Procol at the BBC

'Strange Fruit' liner note ... the long draft


When Strange Fruit asked for some liner-notes for this album I spoke to Gary, Keith, Mick, Chris and Alan then set to work without worrying too much about wordage. Soon there was three times more than there was space to print ... so I chopped it down to the text shown here; it's possible, however, that one or two Palers will find interest in my detailed notes on the songs, and the longer versions of what Gary in particular said to me: so here's the 'director's cut' [RC]


Procol Harum : 'Beyond the Pale'
Considering Procol Harum's global stature as a live act, and the gold-selling success of their 1971 live Edmonton orchestral album, it's unbelievable that this is their first official live CD in quintessential form: a storming five-piece rock outfit. The BBC recorded eleven superb Brooker / Reid compositions on 22 March 1974 at London's Golders Green Hippodrome; this CD supersedes incomplete, off-air tapes that fervent Procoholics - you'll hear them bellowing 'Encore' before a note's been played! - have treasured for the past quarter-century.

Following a three-month lay-off for recording, Procol had already played six college shows and a John Peel session that March: unprecedented UK touring for them. Band-leader Brooker recalls the band's many BBC sessions ... ' By this time they were taking a bit more care with it: it sounds messy once or twice as well over on the drum section rather than the steadier sound that we used to get, but they had very competent engineers, and of course you couldn't wish for a nicer host. I don't know why he says we're not going to pay the single off the album, maybe he had the wrong setlist? You did these shows because it was a way of promoting your new album, a way of getting it on the radio. But you didn't get overexcited about it. Was this the one I had a green tail suit made for?' To guitarist Mick Grabham they were '... pretty much just another job', and wordmonger Keith Reid also emphasises the workaday nature of a show where ' ... if somebody screwed up, it just got broadcast that way.'

1 Conquistador
Always a favourite show-starter, Conquistador had charted for Procol (August 1972) in the live 'Edmonton' orchestration, whose Hispanic flavour they recreate here without the need for symphonic players: Mick Grabham does the work of three men, filling out the texture with intricate fills and a shapely solo. Procol had already played Conquistador for two 1967 BBC sessions (now lost) and it is the only number here whose organ-part was created by influential Hammond-player, Matthew Fisher, who left them two years later. His successor, Chris Copping, makes a suitably frenzied showing, and his own Baroque leanings can be heard in the final flourish.

2 Bringing Home the Bacon
This meaty rocker, also a favourite opener in the 70s, is built on Gary Brooker's piano and the percussion of the great Barrie Wilson, instrumental duo at the core of the band's gradually-mutating line-up. Typically the piano handles much of the time-keeping, releasing Wilson for all sorts of inspired rhythmical adventures: oddly this stirring performance was cut from the broadcast tape.

3 Whaling Stories
Regarded by many as Procol's finest marriage of words and music, Whaling Stories condenses an astonishing range of emotions and styles into its nine minutes, realising with utter integrity the sort of cinematic sweep that fussier, 'progressive' rivals could only grope for. This great 'Procol Blues' had also received the Edmonton orchestral treatment: here Copping's evocative new introduction continues its evolution. The BBC didn't retain concert master-tapes, so it's impossible now to re-jig the somewhat haphazard original mix ('the BBC drum sound' as Mick Grabham remembers): nonetheless the power of this enigmatic epic shines through.

4 New Lamps for Old
Keith Reid, who compiled the band's setlists, now remembers, 'New Lamps was certainly very unusual for us to play live; that's intriguing!' This languorous offering stands apart from most of the high-energy material on 1974's Exotic Birds ..., the band's rocking re-emergence from the more studied arrangements heard on Grand Hotel (1973). More than half the songs in tonight's concert came from the '74 album, each one dealing with disillusionment or resignation; somehow New Lamps captures the perfect musical setting for that theme.

5 Beyond the Pale
Procol Harum liked to use surprising instruments and visit unexpected sound-worlds: Gary Brooker wanted an Eastern European feel to this song and, though the band would not visit Poland until 1975, he explains (1999) that 'I have always been able to imagine the future.' Here he hazards a Russian, French or Japanese influence for Beyond the Pale : but strictly none of these calls for Chris Copping's rhythm-banjo! 'Luckily no-one threw the tomatoes that my banjo-playing deceived!' Chris recalls. 'The mandolins on the record were probably by BJ,' says Gary now. 'It would have been nice to have used balalaikas.' Historically 'The Pale' was the area to which Catherine the Great restricted Russian Jews, but in Procol-lore it harks back to the band's initial monster hit, A Whiter Shade of Pale, which they still played as an encore. Brooker actually sings 'beyond the veil': yet the title-pun is so strong it has been adopted to name the recently-published Harum biography, and the band's 1,000-page fan website at www.procolharum.com.

