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'Most groups start at the bottom and work their way up,' says Keith Reid. 'But we started right in at the top.'
Procol Harum's Whiter Shade of Pale, released in the Spring of 1967, became one of the best-selling records in the history of rock music. The group has never had a comparable seller since and so their growth artistically has been without the advantage that some other groups have.
"Most groups start out at the bottom and then work their way up," says Keith Reid, the travelling lyricist of the group, "but we started right in at the top. It was very strange."
But at that time the group's good fortune was not all-pervasive. There were severe internal problems. Matthew Fisher had trouble showing up for gigs and Dave Knights was going in a different musical direction and there were endless lawsuits and management hassles as everyone leapt for the pie. Procol has been through three full-blown court cases in their subsequent changes of management and American representation. They've finally settled with Chrysalis, the same firm that handles Jethro Tull. The current line-up is Gary Brooker on vocals and piano, Chris Copping on bass and organ, Robin Trower on guitar and BJ Wilson on drums. Reid, the lyricist, also is considered an official member of the band.
In America, Procol has established a solid following who love their grandiose thought through [?] melancholy manner and particularly Brooker's undefinable voice. Their last three albums, Shine on Brightly, Salty Dog and Home, have met with critical success here and have sold well enough to keep them recording. But there have been no more hit singles, the group has no exciting lead guitarist star like Alvin Lee or Eric Clapton, and in England, because of previously poor management, they have almost no following at all.
[So far, this seems to be highly similar to the PH and Facts of Life from Rolling Stone of a couple months earlier. In fact, it looks like he may borrowed, and in some cases, misquoted (eg the bit about David Knights) pieces of that article. The article has the same picture as well. It also has a picture of GB, apparently from the same photo session]
"We must make all our money from the states," confesses Wilson. Their tours here are just often enough to maintain their popularity and they always meet with ovations and demands for encores. In the last few years they have added the ability to play good hard rock and roll as well as slower, organ-dominated pieces and on a recent tour of England with Jethro Tull they were received quite well. However they tend to look at their career with a mixture of sadness, in that their art goes sometimes unappreciated, and gratitude, that they are still able to do with their lives what they want.
Brooker was asked what he would do if the new Procol album, Broken Barricades, sold a million copies. He relished the question, letting it penetrate, and replied, "Oh, I'd probably go to Monte Carlo and gamble it all - and if I won I'd take it all home and spend it making the most incredible album anyone's ever done."
Recognition is one of the most important things an artist can have and there is a well-hidden craving that Reid and Brooker have to get their sounds and thoughts back to the four million audience that they started out with.
"We don't get a lot of fan mail," Brooker said, " but what we do get is really personal and rewarding. Like even if we just were to get ten or eleven a year like those it would be worth it. People write such personal things, such inner thoughts."
Reid is happy when people are moved by his lyrics but sometimes he's at a loss of how to respond to fans.
"When somebody comes up to you and says that what you've written has changed their life - that you've given them something - it's very hard to give them more. Because you've said something in the song that's really from you - you've bared yourself to them and they know you - they've been touched by you but you've never met them; you don't know them at all and haven't the slightest idea of what they're like."
Like all of the group, Reid is rather well-read and articulate. He is not aware of specific influences on his writing but he is a student of poetry and particularly loves Rimbeau [sic]. His writing is unlike any other rock poetry around. He has a dark view which gives unique perspective on the world. As John Mendolsohn [sp] has written: "While their contemporaries took to tirelessly singing of the joys of getting it all together in the country, Procol instead painted bleak musical pictures of men at sea or devoted whole albums to the theme of death." They were the first rock band to get involved with classical music and they were the first who did get involved to escape getting trapped there.
If there has been a growth in recent Procol material it is their new found ability to play danceable throbbing rock and roll as well as their unique oratorical pieces. The combination adds up to one of the most powerful shows in rock.
"The problems that a band has to deal with are so heavy," says Brooker. "It's not only us, it's almost every band I know of. You have to always be hassling about some legal thing, some old royalty thing or some booking thing."
Procol is in a tradition of art unlike some of the hard rock British successes. They have never been into the scene of attracting groupies or milking the audience for encores. While they are firm in many of their views they have never bothered to build up public images. But this is not to say that they have uninteresting personalities. They simply prefer to be more natural. Reid has many incisive political ideas which one might never suspect from his lyrics.
"You can say we think that Heath is a fascist pig," laughed Brooker expressing his discontent with the conservative British Prime Minister.
The group at this point is doing the best they can to stay awake in the midst of the rock merry-go-round made particularly confusing in their case because they have to travel three thousand miles to find an audience that will pay to see them. It's like American jazz musicians who can't make a living here but go to Europe and are received as royalty.
They're thinking about getting into other media like film or video someday and it's likely that they would be quite inventive there. Brooker revealed that he was quite surprised on one level that their albums had caught on at all. "We recorded Shine On Brightly just for ourselves. We never thought anyone would want to hear it, except maybe a few friends and others. Commercial success is very strange: it's not something you can get bitter about, but you can't very well ignore it. You've got to think about it a bit if you want to keep making albums."
Procol continues to have to divide their time between the logistics of survival and the joy of creation. "We really want to create great music - something that people have never done before," says Reid.
"Lots of people thought we would never be able to follow up Whiter Shade of Pale," he continued. "There were always stories of us breaking up and getting back together and it's taken a while to get things straight." But with their fifth album they are now a firmly established entity.
Thanks, Marvin, for finding, transcribing and commenting.
More PH history
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