Lee Zimmerman in Goldmine,
Procol Harum reached a critical and commercial peak early on, after a string of
hit singles — Homberg, Whiter Shade of Pale and Conquistador
chief among them — and several critically acclaimed concept albums, including
their stirring concept opus A Salty Dog and the concert set Procol
Harum Live with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, placed them in the advance
wave of British Art Rock innovators. Unfortunately, after returning to the
studio for Grand Hotel, the live album’s sprawling, heavily orchestrated
follow-up, Procol’s fortunes began to fade. Having lost original members,
guitarist Robin Trower and co-writer and organist Matthew Fisher, founder Gary
Brooker regrouped, adding first Dave Ball to take Trower’s place for the
Edmonton album, only to replace him shortly thereafter with Mick Grabham,
veteran of the country-rock outfit Cochise. Chris Copping, who had played with
the band in its initial incarnation as The Paramounts, eventually was brought in
to succeed Ball [sic], who quit during the recording of Grand Hotel, thus
completing the new line-up that would go on to record the albums Exotic Birds
and Fruit, Procol’s Ninth and Something Magic, the band’s
final efforts prior to breaking up in 1977 and eventually reuniting in the early
Although that latter quartet of albums received far less critical and commercial
attention than the band’s earlier triumphs, in retrospect, they merit a return
listen that reveals further glories generally overlooked in the midst of the
band’s attempts to reshuffle and reinvent itself. The sweeping majesty, lush
decadence and orchestral settings of Grand Hotel recalled the aural
imagery and storytelling of earlier opuses, like A Salty Dog and the live
set, in particular. Exotic Birds and Fruit brought the band back to
basics. Procol’s Ninth marked a dramatic departure, particularly in its
employment of producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and, for the first time
ever, the inclusion of cover songs. It also bore Procol’s final serious chart
contender in the single Pandora’s Box. Something Magic, recorded
at Miami’s Criteria Studios, contained the sidelong opus The Worm & The Tree,
an ambitious suite that echoed the magnificent In Held ’Twas in I from
the band’s celebrated second album.
Goldmine recently spoke with Brooker on the eve of Procol Harum’s latest
American jaunt, where we discussed not only the recent reissue of those four
albums, with bonus tracks, but also the overall state of Procol Harum today,
more than four decades after its founding.
What are your thoughts about the latter-day Procol Harum’s efforts? Sadly, it
seems that after your earlier triumphs, the band didn’t quite get the
recognition it deserved. Would you agree with that assessment?
Well, I would. The whys and
wherefores are a bit unknown. Grand Hotel was the first album we had out
with Chrysalis, so they gave it a big push. Of course, they should have done it
for the next one, as well. Exotic Birds and Fruit was very good, as well.
There’s no reason for it to have failed. Maybe people flagged off a bit, you
know? They didn’t sell as well, those two. But I don’t think it was because they
were crap. Maybe it was because the band didn’t work them as much; maybe the
band was a bit lazy. Looking back, you don’t really know the reasons. At the
time, we were very proud of all those albums.
Could it have
been that after your earlier triumphs — the singles Whiter Shade of Pale,
Homburg, Conquistador, the live Edmonton album and A Salty Dog
— the bar was set so high?
yeah, I think you’ve half got it there. We always liked to do something
different. I remember after Grand Hotel, we all thought, We’ve done the
orchestral bit, we’ve done it live at Edmonton, we’ve done the studio version of
that with the orchestrations on the Grand Hotel album — that was bright,
big productions — let’s go back to being a rock ’n’ roll band. That was our
thought, anyway. That’s where Exotic Birds and Fruit was at. Maybe not
everyone else was thinking we were going to do that. I always expected we’d do
some more orchestral numbers and take that somewhere else. We went back to being
a five-piece band that just recorded live in the studio.
was also quite a change. You employed the American songwriting team of Leiber
and Stoller as your producers, and you even managed to slip a couple of covers
on an album for the first time.
