This Keith Reid interview, unusually full and frank, was written, some while before the Redhill Party, by Paul Carter of the UK's Daily Express, and published originally in Shine On, August 1997
What kind of feelings does the 30th Anniversary stir up for you?
That's actually a difficult question. I'm fairly ambivalent about it. I tend to think about the future more than the past. Or the present – I tend to live in the present.
I wondered if could ask you about your personal background and education.
I'm a London boy, an East End boy, lived all my childhood years in the Mile End Road. I didn't pass my 11-plus, which was a great blow to my family. Basically I just didn't like being at school. My mother taught me to read at a very early age, when I was about four or so, and I read constantly and voraciously until I left school when I was 15. And my background for writing songs, I always think a lot of it came from all the reading I did. I read so much. I'd just go to Mile End library, my parents let me use their ticket as well so I used to go not just into the children's library but upstairs in the grown-ups' library as well, and I just used to get seven or eight books and take them home, read 'em and go back. I really read a lot. I used to read in school all the time.
What kind of books were seizing your imagination then?
I just used to grab anything off the shelf that looked interesting. Anything that seemed interesting, I'd give it a go. It was my escape, really. I escaped into a world of books.
I left school at 15. My birthday's in October. I hated school so much that in those days you didn't even have to wait until the end of term. I was 15 I think on a Thursday and I'm not even sure I went back on the Friday. I didn't complete the term.
What did you hate so much about school?
I don't know, I just hated everything about it. Hated being taught. I just totally rebelled. I think it was partly because I was expected to succeed and I rebelled against that. My parents and my older brother and my younger sister, everyone was very academically inclined. I just rebelled against the whole thing, rejected it all.
So where did that leave you when you left school?
Well, it could have left me very badly off. But I always felt that my life was going to begin when I left school and got a job. And I always knew that I'd do something in the arts, but I didn't know what. I was interested in music, I was interested in theatre, but I think basically my love of music, and rock and roll and stuff, eventually led me to start writing songs.
The other thing was I used to take records out of the library, and I used to listen to a lot of blues from an early age. One of the earliest records I remember listening to was an album called Work Songs From Angola, and for many years I thought it was Angola in Africa, and it wasn't until I went to America in about '67 or '68 that I found out that Angola was a famous prison farm in the South. It made a big impression on me, this record.
You were writing from the start as lyrics for music, rather than poetry?
Very much so. I was very influenced by Bob Dylan of course, in fact it was Bob Dylan who helped me to find my own voice as a writer.
So how did it come about that you teamed up with Gary?
Once I'd written a few songs I thought, you know, "Hey, I'm great", and I started going round knocking on doors. I didn't know anybody in the music business at all, not a single person, but I was very persistent in those days and I used to go around to all the companies, I used to get hold of people's telephone numbers and call them up and tell that I'm a great songwriter and I'd like to show you my work.
Eventually, I ended up at Island Records, though I'm not sure if they were called Island at that time, in Chris Blackwell's office, and he listened to me and my work and he basically said, 'I've got another chap in an office who'd be interested in you, a bloke called Guy Stevens', his sort of A&R man if you like. And he introduced me to Guy who took an interest in me and spent about a year or so introducing me to different people so that I could find somebody to work with and he eventually introduced me to Gary.
So that was after a year of testing the water with other people?
Funnily enough, because the Spencer Davis Group were on Island Records, they tried to team me up with Steve Winwood, who had had a pile of my lyrics for a while. I went to meet Steve and at that time he was forming Traffic, because I remember Jim Capaldi was around. Actually I remember that Jim Capaldi ... he obviously thought I was a threat. There was an unspoken antagonism in the air at the time. But he's a lovely bloke, Jim Capaldi.
Anyway, there were various people he tried to team me up with. I remember he also introduced me to Pete Townsend. Pete at one time mentioned me to the guys in Cream they were looking for somebody but of course they used Pete Brown. Eventually I met Gary, gave him a bunch of my work and about a year later he got in touch with me and said "I've had some success setting your stuff to music, would you like to have a listen?' From me starting to write, until meeting Gary and even forming Procol Harum was about three years. It took a while.
And Gary had your words for a year?
Yeah. When I met him he still had his R&B band The Paramounts with Robin Trower and B J Wilson and subsequently that band broke up. Gary at that time had decided to give up being a performer and was going to be a songwriter. He just called me up out of the blue and said, "Hey, remember me, I've got your stuff and I've set some of it to music. Do you want to come and have a listen?" I went round to his house in Southend, sat in the front room and he played it to me on the piano and I thought it was great. I think the very first song was something on our first album called Something Following Me. That was probably the first time I had heard someone set my words to music. It was all a bit new to me. I just remember being delighted.
I wonder what you remember of the process of writing A WSOP?
