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EDMONTON: BEFORE, DURING, AFTER
From the very outset, in 1967, a particular hallmark of Procol Harum was their enormous instrumental sound, live and on vinyl. In addition to pop music’s regular guitar, bass and drums, their distinctive line-up included piano and Hammond organ. A pianist can play five notes with each hand, while a Hammond player can summon a theoretical nine pitches with each finger … so this is the last rock band on earth, you might think, who’d bring a symphony orchestra and chorus on stage as well. But no: it seems Procol were actually the first.
Gary Brooker’s first chart band, The Paramounts, had used occasional reinforcement from ‘classical’ musicians on record (such as Blue Ribbons, 1964), but this was not an autonomous decision: the producer employed a house arranger, and hired a vocal trio (in this case, The Ladybirds), ‘without any input whatsoever from the band,’ as Gary remembers now. ‘In fact “This needs strings” was a studio byword when something wasn’t interesting enough,’ he recalls. ‘Strings to make it sound a bit more poppy.’
String overdubs had certainly sold records for Brooker’s great influences: Fats Domino’s 1960 hit Walking to New Orleans used New Orleans Symphony musicians, and Ray Charles’s I Can’t Stop Loving You (1962) was even more lushly decorated. ‘That was very, very sweet sounding,’ says Gary, ‘but … where’s the soul, where’s the gospel?’
By 1964 a more dramatic, less middle-of-the-road approach was finding favour. Hits like The Righteous Brothers’ You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling (‘another great influence on musicians of my generation’ in Brooker’s words) reinforced basic tracks with a shadowy sonic weight, indistinct yet portentous: Phil Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’. Gary later recorded with Spector (on George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord) but he didn’t class the ‘Wall of Sound’ as strictly orchestral: ‘There’s always lots going on, but I just listen to the vocals and the drums.’
Then in 1965 the Beatles warily consented to a string quartet on Yesterday (on condition the players use no vibrato, so as to sound less ‘classical’); and by 1967 – Forever Changes, Days of Future Passed, etc – Pandora’s music-box burst open, and symphonic instruments of all sorts could be heard playing lucratively on acres of best-selling vinyl. Yet even then it was often the producers, as much as the artists themselves, who dominated such developments.
Arch-fan Michael Ackermann – founder of the international Gary Brooker Fan Club – first heard Procol Harum live on 6 March 1968, in his native Germany. A devotee of the British music scene since the early Sixties, he found their concert in Cologne a revelation, the first in which he hadn’t felt cheated: ‘I’d seen The Stones, The Beatles, and many more,’ he told me, ‘but only Procol sounded as good as their records … in fact, better!’
With two substantial chart successes to their credit, Brooker and co. were touring as ‘guest stars’ of fellow hitwrights The Bee Gees. Yet Procol’s thought-provoking lyrics, complex structures, emphatic rhythms and bluesy instrumental emphasis were worlds away from the catchy hooks and showbiz suits of the brothers Gibb, and their winsome, mainstream ditties.
That week’s New Musical Express reported that Procol’s first-half performances were received in appreciative silence, which was ‘a bit frightening at first,’ as drummer BJ Wilson admitted, though he added that ‘when we finished they just went wild.’ (Cologne’s teenyboppers certainly went wild when, during Procol’s final number, Ackermann felt moved to holler ‘Gary!’. Imagine Michael’s chagrin when this was misheard, and triggered a screaming surge of premature adulation … for ‘Barry’!)
‘Barry Gibb was enormously popular with the girls,’ Brooker now recalls. ‘In Procol we were never pop stars, teen idols: we didn’t have three-minute singles.’ It must have felt an odd double-bill, not least since The Bee Gees were backed by ‘The Massachusetts String Orchestra’, a chamber ensemble conducted by Bill Shepherd, arranger of the eponymous hit. ‘I can’t personally see rock becoming very big …’ Barry Gibb rashly forecast to Disc and Music Echo. But another prediction in that interview – that the recent tour might ‘give the lead to other groups’ – did contain spicks and specks of the truth.
