Steve Apple in The Daily Planet (Vol 3 No 16) • 25 April – 2 May 1972
‘Composition is the final result of the composer when we finally reached the stage when we are going to record a song, it has been through every conceivable combination until we decide on the best way. Why change something that we feel satisfied with?’
There is a certain group of individuals from the western suburbs of Philadelphia who consider Procol Harum to be the greatest expression of Art in this century. Since that glorious first Procol Harum album, these several men and women literally live and breathe to the music and lyrics of the group's early recordings. It may be relevant to add that these folks also take lots of acid.
Certainly the early band had quite a mystique about them. After all, that first album contained very little information on it except the comment: ‘To be listened to in the spirit in which it was made.’ In 1968 this meant exactly what the lyrics were seemingly trying to say. That reality was just a kiss away, once ‘outside the gates of Cerdes’ or Who can be serious when ‘salad days are here again.’ But all were respectful of Repent Walpurgus [sic], the drum introduction to which was copied by every bored pencil percussionist in my English Lit class.
After the first album, Harum switched labels and revealed all. Not only were photographs included on the second album (a little foggy but revealing ) but there were song lyrics plus a couple of well-known British producers: Denny Cordell and Tony Visconti. Before Shine on Brightly, folks might have thought that Harum was a fictitious group with a nice song written by a classically trained piano [sic] and a mysterious person who only wrote lyrics.
When Procol Harum actually began to ring, the public and for some strange reason and American public, was gradually being turned on to an exciting live act, one whose members came on stage wearing black tie and tails, with a silver candleabra [sic] perched on a grand piano.
Procol Harum came to America during the period commonly
referred to (by me) as the’second British invasion.’ This was an era when every
other British band played some sort of blues rendition, from the John Mayall
Authentics to the Savoy Brown Originators. A break in the pattern occurred when
some original minds such as the Moody blues came on the scene. Harum in
particular one most unique. Their music was obviously classically motivated,
with Whiter Shade of Pale and a half dozen others more or less derived
from the likes of Bath, Brahms and Rimsky-Korsakoff [sic]. Then melodies were
perfect, almost to a fault. If it hadn't been for the incredible originality of
Brooker, Fisher, and Trower, Procol Harum could have easily drifted into an East
enteric limbo. Lyrically, of course, there was no doubt as to the originality.
Though many lyrical examples could be given, a personal favourite is in
Magdalene (my Regal Zonophone):
‘Though I know the night has fallen, and the sun’s sailed out to sea, I will wait here for the band to play the trumpet voluntary. And with one foot on the sea shore, and the other in the sand, I will stand here plaiting daisies, whilst you play the piano grand …’
This was the Procol Harum story of three and four years ago. Lately, however, there have been some perplexing personnel changes. Matthew Fisher and Robin Trower have left, and been replaced. Rumours concerning an intended tour with a full orchestra have been simmering for quite some time. Well, some of these questions were answered during a very informal interview with Gary Brooker, Keith Reid, their producer, Chris Thomas, and their manager, Derrick [sic] Sutton. While Gary and Keith were getting dressed in their hotel rooms down the hall, I spoke briefly with their manager, who described the various personnel changes. Sutton, who affectionately [sic] resembles a Barbary pirate, tall, muscular, long light coloured hair, with a missing front tooth, stressed time and again that the Procol Harum sound is back where it was some five years ago with this five piece band.
‘We have Barry (BJ) Wilson on drums, who has been with us since the first tour, Chris Copping who now plays mostly organ, a new lead guitarist, David Ball, and a new bass player, Alan Cartwright. Along with Gary and Keith, the band is stronger than ever. Another change is that we have added a synthesizer to our people Chris is just getting used to it. It's not going to be used for freaky effects, because its [sic] more of an orchestral synthesizer.’