I was at a party in a crowded room and that line came through the air. I saw it in the air, and dragged it down. The songwriting process is a funny process, it's like making a pot. You get your initial idea, here I had that line 'a whiter shade of pale', so you've got your bit of clay, and then you just try to make a pot out of it. And you use your imagination, you shape it and play with it, until you've got something that looks like a pot, or sounds like a song. Sometimes you might be trying to chronicle a particular event, and then of course that's a different kind of songwriting. Or you might be trying to tell a story, and that's a different kind of songwriting. I once read a quote, which I thought was very true, I don't know if it was about songwriting, it might have been about poetry, but basically it's like a jigsaw puzzle, where you get given one piece and then you have to make up the rest to fit the piece into. And really that's what it's like, you just get given a little part of it and that's your inspiration, and then you build the picture to fit the piece you've been given in.
In the early days particularly, you worked very much through imagery rather than straightforward narrative.
Yes, I don't do that so much now but certainly my earlier work was very much like that. It was all that I knew how to do. There's no such thing as a songwriting school, you basically make it up for yourself as you go along. That was what was natural to me, that was what came to me, it was just finding that I could do something. You don't question the process so long as it works. Also you tend to be a little bit superstitious about it: you worry that if you think about it too much or question it too much, you may lose it.
How long did it take you to work on AWSoP?
Even to this present day, once I've got an idea I work on it and I work on it until it's done. I'm not the kind of person who can write something and then come back to it a month later, so whenever I've had the inspiration for a song I'll work on it. It may have taken me a day or write it, it may have taken a couple of days, I can't remember, of solid work. You've got the inspiration and you have to go with it. I don't really revise very much or change it. I've either got a good idea and get it down, or else it's not a good idea, and I just chuck it.
Do you think in pure words, or do you have an idea of a tune as you write a lyric?
Often, yes. You have a rhythm, you have a basic tune.
Can you remember how you'd envisaged the music for A WSOP?
No, I really can't to be honest. No idea.
What can you remember of the record's release?
When we made the record we were concerned about the technical quality, we were concerned that there was a bit too much sibilance on the record, and at that time there were the pirate radio stations, and our producer said, 'I know, we'll get someone to play it on the radio so we can hear how it sounds." Must have been an envelope of fivers changing hands somewhere. So we were all just stuck round a radio – people say it was the 11th May, I don't know if that's the exact date – I think it was about 2 o'clock in the afternoon, and they played it on, I think it was Radio Caroline in those days, and some bloke said, 'We've got this new record,' and apparently people just went nuts. People just started calling the radio station and it got such an unbelievable response just from the first playing. I think that afternoon someone had called up and said "I want to start a fan club". It was so instantaneous it was ridiculous. They played it once and people were running out trying to buy it. From then on, we were just reacting to the events, We went from not being sure that our record was good enough to release – to it being a huge success in a matter of hours.
Obviously, we weren't prepared for it. We were actually more concerned with making our first album and finding a drummer. At that time we still hadn't found a drummer. In actual fact we hadn't found a guitarist we liked either. We were two important members short of our band. We were just scrambling around to find a guitarist and drummer to complete the line-up and start making the first album.
What was it that gave it such an extraordinary impact?
It had so many things going for it. It had marvellous musicianship, the playing was great, the singing was great, it had a great melody, the words were not only obviously really strong but were very different. The phrase "a whiter shade of pale" has been ripped off so much ever since. To this day, every day, I pick up a newspaper and somebody's using either that phrase or an approximation of it. I feel that I should get some credit for introducing something into the English language, it's been used so often. It seems to me it was just such a very powerful statement in so many ways. [see here for numerous uses of the phrase in Common Parlance]
It just had so many elements, both lyrically, melodically, it was just a phenomenally good record and there was nothing like it. I also feel that one of the reasons it has continued to he popular is that it's like being on the sea, you can swim around in it for ever and not get to the bottom of it. There are all the famous stories like John Lennon listening to it 100 times. It had a trance-like effect. We met Spike Milligan and he told us he's had it made into a tape loop and he just played it continually. It obviously had a deep mesmeric quality to it, that you could totally immerse yourself in it. You didn't get tired of it. People don't seem to have ever got tired of it.
What is your attitude to the continuing, never-ending debate over the meaning of the lyrics?
Well I have to say that I think it's a testament to how good it is really. If people can continually debate something, we're talking about thirty years now, it just says to me that it had great depth. If it had been a fairly superficial lyric people would never have got into it.
What would be your advice to our readers about how to get to grips with it?
I think it's like looking at an abstract painting. If it's not figurative, or straightforward narrative you sink into it. You look at it and you try to put yourself into it and you swim around in it, and you find something familiar to hang on to. People get it whether they realize they get it or not. That's a measure of its success. People get it or else people would never have listened to it and it would not have been a success.
