Antonio Costa Barbé is a lawyer, musician and freelance journalist. On a morning in late November 1998 he made several attempts to telephone Chris Copping in Australia. Antonio tells BtP that he was due in court at 11.15 am: he actually telephoned at 10.30 just to try to set up the chat for next morning; but 'Chris was So Kind; I did literally improvise the questions: ero molto contento per l'immediato consenso di Chris all'intervista, ma alla fine ho dovuto proprio 'fiondarmi' in tribunale ... because I was very, very late!
Everything seemed initially to be against Antonio: at first he reached Chris's wife, who declared that Chris was not present, but kindly volunteered to go next door and fetch him. Antonio therefore had to ring back in a few moments, and a hideously guttural voice answered: it was Chris, cruelly distorted by the international 'phone service. Antonio tried to begin an interview for broadcast on Il Pezzo Mancante ('The Missing Piece'), his show on Radio Azzurra Novara ...
Hello! (voice of a Dalek!)
Hello. Yes. I am Antonio Costa Barbé from Italy speaking. Is Mr Copping ?
Yes, yes it is, yes.
I am a journalist from Italy, a lawyer a journalist and a PH - Procol Harum - great fan too. I wonder, Mr Copping, if I can speak with you, and if you can give to me a brief, a little interview for my Radio, Radio Azzurra Novara, and for Internet page www.procolharum.com, 'Beyond the Pale', managed by Roland Clare and Jens Anders Ravnaas. If possible, to speak with you now or in another time.
About how long do you need?
I think about ... few minutes.
Ok yes, fine, fine. Good.
But please, I hear very bad the audio, can I call you again?
I ... (sound breaks up savagely) ... very well.
The voice is very bad: I call you again.
I ... hang up ... Roma ...
(Antonio now undertakes his third trans-global call of the morning ... luckily a pure-voiced Chris answers promptly ... )
Is that better?
Oh very much!
Oh good. I could hear you but ... OK ... and you're in Roma?
No, I'm ... I'm sorry for my broken English but ... I am ...
Your English is excellent! My Italiano is non-existent ...
Oh, thank you Maestro Copping. I am in Novara, Italy, a small town near Milano, 'Milan'.
Oh right, we played in Milano.
I remember. I tried ... I was seventeen years old and I tried to come in Milano to hear Procol Harum, but the concert did no way, and Robin Trower was ill also ...
Ah yes ...
And I did not see my preferred group. I am able ... I was able to see Procol only two years ago in Barbican centre in London, but you are not present.
You are present at Redhill.
Yes. Did you go to Redhill?
No ... I am also a musician too, a vocalist and organist but amateur, amateur. And in 1971 ...
That's when we toured, played in Milano.
Yes. In Novara, at the time of LP Home, me and my group transcribed off the record the complicated song, Dead Man's Dream ...
Oh! Many chords!
And I know the chords now until today. I have meeted with Gary Brooker in Gryon in Switzerland a few months ago.
And he said to me, 'Please Antonio, let me have the chords, because I have forgotten them!'
(great laughter of Copping) That sounds like Gary! (Laughs again) I've had to remind him of chords he had written before, yes.
If you want to I will send to you by FAX; but you are a very good memory, I think. Maestro, please, you are very kind. I will just have with you a few questions.
Yes, go! Away! It's lovely to hear from someone. We love Italy, my wife and I. My wife's maiden name is Sassella, from Grosio near Tirano, near the Swiss border, and we visited there two years ago, we were at Venezia and Castellina and Chianti and Roma ...
Yes, I know very well these places ...
We had a beautiful time.
I will send at the end of this interview if you want a FAX with my numbers and dates and my name and so if you will stay in touch ...
Oh, fantastico ...
Oh thank you. Mr Copping, Maestro Chris ...
How did you feel in joining Procol Harum in 1969?
How did I feel about it? I thought ... I was very proud. Because I thought Salty Dog was a very fine album. I thought the song of Salty Dog was one of the best compositions that Gary and Keith had made. I think it was a better song than Whiter Shade of Pale even though Whiter Shade of Pale was a unique recording, I thought ... I thought A Salty Dog was ... well I think now, and I suppose I half-thought then, A Salty Dog was the musical equivalent of a Turner sea-painting.
Yes. I have seen the video of your brother ...
Oh, the one where I first joined? That is a good, a good little piece of history (laughs)
In the making of album, Home, what ... did you develop your organ style during that experience?
About the organ style ... um ... my thoughts on joining the band at the time were really ... I was honoured to be asked to play the bass and the organ ... but I was almost in awe of Matthew's organ-playing, so what I really wanted to do was to just maintain to some extent the standard that Matthew had set and not try to do anything different.
But I wanted to try and improve the bass end of things, and get a little bit more of ... you know R&B, rhythm and blues, you know, just to make it a bit more funky on the bottom end. So I was sort of interested in being on the bass.
And it was only after Robin left, I wanted to ... Keith and Gary said, 'We are going to go back to a five-piece instrumental,' and they said 'What would you prefer to do, organ or bass?' And I said, 'Well I think I'm just starting to get OK on bass,' and I wanted to do that, and Matthew almost joined us again but for some strange reason didn't; and we were sort of stuck and we didn't like ... we weren't happy with organists who came ...