have an idea how the covers kind of got in there, because every day we’d go in
and do a Leiber and Stoller song that we liked, which, of course, was out of
their own repertoire — Elvis Presley, The Coasters, Ben E King, The Drifters —
anything. Every day we’d go in there and play them something. See, this is one
of yours! I remember one day we went in and played Baby I Don’t Care,
which I think Elvis did. And they said, Gee, guys, that’s the best version we
ever heard of that! So they weren’t interested in us doing just any covers. They
wanted us to do a load of Peggy Lee songs, which they got turned down for. What
we really should have been making was a Procol Harum album. So we had a bit of a
battle with them. I Keep Forgetting was the cover of their song that we
did. It puzzles me to this day how the other cover got in there. I think we just
got fed up playing Leiber and Stoller songs to them when we got in the studio
and just, like, played a Beatles one. And they said, Hey, let’s put that down,
and we put it down, and they put it down, and it ended up on the album.
How did you
manage to hook up with them to begin with? Did it have anything to do with the
fact that they had come over to produce Stealers Wheel?
Exactly, yes. Obviously, we had been long-time admirers before this record, as
songwriters and producers. They had, just prior to that, been working in Britain
with Stealers Wheel and producing bands, so we thought they’re around and
available, so we approached them and they were up for it.
left, following the album Broken Barricades, did that mark some kind of
divide in the band’s trajectory?
Trower left following Broken Barricades, and we were suddenly, for a
couple of years, a four piece [??], which was fine. We sort of enjoyed it. But
once Trower said he was on his way and moving on, I wanted to get back to a five
piece, which is what we did with Edmonton. Edmonton was a live thing with
orchestra, so you have to put that to one side. The next album really is
Grand Hotel, which was back to the five-piece, and we used the organ and
piano setup and, of course, we changed guitarists.
It was the
guitar slot that seemed particularly fluid at the time then.
yes, Dave Ball played on Edmonton. Then Mick Grabham came along. He was a
very musical guitarist, and he made a significant impact throughout all four of
these albums. He was a very big influence on the band, and his input took us a
stage further than Trower did. When we auditioned Mick, we were just starting
work on Grand Hotel, and we had these guitarists come up to the Air
studios where we were doing it. I’m a wicked man, so I said, OK, let’s run
through something, and Mick said OK, so I said let’s do A Salty Dog.
Nobody had ever played anything on A Salty Dog on guitar. Trower never
thought of anything to play. I don’t think Dave Ball did, either, so I thought,
if you can play guitar on A Salty Dog, you can play on anything. So he
started messing around with his volume control and screeching in and out like a
seagull, and I thought, well, bloody marvellous.
predecessors were intimidated by the two keyboards.
I saw it as a great opportunity. If
you were a guitarist in Procol at any point, you got the biggest sound to back
you up. With piano and organ growling behind you, you can just sail out over the
purveyed such a distinctive sound in the beginning, and a lot of that had to do
with Keith Reid’s remarkable lyrics. But out of curiosity, when Keith initially
gave you his lyrics, like for example, those intriguing words for Whiter
Shade of Pale, did you ever look at him and say, ‘Keith, this is lovely
poetry, but how do I adapt it to rock ’n’ roll?’
Well, I don’t think you could ever call Whiter Shade of Pale a rock ’n’
roll song. The only thing that had a rock ’n’ roll bit about it was that it
appealed to everybody that listened to popular music. So it had the same impact
as Honky Tonk Women, from that respect.
were referring to rock ’n’ roll in a generic sense. The point is, his lyrics
were so poetic and so grandiose, they might have seemed more suited to a
dramatic oratorio or a book of literature.
It was never a problem. (chuckles) The
day I wrote Whiter Shade of Pale, I was just thinking of the chords and
the bass line and everything that makes up the structure and the bars that came
in between. Keith’s lyrics arrived in the post just as I was composing this, and
I just sang them over what I was playing, and it just went together immediately.
