Procol Harum: vintage rockers reunite to explore new music territory
Procol Harum, that high-quality, low-profile British band of the late 60s and early 70s, has reunited. The group is riding the crest of the nostalgia wave currently sweeping popular entertainment, but they say they're out to explore new territory - and by the sound of their reunion album, Prodigal Stranger, they're succeeding.
Keith Reid, the band's lyricist, sage and historian, says the group reunited in an attempt to create new and dynamic work rather than recycle their old material.
'I'm really proud of it (Prodigal Stranger),' says Reid during an interview at Zoo records in Manhattan. 'When we talked about regrouping, we said there wouldn't be any point to it unless we could produce some of the best work we ever did. We wrote and composed quite a lot of songs before we started to look for a record company.'
Prodigal Stranger brings together vocalist and pianist Gary Brooker, organist Matthew Fisher, guitarist Robin Trower and lyricist Reid. Drummer Barrie James Wilson died in 1990. The guys have not played together since the group reached its zenith in 1969 with the release of A Salty Dog.
Dressed eclectically in a sweater, jeans, fuzzy white socks and black wingtips, Reid cues up a VHS video of The Truth Won't Fade Away, the first song on the new Prodigal Stranger, for his interviewer. The band members, all in their mid-40s, have aged gracefully, he notes as the performance video plays. He points himself out when he appears and says: 'We're going to do another one but I would like it to be less of a performance video and more abstract.'
Prodigal Stranger retains Procol Harum's unique vintage sound and deftly enhances it with just the right touch of 90s high-tech embellishments. Reid says the band members were rejuvenated by the effort, and they did a brief US tour in support of the album last fall.
'We tended to play very small clubs and theaters initially so the audience was our most ardent fans and the media,' Reid says. 'But we played two or three nights in New York using a 50–50 mix of the new and old songs, and it went very well.
'We've reached our core audience, and I'm confident we have a record that is not limited to the people who liked us in the past.'
Even the most casual popular music fans are familiar with Procol Harum's Whiter Shade of Pale, a rock icon that regained currency in the recent movie The Commitments, and Conquistador, the band's other commercial single hit. Reid wrote the lyrics and vocalist and pianist Gary Brooker wrote the music, a partnership that endured through 10 Procol Harum albums and continues in Prodigal Stranger.
At its best, the group's material could be surreal or satirical. Although never overbearing, the lyrics often dealt with spiritual quests, despair and redemption. But the band never committed the great sin of art rock groups – it didn't take itself too seriously. Procol Harum's best albums were leavened by the addition of whimsical or satirical tunes like The Devil Came from Kansas and In Praise of Fruit [sic]. The musicianship was first-rate.
The late Wilson was one of rock's most underrated percussionists, combining power and subtlety. His staccato rhythms were unique. Prodigal Stranger is dedicated to him.
'When the album was completed, Gary noticed that it begins and ends with drums,' Reid says. 'BJ is with us spiritually on the album.'
The band reached its artistic high point at the end of the 60s, and Fisher left the group after the release of Salty Dog to record a solo album and work as a producer.
Procol Harum went on to put out Home in 1970 and Broken Barricades, which guitarist Trower dominated, in 1971. Trower then left the band to pursue a solo career. (His best album, Bridge of Sighs, was produced by Fisher). The band produced several more albums, including one of its best, Exotic Birds and Fruit, but disbanded in 1977. 'We just ran out of steam,' Reid now says. 'It had become a routine: make a record, tour, promote the record. We were stifled and not producing our best effort.' After the band broke up, Reid wrote a play and co-wrote songs for other bands, particularly Jeff Healy. He moved to Manhattan in 1986.
Brooker took some time off, wrote a ballet, which premiered in 1990 in Denmark, and produced some solo albums, most notably Echoes in the Night, featuring Fisher as organist and producer, and drummer Wilson. Brooker occasionally played piano for Eric Clapton. And Wilson drummed for Joe Cocker. Then, Reid says, Brooker, who lived in London, called him in Manhattan in 1989.
'Gary sounded like he had just left a pub,' Reid recalls. '"What about getting the group together again?"' I was stunned.
Reid and Brooker worked for more than a year writing and composing about twenty songs. They work very much like old Tin Pan Alley songwriting teams, Reid says. Reid meticulously writes the lyrics in a rigorous, rhymed iambic pentameter [sic] with Brooker constructing basic melody lines on a piano.
'I write all the words,' Reid says. 'I always write them in a strong meter and with an internal rhyme [sic]. I don't write the works as poetry; they are written melodically to be combined with music. The meter doesn't dictate the melody. They are set to music that makes them make sense.' After a year of writing, Fisher and Trower were invited to join Reid and Brooker for an album.
All had a hand in co-producing [sic] and composing Prodigal Stranger, Reid says. Recording after such a long hiatus was a bit strange, according to Reid. 'When we got into the studio, it was so obvious that the technology had changed so drastically. Our producer, Matt Noble, guided us, helping us to sound like Procol Harum but not sound old- fashioned.'
After two years of work, Prodigal Stranger was finished. The album is a seamless musical mosaic, and the old bandmates play flawlessly. Brooker's voice has added power and mellowness with age. The album features backup singers and harmonies, hardly revolutionary, but never used before by Procol Harum. [sic]
'We just never used harmonies,' Reid says. 'Gary always sang alone. Matthew and Robin both sang on Salty Dog but they also sang alone.' Several of the album's cuts, particularly Holding On and Turn the Page, [sic] use the backup vocalists as gospel singers, and they complement Brooker's voice beautifully.
A fine piano-player, he is also given room to shine as a soloist. Brooker does a little Jerry Lee Lewis ivory-banging on Learn to Fly, and his solo on Man with a Mission has a wise-guy funk that Steely Dan would envy. Reid has crafted lyrics that are more direct and powerful than those of earlier works that relied on metaphors and surrealistic images. Fisher adds range and depth to the album. His organ work is its musical linchpin. It has a dreamy innocence in Perpetual Motion, soars and booms in Man With A Mission.
'Watching Matthew play again, I had forgotten what a talented musician he was. He is probably the most talented musician I have ever worked with,' says Reid.
New bassist David Bronze and drummer Mark Brzezicki provide the band with an excellent rhythm section. Some tensions exist however. Reid is not certain if Trower will participate in an upcoming American tour, scheduled to begin in March.
'He enjoyed making the album and wants to tour,' Reid says. 'But there's a volume problem. Robin likes to play loud – ear-splittingly loud – in the studio and in concert, and that hasn't been resolved.'
Editor's note: Procol Harum's North American tour is scheduled to begin on May 29 with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra in Alberta, Canada. Dates for their American appearances are still being arranged. At press time, a spokesman said Trower will not participate in the North American tour.
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