In the thick air of the early evening, Los Angeles wrings itself out after one of its record-breaking August heat wave days. Coldwater Canyon cuts into the hills above Beverly Hills, the luxury homes that sit back from its streets bespeaking its posh status. Before one of the houses, that of an A&M official, the street is lined with cars whose owners have bypassed the red-coated valet parkers who stand bored and idle in the driveway (the tips add up, you know).
Indoors, some record company people get a hot game of hearts going in a corner. A table is piled high with obscenely rich hors d'oeuvres (the mushrooms stuffed with crab meat are a real killer). Outside, next to the pool, the colored gentleman dispenses obscenely strong drinks to the guests. Procol Harum arrive and settle in.
As the cool darkness casts its revivifying spell, and as the atmosphere and the celebrants become- progressively looser, we see the affable BJ Thomas [sic] (who has been passing from person to person muttering, out of the side of his mouth, 'Got any merry-wanna?') trading his swell English pop star shirt for someone's Medicine Ball Caravan tee-shirt.
Gary Brooker stays unobtrusive. New bassist Alan Cartwright sits and chats quietly. Recently a member of the Nice offshoot Every Which Way, he opines that what that group lacked, and what Procol Harum has in spades, is taste. Lanky David Ball, the new guitarist, wanders around looking very pleased, and just a little surprised to find himself gone from nowhere to membership in an established and respected group.
Chris Copping is drunk quicker than you can blink. He wants a writer to talk to him so he can qualify as a star. Chris Thomas, their latest producer and travelling sound man, talks effusively about the joys of working with Procol Harum. He'll tell you that recording their albums is a co-operative job, that he simply translates their multitudes of ideas into concrete sound.
The other member of Procol Harum is there too. Keith Reid is a small, bookish looking man, but where you would expect to find fragility there is a strong, wiry firmness And while you might expect the author of all those bleak, often tortured poems to lurk enigmatically in a shadowy corner, he is (particularly when well-oiled with white wine – which, he claims, gets into the blood faster than red) a disarmingly pleasant conversationalist.
He laughs as he recalls the stuffed falcon hanging on Gene Wilder's arm in Start the Revolution without Me; raves about his discovery of Ray Milland in movies like Lost Weekend and The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (an A l sci-fi classic that could have used a Procol Harum soundtrack); he loves Tallulah Bankhead; and Harry Truman too (he's fascinated by the logistics of his purchase of the presidency)
He talks about two British artists a lot: Francis Bacon, whose eerie, atmospheric, ghostly paintings might be the closest thing there is to a visual equivalent to Procol Harum's music; and David Hockney, whose style evolved out of Bacon's into a dissimilar but equally compelling pop art.
Keith Reid didn't go to Disneyland with the rest of the group because he doesn't like to queue up. Instead, he stayed at the hotel and watched television.
The next day, in a sweaty PR office on Sunset Blvd., the solar furnace once more churning full blast, Reid and Brooker touch on some subjects close to the hearts of Procol Harum followers. Like Reid's songs:
'They're usually trying to recreate experiences, and sometimes it's just trying to recreate the emotion of the experience – as opposed to what really happened. Say, there was some movie – I can't remember the name (perhaps Bunuel's Viridiana?) – where there was like a terrible feast, people stuffing food in like real beasts eat. So like you could in a song try and tell that as a story, or else you might try and write the feeling that you got from it, the emotion of it; which would be more the impression it made and you triggered off.'
'. . . There's a song Nothing That I Didn't Know – 'Did you hear what happened to Jenny Drove,' that one. Well, I saw a play which was about that situation, and then I kind of wrote a song which just retold the story. So that was a pretty straightforward song.'
Did you hear what happened to Jenny Drove?
Did you see how thin and pale she grew?
So much suffering could not hide
Endless heartache till she died.
Did you hear what happened to Jenny Drove?
