If I had to choose one song as being the most perfect produced by the pop culture, it would be Procol Harum's A Salty Dog.
Far more than A Whiter Shade of Pale, which brought them to the top of the hit parade in 1967, it perfectly captures the whole essence of what communicative pop should be about.
The tune stays there, held in the mind with its intricate simplicity. It embodies many of the strengths of the music that followed their initial, and only [sic], hit single. The lyrics and tunes are kept functional, and Keith Reid can say a lot with his writing without ever having to touch on the accepted styles of lyric writing. His style is that of a poet, writing what he sees in a mould that is completely unique in its openness and honesty.
Gary Brooker fits Keith Reid, or vice versa, as a tune composer containing the essence of the words in his own tunes, which have a lot of funk in them, without having to move into the more obvious forms of excitement. Brooker also has a stage presence that makes him stand out. He doesn't come on at all, but stays back sometimes dressed in the appropriate coat and tails pulling his audience into what he is doing.
In their early times, just before the lights and acid period, Procol managed to lose out on a lot of scores. A Whiter Shade of Pale put them at the top of the hit parade but they weren't allowed to go out on the road and back up the music with live appearances. And the public in Britain like to see what they are buying. People kept changing too, and as soon as one group got something going another Procol seemed to sprout.
It's difficult to say how concrete the new band is the band which took on Dave Ball to replace Robin Trower, and Alan Cartwright on bass, which allowed Chris Copping to concentrate on organ.
Gary Brooker gives little away, speaking in short sentences which contain long periods of silence.
Do you see Procol as a vehicle for your songs, or as a group in its own right?
No, I see it as a group.
But what of all the changes?
Yeah, I suppose the songs are the only constant thing; there are numbers there now that we played when we first started. Personally speaking, if I just wanted a vehicle for my songs then I would probably be on my own, because then you have control over all the aspects, whereas with a group you can't. But I like being in a group.
Why have you never made a solo album?
One of the reasons is that from a material songs point of view I never have very much time to write. Really the group doesn't have enough records out. If I wrote another ten songs in one year than I would probably get another Procol Harum album out.
It takes you a long time to write?
It doesn't take very long, it's just that it always tends to come together at one moment. You work here and there, all the year, you do tours, you have a holiday in the middle, and your making albums too. There's usually just one point where you say, I've got nothing to do for four weeks, I'll spend it working some things out.
Don't you write on the road?
It's very hard because I always write on the piano. When you're on the road it would take me a whole tour to write one song. You know, you get up on the stage to do a soundcheck, and you only get a few moments before everybody starts playing. I have written a few songs in those moments, and got ideas together.
Would it not be an idea to carry an electric piano so you can write in hotel rooms?
I did that for a tour and I wrote a few songs then, but I smashed it up in the end and never got round to replacing it. I remember writing The Devil Came From Kansas and quite a few songs on the Salty Dog album with the electric piano. But it is a funny sounding instrument, which affected the songs a lot. The songs changed, because you write as to how the piano sounds.
Do you and Keith Reid write together or separately?
Generally I write the tune on my own, and Keith writes the lyric on his own. He doesn't say, like, here is a rough idea of how it goes. He just gives me his lyrics when he has finished them. Usually I have written tunes as well. I look at the words and maybe there is a tune that fits. If there is not one to fit, then I either write a separate tune or put it aside till I come up with something that fits.
You get two very different types of song like that. It takes longer to write a tune to words, and the song generally gets far more complicated and intricate. Salty Dog was written on its own and the words went with it. Whaling Stories, I wrote to the words. When you write like that you really start to get into each line, that's why Whaling Stories goes all the way through without ever actually going back to anything.
Do you never feel limited with the five-piece line-up?
No, our line-up has less limitations than any other. You can see the limitations, insofar as you are talking about with say guitar, bass and drums, with that line-up there is only one thing you can do. Add an extra guitar to that and you still only have a little more backing, or a different style of soloing.
The thing with our line-up is that you can break it down all the time. We can play a number that would suit a three-piece group, but there is always more meat in the backing. With the basic three-piece plus organ and piano there are so many different combinations you can use, like, on a few of our numbers the drums are played very sparsely. You couldn't do that with a three-piece. Even with a bigger line-up with brass and organ, there are still less limitations with a piano, because a piano can sound ... like Rachmaninov or Jerry Lee Lewis.
Have the plans we spoke about in Edmonton, of touring with different orchestras, materialised at all?
