Dum-di-dum ... How did it go again? Something about a light fandango and 17 vestal virgins? Or was it 15? In fact, what was A Whiter Shade Of Pale about? It's been worrying Tom Hibbert for 25 years, but can the re-formed Procol Harum remember?
It was June 1967, the summer of so-called love, and on Top Of The Pops there was this brand new group with a funny 'intellectual' name miming stiffly to a song with funny 'intellectual' words: 'Skipped the light fandango / Turned cartwheels cross the floor / I was feeling kind of seasick / dum-di-dum ...'
The tune was 'inspired' by a Bach cantata so even your mum quite liked it despite the outré kaftans on display. We didn't realize it then but A Whiter Shade Of Pale by Procol Harum (actually, the name wasn't intellectual at all: it was borrowed from a friend's pedigree cat) would come back to haunt us all as it leaked annoyingly from pub jukeboxes and Simon Bates's 'Our Tune' spot and everywhere else down the years forever. A 'classic', an 'evergreen'. Procol Harum never lived it down ...
It was September 1967 and the New Musical Express's Danish correspondent, Sven Wezelenburg, was getting quite excited about the group's first tour which had come to Copenhagen. 'I dare to predict that the Procol Harum will be the biggest thing that has happened to pop music since The Beatles,' wrote Sven. Danish pop music correspondents have never been renowned for their foresight, probably, and Sven's daring prediction proved to be more than slightly wrong. [full article here]
In Britain, in the late 60s and early 70s, it was considered extremely uncool to be caught in possession of an album by Procol Harum, that embarrassing one-hit-wonder group of yesteryear [sic!!]. In European parts and in America they fared better, touring constantly to the delight of a hard-core following of girls with billowing dresses and boys with pointy-heads. But the LPs even the rather magnificent ones like Shine On Brightly and A Salty Dog (features included: the 'cathedral' organ of Matthew Fisher, the gloomy tunes of Gary Brooker, the 'progressive' guitar rumblings of Robin Trower, the lovely BJ Wilson and his extravagant talking drums, the oft overblown but sometimes crafty 'expressionistic' lyrics of Keith Reid) never sold that well. And group members (first Fisher then Trower then lots of blokes nobody can remember) kept jumping ship. It was May in 1977, the summer of so-called hate (punk), and Procol Harum broke up 'forever'.
It is 1991. Outside the studios of NBC Television in New York home of The David Letterman Show (Letterman is a talk-show host with a style much imitated by Jonathan Ross) upon which some ancient group from England are appearing this night there lurks a man, 40-ish, polo-neck sweater, jacket carrying food stains, great deal of hair, peculiar glint to the eye. He is clutching an old and much-thumbed book, an encyclopaedia of rock open at the 'Ps'. Pretty Things, The ... Previn, Dory ... Price, Alan ... Procol Harum.
A party of middle-aged Englishmen arrive, the book-clutcher sidles forward, Mark Chapman-like, murmurs 'Er, hi. Which one are you?' Matthew Fisher, Procol Harum's organist, looks at the stranger with some alarm. 'Which one what? My name's Matthew Fisher.' The odd fellow consults his encyclopaedia presumably to check that someone called Matthew Fisher was once a member of Procol Harum and then wheezes with delight. 'Matthew! Yeah, oh Matthew! You're Matthew Fisher, right? Matthew, please sign my book right there on Procol Harum! I love you guys!'
Fisher, unbothered by autograph hounds for more than 20 years (he left Procol Harum in 1969 to concentrate on an anonymous career as recording studio boffin), scrawls a hasty signature and scurries on. 'Ooh,' he whispers to the person at his side who is me, 'That's rather odd. I wonder if this was all worth it.'
His 'this', I gather, refers to the re-formation of Procol Harum that has taken place. Fisher, Brooker and Reid have made an LP, The Prodigal Stranger (former glories hinted at in patches but mostly MOR reminiscent of the new-style useless Stevie Winwood), and are touring America. The two other principal original members have failed to join the throng: Robin Trower played on the LP but ventured no further in the exercise (prior commitments); Barrie 'BJ' Wilson is dead, alas. The gaps have been filled by session men.
