Procol Harum are, according to Keith Reid, a 'hiccough' band. Hic – they bust across the world with A Whiter Shade of Pale; cough – they disappear into semi-oblivion; Hic – they come up with Broken Barricades and back in the charts; Cough – silence dawns once again.
The giant Hic of all time came up towards the end of last year with the release of the album with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. One can only hope the indigestion problem has been cured once and for all and that the release of their already much-acclaimed Grand Hotel will at least level the band's passage out.
Not, you understand, that anyone in Procol's complaining about the situation. Indeed it's a very ebullient Keith Reid I come face-to-face with on Friday morning. Reid sits in the Capitol Hotel, Knightsbridge, 24 hours before the band hit the road with their British tour.
No palm trees in the Capitol – which is a shame considering the new album – but it does purportedly have the best restaurant in London. A fact which isn't exactly consoling Reid today since he's just put himself on a strict diet. Still the bottle of brandy is helping the sufferer and all seems well with the world …
Grand Hotel has taken Procol a year to make and is their most important album to date in that it follows the really astounding success of the Edmonton set. A success that even the band themselves hadn't bargained for:
'It was the first time anything had exceeded our expectations. The success of the Edmonton album was far more gratifying than Whiter Shade of Pale – which was our only other huge success. I suppose it's because we almost expected that to do well.
'We'd formed a group, written some songs and were going to be successful – and that's how it happened. But with Edmonton it was really SO much bigger than we hoped. It cost a lot of money and we thought that if we could manage to re-coup what we'd spent, that it sold at that many copies to make us break even, we'd be happy.
'Yes it was a terrible risk. If it hadn 't been a success at all we'd have lost over 60,000 dollars. The group would have been in so much debt we'd have had to split up. It would have meant the end of Procol Harum. We gambled that it would be about as successful as Broken Barricades in selling power and that would be OK.
'Well there's very few things that really surprise you after all this time but I can tell you that Edmonton did. It sold half-a-million in America alone, which was twice the amount we'd ever sold before.
It also meant that Procol Harum suddenly reached a whole new audience. Possibly an audience who had never heard Salty Dog or, in fact, anything from the band at all. As no band wants to waste that kind of pick up Grand Hotel has a lot to follow and a lot to conserve.
Reid says he is very aware of this and in that respect alone tends to be reserved about any prophesying on the new set.
'It's not a question of being worried on content. We all feel Grand Hotel is much better than the Edmonton album. It's simply getting to know why they brought [sic] that particular album in such vast quantities instead of something else. Why didn't they like the Salty Dog album, for instance, which I thought was a great album?
'There's also this feeling that now we've got to beat that album. So you're competing with yourself to an extent. And the other factor is that you may be very confident about what you created – and I feel very confident with what I contributed to the new album – but the actual success or failure of it has nothing to do with ME; it has nothing to do with how the band feels, it's based on the whim of the public. Something you can't foresee or control.
When Procol played the title track from the new album at their Rainbow gig some time ago it sounded to me as though that particular track could very well lead the whole set into the band's very first 'concept' album.
Grand Hotel reeked of nostalgia, of the Cannes seafront in winter 40 years ago, of paved ballrooms, and maitre d's with smoother [sic] down hair, of palm trees and vast mirrors and cherubs smiling with plaster mouths – the music tinged with the kind of empty sadness Gary Brooker writes so well. In fact it was this track that got the whole album under way to start with – Reid having come up with the name of the track before he did anything else:
'But now it's not a concept album as such, although the cover work may be deceptive as far as that goes. Originally I thought the title of that track would be great for the album title and started writing the song – well it's not as blase as that sounds! I'd really like to do a concept, but I feel if I did I'd have to be very deliberate and write it as one would a book.
'I don't like the idea of simply stringing a collection of songs together. It would have to come from my side, and from my point of view it would have to be very specific with characters talking to each other. I suppose to a great extent I'm a little lazy – until the bank manager phones I don't start writing!
'Certainly I'll only probably write 11 or 12 songs a year because I have to get the basic idea first. I'm not the kind of writer who simply tries out words to see what I come up with. It's converting an idea into reality.
'In the past the nearest we came to anything that could be loosely termed as 'concept' was In Held 'Twas in I and really that was just a long piece of music. I have actually been thinking of using Salty Dog as the basis of something bigger – building round it. I think that would work, and certainly Procol are the kind of band that could handle a concept collection very well indeed.'
Grand Hotel comes out in Britain next week, and in its own way celebrates a band who have held together for six years keeping their head above water even in times of commercial disaster. It is fitting therefore that Reid, in particular, now seems so enthusiastic and proud of the band. A band he feels may not have had a continuity in their success but have found the formulae for survival in a deceptive commercial music world:
'I don't think there ever has been continuity in Procol and I don't think there ever will be. With some people you can see them ticking over and growing every week – the really successful bands. But with us it's projects and then this and that, up and down all the time.
'In a funny way I think that's what's made us such a lasting band. You know this is Procol's sixth year and that's something I'm personally very proud of.'
Thanks, Phil Skerratt, for lending your Procol scrapbook to BtP)