In 1969 Gary Brooker decided to use a chamber orchestra himself on the original, studio recording of A Salty Dog. He explained to journalist Chris Welch how he’d ‘met a viola player, when we were on tour with the Bee Gees … very supportive, almost like a music teacher.’ This musician helped assemble the string players, and gave Brooker – a first-time, self-taught arranger – some handy pointers. The resulting masterpiece, its string textures beautifully poised against the fearless brilliance of BJ Wilson’s drumming and Gary’s soaring vocal, was triply autonomous: the orchestral impulse came from the performer; so did the arrangement; and even the producer (Matthew Fisher) was a band member. As Brooker tells the audience on the Edmonton album, it was this that ‘brought us to today, here, and what we’re doing now.’
Gary Brooker’s formal training in music was brief. Like many children from musical households (his father Harry played professionally) he passed two piano exams, ‘Initial’ and ‘First Steps’, at ages seven and eight. When Brooker senior died (1956) an associate of his stood the eleven year-old Gary a year’s piano lessons. He’d also been sending him successive volumes of The New Musical Educator, ed. Harvey Grace (‘Dear Gary, I hear from your Dad that you are very keen on becoming a pianist, so I’m sending you this book, and hope that you will find it interesting for your future studies. Best wishes, Alex Avery, Xmas 1952’); yet these weighty tomes, still on the Brooker shelves, don’t show any great signs of wear.
Gary heard classical music on the radio, and sometimes on record. Hungry ears seem to have been his primary tutors. An epiphanic lesson in the sensual force of live music came in 1962 when Langston Hughes’s The Black Nativity played in London: ‘To be in the same theatre, at the Aldwych there, while this ultimate gospel music was sung without any microphones: it was unbelievable.’ The emotional weight of these massed, black voices made an indelible impression. Yet orchestrally he’d heard nothing live until one life-changing afternoon in Stratford, Ontario … when he found himself, onstage, ‘enveloped by it’.
Procol Harum had been invited by Stratford’s Shakespeare Festival to take part in a unique and ground-breaking collaboration. 6 July 1969 saw the world’s first documented concert by rock band, full orchestra and chorus, playing their own self-arranged material. Procol Harum – Gary Brooker (voice and piano), Matthew Fisher (Hammond organ), David Knights (bass), Robin Trower (guitar) and BJ Wilson (drums), with brief spoken contribution by ‘poet-in-residence’ Keith Reid – performed A Salty Dog and the complete In Held ’Twas in I suite with the Stratford Festival Orchestra (conductor, Lawrence Smith) and The Festival Rock Chorus. These were Shakespearean actors, ‘queuing up to sing’ according to Brooker. ‘They could read [music] as well. They loved it, and did a thoroughly good job.’
The audience loved it too, and Gary – while never claiming it as a ‘giant leap for mankind’ (the Apollo moon-landing was just ten days away) – must have sensed a watershed moment. His attire for the show – tailcoat, non-matching trousers, open-necked shirt – neatly symbolised the musical fusion to which Procol had given birth. Yet press reaction was very mixed, and the following excerpts demonstrate how much entrenched prejudice far-sighted, long-haired young artists in the late Sixties still had to break down.
The London Free Press enjoyed ‘the grandeur and the variety of texture’ at the concert, and opined that ‘the integration of the forces was magical’; but The Telegram patronisingly characterised the choir as ‘achingly sincere and thoroughly incompetent’, the audience as ‘stubbornly innocent … howling like dogs’, and Procol’s repertoire as ‘gruesome mish-mashes compounded of classical-melodic tag-ends, night club piano procedures, muddled verse, soap-operatic religiosity and funeral-parlor solemnity’. The Kitchener Waterloo Record bristled at the presence of ‘close to a dozen mics all over the stage, boxes, wires, switches and so on.’
