"Well, we're only in our first year here at the magicians' college," Dave Ball, Procol Harum guitarist, advised the gentleman who has asked Gary Brooker to pull a rabbit, or perhaps even a candelabra, out of his top hat. In formal Thirties tails, black tie, topper and baggy pants that break precipitously over the shoe-top, Ball looks like an animated cartoon scarecrow and Brooker like a concert pianist from a more elegant era.
Instead Brooker borrowed a penny, gripped it between thumb and forefinger, extended his arm, snapped quickly and, presto, the coin bounced off the sleeve at which it was aimed and escaped under one of the hotel room's desks. After a few more warmups he finally coaxed it up his arm, where it remained stubbornly lodged as he tried to drop it casually back into his hand.
The impasse was broken by the somewhat startling entrance of Keith Reid, who, in identical garb, looked uncannily like Harpo Marx. One by one they came in to be examined by their manager and the photographer who would shoot the album cover tomorrow: BJ Wilson, beaming with satisfaction at the obvious impact of his getup; Alan Cartwright, chomping an imaginary cigar and wriggling his eyebrows up and down; Chris Copping arriving late because he'd simply phoned down from his room and reported that it fit fine. (see photo out-takes from that session)
Although on the surface things seemed pretty much the same as they've been on any of the many American tours that have sustained Procol Harum over the years, there were two differences this time around. One was an album (Live with the Edmonton Symphony) among the Top Ten in the nation (it's their first to come even close) and a single off the album (Conquistador) in the Top 20 – their first 45 since A Whiter Shade of Pale in 1967 – that's made back the cost of the ink on the label. Charter members of their cult are in something of a daze, but the group, while obviously pleased, refuses to look at it as a major or surprising breakthrough. Reid, more calmly attired, sat on one of the room's double beds and explained:
"We've just been building gradually really. I think we started building a lot from when we had our Home album out  – from that period onward we've been playing in more places to more people. But as to noticing a great change since our Broken Barricades album last year, it's not a vast difference ... I think we've always been lucky or successful in the fact that whenever we've played well there have been very few times that we haven't had a good reception. So I don't think there's been a period when we were banging our heads against a brick wall. Not in this country for sure.
"Our following has never been that small. I would say that Randy Newman has a cult following: He doesn't sell many records, although his songs are very successful. I think many people bought Mama Told Me Not to Come by Three Dog Night and to this day probably wouldn't know that Randy Newman wrote it, so his actual following is a cult following, I would say. Now, we've never had a cult following in those terms. I mean we've never sold less than about 100,000 albums – maybe our first album didn't sell quite that. That's not a million albums, but it's not that small.
"I think the main difference must obviously be that we've got a single out. The single must be selling to a lot of people that we've never sold records to, because we haven't had what you'd call a top 40 single for a few years. That's the main difference between what's happening to us at the moment and what's happened before.
"I mean we're not suddenly being treated any different. As far as a performance goes, we have to go out and be good just the same. We've never been in a position where we could go on and play badly and get a good reception. As far as it goes it doesn't make that much difference. The only difference it can make is in terms of more people knowing of you. I imagine any success we might have would only mean that we played more concerts to more people and sold more records. But the minute we come out with a bad record I'm sure it wouldn't sell. I think that is our advantage – and our disadvantage if you like. Our appreciation is a very honest appreciation. You know, it's not like six rock & roll stars. It's totally the music."
It's not quite true that Procol Harum isn't being treated any differently, at least by the several record companies who have taken off in fast pursuit upon the expiration of their A&M contract. Columbia reportedly guaranteed a sale of 500,000 copies of their next album, but Chrysalis, Procol's management concern, is biding its time and watching the suitors vying for the attentions of the former wallflower. And much of the attention has been inspired by an album whose prospects for existence were, at first, dim.
"The reason it's so easy to be happy about the album is that when we made it there was a chance that there wouldn't even be an album, and the fact that we got an album out of it was good news," said Gary Brooker, now out of black tie and into a Hawaiian shirt. "It was one concert, one night, so from a recording point of view it was either there or it wasn't – there weren't any second chances.
"There was a note rehearsal scheduled which is just listening to the orchestra's parts, just to make sure they're playing them right, that all the notes are right, that the charts are correctly written. Check all the dynamics, tempos, things like that. We had that, and then that afternoon there was to be a full rehearsal – choir, orchestra and us. When we got there, we found out that the choir was an amateur one. They had daytime jobs, so they weren't going to be at the rehearsal. Then our equipment was stopped in customs and didn't arrive for this full rehearsal, so it ended up with just the piano and the organ rehearsing with the orchestra, running it through. So, that wasn't really a rehearsal. The following day our equipment was there and we had a full rehearsal for three hours. Only about 45 minutes of that was the whole thing, because the choir had to come in on their lunch break." (Gary's diary of this event is here)
Producer/sound man Chris Thomas, who had just spent a month producing Christopher Milk, had a darker version.
"Looking back on it," he said, "it was terrifying. It was really horrific because like all the money had been spent and it was chaos there. There was this crazy orchestra, we came to the day of the performance and we hadn't even done a rehearsal with the choir, orchestra and group. We've already come to the day of the performance and we've got nothing recorded. We had an hour's rehearsal with the choir – I mean it was just like madness, it really was.
"The whole idea really was to record the thing about three times before, so when it actually came to the concert we really had the whole thing recorded and then it would just be a nice concert and nobody had to worry about 'Ogod, we've gotta be good.' But we got there, and the orchestra hadn't played any of the parts, and it was just pretty chaotic when it came to the actual performance. We hadn't managed to record anything at all, so the album's just the concert."
Perhaps the member of the party who suggested that everyone was "a little out of their depth" was closest to the truth. Obviously, producer, engineer (Wally Heider), choir, orchestra and Procol finally ironed out any difficulties to the satisfaction of a lot of record buyers. Whether this signals the commercial success that slipped from Procol Harum's grasp in 1967 remains to be seen, but they aren't prepared to change things for that end. "I think there was a lot of interest in this album, I think that the record company worked hard on it, and I think people were perhaps feeling favorably towards us. Just everything came together at the right time, everything was right at the right time."
Thanks, Marvin !
More Procol history at 'Beyond the Pale'