Procol Harum

the Pale

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Gary Brooker interview with 'Beyond the Pale'

All the background to Procol's Missing Persons EP • released 7 May 2021

Procol Harum’s new EP, released 7 May 2021, contains newly-rediscovered studio recordings of two highly contrasting late-period Brooker/Reid numbers each of which, as it happens, had provided climactic finales for the band’s two nights of Fortieth Anniversary concerts in July 2007, staged in London by ‘Beyond the Pale’.

Buy the new EP from Cherry Red Records by clicking here!

Speaking exclusively to BtP on 6 May 2021, to discuss the slightly mysterious background to this release, Gary Brooker started by mentioning some promo copy he’d written at the request of Cherry Red Records … ‘which they seem to have totally ignored. The main gist of it was that we can’t remember anything about making this record. It just popped up.’

This left BtP with the intriguing challenge of putting some flesh on an apparently non-existent bone. I started by reminding Gary of a photograph I’d taken of him and Keith Reid at St John Smith Square, on 20 July 2007, the afternoon of the 'Procol Rarum' concert which showcased some of the duo’s less-known material. As the two songwriters were organising themselves around the Reid velocipede, Gary had remarked to the lyricist that he’d just ‘come up with some music for Missing Persons’. To this news Keith volunteered no response at all, which suggested that the particular lyric had been gone from his mind a good while.

Roland from BtP
So it seems safe to date the music, at least, of the new lead track to July 2007.

Gary Brooker
‘I didn’t realise it was that far back,’ Gary says, then adding that he couldn’t rule out the possibility that there had earlier been ‘a completely different idea for Missing Persons, which has been totally forgotten – that can happen sometimes, you know: you get an idea for something and then you go off and get another idea and you forget all about the first idea.’

Wasn’t it quite a bold move to conclude your fortieth anniversary concert with a tune written only a few days before?

‘And which nobody knew,’ he laughs. ‘Was it the same tune, -ish?’

I assure him that it was the same tune, and that it had gone down well, not least thanks to its long playout. Standing in the wings, Webmaster Jens and I had formed the impression that nobody on stage was quite sure when it was going to end … and of course nobody in the hall wanted it to.

‘Well I’ve been bold before,’ Gary said. ‘I did write a new song one day and we were on at the Royal Festival Hall that night, and I thought “I’ll play this one all on my own.” And that was The Idol.’

The night following that Missing Persons début had featured two groupings of musicians, dubbed 'Kings' and 'Queens' (see here); both had involved Martin Wright on drums, because Procol’s Geoff Dunn had another engagement. I asked how Wright had come to play the Procol Rarum concert.

‘No idea. I didn’t pull him in from anywhere, and none of the band did either. I think there was a Chris Cooke connection, or a Chris Cooke suggestion. I don’t know if we rehearsed with him, or what. Must’ve done!’ Gary recalled, perhaps somewhat tentatively, that Martin Wright ‘seemed to be there when we recorded this EP.’

And where was “there”?

‘It was a studio, attached to what appeared to be a sort of a pub, but I think it was a pub music gig, though it wasn’t open when we were going there at all. I think it was called either Concorde or Concordia. I’ve called it ‘Concorde’ in everything I’ve written about it, which amounts to just two words: ‘Concorde’, and ‘Brighton’.

Picture sent to BtP by Josh Phillips (organ)So, I suggested, did that tally with Josh Phillips’s picture [see left] of Matt Pegg getting off his boat to play a recording session, in March 2009?

At Brighton Marina? At least he would have got there on time. I had to battle my way through the annual Brighton lesbian annual cycle ride. I was going along the seafront and the police stopped me, and all these people came the other way: the naked bike ride by LBGST-and-a-couple-of-question-marks. It was a bit of a shock.

I remember Chris saying he wanted to get studio recordings of Missing Persons, War is not Healthy, Sister Mary, and Yours If You Want Me: is that what you worked on in Brighton?

Can’t remember, sorry Roland. That seems quite a lot [of tunes] to do. The trouble is, I can’t remember what our aim was in doing this. We hadn’t been in the studio with Geoff Dunn on the drums at that time. It’s not like it was part of an album. It might have been Chris’s instigation, pushing us to try and do something.

So, isn’t it a bit of a puzzle that the project got shelved?

I ask myself that. When I found it on a CD on a shelf here at home, I thought “Why did this stop dead in its tracks, to the point of being actually forgotten?” Though it can’t have been forgotten, can it, because it appears that we played it on stage [But that was back in 2007: here, here, here, here, here and so on]. And I believe we have four Procol live download albums, and one of them contains it, and also War is not Healthy.

So the Missing Persons you found on the shelf, was it a finished mix, or a monitor mix, or what?