Is this reunion just another cynical exercise in money-making through the powers of nostalgia, as practised in recent times by The Who and so many more? Procol Harum, who never got their royalties for A Whiter Shade Of Pale (ie they were swizzed out of an unsmall fortune), might be forgiven for wanting to cash in on the pop memory boom. But that wasn't a motive at all, Keith Reid insists: 'We must have been asked to re-form at least eight or ten times a year since we stopped but that was never a good reason to do it. This isn't memory lane.' Gary Brooker is less jaunty (more honest?): 'We've got nothing else to do, Tom, this is the thing ...' The group have been playing A Whiter Shade Of Pale on stage. It brings the house down, every time.
'I don't understand,' Fisher, who seems unable to get to grips with the modern pop process, says to me as the group sip tea and hang about waiting for their TV run-through. I don't quite understand, Tom. Did you come to New York to interview us?'
Indeed I did.
'Really? Oh, that's odd. I find that very odd. What is it that you want to know about us?'
Well, quite naturally, I want to know this: what became of the kaftans of 67? And this seemingly simple / stupid question sparks much debate amongst the three who are only just getting used to being in the same room together after all this time ...
Fisher: We never wore kaftans.
Reid: BJ wore a kaftan.
Fisher: Oh, did he? I don't remember that.
Reid: Gary didn't wear a kaftan.
Brooker: I never wore a kaftan. There was a sort of kaftan I had, I think ...
Fisher: BJ never had a little bell around his neck though, did he?
Brooker: But I never wore a kaftan.
Reid: No. Gary wore a Chinaman's outfit.
Fisher: Oh. Oh, did he?
Brooker: Did I?
Reid: He definitely didn't wear a kaftan. He wore a Chinese blouse.
Fisher: Blouse? Blouse?
Brooker: I think it was a blouse.
Fisher: Oh. Well, I wore a monk's robe on one occasion.
Reid: The first time we were on Top Of The Pops, Gary wore his Chinese top, and the second week he wore a little hat and the third week he had a pigtail. Do you remember that?
Fisher: No. It wasn't a real one, was it?
Reid: No, it was a plaited thing. And the fourth week he shaved off his moustache so nobody could recognise him. Do you remember that?
Fisher: Oh. I do, sort of. It's all coming back, vaguely. It's all a bit horrible. I only ever wore the monk's habit once, but I wore it because the stupid thing was whenever we did TV, you never actually saw my face, all you ever saw of me was my hands playing the bloody organ and I thought, Bloody hell, I'm the phantom organist that never gets seen. So I wore the monk's habit. But never a kaftan.
It was the tones of this particular organist on that particular song that moved Sven the NME's Danish correspondent to comment: 'The organ (painted red) gives you some wonderful dream-along music. Slowly it moves deep into your body and at the end you have dreamt yourself far away.' But how, one wonders, do these men feel about that song 24 years later? If familiarity breeds contempt, you'd think they'd thoroughly loathe the thing by now. Besides that, it hampered their career. Besides that, they hardly ever got paid. Seven vestal virgins ... dum-di-dum ... how did it go, now? Procol Harum are still quite fond of the bloody thing.
Reid: I still find that song rather moving when I hear Matthew and Gary play it together.
Fisher: Really? Oh. I think it was a great shame that it was our first record. If it could've been our second or third, it would have been much better, credibility-wise sort of thing.
Brooker: No, but we were 21, that sort of age. What better thing could happen to a new band than have a big hit? It was great.
Fisher: What? The record was great or the success was great? How do you mean?
Brooker: Both. It was both great.
Fisher: It wasn't that great. The success wasn't that great because ...
Brooker: Yeah, we became sort of whipping boys because we made one good single and people thought we never followed it up properly. That's what you mean.
