A founding member of the British progressive-rock institution Procul [sic] Harum, Keith Reid was responsible for writing the surreal lyrics for Whiter Shade of Pale.
Surreal, dreamy, opaque – all are words that could describe the evocative lyrics
of Procol Harum’s Whiter Shade of Pale.
Emerging from the mists of England’s late-60s progressive-rock bog, Whiter Shade of Pale – with a little help from the offshore pirate radio station Radio London – unexpectedly shot straight up to #1 in the UK and stayed on top of the charts for six weeks. Stateside, it climbed to #5 and sold more than a million copies.
The man responsible for the impressionistic imagery that has confounded all who search for meaning in the song’s labyrinthian [sic] wordplay is Keith Reid.
A founding member of Procol Harum, Reid co-wrote a great majority of the band’s songs with singer/pianist Gary Brooker, including Conquistador, A Salty Dog and Homburg. Reid has a new album out called The Common Thread recorded under the aegis of The Keith Reid Project. On it, Reid worked with a number of A-list musicians, including John Waite, Southside Johnny and Chris Thompson from Manfred Mann.
Explain the Keith Reid Project for us.
Well, you know, I’ve been living in America. I’ve been living in New York for quite a long time now. I was lyricist for and founding member of Procol Harum, and basically for a very long time I wrote with Gary Brooker, who was the pianist and singer, and a little bit with some of the other members of the band – Robin Trower and so on. But basically, I hadn’t really written outside of that. I hadn’t written with anybody else, and so everything I did was Procol Harum music, which was fantastic.
But all things sort of pass, and eventually, Procol Harum ... we kind of went our separate ways. And in the mid-’80s, I thought I wanted a change of scene, and I came to live in New York City, and I started to work with lots of different other writers, which was a totally new thing for me. I mean, just meeting someone that I didn’t know and sitting down and trying to write a song ... and it was great because it kind of ... when you work with different people, you go into areas you wouldn’t normally touch on.
I mean, I wouldn’t say ... you go out of your comfort zone, but definitely, when you’re working with a variety of different people, you explore a variety of different experiences. So this was a new milieu for me and something which I got into, and after a period of time, I started to accumulate a body of work. And eventually, I was making tapes and so on and so forth, as one does, and eventually I played the tape to a guy that I came across actually in Germany, who had a label called Rockville Records. And I was saying ... he basically was saying, what have you been up to and I was playing him some of my songs and he said, “You know what?” He said, why don’t you put these together on a record? You know, there’s a continuity and there’s a certain flow here that seems as though they would work together. And in a nutshell, that’s why the whole thing started.
As far as working on these songs, were these done over a number of years or ...
Yeah, I would say it probably represents a five-year period of work. And of course, there were a lot more songs as well. I think we probably had about 20 songs to choose from.
And so it was kind of a question of whittling it down, seeing what worked with what ... I didn’t want this to seem like a compilation album. I wanted it to seem like a ... in a way, in my mind, it was somewhat like making a movie inasmuch as I got to write the script – ie the lyrics and so on – and I got to choose the actors, in other words the different singers, kind of cast them in which songs I thought were more appropriate to their voices. And you know, [I] kind of produced it, sort of directed it; so basically, I just kind of put together a little portrait of myself.
All these songs really seem to speak to the everyman and what he goes through. I couldn’t help but be struck in particular by how appropriate Silver Town is for these times right now.
You know what? That’s a thought I’ve had in the past few days. I’m glad that you said that because in the past few days that thought’s run through my mind.
That song seems even more relevant now than when I had originally written it, because basically the wealth is not, as we’ve come to find out, [in] all these illusory riches, which have managed to evaporate. That really the wealth is in the people, and that’s kind of what I was referring to before. I mean, I think we forget that the real wealth, the wealth of the country, is in the people. We neglect that ... it’s not a good thing (laughs).
You talk about the movie analogy. Every time I hear A Whiter Shade of Pale and those lyrics, what runs through my head is kind of an impressionistic film.
Well, now that’s right, and I think that’s really in a way what I’ve always done – though I think the early songs were more impressionistic than perhaps the writing I’ve done more recently. I see them as little films, if you like.
And also, the thought occurred to me that putting together this record was somewhat like a painter putting together an exhibition, where you’ve got a certain space and you decide which pictures are going to work, how they’re going to work in relationship to each other, what kind of instrumentation suits them best. So there’s a whole experience. You walk in the door, and you start with Song 1, and when you walk out the door at the end – in this case, Song 13 – you know, you’ve gone on a bit of a journey.
Absolutely, and that’s what you get with A Whiter Shade of Pale. You just seem to float through different scenes. What was the story behind that song – how did the lyrics come together?
Well, I started off with the “whiter shade of pale” line. I’ve always thought that songs ... they’re kind of like puzzles, but the difference being with a jigsaw puzzle you get all the pieces. Whereas writing a song, I always feel you get one piece, which I’ll call the inspiration.
In this case, I had the line “a whiter shade of pale.” And so you have one piece of the puzzle, and then you kind of have to ... basically you have to invent a whole picture that this little piece you’ve got fits into. So it’s kind of like you’ve been given the last piece first, and now you have to make up the picture that that piece completes. And that’s really how that happened with Whiter Shade of Pale, and also with quite a lot of other songs as well.
The way Procol Harum formed was interesting. How did you and Gary [Brooker] meet? I know it was through Guy Stevens.