It just said “rough mix” on it. I’d found it way back in November [2020] or something, or even before: I was going through some things – Covid cleaning, in fact – and I found it, the whole version, just like it is now. But this March, when I went to look for it again, it had disappeared. I had about ten other CDs with Missing Persons written on them, but most of them didn’t have a lead vocal. Some of them were me doing the harmony parts, to show people how they went, or what my ideas were at least. But the November disc had gone.

So then I started asking round the rest of the band, in case somebody there had it. Nobody knew what I was talking about. Josh went to a lot of trouble and sent me Missing Person, [an entirely different track, by Brooker/Sutherland, from Gary’s Echoes in the Night solo album]. I had explained that I thought we did it in Brighton, explained that to everybody, but nobody came up with anything whatsoever. Nobody told me that they remembered even doing it – I couldn’t even find out what year it was. [Josh told BtP ... 'it was as if our memories had been wiped'].

So now it seems it must have been hanging around for a year or two after St John's Smith Square, and finally we got to have a go at it.

And did you in the end find the multi-tracks?

I said to Chris Cooke, in March, “Where do you think I could find the multi-tracks, any ideas?” And he came back with a very brief “Martin Wright might know”. So I believe that means Martin Wright was probably at the control desk.

We did track down the multi-tracks, for both songs, I think; but then we didn’t use them because they were ProTools and we would have needed to get them converted and so on, in order to be able to remix it. And I know what happens in those situations: you can often spend four days trying to get what you’ve already got. And it wasn’t the expense particularly that stopped us, it was that I wanted to get it out.

"This should be out now,” I thought, and I thought that that could happen, not by buggering around, but by using that rough mix, which sounded really good.

I was quite objective about it. I thought “That sounds like Procol Harum, that Missing Persons one." And the other one didn’t sound so much like Procol Harum, but it was Procol Harum, having a really really good groove and shout-up in the studio, which is what we do sometimes. And I played it to Franky, and she said “That should be out now.” So I thought, let’s not mess around: there is nothing else happening. And we were told it could be rushed out … by May 7, which is tomorrow.

I asked Gary to clarify the reasons for wanting to rush it out at that point.

Well as you know I’m always looking for reasons, or lack of reasons even (which is when something just tumbles from the sky). It was all the Missing Persons at the time: we had Linda [Clare] of course, we had Alan Cartwright, we had the Duke of Edinburgh who was in and out of hospital, there was Captain Tom, all the Covid casualties, you could look anywhere and you could find a missing person. Even people falling out of dinghies in the English Channel. It just seemed appropriate.

When did it grow the extra bit of title (Alive Forever)?

That was always intended to be part of the title. Perhaps it’s just an attempt at cheering things up. Though it does also differentiate it from the other one off Echoes in the Night, which was Missing Person singular.

I comment on the difference between the two songs: such similar titles, yet one about a mere couple and one apparently about the state of the whole world.

Yes, I looked at the words, and I thought “Bloody Reid, what a great lyricist.” I thought it’s prescient … written some time ago, and yet here he is fitting very well in March 2021. As if he’d written it especially, almost. And it was nice to have Keith’s words, actually.’ [read the words here and here]

‘It's praising the troops and waving the flag / It's widows and orphans carrying the bag’ or ‘Sickness that comes like a thief in the night’.

Very different from the Pete Brown words on the Novum album.

Yeah, two very different kind of things. Well I’ve been a Keith Reid fan since 1966! And though we’ve had our ups and downs personally speaking, you can’t get over the fact that it’s a great lyric. We’re probably in a ‘down’ at the moment, but I’ve got the utmost respect for everything he’s always done. Well, maybe there’s one or two that’s not good …

Like what?

(Long pause). "Take the ice cream from my shoes …"’

The original lyric to Salad Days?

Yes! And we never did it! They don’t usually seem to date that much, Reid’s words. He did have a phase of writing about strange people, like Phallus Phil and Long Gone Geek and other characters; I think on reflection now they don’t stand up as well as Homburg or Broken Barricades.

Sometimes Reid’s words have been a bit bizarre, but I never thought they were strange. ‘My Prussian blue electric clock’s alarm bell rings?’ Is that really an opening line? But I didn’t bat an eyelid, at the time.

I ask if Gary feels that was something Pete Brown didn’t offer, on the Novum lyrics: the unexpected?

I think it was unexpected because – when I suggested we might use the Ten Commandments as a starting point – it was unexpected that it turned out that he (or the person singing for him) had broken all ten of them! (Laughs) I did say to him, “Can’t we put this in the third person somehow?” otherwise it was me that was running into that motel, it was me that was stealing the money ...