6 As Strong as Samson
Pop pundits, accustomed to one-dimensional lyrics, sometimes attacked Procol Harum for being oblique; but time has shown the wiser: Reid wrote richly and allusively, indifferent to fashion and the market-place, and his words don't sound at all dated even 25 years on. Samson, unusually, makes a specific reference, to the industrial unrest of the 'winter of discontent', which had interrupted the Exotic Birds sessions. 'We were having a terrible time: you could record from 2 till 4 but then not from 4 till 7.' Gary remembers. Nevertheless he feels sure that Reid is here 'coming down on the side of the man in the street, against the establishment.' When Procol toured this song in the 90s, it was updated to allude to 'Croats and Kurds', but 'that was just me being a wise guy' says Brooker now. Sadly the reborn band could not feature Wilson, who died in 1990: listen to his inspired work in the instrumental break preceding the final verse!

7 Simple Sister
Like Whaling Stories this song features an extended central build-up over a repeated motif: but here the chords remain suitably simple, allowing the band to let rip and relax - as the off-mike shouts and occasional glitches demonstrate. This has always been a popular live number, especially across the Atlantic: it was played with orchestra at Edmonton, but didn't make it to the Live album, where it might have helped loosen some of the 'pomp-rock' prejudices that unjustly beset the band.

8 The Idol
Some of tonight's arrangements feature excellent vocal harmonies (Cartwright and Grabham), which the band had made little use of earlier in their career. 'We didn't always have voices that could blend very well,' says Brooker now. Everyone's on form here, Mick Grabham giving a terrific performance, Brooker's vocal passion excelling the recorded version. Who was the mysterious 'idol' who had saved these drowning men before, but who could 'see no point in diving in' because he 'knew that he would neither sink nor swim'? 'I get an image of a golden, Biblical idol,' says Gary, 'not someone specific from rock music.'

9 Grand Hotel
Despite the orchestra (and evening-dress!) that adorned the Grand Hotel album, its title-waltz owes little to European classical music. Its heady aura derives from a combination of Gary Brooker's instinctive harmonic freshness, the haunting violin solo, and the tongue-in-cheek tango that precedes Grabham's mighty guitar break. Gary Brooker is unaware of the Gypsy song Ochi Chyornije, which some claim his violin melody copies. 'Never heard of it,' Gary declares. 'I always owned up when something was purposely lifted, but of course when you're trying to characterise something one's ears are unconsciously open to everything, and your imagination also.' Brooker declaims Reid's sumptuous libretto with soulful gravity, yet there's simultaneous fun in his French asides and cod brass-noises: the complex spirit of pure Procol suffuses this endearingly contradictory performance.

10 Butterfly Boys
Pounding piano drives this mature rocker (easy to see why Gary Brooker was asked to play on the Rolling Stones' records!), which also highlights the fluent collaboration of Cartwright and Wilson; meanwhile the guitar effortlessly flicks from delicate fills to a searing and finely-articulated solo. 'This song could apply to any situation where someone's doing well and the others are getting the shit,' Gary explains, though he concedes that Reid's lepidopterous chorus alludes directly to the band's then record company, Chrysalis. 'It's definitively about Terry and Chris swanning it up, doing very well and running a multimillion pound record label. Procol Harum is the 'sinking ship' here,' explains Gary, 'and the label owners, who were also our managers, are the ones that 'get the cake'. We weren't exactly ripped off, not like in the past, but Reid had spotted an imbalance! They were very upset about the song, and wanted us to change the words and title to Government Boys. We said 'Bollocks.''

11 Nothing But the Truth
Why didn't this superb single (released 15 March) herald a chart renaissance for Procol Harum? Gary recalls Elton John praising it, and its writers, on a pop panel at the time, and Jools Holland striving to figure out the rolling boogie piano introduction. It's an intricate composition, vital and original (though unusually for Brooker it features a middle-eight), and they toured hard to promote it. Here Brooker is in admirable tonsil, and the whole band gels into a single, organic powerhouse. Hit song or not, this is prime Procol Harum - in full flight there really is no-one in the world to touch them.

Gary Brooker (vocal, piano): after Procol dissolved (1977) he toured with Clapton, led his R&B band No Stiletto Shoes, and the Gary Brooker Ensemble. Led Procol Harum again 1991-97, then toured with Ringo Starr, Bill Wyman, and the British Rock Symphony. Now writing his fourth solo album. 'Procol Harum will play concerts in 2000,' he promises.

Alan Cartwright (bass, vocal harmonies): hasn't played since late Seventies, barring the Thirtieth Anniversary nine-member Procol reunion in 1997: describes himself now as '... an old bar-steward in Enfield.'

Chris Copping (Hammond, banjo): writes and records in his own studio in Melbourne, Australia, occasionally guests as Hammond-player on record: flew in for 1997 reunion at Redhill.

Mick Grabham (guitar, vocal harmonies): also played 1997 reunion; now gigs with Los Amigos, R&B trio. 'My other occupation is being a mad collector,' he says.

Keith Reid (words): lives in London / New York, and is about to publish an anthology, My Own Choice; in his own words, he is '... still very much a working songwriter, with a bunch of different people.'

Barrie Wilson (drums): rests in peace in Oregon, USA

All songs by Keith Reid (words) and Gary Brooker (music). 1 originally from Procol Harum (1967); 3 from Home (1970); 7 from Broken Barricades (1971); 2, 9 from Grand Hotel (1973); 4, 5, 6, 8, 10 and 11 from Exotic Birds and Fruit (1974),


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