There was no great What the hell is this about? In fact, the music I was writing
was a very long sequence that required a very long sequence of words, and lo and
behold, that’s what arrived in the post. It wasn’t tumbling from the sky, that
And was it
the same way on subsequence outings? It was always quite extraordinary how you
managed to turn these intensely descriptive lyrics into such wonderfully melodic
songs. They certainly weren’t the typical, ‘Hey baby, I got you’ run-of-the-mill
As in, ‘Hey baby,
let’s get down tonight!’
were certainly a far cry from that variety of lyric. If one were to look at the
words on a piece of paper, it would be hard to imagine them in the context of a
As in, how will that turn out? How can
that possibly turn that into a song?
you ever sort of shake your head and ponder that possibility?
No, I never did. When you think about the
first two or three albums and the words I’d receive from Keith, they would start
off something like, ‘White Prussian blue, alarm clock rings’ … if he showed that
to a rock ’n’ roller today, he’d go, ‘What can I write with that?’ But to me…
well, I think it helped being a vocalist, as well, but I never had any trouble
with Keith’s words. I never thought they were strange (chuckles). I always
thought, when I looked at them for the first time, ‘Yeah, I’m right there.’ I
put myself into them. I never looked a Keith Reid lyric and thought, ‘Wow, this
is a bit weird.’ And yet, some of the opening lines I had to sing, like ‘She
wandered through the garden fence,’ or ‘Your multi-lingual business friend has
packed her bags and fled,’ to name but two … I do think, ‘How did I do it?’
Harum ever been nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
Is that in Los Angeles?
In Cleveland? Never heard of it!
you’re putting us on. But it is sad that many of the British bands that dared to
venture into unusual environs, especially those that veered from the mainstream,
have been summarily neglected. I was astounded when Justin Hayward revealed that
the Moody Blues had never come up for consideration.
imagine that one day they’ll have to wake up. One day they’ll have to realise
that a band that’s been playing for forty years and still selling out halls and
still pleasing their audiences ought to be in there. Of course you can look at
their music and their content, as well. If you add that into the mix, if you
look at both those things, I’m sure Procol would be qualified to be in that Rock
and Roll Hall of Fame.
Good points …
and Procol is still active and ongoing these days, is it not?
And now your
later albums are being re-released …
Yes, but we’re also been working on new
things. We’ve put out a few very good live albums with orchestra and things, and
we’ve been playing a lot of gigs. That’s the most important thing. In fact, we
were in America in June. We played around five gigs on our own on the East Coast
and played a number of gigs with Jethro Tull with the two of us on the bill.
So, can we
look forward to a new studio album in the foreseeable future?
Well, we’ve been experimenting with some
studio stuff with a new producer, and it’s all been going great. So we’re kind
of making progress with that. What gives it a lack of immediacy is that the
whole idea of a release of something has gotten rather dissipated. When you have
12-inch vinyl album with the fabulous artwork that the artists would do in those
days, it’s a huge event. CDs, at least, were still things that you could
release, and they came out in shops, although the artwork then shrunk to
infinitesimal unworthiness, and the artists were suddenly out of work. But at
least it was something that came out on, say, the 4th of October, and people
went into Tower Records and bought it. So that’s kind of dissipated now, and I
think even in America, a lot of the retail shops have simply gone out of
Yes, it’s a
shame that physical product is so scarce now. Personally, I hate it …
Oh, both you and I, since we’re involved
in the rock business, you as a journalist and your magazine, Goldmine,
which has been around for a long time. Very good publication, by the way.
For the past 40 years, you’ve played with some of the greatest musicians of all
time. Do you have any special moments that stand out above all the others?
Off the top of my head, I’ll tell you
two. One is the I think playing in the Concert for George (Harrison). I was in
the band, playing at the Albert Hall that night with those people, with those
songs, with that audience, was an absolutely unforgettable experience. I think
it comes across on the DVD as well. It was a great moment to be there.
only other thing that comes to mind was when we played in Edmonton Alberta with
the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra in whatever it was, 1970, 1971 … we played In
Held ’Twas In I, and at the end of it was so stirring, and it reached such a
climax that the audience went crazy … well, I’m sure I was floating off the
piano stool I was sitting on, because it was very uplifting. So that was a great
experience. That’s what you play music for, to get through to people. That’s
even more meaningful and helps you to carry on.