"I almost feel there are two Procol Harums, the Procol Harum that die-hard fans see and the Procol Harum that everyone else sees. ‘Oh, yeah, that was a good record, why didn’t you make any more like that?’"
Organist Matthew Fisher, there from the beginning and now back in the ranks, neatly encapsulates the enigma that is Procol Harum. Well known worldwide for A Whiter Shade Of Pale, the Number 1 hit of the Summer of Love – 1967, if you’re of tender years – they have since built up a body of work that ranks them among the thoroughbreds of British rock. The February 2003 release of 12th album The Well’s On Fire extends that legend into the current millennium.
Gary Brooker, ‘the Commander’ to one and all, still leads from behind the piano, with Fisher and ever-present non-playing lyricist Keith Reid steadfastly at his shoulder. His side projects include playing with the likes of Eric Clapton and Bill Wyman, but the re-hoisting of the Procol flag has brought him back on board full-time. For him, it’s all about the songs. "Procol does not deal with pastiche or trying to re-do a blues or a be-bop." he insists. "We really enjoy playing challenging things."
Below decks lies a purring engine of a rhythm section in the comparatively young form of bassist Matt Pegg (son of Fairport’s Dave) and Mark Brzezicki of the late, lamented Big Country. Last but not least, we have 12-year veteran Geoff Whitehorn who, since filling the sizeable boots of Paul Kossoff in Back Street Crawler, has supplied guitar by appointment to Roger Chapman, Elkie Brooks, Paul Rodgers, Roger Daltrey and several more of the British rock aristocracy.
This, then, is a band with a golden future. Yet the descendants of Southend R&B hopefuls The Paramounts (established 1961) undeniably also have an illustrious past. The stately Homburg reached Number 6 in the wake of A Whiter Shade Of Pale, but the band's first, eponymous LP failed to include either of the hits and so failed to chart at home. Things looked rosier in the States where follow-up album Shine on Brightly reached Number 24, an impressive appearance at the Miami Pop Festival turning a six-figure attendance into fans on the spot.
Although A Salty Dog closed their chart record for the 1960s in both singles and album chart, Procol's 1970s output on the Chrysalis label has long been underestimated. A stunning 1971 recording with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra yielded a fifth UK hit single in Conquistador, and gave the band their biggest US success with a Top 5 album, while Grand Hotel, Exotic Birds and Fruit (a "let's get back to rock" album, according to Brooker) and Procol's Ninth from 1973-75 all have much to commend them.
"It might be a lot to do with the distribution we’ve had over the years," Gary remarks. "The first four albums were milked to death by the people who owned them, so people have had more of a chance to buy A Salty Dog than they have Grand Hotel or Exotic Birds And Fruit. It’s just been more available. I think from Broken Barricades onwards there’s been some fine stuff.
"It’s a different Procol," he continues, "because most of the later stuff involved (guitarist) Mick Grabham instead of Robin Trower. Rob was, of course, part of the band for five albums. But then things moved on and it possibly took people a while to adjust to a different sound. But it’s really a matter of the business side that the later stuff is more overlooked."
Linking with production teams Leiber and Stoller (for ‘Procol’s Ninth’ in 1975) and the Alberts (1977’s Something Magic) showed a keenness to progress and add different dimensions to the music. "We’d been with Chris Thomas in the same studio for about five albums and it was definitely time for a change. I’m not saying all those ideas were great ideas, but we had to make an album a year – which we now don’t, an album a decade is more like it!" That, of course, is set to change…
It wasn’t so much that Brooker closed the book on Procol Harum in 1977 than "it kind of shut itself. We thought we’d got to the last page and the big heavy back cover flopped over! Nobody had any ideas to do anything else, we just went our separate ways in '77. It wasn’t till years later, I think around 1989, that the Internet was just starting and people were going into chatrooms and finding fellow Procol fans. A huge dialogue built up that made me think oh, there’s still people out there. At the same time US radio stations were talking to me as if Procol, who they have great respect for, still existed. ‘Where are you why aren’t you doing something?’ I was at a crossways myself, so I thought why not?"
The result was the all-new Prodigal Stranger in 1991 which reunited Brooker, Reid, Fisher and Trower. But the record company of the time "pulled the rug from under our feet. The accountants, who let them spend more on a video than we had recording the album, decided the returns didn’t really make it. So we actually got a bit disgusted with the whole business." But Procol, once reborn, refused to return to hibernation. "We were quite happy to play, and we did play quite a lot, and at the same time the medium of the Internet was spreading the word about us." Meanwhile ex-Eurythmic Annie Lennox paid tribute to the first record she ever bought by taking A Whiter Shade of Pale back to the charts in 1995.
A joyous Thirtieth Birthday Party at Redhill followed in July 1997, when nine past and present band members entranced fans who’d travelled from every corner of the rock’n’roll globe. 2001 saw Procol touring Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, performing for two nights at the Kremlin Palace before linking with the Hallé Orchestra and Choir at a unique concert at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester.
And now we have The Well’s On Fire, a fitting addition to a back catalogue that’s surely unrivalled in the annals of British rock. It combines state-of-the-art digital production with the ‘live’ band feel you’d expect from a band that recorded its landmark first album on four-track tape, the same way as Sgt Pepper. Rafe McKenna (UB40, Big Country, Ash) has helped Procol add a contemporary edge to the time-honoured songwriting combination of Brooker, Reid and occasionally Fisher, with impressive results.
Though the current five-piece line-up has been together for the best part of a decade, this is the first time they’ve been in the studio together, and their empathy shows. Thirteen newly-minted songs drip quality, and are sure to be noticed by those unimpressed with today’s Pop Idol-obsessed scene. From Reid’s 9/11 cri de coeur In A Blink Of An Eye’ to Fisher’s breathtaking instrumental ‘Weisselklenzenacht’, sub titled ‘The Signature’ just in case some people don’t know how to pronounce it, via the hymnal ‘Fellow Travellers’ and traditional ‘A Robe Of Silk’, it’s an album to appeal to old and new fans alike. And whether bemoaning inequality in ‘This World Is Rich’ or playing with words in the opening ‘Shadow Boxed’, the Brooker/Reid partnership is on top form, both in content and delivery.
The secret of Procol Harum’s continuing success, Brooker firmly believes, is that "We don’t do pop songs as such. Procol Harum is a soul and blues band which has these other influences because of the people who are there. When we finally do it, it comes out differently. A Whiter Shade of Pale wouldn’t have been such a big hit, nor A Salty Dog or many other songs, unless they’d had soul."
Those old hits will be in evidence alongside the new material when Procol Harum play European dates in the UK and Germany in March. And Brooker is still happy performing the classic crowd-pleasers from the early albums. " It all still stands up: we enjoy it, they’re good songs to play and they don’t seem to have really dated. Some of them are astonishingly relevant. Take (1974’s) As Strong As Samson, which is to do with the problems of war. You could rewrite the words today and they’d be just as relevant. And Holding On from Prodigal Stranger, that was written during the Gulf War. Put it on again today – the world hasn’t changed."
Back in 1975, ‘musicians' bible’ Melody Maker launched a scathing attack on Procol, a band who’ve never – ever – been press darlings. "Procol are completely unswinging, locked in their strait-jacketed arrangements," it ranted before complaining of "pomp, ceremony and fake grandiosity." Suffice to say that Melody Maker is no longer with us but Procol Harum rock on in all their splendour, a galleon in full sail. And soul…