What about the missing verse?
Originally there were four verses but we decided ourselves to get rid of one of them because we thought it had one verse too many. Officially it had three verses, and when we came to make the record, the record company said that's going to be too long, you've got to edit a verse out. So if there's a missing verse it's that verse.
She said, 'I'm home on shore leave,'
But in truth we were at sea
So I took her by the looking glass
And forced her to agree
Saying, 'You must be the mermaid
Who took Neptune for a ride.'
But she smiled at me so sadly
That my anger straightway died.
I don't know why this other verse that you're talking about ever saw the light of day.
Do you like any of the cover versions that have been made?
Well, the one that I like best is the one by King Curtis. Why? (laughs). It's an instrumental! I think it's quite a difficult song for other people to sing. Once again I think that's a testament to the record, I think it was very much a definitive statement. There isn't anything to add to it. I think it's a very difficult song for anyone to take and add anything of their own.
How frustrated have you been that Procol's other work has been overshadowed by A WSoP?
You can look at it that way or you can just be very thankful. I was looking at my catalogue the other day and I've got over 150 songs recorded. Obviously the one that's most successful of them is AWSoP by far. I personally never allowed it to frustrate me. We as a band never allowed it. We just moved forward and made our records, wrote our songs and did our tours. So since we didn't allow it to dwarf us, I don't think it did. Overall, you've just got to be thankful for any success that you get, because you don't control it. You've got no say so over it at all, you've just got to be thankful for whatever you get. Which I am.
You've come in for some very snide criticism from people dismissing the lyrics as pretentious and psychedelic doggerel. Has that hurt you?
Nobody likes negative criticism. You have to take the good with the bad. If you're going to enjoy it when people say positive things and enjoy your work, you've got to accept it when people say negative things. Apparently John Betjeman was asked at one point, it must have been some time in the Sixties, what did he think of any of these so-called rock and roll poets. And apparently he said that the only person he thought was any good was 'that Whiter Shade of Pale chap'. I thought that was pretty good praise. More recently, Gary told me that he'd met Salman Rushdie who'd made some very positive comments on the lyrics. So I'm not going to be too bothered about some [negative criticism]. Good praise and the opposite are two sides of the same artistic vision. Let history decide. Bob Dylan said 'Time will tell who has fell and who has been left behind' and that's the way I feel about it. If they're still talking about it after 30 years it says there must have been something to talk about.
You became an accredited member of the group and went on all the tours. Were you there purely as the writer or you get involved in the management of the band?
I was just the trouble-maker. I just went along to have a good time.
Did you ever wish you were up onstage performing with them?
Never. I'm very uncomfortable in the spotlight. It's not something that I've ever wanted to be, out front. I prefer to be in the back, having a laugh with the boys.
When Procol split up, I know you managed Frankie Miller. What other interests d'you have?
At the end of Procol Harum I didn't write for a few years and I got involved in other aspects of being in the music business. But eventually I realized that the thing I was good at was writing and I just got back to it. Certainly for the last ten, twelve years I've just concentrated on that. I write for a bunch of ... I write with whoever feels like writing songs on a particular day of the week. I live a good deal of the time in America. I'm essentially a songwriting fool.
What makes your partnership so enduring?
We obviously have a bit of magic between the two of us. Having done a lot of songwriting with a lot of other people, essentially I wrote my words and gave them to Gary and he set them to music, we didn't really interfere in each other's process. Whatever I wanted to write about, with a few exceptions, he seemed happy to sing, and we didn't really interfere with each other. I did my thing, he did his, and we didn't question it. It was a formula that worked, and we didn't analyse it. It seemed to happen naturally and we just went with it.
What connecting threads would you identify, looking back across .your work from the earliest day to The Prodigal Stranger and Within Our House?
There are definitely threads running through it. There are religious overtones in there. Redemption and stuff like that. I don't really know why, I don't really question the process. I get an idea and I work on it. I trust my subconscious. I try not to get in the way of things. If a song comes along, I just try to get it down. I don't try to superimpose anything on it, I just let it happen.
Are you a religious man?
I've never thought of myself as such but there's so many religious references in my songs that I've obviously got something going on there.
The other thing that has struck me is that you write more powerfully than anyone else I can think of about sex, in an oblique way and through very pungent imagery. Is that something you're conscious of?
Whatever the subject matter is, I just try to make it as truthful as possible. It's a hard question to answer.
A final question, purely out of personal interest. What poets do you particularly relate to?
I don't think I read any poetry at all before I started writing songs. And I haven't read very much subsequently. But if there's anyone I'd identify with it would be Auden. I've read some of his stuff and thought, 'Jesus, that's something I could have written'. But I only became aware of his work quite recently, the last five years or so.