That’s right. Yes. We had a mutual friend called Guy Stevens, and at that time, Gary was in a band called The Paramounts, who were a very, very, very good band but who didn’t do their own material. And Guy thought they should write their own songs. And he introduced me to Gary, who was the singer, and I think [it was] with the idea that we might come up with some material for this group.
But subsequently the group disbanded, and Gary gave up the road as it were, and he and I got together as writers. Initially, we saw ourselves as songwriters and wrote a bunch of songs, and when we found out that what we were doing – which seemed perfectly normal to us – seemed quite adventurous to other people, we realized we’d have to form our own band in order to perform the songs. So that’s what we did.
And with Whiter Shade of Pale specifically, the music that was created for the words, they worked so well together. How did that happen? Did Gary hear the lyrics and ...
Well, he had the lyrics, and I must have given him a bunch of lyrics. And you know, his method was basically to sit down at the piano and put some lyrics up there and just play around with some chords, see if anything fit. And then if he’d get an idea, get a spark of something, he’d give me a call and say, “I think I’ve got something which will maybe work with this. Why don’t you come and have a listen and see what you think.”
And we’d have sort of regular sessions. We’d get together, and he’d play me sort of bits and pieces, and I’d say, “Oh, yeah, I think that works well. Why don’t you maybe go somewhere here or go somewhere there, or I think we’ve got it.” We’d just generally have these kinds of songwriting sessions and pull the songs together.
Talk about the song Homburg. That was kind of an interesting track for you, but it didn’t quite chart as high as maybe the hopes were for it.
Um, it was funny really, because in some ways, we were trying to outdo A Whiter Shade of Pale, which, in retrospect, wasn’t probably a great idea. The thing was we had a song called Conquistador at the time – which subsequently did very well later on. But we probably would have been better [off] following A Whiter Shade of Pale with Conquistador in the first place, but we somehow had it in our mind that we would sort of do another slow tune, which was Homburg, which, you know, was somewhat reminiscent of Whiter Shade of Pale. But, you know, you just ... we didn’t really have a plan. We just were doing what we felt was natural and what we thought was right.
Going on to later with your career with Procol Harum, and the album Shine on Brightly ... man, talk about trying to live up to Whiter Shade of Pale. You come up with the 18-minute epic In Held ’Twas I.
That’s right. Yeah. Well, the band had started playing more live and so on, so we just came up with the idea of doing an extended piece, and we didn’t actually envisage that it would be 18 minutes in the first place. We kind of just started at the beginning, and the thing just grew (laughs). And we just kind of went with it ... it took on a life of its own, and one piece led to another, and we composed it in the way it appears. So just one piece grew out of the other – and sort of both musically and lyrically – and eventually, 18 minutes later, we got to the end.
Talk about A Salty Dog. That seems to be the album where everything really kind of came together for Procol Harum. Did you kind of feel that way?
Well, A Salty Dog was a different kind of album for us because basically we produced it ourselves ... or Matthew Fisher had the production role, but basically, that was the album which, prior to that, we’d had a record producer. But this time, it was very much [that] the project totally came from within. It was within the band.
And also we were a lot more experimental prior to [sic] the Salty Dog album; it pretty much stuck to the straightforward line-up, you know – organ, guitar and so on. With Salty Dog, we started to experiment with strings and acoustic guitars and a lot of different instruments, and in a way, we sort of got away from what had been ’til that time the sound of Procol Harum, which was very easily identifiable. And we stretched out a lot more on A Salty Dog, and we had more acoustic-based tunes, and it was just a totally different sort of feel.
A Salty Dog. Talk about the lyrics for that one; [it had] kind of a darker feel. Were you writing darker at that point?
Well, all I can tell you about it is, I saw some graffiti on a dressing room wall in Cleveland [at] the show we were doing, [and] there was something someone had written on the wall: “Great God skipper, we’ve run aground.” And I clearly remember that that was the inspiration for A Salty Dog. Now how that became A Salty Dog is sort of ... sometimes you, as a writer, you don’t really understand how things happen. You just know they did, and that was the story of that one.
How did the band change after Robin Trower left?
Well, initially we ... what had happened was that at a certain point after A Salty Dog, our original [organ player] Matthew Fisher had left the band. And we continued without ... the band which had been a five-piece became a four-piece. And so what happened was that the guitar became more prominent, and Robin sort of stepped out a lot more on the guitar. Then that sort of naturally led to him deciding to do his own thing.
So, at that stage, we decided that we would get back to basics and make the organ more prominent. You know, kind of not make the guitar step back, but sort of bring out things that we’d been doing in the past. So we essentially went back to being a five-piece, which was perhaps more the original conception of the Procol Harum sound.
How did your writing become less surreal and impressionistic and become kind of a little more focused on ... not really mundane matters, but I suppose the experience of the everyman.
Well, I think that’s really where we kind of get back to the Project. I actually really put it down to coming to live in New York, because when you’re young, you sort of – or when I was – I was pretty much in love with words. It was surrealistic images, painting pictures with words, and the songs were relatively inward looking I’d say.
But after Procol Harum, when I started to perhaps work with different writers, I started to be more character-driven, more [into] storytelling, and I became I think more conversational in turn. I tried to strike a more conversational tone, as far as the words to the songs. And I think that’s somewhat more of in an American tradition really, that kind of conversational tone. And I think in a way that’s what gives the album the flavour that it has.