Procol Harum: writing down brave
A Whiter Shade of Pale, more than any other pop song, has become the reflection of a period in time: that psychedelic, flower-powered San Francisco summer of 1967. It brought its group, Procol Harum, a success from which, in England, it has only just emerged.
The reason I am writing this piece now is because Procol Harum have just put out a highly praiseworthy album Procol Harum Live (Chrysalis 1004) with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and the Da Camera Singers, which was recorded in Canada last November. The first time that a classical orchestra has added anything to pop music, and that the two musical approaches blended in any sort of constructive cohesion. A time therefore to visit the elusive Gary Brooker, who writes most of the group’s music, and Keith Reid, who creates the lyrics.
They are currently finishing an album to be released in October called Grand Hotel, and are putting the finishing touches to it in George Martin’s Air London studios above Oxford Circus. A thoughtful pair, not over-given to publicity, having suffered at the hands of it earlier, content enough with their artistic success, mellowing in their late twenties.
Reid is the one who fascinates. Close clustered curls, owlish spectacles and unruly shirt collar fighting the knot in his tie, a rather formal, shy person. It comes as no surprise when he says that his East End schooldays were spent as a confirmed bookworm,. “I read everything and anything, but I wasn’t any good at academic work”. In fact, when he left school he had a succession of jobs including tailoring. He has started writing songs and answered an advertisement in a music paper, which brought him into touch with Brooker, who was at the time leading quite a good group called The Paramounts. Brooker’s father had been a musician, playing with Felix Mendelsohn’s Hawaiian Serenaders. When Brooker met Reid he was a great admirer of the Swingle Singers, who had just given Bach a contemporary, almost scat like treatment. He still likes the Swingles’ work to this day.
Reid explains how the lyric style happened: “It was based on a malapropism, something someone I heard said, and I just noted it and thought it would make a good song sometime. To me, it all made sense. It wasn’t just words for words' sake.” The sepulchral music of Brooker set the whole thing off. There followed the adverse publicity after A Whiter Shade of Pale, then another reasonably successful single, Homburg. The group concentrated on America. “We didn’t live there,” says Brooker, “although everyone here seemed to think so. We just went over there for tours of a month or six weeks. We lived here but never appeared here”. ( From this two-year period came Conquistador, a work which, then released as a very thin-sounding version and now re-released with the full orchestral backing, has done more than anything to bring them back to prominence.)
It was later that same year that their musical reputation was more surely founded with the album A Salty Dog. It was the last album on which Matthew Fisher, the musician who had given Harum the Bachian organ sound, played. He was replaced by Chris Copping, who played bass as well as organ on their next, and perhaps least inspiring album, Home.
Personnel continued to change, but always there was Brooker, and especially the words of Reid, which never quite developed in the direction you thought they would. As Reid says in a rather soft self-deprecating voice: “There are very few people doing what I do. It’s quite a difficult thing. When I write something, I’m aiming to write it in the same way a poet writes a piece of poetry. It has to work within itself and I give it to Gary who adds to it and makes it something else, complements it.”
I found one of their best cooperations a year ago: Broken Barricades, from the album of the same name:
Now gather up your [sic]
And write down brave words
Your prayers are unanswered,
Your idols absurd
The seaweed and [the] cobweb,
Have rotted your sword
Your barricades broken,
Your enemies Lord.
On September 22 Procol Harum join with the Royal Philharmonic in concert at London’s Rainbow Theatre. At last London will be able to give them the public recognition they were denied five summers ago. Who knows, perhaps they will be prevailed upon to play A Whiter Shade of Pale. Surely all will be forgiven, especially if the audience remembers Brooker’s words: “We didn’t know whether San Francisco was on the East or the West Coast.”
Thanks to John Lock for locating this article, Jill McMahon for typing it.
More mentions of Procol Harum in The Times
Procol Harum at the Rainbow with orchestra