Procol Harum's new album – not the extravaganza that comes out this week with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra but the one Gary Brooker and Keith Reid have just finished three tracks for – is probably going to be their most important yet. The album that could finally push them back on the highly-acclaimed pedestal they mysteriously tumbled from four years ago.
Since those nostalgic and historical days of Whiter Shade of Pale and Homburg Procol's path has been a tenuous one that has only really settled down in the past year to a steady rise of new audiences, new acceptance on a new level.
To the Procol devotees and the people that have followed their career from the very early days one album that has always stayed in their mind and was considered a particular zenith of the band's work was A Salty Dog.
An album that only sold about 8,000 copies and seemed to herald the demise of Procol in the popularity stakes, but that in musical terms was both an important and attractive proposition. And it's A Salty Dog that Gary Brooker refers back to now, talking about the writing he's doing at the moment.
'Although it was Broken Barricades that helped us most after the gap, I don't think it was an album that meant much, looking back on it. When I look at the stuff we've already written for the new album I do feel it's like A Salty Dog - the songs have the same kind of make-up though it's always a difficult thing to explain properly without people hearing it.
'You see I think Procol have gone in phases and that's been reflected in our albums. On our first album, Procol Harum, I was trying to write hit songs with an appeal for people to listen to. The second album Homburg [sic] was deeper I suppose it was our contribution to psychedelia, long tracks and an attempt at something big.
'I'd class those two albums as one phase with A Salty Dog out on its own really between those and the next phase which was Home and Barricades. The first of those was really more obscure a collection, sort of daring people to like it; the second was just knocked up too quickly and was a real hotchpotch of varying musical tracks.
'I think we're getting back into a much better direction now. The numbers I wrote for A Salty Dog were the best songs I could write without worrying whether they would stand up as separate hit tracks in their own right, and that's how I'm writing now.'
The release of this album before the end of year will mean a rather out-of-the-ordinary situation, with Procol having two albums released in twelve months, a rarity in their careers. They're very pleased with the Edmonton album which they cut on their last tour of Canada.
It's not a chance you get every day and if you tried to assemble that kind of Orchestra you'd never sell enough albums to pay for the sessions. It came up because of a concert we'd done in '69 with a large orchestra in Canada and a lot of our numbers obviosuly gain from orchestration on that scale - they lend themselves to that kind of production.
This year's likely to be Procol's busiest yet – especially for a group that normally enjoys six months off most of the time – with visits to Japan, Scandinavia, recording sessions and concerts here to increase their audiences. And in the midst of this they've also had the re-release of three of their early tracks, including Whiter Shade of Pale, from their old record company although they once desperately wanted to live down the whole aura around that one track in particular Brooker is surprisingly undisturbed by this current situation:
'In a way it couldn't have happened at a better time. There's no harm in those tracks coming out again and I think there has been a healthy-enough gap. What brought it home to me really was on the last British concerts a few weeks ago. Two years ago if we'd played say Weymouth Pavilion , which we did recently, there would have been a very small crowd of Whiter Shade fans. Now they seem to be really familiar with all the new stuff from the later albums and that's particularly gratifying for any band, but more so for us.
(Thanks, Phil Skerratt, for lending your Procol scrapbook to BtP)