I assure Gary that Procol fans can distinguish the voice of the singer from the voice of the song: 'We don’t all think you’ve been living in a graveyard, hanging from a wall'. And then the conversation shifted to the music.

'You introduced Missing Persons in one live performance saying something like, “You’ve all heard these chords before.” Is there a particular source you can point to? '

I can’t remember writing it. All I know is that it’s good. It’s very hard to work out: it seems simple, but then you realise, “Excuse me, this is up a minor third”. I didn’t realise that until I came to sing it recently, when I put my lead vocal on the chorus.

This was in your recording session with Josh [see illustration]?

Yes, on top of the rough mix, I was able to put my voice on again, reinforcing the chorus lines.

So the harmonies were already on there?

Yes, on one of the CDs I found it had the backing track, and it said “BVs, Thames Ditton”. I can only think that we did that at Josh’s, the BVs. It took a little while to come to full fruition, that song, although the chords didn’t change … it was like “This chorus is not quite coming through.” It was like that on stage as well. We need to get Ronnie D’Addario to join us on it.

It turned out very ethereal and haunting. You just effectively double-tracked the melody for the chorus then?

No, there wasn’t a lead vocal on that bit, it was three people singing; a chorus, more than a backing vocal. It just wasn’t quite chorusy enough. It could probably still be more chorusy, but you can only do so much.

Josh tells me the other track on the EP, War is not Healthy, was recorded in a studio at Haywards Heath. Did you subsequently modify that at his studio as well?

Didn’t need to. I just listened, and thought, bloody hell that’s good, listen to that drum sound. When Geoff Dunn heard it, he did remember doing the intro to that one.

But I don’t know how that got on a live record of Procol. I never remember playing that anywhere! Although I had a recollection that I played something around it at St John Smith Square.

It became the finale to the second night, 20 July 2007. Your soundcheck for that show was almost entirely taken up with perfecting Shake Rattle and Roll, which was the scheduled finale, but it never got played at all. Hard to follow War is not Healthy.

Like you say, it’s not characteristic Procol, but it’s just the right setting for the angry, hectoring lyric. Reid was evidently alluding to Lorraine Schneider's iconic 1967 'Primer' image [left]. Can you say how your musical idea originated?

The way Keith had written it down – the 'democracy, lunacy, history' bit – it was like ... exclamations. You have to either shout it out or mumble it. The hook, about war not being healthy, is just taking those ideas a little bit further. I do sing that, but it’s quite a simple tune. I just always imagine there would be a few people joining in with it. A lot of songwriters think “This will sound great with a crowd of five thousand people singing along" – and that’s quite modest of course, five thousand. Think of Queen – I don’t mean Elizabeth – Radio Gaga and so on. It’s anthemic in some way.

It’s been sung in Norwegian classrooms, you know. You remember Kari, who played French horn in the Palers’ Band? She wanted to do War is Not Healthy with her pupils, and you wrote it out in pencil score and sent it over to her [click graphic, right] with performance instructions and so on. But the EP version I think is slightly resequenced compared with what she’d heard in July 2007, when the Palers’ Band opened for you.

Probably on the day, in the studio, it was just the best way of presenting the main message. I’m absolutely sure War is not Healthy was a lyric that Reid sent to me when The Emperor’s New Clothes and other ones of that era came along. Every Dog will have his Day, that era.

Procol weren’t ready to rap in 2003?

In fact Man with a Mission was definitely a rap, as in ‘spoken word with attitude’, it started like that with No Stiletto Shoes. But that was a different era again.

Thanks Gary. We did get some flesh on the bone, then.

I didn’t think I knew any answers! I’ve seen a few things written about this EP, not a great deal, but what there’s been says that this was ‘A Lockdown Effort’. But that is very far from the truth. The whole point is, this is Not A Lockdown Effort; it was found because of lockdown, when I was having a Covid clear-out, and I had the time to look through all these bloody CDs. And it’s sort of just appeared like a flower, and I thought it was quite important that it happened that way … not to everybody, but I think it was to me, and it probably is to one or two Procolites and Palers or whatever. Nothing happens without a purpose. Or else, things just happen and nobody knows why.

And I don’t know what’s going to happen with his little EP. I shall buy it! Better run up to HMV and order it. That’ll shock ’em. Last time I did that, I asked them if they had the Procol Harum Union Chapel DVD and they said, (thuggish voice): “They’re dead, aren’t they?”.

He could’ve said, “Oh, are they still going? That’s rather interesting.” But it was “They’re dead, aren’t they?”

Well, here’s your answer: No We’re Not!’

Procol dates in 2021 | Procol on record | Buy the new EP by clicking this link | The EP reviewed

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