Procol Harum

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My Encounters with Procol Harum

Mac Gajda


It was when I firstly read Dianeís memoirs in the special issue of Shine On commemorating the Redhill event in July 1997, that I realized how different were my early encounters with Procolís music compared with hers.

Although back in sixties we all lived on the same continent, it was like a different world. Here, in the UK where this music was born and was available to all who liked it, and there in Poland, behind Ďthe iron curtainí where we had a limited access to the Western culture including British or American rock music.

Donít get me wrong: we were not in any way prosecuted for listening to rock or playing it because of political system, it was more lack of contacts and funds to get any new LP which was simply not available at any shop, and a subject of dream when we heard of its release.

Apart from a small number of people who may have had their relatives or friends in the West and could get albums or music magazines from them, the radio was the only source of listening to new rock music for rest of us. This was (fortunately) really good and Programme III of Polish radio, which was probably the first one which broadcasted on FM, was what the young people in sixties and seventies listened to, taping the music on old-style reel type recorders. We could then play it over and over again, often amplified through home made amplifiers and boxes. This way I firstly heard Procol Harum.

I can remember AWSoP was a big hit in Poland although probably never listed on any Hit Parade which didnít exist those days. We were enchanted as millions of people everywhere in the world and tried to play it on our old piano in my college.

Then we didnít hear of Procol Harum for a couple of months until one day I heard something new. It was Homburg which my friend managed to tape (I even didnít own a tape recorder at that time!), but then again we couldnít get anything about Procol Harum, who they were and whether they released any other songs than these two hits. We only realized that a LP must have been released after my friend managed to tape Conquistador, Salad Days and Repent Walpurgis, maybe later She Wandered ... and Kaleidoscope, some of them half faded as broadcasted. We were so moved and kept listening to them over and over again sitting in the porch of my friendís house.

The content of the whole first album I learnt only three years later, being already at the university, when found incidentally that one of my friends got the album from his dad who was a sea captain.

We heard of Shine On Brightly in a similar way, having taped it in pieces. We couldnít understand much of the words (some of them were later written down for me by my English teacher), yet we were fascinated by the music. Still, having not heard of the group, I decided to write to a youth newspaper where I tried to describe how the music moved us and requested some more information on the group.

You would imagine it was a music magazines like you had those years in this country. In the matter of fact, it was a daily newspaper for young people with usual propaganda of these days which once a week had a half page of music news, written by a well known jazz (and later rock) critic. To my surprise, he published my letter, or most of it, and rewarded me with a single of Ike and Tina Turner (which I couldnít play anyway as I had no gramophone).

But most importantly, he also advised the address of Procol Harum Fan Club in London, I think Denmark Street, or similar, where I wrote immediately. I got some leaflets and paper clips from them which meant a lot to me. However, it was first and last time, and despite I wrote to them on several occasions, never got any answer. Perhaps my post was lost or stolen ...

It must have been in 1969 when I got this stuff from the fan club as we could finally realize who Procol Harum were and what they released by that time. We still didnít know everything, especially from A Salty Dog except the title song, but gradually got all the songs from the radio.
It had its advantages because once you (it was my friend) got just one song, you could enjoy it for a long while before you were successful to tape another one.

Soon it was not enough for us just to listen to the music. We all played a bit on various instruments, so started to try Procolís music. It was quite difficult with all their harmony, so different from The Beatles or similar things ... We found something emanating from Procolís music which was so closely linked to classic organ music which we could hear in the church.
If youíve ever heard the beautiful organ in Oliva cathedral near Gdansk, you will easily understand why.

Our local church, which was almost completely destroyed during the WW II, was then rebuilt to such extent that allowed people to gather for services in a cold, almost unheated hall. But it had quite a good organ, though electric, but new and of a good sound, and, most importantly, a priest who was himself a music lover and was opened to us, lads of 18 - 19 who wanted to play a music such unusual to the church. In those days, the Polish church tried to attract young generation to join it, also as a way to create an opposition to the political system, which proved to be so successful ten years later.

I wouldnít say that our father would have agreed to play anything we wanted  in the church because of that, and he rather  encouraged us to play the music which he thought was more appropriate to that place, something which we could call today unplugged. But our intention was to play some Procol music. We arranged a few songs, including Homburg, Quite Rightly So and Shine On Brightly, putting the words of poems of reputed Polish poets to the music. They had some religious connotations, though not too much, and after minor modifications fit quite good.

We played them to our priest, he liked them, so we started rehearsals. I think we first played for Christmas, in the church full of young people who really liked that music. We played then every Sunday and produced a new stuff for Easter. Most of it was Procolís music plus some other things like traditional Polish carols arranged in a way that we thought Procol Harum would play that. Unfortunately, we couldnít get a piano, so we were unable to produce something really similar to Procolís sound, nevertheless, most of people liked it. For most of them it was first time to hear about Procol Harum, we always admitted where the music was from.

For us it was a great feeling to play that music, and I will never forget perhaps not our playing during Sunday services but our rehearsals late in Saturdays nights in an empty, cold church hall which walls reverberated with the music. I think it was for us the real enjoying the music bit by bit, more than by  listening to it, though obviously our playing was far from perfection.

In the meantime we were looking around for new albums. It was gradually easier to get them through some channels and my friend managed to get all of them. But before that time we had everything taped from radio. Polish Radio 3 was reliable as usually! Then I suppose in 1976 I learnt about Procolís tour in Poland. In fact, there were two concerts scheduled, one in Warsaw and another in Cracow.

Now, imagine the situation that there are just two British rock groups playing in one year in a country, and thousands of people hungry to listen to that music, even if they have never heard that particular music before. Out of those thousands a few only have a chance to get a ticket and to be there. This was my case. Tickets in Warsaw were sold in one box office but most of them had been distributed among communist party establishment and their families. My cousin who lived in Warsaw was queuing for two hours to see a note, 'All tickets sold out'. I was really devastated but I really could not do much about it.

It was only three years later when Gary was a star of Sopot song festival in open-air theatre near my home city of Gdansk. This time I didnít miss opportunity and together with friends we enjoyed his performance in the summer night when he showed real music played live with a big orchestra. I also managed first time to talk to him and get his signature on a copy of Something Magic. I tried to have a longer chat but this happened to be impossible - he left shortly after the gig.

Interestingly, No More Fear of Flying film was produced and presented on Polish TV sometime in 1980. Unfortunately, I had no video recorder (either had any of my friends) to tape it but perhaps one day I will get a copy.

Gary visited then Poland again playing with an orchestra directed by Zbigniew Gorny in Poznan, and last time with Procol Harum back in 1992 on Prodigal Stranger tour. At that time we lived in Hamburg, Germany, and I went to the gig with my daughter, then 15 years old. She had a broken leg, put in gypsum, so she had to use crutches. There was a cold winter night when we got to the beautiful concert hall in the city. We got good places, probably in third or fourth row, and the rest was impossible to describe. My daughter told me later I was singing aloud, waving her crutches over my head. But imagine it was my first encounter with Procol Harum live music after 25 years of being with their music through my live.

Their music has been with me through all my adult life, in Poland and other countries I lived in for last ten years, in Germany, in Japan and finally in this country. The rest is probably most understandable: August night on Cropredy fields in 1995, Barbican concert, club night in Southend-on-Sea, Redhill and unusual concert in Aldershot church. You may imagine what I felt sitting in the first row in the church surrounded by live Procolís music ...
 

Ashbourne, Derbyshire in December 1998


Mac Gajda presents Procol Harum in Sopot, June 2001 


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