Fisher: Oh. I don't know about that.
Reid: No, you're right because we only ever tried to do a Whiter Shade once again when we made the next single, Homburg, and that was probably a mistake.
Fisher: Oh. No, hang on. People talk about Homburg as if it was a top flop but it got to Number 4 which is the same position that The Herd got to with one of their records and that was hailed as a terrific success. We got to Number 4 and that was a failure. It's horrible.
Reid: The Herd? That pop group with Peter Frampton? What have The Herd got to do with it?
Fisher: I don't know. It just pissed me off.
What was it all about in the first place, A Whiter Shade Of Pale ... our faces first just ghostly dum-di-dum ... ? Reid, the lyricist, seems uncertain. 'Oh, I don't know. It just sounded good at the time. It was lyrical and, well, I just had a sort of movie inside my head. I think I was probably a bit drunk at the time, as well.'
It must have been strange being Keith Reid. He was a member of the band in as much as he went on tours and got his face on record covers. But he didn't perform; he was never on stage; could never enjoy the communal 'buzz' of the 'live experience'. All he ever did was write some words. Keith's words, ha ha, 'Even though the words that I use are pretentious and make you cringe with embarrassment', ha ha ha,' says Fisher, quoting from In Held 'Twas In I, a rather, er, ambitious track from Shine On Brightly. How cruel. Keith's words were capable of making would-be poets of the US campus dreamy at the knees. There was once a female student, Keith tells me, who wrote an entire BA Eng. Lit. thesis about the lyric of A Salty Dog which, she imagined, had 17 possible interpretations. But what did Reid actually do for all those endless months on the road in America?
'I just got out of my head.'
As simple as that. Fisher quit the group in 1969 because he hated touring 'I missed English sausages and proper cups of tea and English telly,' he says and I swear he's not joking but Brooker and Reid seemed to relish it. Oh, yes.
Reid: Oh, yes. Masses of drugs.
Brooker: You put the television outside your hotel room once.
Fisher: What? Why did you do that? I don't understand that.
Brooker: And we used to run down the hotel hallway and mess other people's shoes up.
Reid: That was a jolly good wheeze. We were devils. Rock'n'roll rebels.
Brooker: We swapped people's shoes around. We thought that was a real laugh.
Fisher: It sounds pathetic to me.
Reid: But when we first came to America, we went to San Francisco and there were carrier bags full of drugs. That's no exaggeration. But that was then.
Brooker: That scene all changed in the 80s, didn't it? It went from a harmless jazz Woodbine to people getting destroyed with cocaine. We never got involved with cocaine and that.
Reid: What? Ha ha ha ha ha!
Brooker: Well, we didn't. It's true!
Reid: Is it? Is it? What? Oh, have it your own way. Ha ha ha ha. If you say so. I'm just having a quiet laugh here.
Brooker: Well, it's a disease-ridden earth. You can't indulge yourself as we once did.
Procol Harum are enjoying life on the road as they never did before, or so they say. The people who come backstage these days are old and grown up; they are company directors; they are 'fans but more mature than the ones we once had'. This all sounds quite dull. 'I'd rather have some young girlies,' grumbles Fisher. 'Well, there are a few boilers around,' says Brooker, in a miserable attempt to perk up the grumpy organ grinder. 'There was that woman in New Haven. She was about 45 years old but she was trying to pull somebody!' 'She wasn't trying to pull me,' goes Fisher. 'I don't even remember her.' 'She had a go at everybody,' insists Brooker,' And what about that big girl? She was a bit over the top as well.' 'Oh, that one,' says Fisher. 'Er, I don't think I remember her, either.'
Lads, eh? In a top rock group you never have to grow up ...
It is October, 1991. Procol Harum are on the telly again and as the suave, smug New York talk show host announces the approach of yet another commercial break, Matthew Fisher strikes up some timeless notes lifted from JS Bach. Yes, it's that song again. The years are peeled back and hey presto! 'you have dreamed yourself far away' ...