Next month Procol Harum celebrate their eighth birthday. They were formed in April 1967 through the good offices of MMís classified ads to perform the songs of pianist Gary Brooker and lyricist Keith Reid. They have done so through the services of twelve members (including the six who make up the present band Ė Reid is always considered a non-playing but integral member of Procol) and have produced eight albums, including one live set with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra but excluding various repackagings of their first four albums and early hit singles.
Their history denotes a growth as steadily controlled as their sombre music.
Their music which breeds staunch loyalists also attracts contempt from detractors for a lack of funk (which it never professes to possess), and of humour (which is, alas, often clouded by arrangement and volume; but itís there even if only in Brookerís dry asides) and a pseudo-classical pretentiousness (of which it is guilty, if rarely).
Procolís current lineup, completed by BJ Wilson (drums), Alan Cartwright (bass), Mick Grabham (guitar) and Chris Copping (organ), has been together since 1972. The impermanence which fractured their first five years has disappeared.
Procol are soon to go into the studios to start work on their ninth album. Recently they played at the morose wake which passed for the Grand Farewell To The Finsbury Park Rainbow. Brooker even sang Over The Rainbow. At the gig they also backed Frankie Miller, a fine Scots shouter who benefited, for once, from having a solid back-up band (A fax 'n' info link: one old Miller band, Jude, was formed by Robin Trower on leaving Harum in í71. Small world, eh?)
Of the Rainbow gig, drummer B. J. (Barry [sic]) Wilson, a friendly fellow who ruminates hard before answering any question from the flippant to the earnest, says the band enjoyed it, "but it was a bit of a non-event. Nothing happened Ö lot of folkie types, not a lot of rock Ďní roll in the whole thing."
They enjoyed backing Miller and played a couple of college gigs to warm-up Frankieís set. Did he enjoy playing behind a fresh vocalist? "It wasnít that different, really. I enjoy things like that if I like the people. We donít have a lot of time to do it. Also when we play among ourselves we play varying things that weíd never put on record or do on stage other than a few rock 'n' roll things on encores. But it goes a lot further than that." Even the occasionally po-faced Harum get back to their blues roots, the Paramounts, Poison Ivy and all.
Itís been a trait of the bandís career never to work extensively in Britain Ė the brouhaha surrounding Whiter Shade of Pale (didnít play on it; sacked two members after its release) and a lack of suitable concert and ballroom venues stinted their British development. More recently theyíve been working hard in Europe where Exotic Birds and Fruit, their last album, sold well. Surprisingly, it stiffed in the States, a traditionally strong Procol area.
The schedule for the new album has been put back. "Itís very, very complicated, most of which I wouldnít care to discuss."
Production? "Yeah, that sort of thing. When we make the record and it comes out itíll be apparent what has happened."
Although theyíre aware that fewer fans paid out the necessary for Exotic" the band liked the album, says Wilson, "so you canít worry too much. I think a lot of people like to associate us with the strings and choirs and that type of thing. There wasnít a lot of that on the album. It was quite Ďgroup-like.í
"You canít worry too much about hits. ĎSalty Dogí wasnít a monster hit single when it came out but it certainly did us a great deal of good."
Procol are still playing songs written eight years ago, like Whiter Shade, and enjoy doing so. "Things donít seem to go stale on stage Ö I think people like to hear a good cross-section of what youíve done over the years."
As a drummer Barry has marshalled Procol with power and determination ever since he replaced Bobby Harrison, the first kit-man. Heís currently (and was initially) influenced as a percussionist by the precision of competition pipe-band drumming. When he talks about the impulse generated by five drummers joining the pattern a sixth has set one can "hear" where his sense of dynamics comes from.
Playing with symphony orchestras has, conversely, taught him the value of playing softly Ė necessary if he wants to hear the orchestral colourings. "They undoubtedly keep a different type of time. An orchestra is brought up on metronome time whereas rock 'n' roll has never been that."
Outside Harum, Wilson recently played on the soundtrack for the upcoming film of the Rocky Horror Show, with Procol colleague Mick Grabham. Barry also did sessions with the old Incredible String Band. They were enjoyable, "but I didnít really play anything different from the style I normally play in Öbut itíd be nice to do more. I canít see it would make much difference to what Iíd play. It all comes out in Procol Harum."
Wilsonís drum solo is a variable highlight of the groupís set. "I never liked drum solos for a long time. Iíd never tried. What I like about the drums is backing, the actual backing of someone. It came from Power Failure. Really, and that was a bit tongue-in-cheek at the time."
Looking back over his eight-year Harum career Wilson, adding that he thinks their albums "are reflective of the state of the group at the times they were made," says he likes Home best.
Keith Reidís lyrics often receive curt treatment from critics. "They do, donít they? Theyíre not moon-and-June. People like to see what they can read from them, get from them."
What does he get from them? "Lots of semi-biographical things. I relate things to certain situations Iíve been in that the groupís been in. Iím probably often not right, but thatís one of the things Iíve found about Keithís words. They do tend to become remarkably relative to something that happens after heís written them. The sort of things that I mean happen to anybody in personal relationship.
"Whiter Shade of Pale is a good example of that. Several times in my life thatís definitely made a lot of sense. Probably why Iím a drummer and not a lyricist, if you know what I mean."
Thanks, Jill, for typing