PROCOL HARUM, one of Britainís rock bands of truly world class, creators of A Whiter Shade of Pale, are far from past history. But their only appearance in the world this year will be in Guildford on September 17 at The Web, a festival celebrating the arts. They will be playing with the New London Sinfonia and Guildford Choral Society at the climax of the day , when there will be a concluding fireworks display. The event will raise money for the charities ABRACADABRA and CHASE.
The most celebrated previous open-air Procol gig in Britain was at Crystal Palace, back in the 1970s. Their most recent was at Cropredy, Oxfordshire, on their 1995 British tour. This one at Guildford could turn even more memorable because fans are flying in from all over the world for the concert..
Band leader and composer Gary Brooker talks to us about one of this countryís rock events of the year.
Gary, please would you tell us how this concert was conceived . . .
Guildford Arts Council approached me for the band to be part of their Arts Festival. I heard the New London Sinfonia in Guildford Cathedral, doing a choral concert of Mendelssohn and a few other things, and the concert was brilliant. But youíve got to have the right guy with the stick. Heís got to think young, not be too opinionated, and David Gibson is one of the younger conductors and this is one of the younger orchestras.
The Guildford Choral Society has about 250 voices but there wonít be room for all of them on this one. Thereíll be more of a chamber sized choir. But I expect quite a few of the others not singing will be in the audience.
So why did you consent to the proposal?
I was hoping we could play somewhere in the Millenium Year, and this was something which finally came together for us. Weíll be able to play some of our own stuff as a band and some of our big stuff with the orchestra, and hopefully itíll be a big day. People are coming from Germany, Peru and Arizona to hear us.
Which areas of the Procol repertoire will we be hearing?
Well, weíve approached this occasion in a more conservative way - although there may be an extra surprise item or two.
Now, thereíll be some cynical rock fans who will be wondering why youíre bothering at all to play again. Shouldnít you be doing something else instead by now, or hanging up your vocal cords and letting the new talent get on with it?
Thatís a totally insulting idea to put to a professional musician. You wouldnít say to a surgeon, `Why are you still operating on people after all these years?í Itís what we do and what we do well. I enjoy singing more now than when I started. I hopefully sound better.
This isnít a band who are just going through the motions. Itís real: itís in better shape than it ever was.
As far as the British public are concerned, itís A Whiter Shade of Pale that wonít go out of their minds. People who lost their virginity to it are now getting buried to it! I have a friend who gave birth to it, and just about the only thing it hasnít caught on for is christenings.
But a lot of them wouldnít know Whaling Stories from Salty Dog, and I think they should hear it how it should be done - by the originals.
I donít think Procol Harum or A Whiter Shade of Pale are a 60s thing, like an act on one of those current-day nostalgia tours, coming on stage after Freddie & The Dreamers and just before The Swinging Blue Jeans. We werenít affected by Sergeant Pepper in any way.
Apart from A Whiter Shade of Pale being what it is to the British public, the reason for this appearance is itís just the act of playing live. People need music. They might not always know it! If the people who do it donít do it, thereíd be no live music. This will be a nice day out.
So much for Britain, whatís this about fans in Peru?
They are a charming couple. Some of the fans Iíve met abroad are the people youíd choose as friends.
What do you think is the international appeal of Procolís music?
I donít think the music has ever based itself in fashion, so it doesnít feel like itís something from yesterday. People are still discovering Procol Harum today.
Itís expanded in the last five years after the 'Beyond The Pale' website. Their day out in Guildford is called The Web, by coincidence. And the Procol website has certainly caught a few flies here and there.
Some guy in Peru has found out Procol Harum are playing in Guildford, heís got himself a ticket and he knows he wonít be alone. He can get together and talk with them.
I donít know exactly what the appeal of the music is. I think they could understand it because it isnít British fashion music and its ambiguity could appeal to a German and even a Peruvian. I think that lyrically, as well, itís inter-cultural. Some do speak English and they get something out of the words.
Itís not 'Letís do it, letís do it like we did it last nightí. I think melody, and all that, is coming back. I think the youngsters would sooner hear a good song with a tune.
How does that appeal vary from nation to nation?
In America their taste is more often towards the rockers, the guitar-based ones like Simple Sister or Whisky Train. Whereas the Germans, for instance, Grand Hotel is right up their strasse. Anywhere thatís got a seafaring tradition - like the Baltic States - theyíre very much A Salty Dog nations.
Before we leave the subject of your greatest hit, whatís this about some television programmes?
Matthew Fisher, our organist, and I have already been recording something for ITV and in the autumn thereís going to be a different programme about the greatest hits of all time.
The song has already undergone a lot of systematic analysis . . .
Yes. There were four recognised elements of its appeal. One, the organ; two, the atmosphere of the vocal; three, the lyrics; four, the overall haunting quality. One major exercise concluded that its success couldn't be explained and that it was simply 'A mystery'.
Most people find something in the lyrics for themselves. And thereís the sex element, of course.
What is it about Procolís music which appeals to women, do you think?
Itís the emotion. Thereís something deep in it. Nothing on the surface. Something reaches down more inside people. Itís in the atmosphere of some pieces - theyíre not all `tap your footí ones: 50% of them reach a bit further.
Taking you up on a couple of things - that people are still discovering Procol Harum today, and that young people, you think, are tiring of just rhythm and are wanting melody - what would you say to those young people at the Guildford Festival disinclined to stay on and hear you play because youíre not of their generation? What would you recommend to them in the music?
Iíd say get into the melody. The songs arenít silly, theyíre not yelled or screamed. Thereís something which has a tune you can whistle on your way home.
And tempo: thereís more than just one. Chords have been put together. Try moving to them - ballet dancers do.
But because itís rock and roll, your attentionís not going to be pushed too far: the songs are condensed as any pop stuff but thereís more in it.
Procol Harum will be Gary Brooker (piano, vocals), Matthew Fisher (Hammond Organ), Mick Grabham (guitar, vocals), Mark Brzezicki (drums) and Matthew Pegg (bass guitar).
Tickets available from Guildford Tourist Centre Information Centre on 01483 444333 and www.guildford-arts.org.uk (£12 in advance, £15 on the day; £25 for family of 2 adults and 3 children under 16 years).
Beyond The Pale is at www.procolharum.com
A Salty Dog and Whaling Stories are flights of the imagination with allegorical inferences, one a strophic song, the other through-composed; Grand Hotel is a lyric about the bandís European tour accommodation. All three are among the Procol Harum repertoire which have been set to music by Gary Brooker involving orchestra as well as rock group - among the first examples of this in rock history. Other admiring orchestrators have since made their own further arrangements of Procol sings and celebrated singers their own versions.
Notes to editor: further details from Diane Rolph, including further interview appointments with Gary Brooker: contact by e-mail