Procol Harum

the Pale

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Six Years in the Harum

Andrew Tyler in Disc, 24 March 1973

'Gary's got gout,' Keith Reid explains without so much as a trace of nonsense in his eyes, 'so he couldn't make it today.'

But, what's actually wrong with him?

'He's got gout!!'

Mr Brooker hasn't actually got gout. He's got 'flu, but since jokey quips and Keith Reid don't readily marry in the mind it takes a while for it to register. Keith Reid, in person, is only fractionally intellectual and wordy. Nothing like the lyrical figure of your imagination: the man whose impeccable poetry has been the backbone of Procol Harum's music for six years.

But then Gary Brooker was a surprise too. Both men hold back more than they offer and both have egos that are relatively retarded by Rock-n-Roll standards, There must have been many opportunities to grow in that direction since apart from steady encouragement, verging on frenzy, from the more obvious quarters, they more and more often find themselves being pursued by conductors and orchestra leaders.

It began four years ago with a performance at the Stratford Shakespearean Festival in Ontario, Canada, and there have been eight more confrontations. Uneasy at first, through lack of rehearsal time and through the superior attitude of certain orchestra members. But the last half-dozen shows in Austria, Switzerland and Germany have, they say, been remarkably easy-going.

They had after all, a racy, youngish conductor fronting the colossal assembly. A certain Eberhard Schoerner, noted for his electroid compositions. Then there was the lead 'cellist and violinist from the Bavarian Radio Orchestra plus the Munich Boys Choir.

'We were going to do the European shows like the Rainbow,' says Keith , 'but their conductor, who really seems to like us, had this idea of making a collage on tape, using some of our numbers that he liked fitted in with Mozart's Coronation Mass. The idea seemed silly, but in fact it worked incredibly well and musically it all made sense.'

'It's always down to the attitude of the conductor,' affirms Procol drummer BJ Wilson, 'If the conductor's lax they treat it as a sort of funny occasion.'

'It was particularly noticeable with the first thing we did in Canada,' says Keith. 'The first number was Salty Dog which was incredibly well received. Suddenly they thought: 'Oh, it's all worthwhile what I'm doing.' They realised it wasn't a big joke. People were appreciating the music and I think they need that to realise it's quite a serious thing.'

Orchestra musicians have the usual stereotyped conception of pop musicians as unrehearsed near-morons, who after a couple of months on their instruments, take to the road to collect basket-loads of pound notes.

'It's all the old propaganda and fantasy. It's like winning the pools and getting half-a-million. The other thing to remember about people who play in an orchestra is that when you learn to play the violin, your ambition is to be a virtuoso so when you end up in an orchestra it's like that wasn't what they set out to do, but that's as good as they are. I don't mean to be ... well, I am being derogatory, but I'm just stating the plain facts of life. It's like being an actor on Coronation Street and being John Gielgud.

'When somebody learns an instrument he wants to be the best in the world, but a member of an orchestra is like second violin or third violin and that's all it is ...'

Keith is up against a similar bias from casual Procol listeners in that he tends to get slotted into the 'he only writes the words' bag. He used to make a brief stage appearance, adopting a hesitant Napoleonic pose, to read a passage from In Held 'Twas In I but since the piece has been dropped he's withdrawn further into the background.

'In actuality,' says BJ, 'Keith is very much a member of the group. When people don't see him onstage, it's hard for them to see it. It's very easy for everyone in the group to see. We wouldn't tour and we wouldn't be Procol Harum if Keith wasn't there.' He wasn't being magnanimous, since you sense BJ isn't one for idle drooling. And Chris Copping, Procol's organist, was ready to echo his thoughts.

Said Keith: 'This is the one thing people who know about us understand. We know what we are and anyone who likes us and bothers to find out about us understands what we are ... what else can you say?'

And BJ adds: 'People always say it's like Elton John and Bernie Taupin, but it's not like that at all. Elton John is like James Brown. It's very much the one person. Especially onstage.'

Like most bands of their stature, Procol allow themselves to be prodded by the music Press only when it suits them . This time they had a British tour - their first in more than a year - and a new album to get behind. Grand Hotel might just be their finest yet. It has a consistency and cheerfulness that have not always been present.

It took something like 12 months to make, partly because they were unhappy with the original takes and partly through the arrival of Mick Grabham, Robin Trower's replacement.

'It's taken so long,' says Keith , 'because we've tried very hard to make it a very good album. We threw away a lot of money and time. We had a lot of tracks that were, people might think, good enough.'

It's probably the album Procol have been meaning to produce for years. The game of musical chairs seems to have halted for the time being and they've [...] to the original line-up of piano, bass, organ, drums and guitar. And Gary and Keith have been allowed to proceed with the business of writing Procol's music.

'I don't like to look badly upon Broken Barricades,' says BJ. 'The title track is beautiful and I wouldn't put down Robin's songs or Matthew's songs but there is a continuity about Gary's and Keith's songs and it's all there in Grand Hotel.'

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