by Marvin Martin
A rock group that challenges your intellect while also pleasing your emotions is a rarity indeed and that's precisely why Procol Harum is a vital and beneficial force in popular music today. The English sextet's "Thought Book" produced from its very beginning a cult-like devotion among many inside the music industry and among the cognoscenti outside the business. However, it wasn't until the release of the albums Live in Edmonton and the current Grand Hotel that Procol achieved true mass appeal and commercial success.
We spoke recently with the brains and heart of Procol Harum – composer-pianist-vocalist-spokesman Gary Brooker and lyricist Keith Reid and received the answers to some revealing questions.
Gary, how did you begin your collaboration with Keith?
(GB) Keith was already writing words while working as a clerk in a legal bookstore in 1965, but I was playing in a band and not writing music at that time. When we met we felt that perhaps we could work something out.
When did that happen?
It was some time, perhaps a bit over a year.
Did you begin working together with your own group in mind?
Not at all. We began writing songs to be played and recorded by other people. But we soon realized that it just couldn't be done and that's when we decided to form our own group.
How did the group get the unusual name Procol Harum?
That was the name of a pedigreed Burmese blue cat owned by a friend of ours. We thought it was a good name so we took it.
What were some of the other possibilities?
There weren't any others.
What are the mechanics of your collaboration with Keith? Are words written to music, music to words or both written together?
Well, we're usually both writing at the same time but we write independently of each other.
Then how do you make sure words and music will fit?
It just happens. Say Keith has five sets of words and I have five tunes. They just seem to fit together.
Gary, what was your musical background?
I come from a musical family. My father was a musician and I guess I was always destined to be one, too. I've played piano since I was a young lad and I started in groups when I was about 12.
What have been the influences of your playing and writing?
There are many people I admire, too many to name, but I don't believe I had any specific influences.
Then how did your present style evolve?
I can't really say. It didn't come from any particular people or time. It was just there.
Have you and Keith ever switched roles, that is, have you ever written lyrics and Keith written music?
Is it bothersome to you to play older tunes that you've played hundreds of times before?
No, not at all. We enjoy playing songs that are audience favorites. Oh, Keith just came into the room so I'll put him on the line.
Keith, you've been referred to as a Neo-Romantic poet. Which writers influenced your style?
KR: None in particular that I'm aware of. Most of my lyrics for Procol have come out of personal experience I've had since the band was formed.
In the lyric to Fires (Which Burnt Brightly) you talk of a war that's already lost. What war?
Well, it's a war between two people, you know. It's a relationship, like between a husband and wife bickering and thinking of divorce. They're still fighting, but the war is already lost – the causes are well in the past and they're fighting ghosts.
At the end of the lyric you say, "Our poems and letters have turned to deceptions." What does that signify?
Well, when the love was bright, you know, the poems and letters were beautiful. But now they're deceptions, lies that are like weapons, and reading them hurts just as much as being shot or knifed.
Why are you portrayed in the inside-album photo holding an empty silver platter?
There's no symbolism there. That was just the photo that was set up and I got chosen to hold the platter. I suppose somebody thought I fit the part.
What is the symbolism behind the album name and title track, Grand Hotel?
It's my own fantasy about what life might be like – not the way it really is but the way I'd like it to be.