Procol Harum

the Pale

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Procol guitarist Richard Brown: BtP interview

Fisher in, Brown out

Dear reader ... you are advised to read the preface to this interview and draw your own conclusions

'Beyond the Pale'
How long was it before Matthew Fisher appeared on the scene?

Richard Brown
Fisher was going to join the band immediately after that, but Barrie told me that he (Matthew) wouldn't join until there was a definite and sensible wage paid in cash on the nail; either that or he wouldn't give up the gig with Cat Stevens ... [Matthew told BtP in conversation that he had never played with Cat Stevens]

Cat Stevens?

I'm 100% certain of that. Recently Claes mentioned to me that he couldn't find any evidence of Fisher ever having played keyboards with Cat Stevens ... I only know that was what Barrie told me, and I don't see why he would tell me something that was untrue ... Matthew came to a practice only once or maybe twice, as a try-out, and he fitted in fine ... and then I never saw him again ... Anyway he didn't join the band at that time, and so we all went back to doing nothing as usual, and Gary went back to Southend to his mom's yet again ... nothing changed ...

There was a generally prevalent feeling at that time between all of the band members that we would just break the band up and go our separate ways ... It was much too hard keeping it all together against all the odds ... Everything seemed to be stacked against us ... and of course there were day-to-day expenses to pay ... petrol, train fares, food, church hall donations to enable us to keep practising ... strings, drum sticks, on and on ... Guy and Keith were having to meet all of those costs, and I think Guy's wife was giving him lots of grief about it at the time ... I don't think it really helped, my living in their basement either. It seemed that with even the best will in the world that we just couldn't go on with only the pitiful wages Guy was paying us. Dave seemed to be getting less and less committed as well.

There were no immediate prospects at all, and not even the possibility of even one gig materialising on the horizon ... I'd thought about trading in my amp and getting a smaller one, and getting some cash with the deal, but I decided that I would never sell my gear ... .

You didn't think of signing on?

I'd never ever signed on the dole then or anything ... I don't think I even knew what it was in those days ...

I'd been sleeping on an old army camp bed in Guy's basement. You entered the basement through a door under the stairs and went down some more stairs, to the bottom of what looked like a dingy lift shaft and then you turned left along a passage and the room went under the road in front of the house ... . It was quite a big room, about ten feet by sixteen or seventeen feet, but it had no windows and it was infested with rats. There was no electricity supply down there ... it had been disconnected because of the damp and there was no heating either. It was like a dungeon.

I had a small torch and a candle in a green-painted tin candle holder, and a few paperbacks to read by torch-light. It was even pitch dark down there in the daytime, unless the door at the top of the stairs was left open and a little daylight shone along the hallway ... I'd bought a travel alarm clock to lay on the floor beside the camp bed ... there was no furniture at all ... and I had to look at the fluorescent hands of the clock to tell me when it was daytime, and whether or not I should get up to go upstairs!

It was horrible and so damp and so cold ... I must have been crazy to live in conditions like that ... In the morning when I put my jeans on, they were so damp that I could hardly get them up over my legs ... It sounds pathetic but it really was like something out of Dickens!

I don't know if you've ever slept on a camp bed, but the top bit where the covers go over you is fine ... However, the part that touches the canvas (i.e. ... your ass ... ) is always bloody freezing! ... You wake up stiff and tired and cramped and miserable every morning ... Anyway I did. My joints started to get affected living down there and my wrists and knees became sore and stiff and my knuckle joints swollen. Living there in that basement for those few months or so was so totally and completely depressing that I hadn't got any enthusiasm left any more for anything ... I was also just about turning into an anorexic because of lack of food and I'd lost a lot of weight ...

One of the worst things I remember was having to go to sleep with fingers in my ears to stop myself hearing the rats scratching and shuffling around me and running across the floor into the skirtings ... The damp in the walls had made sheets of wallpaper peel away above me, and it hung down in rolls over the camp bed in the candle-light and moved up and down in the draught ... It was really horrible, and the place was really frightening at times ... The mould and the dampness and the dry rot in floor smelled awful and my clothes smelled musty, and there was always a stink of sewage or something in the room as well, from the drains I think.

A bundle of laughs, then …

Some nights I cried myself to sleep because the whole thing was so miserable ... The conditions there were the pits (literally). I've stayed in some fairly dodgy places around the world since, but never anything as bad as that ... The cabaret and working men's club scene up north, where you lived in bed and breakfast places ... were total luxury compared to that and I began to really miss the life of playing gigs, and audiences clapping, and getting paid for it ... I couldn't even take my guitar down into the basement to practice scales and things, because it was so damp, and I was afraid the moisture would get into the wood and warp it. I tried keeping it down there in it's case for a week or so, but the case went all mouldy on the inside and stained the velvet lining, and green mould started growing on the outside ...

So how did you get out of this?