Strike me dead for making it true
Strike me dead for letting me go
Nothing that I didn't know.
' . . . A Salty Dog was just an idea that came from, where was it? In Cleveland; we were playing a place, and carved up on the wall it said 'Great God, skipper, we done run aground'. So that stuck in my mind and it ended up turning into A Salty Dog.'
All hands on deck, we've run afloat
I heard the captain cry.
Explore the ship, replace the cook
Let no one leave alive.
Across the straits, around the horn
How far can sailors fly?
A twisted path our tortured course
And no one left alive.
We fired the gun and burned the mast
And rode from ship to shore
Our captain cried, we sailors wept
Our tears were tears of joy.
How many moons and many Junes
Have passed since we made love?
A Salty Dog, the seaman’s log,
Your witness my own hand. [sic]
' . . . It is from an experience. It's seeing something which made an impression on me and it triggers off a song. Another song, The Dead Man's Dream: I saw Midnight Cowboy, and that affected me quite a lot, and I wrote that song after I'd seen it. It doesn't have anything to do with the film Midnight Cowboy, but with the way that film made me feel.'
As I lay down dying, a floor for my bed,
And a bundle of newspaper under my head
I dreamed a dream, as strange as could be,
Concerning myself and somebody like me.
We were in some city, the stranger and me,
The houses were open and the streets empty.
The windows were bare, the pavements dirty.
I asked where I was, my companion ignored me.
We entered a graveyard in search of a tombstone.
The graves were disturbed and the coffins wide open.
The corpses were rotten, yet each was living.
Their eyes were alive with maggots crawling.
I cried out in fear, but my voice had left me.
My legs were deformed though I moved quite freely.
My head was on fire yet my hands were icy.
Everywhere light, yet darkness engulfed me.
I managed to scream and woke from my slumber.
I thought of my dream and lay there in wonder.
Where had I been, what could it mean?
It was dark in the deathroom – as I slithered under.
Asked to name the people he thinks write good lyrics, Reid instantly replies 'Randy Newman'. A short pause. 'Joni Mitchell'. A long pause. Pressed, he continues: 'The guy who writes Medicine Head's songs writes good songs; I like his words. I thought Free were pretty good . . .'
Why so few?
'There are very few people who write good songs; it's not just a question of writing good lyrics ... I mean I don't think there are many good songs written. When it's a good song, obviously the words are going to be good – they've got to be. With a bad song the music will be sort of bad and it'll be boring; but the words will be really annoying. You've got to listen to them kind of thing – you've got to listen to what they're saying, as opposed to the music, where if it's boring you're just bored by it.'
'A lyric is good when it's truthful – when it's a truthful song. If it's the truth then it's truthful – as opposed to 'My cock is like a unicorn' kind of thing, which is, you know, rubbish.
'I have a realistic outlook on life . . . Art should be truthful – it should be the truth. All good art should be truthful; that's what people recognise in it, that's why people relate to it, because it means something to them, because they recognise something of themselves in it. It's true; it's not something outside, a totally kind of alien thing that they look at and appreciate. People appreciate something because it's them.
' . . . My outlook is real; it's only realistic. It's only what's going on. It's only life. It's only truthful. There's no bleak attitude, no death attitude, I'm not on a death trip or anything; it's only just realistic ...
'The thing is, it doesn’t matter how horrific anything is – it's not negative. Anything that's really truthfully happening is positive. It's either deplorable or admirable or whatever, but it's truthful and it's obviously not negative. It can be right or wrong – like it's not nice to stick a bayonet in someone's stomach. But it's not a negative action; it's a wrong action.'
Are there any songs on any of Procol Harum's five albums that Mr. Reid would consider bad?