More snobbish still was The Toronto Star, which damned Procol’s composing as ‘embarrassingly inept’: the ‘fresh ideas’ and ‘moments of clever irreverence’ found in In Held were ‘vitiated by pseudo-sophisticated echoes of Beethoven, Bach, Handel and company’ (a more sophisticated snob might have spotted the genuine debt to Haydn in Grand Finale!). The Toronto Globe and Mail offered that ‘like most mixtures, one is left wondering whether either of the two components is actually enhanced by the effort to combine them.’ And The Spectator (which reckoned Procol had ‘no conception of rhythm’) condescendingly wondered if ‘perhaps this weekend at Stratford will prove to be a passing misery – one of the growing-pain type.’
A question of
But such musical ‘mixtures’ were a vibrant late-Sixties meme, and showed no signs of passing. ‘When I came back to London,’ Gary Brooker told me, ‘I saw that Deep Purple were on with a big orchestra at the Albert Hall. “We’ve just done that,” I thought. “Better see what they’re doing.” I’d seen them before, a very respectable band. But the group played, then the orchestra: a few climaxes together but basically it was group versus orchestra.’ (At least this Concerto for Group and Orchestra was an evenly-matched battle, deliberately composed as such by Purple’s organist Jon Lord; Days of Future Passed, also based on alternating contributions, had been more of a whitewash, The Moody Blues swamped in the cinematic syrup of an outside orchestrator’s effusions.)
Just seventeen days after Purple’s Albert Hall show, and 97 days behind Procol’s pioneering Stratford enterprise, The Nice premièred yet another autonomous rock/orchestral hybrid, in Croydon: in addition to the episodic, homegrown Five Bridges Suite, Keith Emerson’s improvisatory Hammonding flair was pitted against ‘serious’ repertoire by Sibelius and Tchaikovsky. Virtuosic and confrontational, this was another lopsided affair, epitomising venerable DJ John Peel’s withering analogy about ‘grafting a tomato on the back of a hairbrush’. Melody Maker had both Lord and Emerson in mind when it later wrote of runaway egos ending up with ‘a “masterpiece” that doesn’t really happen’.
By contrast, though, Gary Brooker’s Stratford orchestrations – to judge from their re-use on the present CD – really did ‘happen’: carefully proportioned to match the band’s own contributions, they sought neither to prolong nor to overdress some very singable songs, rather to point up their intrinsic emotional drama. In the question of balance, the Brooker instinct directed a judicious parity of forces from the outset.
Later in 1969 Procol Harum parted company with Knights and Fisher, recording their next two albums, and touring, as a four-piece in which Chris Copping (a former Paramount, like Brooker, Trower and Wilson) played bass and organ. 1971 saw a further change: when Robin Trower left to embark on his prestigious solo career, the band reverted to five players. BJ Wilson’s schoolmate Alan Cartwright came in on bass, and Dave Ball was selected from large numbers of guitar hopefuls auditioned at the Stones’ rehearsal studios near London Bridge. Thus restyled, Procol set out for a twelfth North-American tour, playing their first gig on 30 July at Phoenix, Arizona.
Six days later they arrived in Edmonton, a Canadian oil refinery city of 400,000 souls, home to the country’s most progressive AM station, then airing Procol’s new album, Broken Barricades. Edmonton is named after the unremarkable North London suburb where, by strange coincidence, three of the band had strong connections: it had been home to Gary Brooker for his first nine years, and BJ Wilson and Alan Cartwright had grown up there too.