Another guitarist friend in London told me about some session work in a studio in Denmark Street playing on some demos for Buffy Saint Marie, a Native American/Canadian folk singer and writer. I took my guitar and got the job and did some recording for three or four days, playing mainly acoustic parts for her, working with an upright bass player and recording just as a trio ... to earn a few quid. I think I got 12 or 15 a day, maybe about 50 quid in all for the week, which was much better than nothing in the sixties ...

The next day I phoned home to my Dad, and he told me that I'd been offered a job through the Astra Agency in Wolverhampton with a group from Southport who had a brass section in the line-up, and did I want to work with them? ... They did Blood Sweat and Tears and Chicago-style stuff and they had guaranteed gigs and they promised good money. They also wanted me to sing lead vocals with them. Say no more! ... Magic! ... M 6 here I come!

I said to Guy and Keith that I was leaving, they phoned Gary up, and I got the train straight back home to Birmingham the same day. I still had about twenty quid left in my pocket after I'd paid for the train fare, plus a proper meal at the station, and that included paying for the taxis for all my gear! I was rich! ... Home to three square meals a day! and a really comfy bed! GREAT!

I was only just eighteen then and a growing lad, and going home then was exactly the right thing to do.

No regrets?

Loads of people down the years have asked me if I regretted leaving the band then ... and I always maintain that it was the best thing I ever did ... . I would have ended up either as a junkie or a down-and-out, or a thief, or been reduced to begging on the streets or something ... if I'd have stayed any longer, or at least it felt like that at the time ... The whole thing seemed futile and the odds against it getting any better seemed huge. I was right at the end of my resources ... In retrospect, I should obviously got a job ... and gone semi-pro ... it's as simple as that ... During the sixties and early seventies it was easy to get an ordinary job, and I could have probably gone for an interview on Friday, and started on the Monday ... I can honestly say that I never considered it ... I suppose I'd always worked as a professional musician, and I'd accepted that that was what I did ... It sounds really stupid, but getting a proper job never ever crossed my mind.

I was the only member of the band who wasn't living at home then, and of course I was the youngest. I think it was only the fact that I was so young and so naive, that I stood all the deprivation for as long as I did ... I was so broke, and so unhappy, and so low, and I couldn't see any way out of it at all ... When I got back to Birmingham, I was never so happy to see dirty old New Street Station in my life ...

I stayed at home for a few days, and borrowed some money from my Dad to take a girlfriend out to the pictures. The next day the drummer and the bass player in the new band drove down the M6 to pick me up. I loaded the gear in the back, jumped in the passenger seat, we put some petrol in the tank, and we were off ... . Pastures new ... Great!

And how do you spend the time now?

I live in the country in the north of Scotland with my partner Lynda, and my little son Lyall. I practise Budokan Karate and Kosho-Ryu Kempo avidly … I collect guitars, I still enjoy writing songs, I record and produce people in my studio, and I still gig quite a lot.

I recently contacted a guitarist in Finland who lives not far from Turku Abo near Helsinki and he's helping me set up a month or so's gigs touring there after Christmas this year. Some of the gigs are going to be up beyond the Arctic circle ... even north of Leningrad! I don't think it's going to be exactly tropical there in winter ... I suppose I'd better take my insulated undies! I'm really looking forward to playing there.

With whom, and playing what?

I'll probably do the gigs on my own. (or rather two of us ... just me and my guitar ... )

I play solo guitar stuff in concert, and blues in different styles ... ragtime ... sometimes jazz, folky stuff ... lots of stuff ... and I sing mostly my own songs ...

Do you mention Procol in your publicity?

I'll mention Procol on the posters and in the newspapers and in interviews ... I mean I'm proud to have been a part of such a great band, even though the wages were always pathetic! Why not? ... As Claes mentioned, Scandinavian interest in the band is huge and shows no sign of decline. Can't be bad!

And also I'm glad to still be gigging and active when a lot of former members and associates of the band are no longer with us or have gone down the 'rock casualty' road ...

I hope some of this is of some use for your excellent site ... and if anyone wants to contact me, maybe they can e-mail you at BtP and you can forward it to me ... I'm happy to respond to e-mail from anyone ... at anytime ... including obscure letters from hardened Anoraks about what make of jack-plugs we used in the sixties ... Bulgin mono ...

In closing let me ask a question that is crucial for those hardened Anoraks: did Guy really have that 'Procol Harum' cat that gave the band its name? Did you ever see it or its famous birth certificate?

I remember when I first got the job, and after a week or so moved from Earl's Court over to Guy's house, that I asked about the derivation of the name.

Now wait for it Anoraks ! Guy told me that it was a friend's cat's name and that it was Latin ... [do follow these links!]

That's bloody daft, I thought ... What a naff name for a band ... That's bloody stupid! What was it again? 'Procol Harum'? No-one's ever going to remember that!

Thanks, Richard!

Thanks ... keep up the good work!

Richard Brown's page at BtP Index page for the other parts of this interview

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