As we began walking to Keith Reid's room, Sutton told us how pissed off he gets when he hears people, especially the press, constantly stressing Procol Harum's personnel changes. Looking at him seriously, I told him not to worry, hoping he would believe me. As we sat down on Keith's bed, room service brought in some Holiday Inn hamburgers, which the group politely gulped down. I asked Gary Brooker, who was dressed in a sport coat, and looked as if he had just come from the opera, about the new album.
‘Well, we recorded it in Canada, with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. They asked us to play the concert, so we decided to record it as our next album… We did the old songs because we really didn't have time to rehearse with the orchestra. In fact, Conquistador was recorded without any rehearsal at all. We just gave the songs to them.’
‘Did you work with an arranger?’
‘No, I wrote the charts for the orchestra. It was such short notice.’
Producer Chris Thomas broke in to say that the reason the album works is that the songs in themselves are quite musical, and are easily adapted for a full orchestral arrangement.
Keith Reid, who was sitting quietly on his bed, said: ‘the point of the album is that most of the songs we did live with the orchestra were ones that had been arranged so completely before.’
I told him that Conquistador sounded especially comfortable with a full orchestra, and was anxiously awaiting the release of the album. So far, only Salty Dog and Conquistador have been released on a single. The boys mentioned that they also recorded Whaling Stories and All This and More, with an entire side devoted to In Held ’Twas I [sic] (recorded with a large choir).
Keith described the album as having basically the same arrangements as those on the earlier recordings, only ‘bigger and better'. He noted that the incredible part of the whole project was the togetherness of all the people involved. ‘We only called one rehearsal with everyone present, which included choir and orchestra. The rest of it was worked out separately. We also had a fantastic group of vocalists, called the Decamera [sic] Singers, who were amateurs, but were simply great.’
We left the new album to get back to a little history. Gary and Keith, who were the founding members of the group, are certainly not cast in the image of the British super-star musician. In fact, both of them would look very much at home playing in any classical orchestra. Keith especially, spectacles and all, looks almost straight. The duo started out as a struggling songwriting team, who were mainly involved in getting others to record their material. Only because they were unsuccessful did they decided [sic] to do it themselves [sic]. Keith related, half seriously, that ‘Dusty Springfield turned us down.’
I couldn't imagine Dusty singing about ‘my Prussian blue electric clock’, or an ‘ Arabian hot dog stand [sic].’ Anyway, Keith still writes only the lyrics, and Gary writes most of the music. Only in rare cases, such as Conquistador, did the music come first. Gary relates, ‘Keith is constantly writing words, and I'm constantly writing melodies and musical pieces, so when Keith hands me his lyrics, I usually have some sort of music that can go with it. Sure, we're flexible, change a word here and there, but that's generally the way we write.’
Keith added that his lyrics are written ‘firstly as a strict rhythm, I mean you can't really change it very much. The point of writing is to refine; you know, you've refined it when you've finished something.’
Procol Harum never improvise on stage or in the studio. Both Gary and Keith approach their music as though it were a classical piece. Gary explains: ‘Composition is the final result of the composer. When we finally reach the stage where we are going to record a song, it has been through every conceivable combination until we decide on the best way. Why change something that we feel satisfied with?’
Before the group left the hotel to go to the Academy for their sound check, I had to find out just what Keith Reid does when his mates are performing on stage.
‘That's a good question,’ laughed Keith. ‘Generally, I drink a lot, and run around checking out the sound in places our sound mixer can't hear. Shat's what I do.’
At the concert, which incidentally proved Derek Sutton correct when he talked about the old Procol Harum sound, I spied Keith having a grand old time dancing along with his band, safely hidden behind stage. Harum's live act has changed; it now includes the previously unperformed In Held Twas I [sic], with great guitar work by David Ball, who should work out beautifully. Right now, Ball is copping Robin Trower licks, but he's beginning to stretch out a little. Also, the new songs include some tasty synthesizer work by Chris Copping.
Finally, I asked them whether they thought Eugene Ormandy would ever perform with Procol Harum in Philadelphia. Gary Brooker replied: ‘If Eugene won't do it, we won't do it with Eugene.’
More Procol history in print