Procol were here not only to play, but also for a meeting with personnel from the city’s Symphony Orchestra. A year beforehand the ESO had collaborated successfully with eclectic Toronto band, Lighthouse; and when Bob Hunka, the Orchestra’s assistant general manager (‘young, hip, bearded’ according to Melody Maker) had told Ritchie Yorke (local editor for Billboard and Rolling Stone) that he was looking for a follow-up, Yorke had been quick to extol Procol’s Stratford gig, which he’d witnessed. He’d also written to Brooker in London (on 18 June) that ‘an aware young man’ from the ESO ‘which is extremely hip’ would be in touch. He’d signed off ‘ardently hoping that the gig […] comes together.’ On 5 August the parties did come together: and the gig was planned for November.
For Gary this ESO offer realised an ambition to repeat the Stratford experience. No further orchestral collaboration had been possible during Trower’s Procol tenure: his signature sound depended on amplification far louder than the symphonic context permitted. And by the start of October, Billboard magazine was quoting Jerry Moss (the ‘M’ of Procol’s record label, A&M) to the effect that the band – its untried line-up notwithstanding – was ‘seriously considering recording the concert’. Rather than writing new material, as Lord and Emerson had both done for their 1969 orchestral records, Brooker viewed this new symphonic opportunity as a chance to re-use the Stratford arrangements, and to revisit and perfect other songs from the existing Harum catalogue.
Procol’s 18 November gig, at Edmonton University’s 2,700-seater Jubilee Auditorium, sold out twelve days in advance, and scalpers were rife. Talk of a second concert, after midnight the same evening, proved abortive: yet – such were the problems besetting the whole enterprise – the band effectively did end up giving a double performance.
Chris Thomas, producer of Procol’s previous two albums Home and Broken Barricades, had flown from Britain to supervise the recording, using the state-of-the-art 16-track machines and mixing desk of Wally Heider’s Mobile unit. ‘Wally was the man for such things,’ Chris Copping told me; Gary Brooker explains that ‘we knew him from Los Angeles’ – whence both Heider and Harum had recently arrived, by road and air respectively.
‘Wally had a huge reputation in Hollywood,’ Thomas recalls now, ‘and I was a bit nervous because I was 23 or something. But he was so helpful, very, very enthusiastic … he sort of shepherded me in a way.’ The recording gear, ‘valued at over $100,000’ according to some press reports, was set up in an ad hoc control-room in the Auditorium’s lounge, seventy feet or so from the action. Four large speakers (monitoring ‘the horns, the violins, the percussion instruments, and Procol Harum’ according to Coast) relayed sound from the stage. Heider himself engineered the orchestra, and Ray Thompson did the same for Procol Harum. Thomas sat at the sound-desk too, armed with an orchestral score, to cue ‘special’ mics, and explosions, sirens or seagull-cries from tape.
All seemed in order for a day-and-a-half of careful rehearsal and test recordings. The mixed chorus of the Da Camera Singers (‘a beautiful-voiced twenty people rolled into one’ according to Melody Maker) had prepared enthusiastically, under their conductor Ted Kardash … though, as amateurs, they were available only in the evenings. By contrast the orchestra, supposedly ‘extremely hip’, were revealed to be pedantic clock-watchers. Copping recalls how ‘a run-through of A Salty Dog was proceeding beautifully when someone – maybe a tad over-unionised – said “Thank you” and we just had to stop.’ Things had been a lot more helpful at Stratford.
ESO officials would also visit the control room periodically to ensure Heider’s tapes were not rolling: the orchestra required higher pay for recording. ‘They were matter-of-fact,’ Chris Thomas told me, ‘but it didn’t sound too friendly. We’d planned to record two full dry runs. But these issues were faits accomplis, and my job was just to do what I could with what I was given.’ Planned rehearsals were further inhibited by mismatches between rock lingo and symphonic semantics, and the tardy arrival of instrumental parts from the copyists. Worst of all, Procol’s own equipment, dismantled by Canadian customs searching for chemical contraband, finally arrived only thirty minutes before close of play on the eve of the show.
Gary Brooker’s diary of these hectic days (read it at ‘Beyond the Pale’, www.procolharum.com) records the spats and setbacks, the late-night pow-wows and stinted sleep, the meals snatched and socialising scanted, with astonishing equanimity. It shows that reduced rehearsals did go ahead, with just piano and orchestra; and certain test recordings were eventually made (tracks 7–10 on the present CD) with the full ensemble. Eventually – though not quite reassuringly – all numbers had been ‘played at least once’.
A passage from Circus magazine states Procol’s problem in a nutshell: ‘“It’s going to be good,” said BJ at the close of the last rehearsal. Then, scratching his head with grim determination, “It had better be good.” Success was no mere artistic necessity. To break even financially on the concert, Procol has to sell over 150,000 albums.’
No hint of all these hassles infects the iconic album artwork by Bruce Meek, an old friend of Wilson and Brooker from Southend days. ‘A lot of talent came out of Southend,’ Gary observes now, citing Vivian Stanshall and Helen Mirren (seeing whom, outside a swimming pool, the galant fifteen year-old Brooker once remarked ‘You are very beautiful’, in French).
‘I’ve been an illustrator since I left art school,’ Meek told me. His work included the first Bruce Cockburn album cover, as well as posters, book covers and magazines. He’d emigrated to Toronto in about 1966: Gary remembers ‘always seeing him when Procol were over there.’ Keith Reid invited Bruce to design the Edmonton album cover, and he accepted over the phone. ‘Things weren’t so fixed in those days … we didn’t have to sign contracts, it was much more loose.’ Working on illustration board, from photos and his own concert memories, Meek used ‘watercolour, acrylic, pen-and-ink, whatever was to hand’, his colouring chosen not for realism, but rather to capture the warm, circusy atmosphere of the unusual recital.
Meek exactly understood Procol’s intentions. Aptly – and quite unlike the album-covers of other rock/symphonic fusions – his work presents orchestra and rock players in equal detail. All the players are individuated: Gary likes ‘the percussionist who’s just hit himself on the head with his mallet’ (about whom more below). The Procols’ characters are neatly delineated, showing (to borrow the Edmonton Journal’s words) ‘the flamboyant BJ Wilson, methodical bassist Alan Cartwright, the alert David Ball, Cossack-moustached Gary Brooker and youthful Chris Copping.’ ‘It’s pretty true to life,’ Gary notes now, ignoring the quaint perspective that poises the orchestra high in the sky. ‘Those were the days,’ Meek sighs. ‘People spent most of the time flying about.’
Hand lettering is a Bruce Meek speciality: ‘It can have such a sensual quality. It feels like freedom, better than some cold metal typeface stuck on afterwards. People wanted to integrate, and I wanted a unified graphic, no separatism between the elements.’ Emblematic cameos, bottom left and right, exemplify this principle: a ‘straight’ and a ‘head’, as the NME put it, enjoy the show on equal terms.
For all the profusion of detail, much is omitted: the wing-mirrors affixed to BJ’s cymbal-stand to let him see the conductor, the choir’s chairs, and the miles of cabling. Though many mics are shown – six for orchestra, two for choir, and fourteen for the band – it is probably not the full tally; and the ‘special’ for Keith Reid’s narration is also missing.
Reid himself (‘who struts around like a left-over from the romantic days’ according to Melody Maker), is featured only on the other side of the artwork, about which Brooker tells a quirky tale: ‘I heard from a woman who was two or three or four when her mother, a classical musician, was always playing the Edmonton album. She and her brothers and sisters thought In Held ’Twas in I contained giants …’ (he sings the stomping tritonal bass figure that heralds Look to Your Soul) … ‘who threaten the little villagers, at the circus, where everything has been so nice.’ This reveals an unexpected duality inherent in Bruce Meek’s artwork: ‘It has the little people on the front,’ says Gary, ‘and the giants on the back are Procol Harum, of course.’
On the night
In the event the show started with classical foot forward. At the Hammond, Chris Copping tackled the Adagio in G minor, based on a few Baroque bars by Tomaso Albinoni (born 1751), but copyrighted in 1958 by his biographer, Remo Giazotto. ‘First up on stage, never played live with an orchestra … let’s say I could have done with some brown pants,’ says Chris now. ‘Dunno who decided on it: Gary, BJ and I all loved our classical, and it was just one of the pieces bandied about.’ His colleagues remained glued to the greenroom’s audio and TV monitors ‘like medical students uneasily watching their first operation’ (Peter Greenberg in Coast). ‘I did make several clams,’ Copping concedes, ‘but nothing compared to the lead violinist.’ Four years later the five-piece Procol would revive this ‘Abalone’ (as their producers Lieber and Stoller nicknamed it) for an all-instrumental single, and it became a rare, yet popular, concert number.
Gary Brooker’s deferential opening exchange with the evening’s conductor may have been calculated to mollify: they’d quarrelled on first meeting. Lawrence Leonard, more than twenty years Gary’s senior, was no fan of rock music, and refused to have his name linked in print with the Procol project. Brooker’s banter refers to Leonard’s earlier, London career, when he’d conducted comic concerts by the celebrated musical satirist Gerard Hoffnung. Perhaps Gary had inklings of surprising moments to come? Dave Ball probably had too: his guitar amp had burned out in rehearsal, he told me, and he was not to hear its replacement until the band started its opening number.
Conquistador (track 1)
Conquistador, the ensemble’s least-rehearsed arrangement, made a bold – and not wholly successful – start to the main show. Brooker’s spoken introduction preceded the first take, but the track we hear following it was recorded in a reprise at the end of the evening, ‘very fast, all caution abandoned,’ as he says now. Dave Ball felt ‘we all relaxed more during the replaying’, and Melody Maker reported that the second take ‘sparkled so much that the applause far drowned the opening appreciation.’ Released as the album’s single, Conquistador’s relentless energy put Procol back in the charts, peaking at #22 in the UK, #16 in the USA, but reaching #1 in a justly-proud Canada. Many reckon it’s the largest live cohort ever heard on a 45 rpm hit.
Gary Brooker liked to make light of the labour involved in arranging. ‘It’s pretty much common sense,’ he told Melody Maker, though he’d consulted a book (Norman Ellis’s Instrumentation and Arranging for the Radio and Dance Orchestra) to verify instrumental ranges. On the Edmonton cover he acknowledges the assistance of Jim Parker (from The Barrow Poets, ‘a unique outfit we used to go and see all the time’). Parker apparently ‘did many things for Procol, up through Grand Hotel in fact. Arranging gets a bit mind-boggling if you’re in a hurry, transposing for clarinets and French horns [to sound a ‘C’ at ‘concert pitch’, for instance, the clarinet requires a written ‘D’, the horn a ‘G’]: whereas to somebody with Jim’s experience it doesn’t take long. And sometimes I would tell him exactly what notes I wanted for each instrument, and he would write it out. But I’m not like … is it John Williams, who just hands in a melody line?’
Conquistador had been a last-minute inclusion, added to the programme during the flight from LA to Edmonton, when Gary realised the proposed concert lacked an up-tempo number. ‘It was one of our best songs, but badly recorded in 1967: we were very disappointed. It had great power when we played it on stage, and I knew it would live to fight again.’ With a pad of scoring paper on the aeroplane – and no Jim Parker – Gary devised the instrumental parts in his head, including all the transpositions: he evidently thrives on last-minute pressure. The full score is still extant, complete with his explanatory notes such as ‘NB the trumpet should have a Mexican bullfight-type sound’. (‘Please could you stick the score pages in correct order,’ is Lawrence Leonard’s dry contribution).