'Ah, no, there's nothing I think of as bad. There are a couple I wouldn't have written. What I mean by that is that on a couple of occasions I've written words to the music: like these was a time when Matthew (Fisher, original PH organist) had a song, The Wreck of the Hesperus it ended up being called, and he had the music for it. And I did it for Robin (Trower, recently departed guitarist) too. The one I did with Gary like that was one of our best songs actually, Conquistador. But when it's been like that I never would have written it – they had the music so I wrote something to fit, and I generally don't like to work like that; I’m generally pretty unhappy with what I do . . .'
When the conversation turns to those five albums, Reid and Brooker (who obviously prefers listening to speaking) slip into a reminiscing mood. Reid:
'I suppose the first album (Procol Harum) was the album I was the happiest with. It was fantastic, you know; I thought all the songs were great. It was the worst recorded album, but I really like it. I like the excitement of it. It's always relative to the way that you did it you know, the excitement of doing it. It was great – a great feeling, a great time making it.
'Which is not to say that it's been a big bore ever since ... A Salty Dog I really like, I think that's a really good album. And Shine on Brightly, that's – I like them all actually.'
'Shine on Brightly was fantastic to me,' chimes in Brooker.
Reid goes on: 'Doing In Held 'Twas In I (their 17-minute cantata) was tremendous – it just grew.'
And Brooker continues: 'All the ideas were there, but it wasn't completely written before we started to record it. I think we'd written about half of it before we started to record it and the other bits came as we went along. It's so long that we never knew what was going to happen until we finally finished it. It was put together and we played it one night through the big studio speakers. We were lying around on our backs.
'Yeah, it was tremendous.'
Thoughts remain floating about the past. Reid talks about their early days, trying to explain just why it is that Procol Harum enjoy such meagre popularity in their homeland.
'We started out, and we had the single (that would be A Whiter Shade of Pale) which was obviously very successful, and the kind of work that was available then was still Top 40 kind of audiences in those kinds of places. There wasn't any kind of ballroom and concert situations – that only existed in America. It didn't exist in England for long time, and certainly at that time didn't at all.'
'At that time they were still packaged tours: people used to go out like the Who, Spencer Davis, someone and someone else, you know, and all do 20 minutes each, or half an hour. And it was either that kind of thing or – well there’s a thing called the Mecca in England. They own a big chain of ballrooms and they're not psychedelic ballrooms, they're like formal kind of cabaret ballrooms.
'So we released our album in America, and it got a certain degree of acceptance, and we came over here and played and kind of built something up. It really wasn't possible to do that in England at the time. The only Club that I knew of was in London and it was called UFO, which had kind of the audience that would have liked us. We played there three times, but then that closed down. So we ended up working in America a lot, because that was where it was possible for us to build something ...
'We used to do a tour and then go home, but we were usually pretty inactive apart from touring in America; so it gave people the impression that we were in America all the time – 'cause that's all we ever did.
'But also we had a pretty rotten record company, which we've changed. I mean our last album (Broken Barricades) is much more successful in England than any of the others. The new album got a great deal of exposure, people really worked on it. Things have looked up for us a lot there now: we're playing a major concert when we go back, in London, a place called the Queen Elizabeth Hall.'
A common misconception about Procol is that they have had an extraordinarily bad time with managers. While there is a degree of truth in there somewhere, Reid believes things have got a bit out of proportion:
'What it is is that we just seem to have built up an image of being bitter – bitter and dissatisfied. And we're not really. I mean all groups go through a lot of hassles in their careers, and I imagine most people don't usually talk about it. And I think that we've all mentioned it, and of course somebody else would say 'Ask them about it,' and it kind of gets builds up a bit you know.
'I would say that the basic problem is that a group or a musician or whatever, those people are the most important. Like you've got the industry and all the things involved with it, and honestly, the people creating the music and performing it and singing it are the most important people. But what happens really is that it ends up so that those people, instead of employing everyone else, they end up being told what to do – I don't mean told what to do, I mean it's like they're working for everybody else.
'I don't see any way out of it, not as long as it's an industry really, because – well, a group could say to itself 'Right, we'll do everything ourselves; we won't have a manager or an agent, this and that.' But it isn't possible; you just can't cover that many things.'
The conversation turns to the subject of English rock vs. American rock, and the question of whether there is really an identifiable difference between the two. Keith Reid:
'Not that I'm aware of. It seems that things get back to each other very quickly. Something people are doing in America has an effect in England and vice versa. There seems to be pretty much of a flow to and fro ... the only difference is that it seems in America anything that's English is good, and in England anything that's American that comes over is good.'
There is, however, one particular habit English groups seem to have that hits close to home as far as Procol Harum are concerned. Gary Brooker has a well considered opinion on the subject:
'I think that if you looked at it you’ll probably find that it's the groups that come to America that break up. I think that the kind of situation that arises is that they don't do too well – they might appear to be doing well, but financially it's a struggle; there may be people losing money. You're very lucky if there wasn't half the group that wasn't very affected financially.
'Secondly, if they're lucky enough to become successful, either financially or just from an artistic point of view, you get the old 'Going Solo'. Possibly when they've been in the context of the group, if they were taking more of a back position, when they see the opportunity and the time is right they just break up the group.'
'There's the thing,' continues Reid. 'What Gary is saying is that people off and on, they’re unaware that they're good because of what they're in. They don't see that that's why they are good and that's why the whole thing's good. They're very unaware of what they're doing really and what they are really.
'When you get a situation where one person wants to be everything, or he thinks that because he's great at one thing he can be great at everything else – he's a great drummer; well, not usually a drummer, but say he's a great guitarist (Brooker joins Reid on the word 'guitarist', which is followed by a moment of wry laughter), he's gonna be like a great songwriter, that kind of thing.
'People don't want to be just as good as they are, they want to be as good as someone. Now you obviously always want to be as good as someone else, but there's a point where it doesn't mean that you're developing yourself. They’re just trying to be someone else.'
Robin Trower left Procol Harum ('... because he wanted to be in a group that he was the dominant part of,') according to Reid after the completion of Broken Barricades and just prior to the summer tour. David Ball answered their advertisement, auditioned and made it. (Reid: 'Well he's the only one who had any balls actually. He's the only one who played rather than played along you know.') Cartwright was a friend of BJ’s. Then, Matthew Fisher was going to rejoin the group, a move that was scotched when it was discovered that he simply planned to make this tour, then take the money and run once more. So now Chris Copping, bassist, is back on the organ. Reid says, 'Having the organ all the time is definitely much, much better 'cause it just makes the sound really big.'
At two sold out Santa Monica concerts, the new Procol Harum showed its stuff. With Chris Thomas at the control the sound is indeed big, in fact downright magnificent. David does indeed play with balls (he's got the old songs and licks down pat; it remains to be seen what he'll do with new material); Cartwright provides a gratifying suppleness in the bass register, and Brooker's piano playing and singing are nothing short of glorious. And they can even do three part harmonies now. (see also here)
The repertoire on their summer tour was limited by the newness of the combination but the result was a fine retrospective of Procol Harum's music. They began with a screaming, stunning Shine On Brightly; a resurrection of In the Wee Small Hours of Sixpence (the B-side of Homburg); a totally dazzling nearly entire In Held 'Twas in I, a soaring A Salty Dog; other selections old and new (She Wandered through the Garden Fence; Still There'll be More, Power Failure, Broken Barricades, Simple Sister); and as an encore, Repent Walpurgis. The response of the audience to this barrage was honestly enthusiastic, and you had to feel a little bit good about the future.
In the subdued, unpopulous dressing room, Ball struggles out of his tight suede shirt and mutters something about making people stop thinking he's Robin Trower. Keith Reid, looking tired, leans against a bench. His fishlike eyes, magnified by his thick lenses, drink everything in as he proffers a bottle of champagne. Better than white wine.
Read British press response to the Santa Monica concert