, where heís got this line,' and Brown quotes Big Joe singing:
Iím in blue every Saturday, but each Sunday morning I feel all right
I go to church and make peace with my maker
And then go home and make love to my wife.
According to Brown, 'Itís got a bit of a spirit there. Itís slightly gospelly the way that Gary phrase[s] it. Itís about a working-class person who does what he does and works hard and plays hard.' The churchy touch Brooker gives Turner is more soulful to my ears:
When I leave work every Friday, try to play as hard as I can
Exploring all the different shades of living ícos Iím that kind of man
I think of all the hard hours; so many closed doors
So when itís time for my sunshine, canít help wanting more and more.
For me, Sunday Morning is the most Procol-sounding track on Novum. With Joshís keyboard wizardry lending it orchestral colouring not audible on the album, Garyís vigil is warmly received, his vocals as sublime as ever as he sings the prosaic psalm, a hymn to the ordinary man.
Changing the mood completely, two verses of What Shall We Do with the Drunken Sailor are run through before up rises Whaling Stories, a tale of the sea delivered as if by God on high, and performed in synch with a spectacular light show (above). After it ends, Gary reminisces. 'Back in the 1970s we did a gig here in a sports field with the Bee Gees.' He pauses before he croons 'In the event of something happening to me,' the opening line of New York Mining Disaster, 1941. Letís hope nothing like what happened in London in March. The up-tempo Businessman indicates that, while Messrs Brown and Reid word things differently, both see financial crises, the Wall Street Blues as it were, much the same: 'Everythingís a deal, although you know, it says you shouldnít steal.' Without our greed, they couldnít have done it.
'Ich bin ein Berliner.' Gary iterates the words made famous by President John F Kennedy five months before he was assassinated, then fills us in. 'I share the same birthday as JFK Ė a good man. At least we think he was Ė you never know these days.' Gut gesagt, Herr Brooker. And with a dedication to all those no longer with us, JFK among them, A Salty Dog secures us safe passage to a midway harbour.
The Fortieth, Part II
Another Warsteiner pils and further perusal of the fiftieth-anniversary
programme take care of intermission time. As I settle in for the second half
of the show, the stocky man sitting next to me gives me a nudge.
'Entschuldigen Sie, bitte Ė excuse me, but my wife and I are curious. May I ask you what you are doing, writing in that tiny booklet?' A woman peers around him, eyes inquisitive.
'Iím taking notes that I will later draw on to write up a concert report,' I say.
Jola and Konrad (see below) are Polish, their prospects working in Germany, like so many Eastern Europeans, much rosier than staying back home in Warsaw. Itís their first Procol Harum concert. They marvel at it being my fortieth
With airs from Joshís Montage 8 Synthesiser filling in for Christiane Legrandís soprano voicings, Fires (Which Burnt Brightly) are lit perfectly, Geoff Dunnís drumming stoking the flames. 'This next one owes something to Johnny Cash,' is how Gary introduces Last Chance Motel' his vocals complemented by Matt Pegg, and Geoff Whitehorn and Josh too.
Asked by Pete Brown, 'Got any ideas for a theme?' when the Novum relationship was struck, Gary is said to have responded, 'Yeah, Ten Commandments.' Not all the songs on the new album conform to Old Testament strictures, but Last Chance Motel does recount some dire consequences of breaking the seventh Biblical law:
Got myself beaten up and ostracised
Punishment for running wild, and all those lies
She got a bullet between those big blue eyes
I left my heart at the Last Chance Motel.
'My life before her was some kind of hell' is quite the contrast to how Novum ends, with piano and voice, Gary not only singer and songwriter but lyricist too, an ode to everlasting love:
So just put your hand in mine; Iíll walk by your side forever
You know Iím yours, I know you are mine
And when weíre gone weíll meet again
Some way, somehow, somewhen.
A stylish Homburg is put on, despite Gary declaring 'We donít follow fashion.' From Novum come two fast-paced numbers in a row. 'I always think of Georgie Fame in this song,' Gary says of Image of the Beast,' after which the woes of being a Neighbour are shared. We move from the worries of home owning to the delights of that Grand Hotel where the good life still reigns, if only in nostalgic memory. The veteran Conquistador jumps on his horse again, with The Only One making me think that Gary Brooker (see below) may very well be, and that the rockier thrusts of Novum are best heard live.
'A Whiter Shade of Pale!' Jola yells. 'A Whiter Shade of Pale!' I assure her
itís coming, but sheís thrown off, at first by Bach phrasings and then by
bits of Percy Sledge and Bob Marley. Once she hears the hallowed Hammond
opening, she leaps up deliriously from her seat and remains standing in
reverence for the duration of the anthem. Its two recorded verses are sung,
but in my own headspace I also hear one of the two that werenít, verse
three, which Gary wrote out for me on the inner sleeve of my copy of the
first album a quarter-century ago:
She said 'Iím 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.
The crowd called out for more, but were not to be placated until the next time Procol Harum took to the stage in Fulda the next evening. Sadly, I was not there to hear them as I headed straightway across the Atlantic back to Canada.
Achtung, Berlin! is the final chapter in George Lovellís recently-published The Crowd Called Out for More, a follow-up to his first Procol Harum memoir, The Waiter Brought a Tray. Both titles are available for purchase via BtP: visit this page: