Procol Harum

Beyond
the Pale

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Quite Rightly So

or Coming to terms with Procol Harum


Bud Scoppa in Crawdaddy 1970. This article dives in and out of interview format without always making it clear who is speaking. But it's worth persisting.


I: The Audience
'I can remember the first time I heard a Procol Harum album. I was at the house of a friend of. mine from graduate school. He was an older guy, and he didn't seem to have any rock albums, but he had a real nice stereo. Anyway, we were smoking, and I decided I wanted to hear some music, so I looked through his records, and among all the classical stuff I found this black album with a strange Beardsley-like drawing. I thought, Oh, yeah, Procol Harum Whiter Shade of Pale, so I put it on.

Well as it turned out I played the album from beginning to end five or six times straight And I can remember these weird sensations it was probably really good grass but I can remember these weird sensations of being floated up into the air, then suddenly tromped beneath the floor. It was an incredibly intense experience; I'd never been that strongly affected by music, dope or anything else before that. And it struck me as strange it still seems strange because that level of reaction wasn't in my realm of experience at all.'

'If I could play the guitar I'd like to be able to play it like Robin Trower.'

'That album is great, but still, a real downer.'

'I left after maybe the third encore they'd just done an incredible version of Lucille believe it or not, and I heard I they came back again. The audience wouldn't let them stop.'

'The music is really nice, but I can't understand what the words mean.'

'Procol Harum and the Byrds played on a Fillmore bill last summer. It was just right.'"

II: The Music
A piano drums, a guitar, bass with its own distinct pattern. The players mesh with an all-but-audible click. An organ fills any cavities that remain the musical fabric. The organ, bass, and piano are steady and calm for the most part, but the drums and guitar persist in departing from the even flow disrupting the order. Surging, pulling back on the fabric, tearing, struggling to break away completely. The piano is crystalline, the organ baroque, the bass phlegmatic, the drums insistently unorthodox, the guitar intensely passionate. A shaggy, tired voice rides atop the turbulent structure.

It sounds something like rock and roll, and it sounds something like diverse other forms as well. But the sound is reminiscent of nothing so much as of itself, curling under and hurtling over itself, but maintaining a certain tone caused by five specific instruments approached by five specific individuals in terms of each other, and of the whole.

Because of the dynamic involved, combined with the subtler effect of the words, the music has great visual potency: A giant tap-dancing insect; a large dark room in some city, framed by two silent people; a church in flames; a broad-chested man struggling in huge chains; an endless wheatfield the stalks of which, on closer examination, are unmoving, blankly staring human figures; a storm at sea; Ozymandias.

Listen to any of the four albums on earphones as I am now.

John Landau, in writing about Shine On Brightly, said that Procol Harum's music sounded as if it had been recorded in a dungeon.

III: The Mysteries
Gary Brooker: We first played Repent Walpurgis in the basement of a church. It went on four or five hours without stopping. It was quite intense, really, almost unbearable.

We skipped the light fandango
Turned cartwheels 'cross the floor
I was feeling kind of seasick
But the crowd called out for more

... By then a crowd had gathered
So I burst into song.
In the anger of the moment
The crowd began to sing along ...

... and though the crowd clapped desperately
They did not see the joke

(Scene: a hotel room. The Writer sits on the bed with his taperecorder, the Photographer stands opposite, facing the window, the Musician walks towards the bathroom.)

Writer: I figured you'd be smoking Players Cigarettes for some strange reason, I didn't realize the Salty Dog cover was taken from the Players' pack until someone showed me a pack.

Photographer: That's a great album cover.

(The Musician pauses at the bathroom door.)

Writer: Yeah, the demented look the sailor's face

Photographer: Is that photograph?

Gary Brooker: Yeah.

Writer: Oh, you mean it's a real person?

Gary: Oh, yeah.

Photographer: It looked like half drawing, half photo.

Gary: No, I think it was painted over but nor much. (Then, as afterthought) He writes the words.

Photographer: That's Keith Reid ... No!

(The musician enters the bathroom closes the door.)

... Imagine my surprise
Thought I'd left it at home
Ain't no doubt
I'm sitting on my own tombstone

Gary Brooker: Keith and I write together because the things always go together. Because he writes words separately, and I write my music separately. And they just come together. It's always been that way; if it hadn't been that way, we probably wouldn't've got together.

You mean he doesn't show you the words and tell you to write the music?

Gary: No.

No? Completely separate?

Gary: Well, I mean, not like I say, 'Here it is,' and he takes with him. It's done separately.

That sounds supernatural if you come in with some music and he comes in with some words and they just naturally fit together. Does that ever happen?

Gary: This is what does happen.

That's very strange. Do you have a sense of something going on beyond the five senses?

Gary: Not really. I mean it's always been like that. Keith and I have always done it like that. And we just accept it.

The first time must have been exciting.

Gary: Well, there's been exceptions, you know. Some words he's written to music I've already written and he's put words to it, and vice versa. But still, that is the reason why we write together, you know, things will always fit.

How did you first meet Keith Reid?

Gary: Keith and I sort of just met. We had a mutual friend. It just happened that we had never met before. I met him and he told me he had just written some words and he gave them to me. I took them home. He'd never written much of anything before, and he'd just suddenly decided to write something when he was walking along one day. He'd like to write some lyrics not with the idea that someday they would be put to music, but that this was what they were for.

He didn't expect to go out the next day when he'd finished the words and find somebody to write the music. And the first one he wrote was one where he'd got the idea of somebody being followed by his tombstone. That's the first one he wrote and then he wrote a lot more. And then I actually received them, he gave me this packet of words, but without telling me any of this.

I forgot about them, by the time I got back home, it must have been a heavy night. And I discovered them a couple months later, in my cupboard. I couldn't figure out what they were at first. I read them, and I liked them, and it sort of came back to me. I sat down at the piano and looked at them and I wrote a couple of songs to them. I had never written any songs before [sic]. The first one I wrote on this particular day was the one about the tombstone.

Something Following Me?

Gary: Yeah. I hadn't heard from Keith at all in all this time since I met him. And the next day I got a letter in the post. And it just said, 'Dear Gary,' and then it had a quote from this song, about the tombstone. It said, 'I'm desirous of speaking to you. Please call me.' So I called him and told him I'd just written a song to it. He bounced down and we started working together ... it's all true.

We used to play the overture from Thus Spake Zarathustra. And if we were outside, and it was raining, or cloudy, the sun would always come out. (Smiles almost imperceptibly.)

You cracked up when you played it at the Fillmore.

Gary: It was probably because of that giant baby the light show flashed on the screen. I couldn't figure where they'd got it from. I looked up and was taken aback ...

Gary Brooker generally looks to be taken aback.

. . . I sat me down to write a simple story
which maybe in the end became a song
The words have all been writ by one before me
We're taking turns in trying to pass them on.

Pilgrim's Progress

Does Keith read other poets at all? I was thinking that Rime of the Ancient Mariner runs strongly through A Salty Dog. Does he read Coleridge?

Gary: I shouldn't think so. He's had some deep thoughts about it, really. He's always asked me. In Pilgrim's Progress, I'd never read the book of the same name, by John Bunyan, isn't it? and I read what must have been the preface, and it was exactly the same tone as Keith's words. So I said to him 'Have you read this?' and he said, 'No'. And it was exactly the same, not the same words, but the same tone.

Something like that would lead you to believe in reincarnation.

Gary: Well, it's a bit of a heavy thought, really, to think something like that. But I couldn't think of an explanation. Have you read Pilgrim's Progress? It has exactly the same atmosphere ...

You better listen anybody
'Cause I'm gonna make it clear
That my life is unimportant
What I've done I did through fear ...

Crucifiction Lane

IV: The Words
Gary: Keith has just now sent in some words that are so horrible couldn't bear to read them again. He's gone as far as he can go with this rotting thing of his ...'

... I'll blacken your Christmas and piss on your door.
You'll cry out for mercy
but still there'll be more
Still there'll be more

EVO Writer [sic]: You still into ships?

Gary: No, death Is my bag. Death.

At present Reid seems to be obsessed with the notion of a vengeful God pouring out righteous wrath on wayward humanity. The way it's presented, the apocalypse deserved, timely, and necessary to cleanse the earth. Man's moral decay, in Reid's vision, is overwhelmed by God's natural decomposition, and through nature's decay, the elements, which have been twisted and perverted by mankind, return to their pure form. The warning is given:

Wash yourself and see your sorrow
make every pitcher clean
Take a mop to swab the floor
And destroy the evil dream ...

Because
The evil eye on high ...
The new moon's in the sky.
God's aloft the winds are raging
God's aloft the winds are cold.

Piggy Pig Pig

And in the wake of God's fury:

Daybreak washed with sands of gladness
rotting all it rotted clean ...

Whaling Stories

Reid evokes the language and the imagery of an earlier time, and the music somehow reinforces the mood. In all-but archaic language, he conjures up a world of absolute good and evil, of clear choices, then superimposes this vision upon our own age.

A weary, ageing Christ recalls vaguely.

I was living in the graveyard
I was hanging from the wall
I was living in the desert
I was trying not to fall.

Barnyard Story

without being able to recall why he underwent all that misery, except for a nagging recollection of a 'flaming chariot' and 'the chosen bride'. And now,

Light a candle up in kingdom come
Light the way for the Saviour's son
A candle burning bright enough to tear that city down ...

About to Die

Christ's approach proved ineffectual; His son will use fire, not love.

In Whaling Stories, the band depicts the apocalypse by moving in unison up the scale while the guitar screams out above in devasting [sic] fashion. Trower's guitar, when unleashed, most strongly reinforces Reid's verbal imagery.

As to why Reid and the band pursue this subject matter, no explanation is offered except that:

Gary: When you're in good spirits, you don't want to sit down and write, now do you?

Procol Harum have always had this air of mystery and strangeness about them. Has that been consciously cultivated?

Gary: We never bothered about it, really. We just never thought about it at all.

V. Rifts And Mends
Matthew Fisher was the organist until late last year, and David Knights was the bassist until the same time. Now Chris Copping is responsible for both bass and organ. Copping isn't Fisher, but he brings great enthusiasm into the group, a quality that is more necessary to its well-being than sheer virtuosity.

Some of you used to be in a group called the Paramounts right?

Gary: That group lasted until the summer of 1966 And then we all broke up because we didn't like each other more and we didn't like what we had done. BJ was on these records as well as well as Robin and I. Chris Copping was in the Paramounts as well. For a long time. The Paramounts started about 1960 I think. And after a couple years no, Chris was about 16 or 17 that would be '63 or '64 he left the group to go to the university, as a chemistry student, and that's where he's been ever since. He never played with anybody he played the bass for us then in 1963 and he never played with anyone until we asked him to come in, and he left his chemist's job and joined us.

How did you decide on Chris Copping?

Gary: Just compatibility I suppose. The same reason that Robbie and Barrie (BJ) came in. I mean, we had other people in the group at first, but they didn't really fit. In fact, the only outsider I mean Matthew is the only person I've played with that I hadn't played with previously.

Robin said that now that Fisher had left, you were more free to do exactly the things that you two wanted to do. Was he speaking for you?

Gary: No, that's just his personal point of view ... I read a very good review of our album just now. It's in a paper called

Zygote? [please mail us if you've got this review!]

Gary: Yeah, that summed it up quite well actually. It's just that in the past, with Matthew and I sort of playing a lot of things, Robin would sort of get pushed in the background, just given little riffs here and there.

He's always economical.

Gary: He's tasteful, there's no reason to feel ashamed of what he's done at all. But obviously now he's got a lot more freedom.

It kept him from being recognized as one of the handful of really exceptional guitarists.

Gary: No, nobody's ever I mean, I've never seen his name in connection with those guitarists.

That's strange, because I don't think there's anyone who can equal him for emotionality.

Gary: Well, I don't know anything about that ... We haven't a man out front, that's probably part of it.

That's One of the good things about you, that you don't feel the need to do that.

Gary: Yeah, well, it's probably the reason we're not sort of, uh ...

Big?

Gary: Yeah. Yeah.

What with roots music regaining popularity, this seems an unlikely time for Procol Harum to get big, but it seems to be happening.

Gary: I don't sense that it's happening.

But what about the tremendous response you're getting in concert; I've never seen anything like it.

Gary: Well. it's a great thing for us because, you know, Matthew was an important part of the group and the change was made with a great deal of apprehension because we didn't really know, but the reactions we've received from the few concerts we've played and the things people have written about us have been very heartening. When Matthew and Dave left we agreed that they should were gonna go and that was last August we thought it would be better maybe until we'd made a record and got ourselves more stabilized, that nobody should know about the change.

Perhaps the people that like us had a respect for us respected the fact that something had been changed, and that since we were still using the name, respected that somebody else would come in and it would still work ... we are satisfied with the way things are going. We have a pretty nice following. People that like us like us a great deal. We know they like us, they show it. We're sure that people who like us and play our LPs will still play them in five years' time and enjoy them just as much.

Does it feel different now?

Gary: Yeah, there's a lot more force behind it now. The five of us really work behind the group, whereas before it was always a battle to keep things together. See, that's just why Matthew left. He gets bored so quickly. He's bored as soon as he's recorded a track. He's bored with it and never wants to hear it again, and when he hears it the next week, he wants to re-record it.

That must have made touring hard.

Gary: Yeah, I mean he was never enthusiastic. We always got on well with him, but it's just that he was very there was a sort of

You called him celestial.

Gary: Yeah, he was.

And you're earthy.

Gary: I'm earthy?

Maybe you don't see it, but anybody that sings Little Richard songs like you do you're a Taurus singer like Winwood and Cocker. I mean, I don't know if you're really a Taurus

Gary: No, Gemini.

Oh. There's been talk about Matthew doing a solo album. Can you substantiate that?

Gary: No, I can't substantiate it. I mean, he will one day. But all his things take so long.

Is he interested in forming his own group?

Gary: The last. I heard he was. He wanted to start one. But I expected him to do some good things, being he wanted his freedom. Perhaps he needed his freedom to he wanted to produce things, produce records. When he left, I' thought he would've chomped into it and we would've suddenly seen great things come out, but like he hasn't done a thing, he lies in bed, which is a shame.

The reorganized Procol Harum has been reaching its audiences to a greater degree than ever before. In the wake of a thunderstorm at a recent outdoor concert, the group brought the damp, cold, and tired audience to their feet and into ecstatic motion, effectively shooting energy back into their bodies. And the group accomplished this bit of magic despite the fact that the soundcrew couldn't get the organ to work, cutting the group off from the bulk of its material. This didn't seem to bother Robbie Trower, who filled the breach with an exhuberant [sic] fury, standing in the middle of the floodlit stage, blasting howling, hollow waves out into the darkness. BJ Wilson was almost equally dynamic, raising sticks high above his head for each whack, sending cymbals crashing across the stage through the force of his drumming. The group played its most direct, high energy material: The Devil Came from Kansas, Whisky Train, Still There'll Be More, Wish Me Well, and an unbelievable Juicy John Pink, without a thought regarding continuity (Keith Reid programs their sets ordinarily), but trying only to sustain the flow of power. They threw in Lucille (which should be a single), some hot-rodded blues, and a vintage rock and roll number perhaps from the days of the Paramounts which enabled Brooker to use his Presley voice.

When they were five, Procol Harum had an awesome capacity for musical excitement, but, as a fellow musician commented, "They were an awfully depressing lot." Now, as four, they've lost a degree of sophistication and a bit of their baroque veneer, but they've more than compensated by the injection of spirit, which is ultimately what this music is all. about. Procol Harum is finally making it clear that, beneath the mystery, the black imagery, the layers of "meaning," is a brilliant, powerful rock band, perhaps the best in existence.

VI Leftovers
BJ Wilson: I'd like to go to San Antone. They've got the Alamo right in the middle of town, with skyscrapers and all ...

I see you travel with a soccer ball and net.

Gary: Whenever there's a bit of space, we get into trim. Frisbee's good, too.

You ever go to Central Park?

Gary. We went up there once, but we got forced into a game with some Brazilians. They play rough ...

When I heard the finale from the Abbey Road medley, when they're all playing at full volume and it suddenly all stops, leaving just a soft piano, I thought they had copped the idea from Repent, Walpurgis.

Gary: They probably did.

Seriously?

Gary: Yeah. Pete Townshend told me he got the idea for Tommy from In Held 'Twas In I

Are you being facetious?

Gary: No.

But Tommy's a narrative and In Held 'Twas In I looks at reality from inside a box, you know, first person. Tommy's autistic, and . . . oh, I see.

The Writer: It's really hard to sing along with Procol Harum

The Photographer: I don't know about that; I do it all the time. I do a good Gary Brooker imitation.

Gary: I know a girl who sings just like me ...


More PH writing by Bud Scoppa at BtP


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