And then we found Alan to play bass and they said, 'Do you mind changing your mind and playing organ?' and ... I just wanted to be a team-player ... for Inter Milan, hopefully, or Arsenal (laughs), and I said 'OK, well I'll do organ!'
And I sort of tried to ... sort of ... to do organ. I kind of would've liked to have done bass with Matthew playing organ, really, but things don't always work out the way you want.
I understand. Just a curiosity. In the video, Keith Reid plays the organ on Piggy Pig Pig. Is this a fake ability, or he can really play the organ, but he did once play?
OK. Keith, I think on a couple of concerts came on to do that just so that I could be on bass and still have an organ. I think because ... the other thing is, Keith was a member of the band, not only a member but a co-leader of the band ... it gave an opportunity for him to be seen on something, and ... I think he might have even played it on the record. It was a fairly easy bit, and Keith had had piano-lessons when he was young.
I believe that yes. And what do you think about the songs of Gary Brooker and Keith Reid? Did you compose anything at the time?
No, and there was no reason why I should not have done. The main reason is ... er ... a mixture of laziness, and lack of confidence (laughs) and I was sort of enjoying the life of being in the band. In retrospect, by the time we got to Procol's Ninth, it's clear that there was a need for a bit of assistance somewhere, and my thoughts are that Exotic Birds and Fruit was one of the best albums we did, and I think that the fact that it didn't sell, I think, produced a bit of a negative aspect and it was difficult to follow it. It should have been a big album.
And after you left Procol, why did you move to Australia?
Well after ... there was one tour that I did not do in I think about June 1977, and then I did a tour with Frankie Miller instead; and then there was ... it was ... there was lots of punk happening, lots of exciting music, and you sort of felt ... and I was living in the middle of the countryside ... basically, things weren't going too well ... it often happens when a band stops ... and so I had a trip out to Australia where my brother lived; and my daughter from my previous marriage was living in New Zealand, so I was able to do that. And I met my current wife here, and I started ... doing a few things connected with film ... and then I went back to England, and still nothing was happ ... I was trying to get a few things going, and they didn't come off too well, and things kind of worked out OK when I moved back here. and I've been back to England ... and Italy ... a couple of times.
So please let me make one jump. What were your feelings at Redhill party? How did you feel among the other musicians? Was it a joy meeting?
Yes, it was great fun; there was still a bit of jet-lag, and there was a slight element of time-warp because we were going to rehearse in Gary's barn ...
Did you rehearse very much, or not?
About two days, and I managed to have a ... a slight argument with Gary because I wanted to do Nothing But The Truth and he wanted to do ... it was difficult for Gary because there was only one person to play guitar, and that was Mick, and there was only Graham to play drums, but we had millions ... a lot of people to play bass and a lot of people who could play keyboards. And Gary was trying to juggle all these people, and I said I want to do Nothing But the Truth, and Gary said I want to do Thin End of the Wedge; and I got upset because that was the one thing I couldn't remember. I was actually glad that we did it, because Gary had a CD of it and I listened to it ... I think it's a lovely piece of music, very dark ...
And may I ask, how was your encounter with Matthew Fisher, organ / organ ...
Oh fantastic: I love Matthew, it was great to see Matthew, and also it was fantastic to be ... on ... even though my bass-playing is a bit rusty it was fantastic to be playing bass on Kaleidoscope, which I think is one of the best numbers on the first album, because it's got original ideas and it is still a good rock and roll number, it's a really good rock and roll number and I love playing bass with Matthew on organ. And I also thought that it was lovely seeing Mick Grabham looking well, and playing really well. And it ... and I thought he was the perfect guitarist for Procol Harum, because the chordal structure, the musical structure was so rigid it could not contain as powerful a blues artist as Robin Trower for ever: he had to break free of the cage, the Gothic cage, the Beethoven and Bach-like and two keyboards: he had to break free and he did: and for the record, we still play the vinyl of Bridge of Sighs and it sounds brilliant: we love it.
I have ... had interviews with Gary Brooker last year, with Matthew Fisher last Christmas, and with Nicholas Dodd, the master of Barbican concert ...
Who also ... who also did the arrangement on some of the Pulp Hardcore.
And even with Kellogs, your old ... roadie.
(sighs) Yes, a dear friend, a dear friend.
Just a last question, Maestro. What kind of project have you for the present and for the future? Are you in the music, even now, even today.
Oh yes, I've been working with TV commercials ... and I'm trying to do a bit more ... and I've done something for an animated film, a claymation film, it's only a five minute long thing. Do you know the English Wallace and Gromit?
OK, I understand.
It's a thing like that, and I've got a colleague over from England at the moment and we're just mucking around with some ... you know, the new way of doing jazz ...
Oh. And have you some regrets, some nostalgia in Italiano about the old time with Procol, about the youth time.
Um ... oh, no, it's just there in the memory, and we've got the records to play. My only regrets are that I can't spend more time in Venezia! I spent one day there, two years ago, and I'd love to have a musical project so that I could spend two months there. I love being in Italy.
Let's hope. Now, it's been very kind for you.
Oh, It's been lovely to hear from you.
And I wish you a merry Christmas, early Christmas.
And the same to you!
'Bye, Maestro Copping.
Read more Procol Harum interviews from Antonio at Radio Azzurra