Nothing has been worked out, but we have had offers, and will probably have a lot more when the album comes out. The trouble is that for the most part it is difficult for those orchestras to offer a lot of money, because their expenses are high. They have to pay the musicians, for the rehearsals, the choir. Really there is not much left in the kitty to give us. Another thing is the amount of time that is needed for rehearsing, it's not like driving down the freeway into a town and having a bash.
I think, I hope anyway, that we will do some more. It would be nice to do something here at the Festival Hall.
Do you still enjoy live gigging after all, you have been on the road continually for a long time now or would you prefer to just work in the studio?
No, there's still nothing better than playing a really good night somewhere. As well, it is the economics of it, and the group is large really. As far as the bread goes there are six people so you've got to do a lot of work to get something out of it. I think you'd lose record sales if you don't play live, I am sure we would, anyway. At the moment our money is about even, we make as much playing as we do from record sales. We couldn't afford to give up playing.
Do you feel tied to Procol for the indefinite future?
As long as it lasts, yes. As long as there is a Procol Harum, I suppose I will be there.
What about after Procol, do you see yourself moving into film scores or something like that?
To do something like film scores I wouldn't mind at all, because I enjoyed doing those orchestrations for the Edmonton thing. It may be I could do something for a film or even a symphony, but there is a lot more to that than meets the eye I would think. You've got to be pretty smart to be able to do that. I'd love to do all those things, but you need so much time. It's all right to write a four minute song that the rest of the boys are going to play as well. They put their bit in so you don't have to figure it out, or arrange it for them, it takes half a day. But to do a film score for instance, you might only be talking about five minutes of music, but it has to be written down as well. Depending on how you work, but I'd say that would be two or three months' work.
Have you started writing for the next album?
Yeah, I've written about five or six tunes. If we get another album out in September, it will be the first time we have had two albums out in one year. We've recorded three or four songs for the next album. We're recording it in dribs and drabs.
Do you not get tired of having to play certain numbers, because that is what your audience wants and expects?
No, occasionally if I'm getting tired of a number, I don't look forward to playing it that night, but once it's started it's sort of new again. It's funny, it always is. There have been one or two, especially the more bashy ones, which have got a bit stale. We've always dropped numbers out for a couple of years and then one day we have played it again and it comes up fresh and different so we play it again. Weve always tried to change our numbers as often as possible.
I always feel that we are doing a crowd more justice if we play something new, rather than playing just old numbers. You have to be very aware of the people, we think of them as we play a set, and that is why we play A Salty Dog we enjoy playing new ones because that is what keeps you going. If you don't play new songs it gets stale. Actually we had a bit of a bad spell on that last American tour although Edmonton was good because we didn't have any time to get of [sic] new material. We did two tours without a new song. It got to where I really wanted to play something else.
I guess without America you wouldn't have survived up until now?
I don't know, maybe if we hadn't gone to America our energies would have gone into playing here.
At the time of A Whiter Shade of Pale, you were stopped from playing dates so that you would have a mystical image...
Right. Anybody who 'phoned up and said they wanted an interview or a photo session, they were told to get lost, the boys aren't ready. Then in the end a lot of people got upset.
It's all right to have a little mystique or something and it's good to keep yourself to doing good interviews, a good interview rather than something that is going to be completely stupid. Same with a photo session. You don't want a stupid one with us poking our heads around a pillar-box. But to put everything out doesn't do anything at all, I think it must have done a lot of harm. It really upset people. There was a really heavy anti-press feeling against us at one point. They picked the holes, then two people left, which was bad publicity. There was the all-session-musicians scandal. It was all so unnecessary.
What about A Whiter Shade of Pale being re-released by Fly?
I thought it was a bit too early myself. It's money, that's all. I think if it had been released again in a couple of years' time, it would have been more of a classic and fresh.
Have you no control over old tapes?
No, none whatsoever.
What about the recent tapes?
Yeah, I the stuff we do now, somebody won't be able to put that out in five years' time without our permission. Actually the only good thing about the Fly maxi single is that it has A Salty Dog on it, so from the single point of view it might get a bit away from the 'one-hit' business. Joe Public who never buys an album will now know that there are three songs, and not just the one.
Procol (from the letters-page)
Thanks for your recent article on Procol Harum.
It gladdened my heart to see something mentioned about one of the most original groups around. Keith Reid is an excellent lyricist and only recently since I've listened to my Procol albums have I realised how good he is.
E Roberts, Coningsby
Thanks, Phil Skerratt, for lending your Procol scrapbook to BtP