‘Gary worked so hard,’ says Chris Copping now. ‘I feel a bit guilty, as I was the other one who could read and write dots. I hadn’t any orchestration experience but I could have assisted in a few basic tasks.’ In the event Franky Brooker set about transcribing the individual parts for her busy husband. ‘She doesn’t read music,’ says Gary, ‘but she’s a good copyist: you should see her Jean Cocteau paintings …’.
Stories (track 2)
The dramatic start of Brooker’s new, expanded Whaling Stories echoes the famous choral shout of ‘Slain!’ from Belshazzar’s Feast (1931) by William Walton. Gary may have been mindful of 1961’s Hoffnung Astronautical Music Festival LP, on which Sir William himself conducts a Belshazzar ‘excerpt’, reducing his mighty cantata from about forty minutes to that momentary shout alone. The Da Camera Singers’ expostulation also drew a laugh when the Edmonton audience first heard it; but here, on record, we have the third Whaling Stories of the evening … by which time the surprise was no longer comical.
Coordination of musical forces was the primary problem. The Procols, by Copping’s recollection, ‘didn’t make many mistakes, as we were well rehearsed and match-fit.’ But during the first run of Whaling Stories the band were heard begging for more orchestra in their monitors, and the symphonists – still in their first year as a fully professional outfit – ‘leaned heavily on the Procol percussion section for timing’ as Yorke notes, and did not always manage what he calls ‘transitional tempo change’.
After the formal end of the concert, a second run of this epic broke down, but luckily all concerned persisted. The final result eclipses the sombre gravity of the previous year’s Home recording. Coast acclaimed the Whaling arrangement as Brooker’s ‘most creative of the evening’; the Edmonton Journal enjoyed his ‘ominous eight-note passacaglia with the fifth and sixth notes deforming the structure in a remarkable way’ and his ‘tender daybreak announced by piccolo, flute and clarinet’.
‘Daybreak washed with sands of gladness,’ Keith Reid writes, but his densely-evocative libretto nowhere mentions the sea or whaling directly. Disc, however, commended the ‘brilliant use of the orchestra to heighten the effect of a sea battle with a whale’, and Melody Maker mentioned ‘the whale’s being hunted’. When I asked the poet if this dramatic knot of images was really a masterpiece (as Ritchie Yorke had claimed) he chuckled. ‘Either that, or a complete load of nonsense’ was his characteristically oblique verdict.
Delph (tracks 6 and
Scored for two horns, two trumpets and strings, the live Luskus Delph stays close to the template of the original track on Broken Barricades, though that version’s horn sounds emanate from Gary Brooker on Moog (‘I remember Chris Thomas programming that,’ says Copping. ‘Not much he couldn’t do, really.’). In addition, the new version is a semitone lower: ‘Sometimes, but rarely, it evolves that a key changes to let the vocal sit better into the song,’ Gary explains. Some higher keys ‘can be a real strain, on the road, night après night.’
Just three first takes – Luskus Delph, A Salty Dog and All This and More – were judged fit for vinyl release. All relatively quiet, these songs doubtless benefited from easier coordination of the forces involved. Luskus Delph came out only as a 45 rpm B-side: presumably a tactic to ensure fans all bought the single as well?
Dave Ball recalled ‘a number of songs which didn’t require much guitar input. On reflection I know there is a lot more that I could have done in the way of tasteful embellishments. Truth is, I didn’t really know how to embellish – I just played what I knew how to do at the time. On the bright side, it did give me the opportunity for the occasional snooze during gigs.’
There’s an intriguing tension between the graphic, carnal longing of Reid’s libretto and the restraint of Brooker’s decorous setting. Skirting the obvious temptation to reach an orgasmic musical climax for the ejaculatory ‘make me spit like chicken fat’, Gary’s writing eases contrarily close to schmaltz. Maybe he was waiting for some Pseuds’ Corner pedant, decades down the line, to decode the Anglo-Yiddish pun: ‘chicken fat’ and ‘schmaltz’ mean one and the same thing.
Brightly (track 8)
Two press critics reckoned that the concert’s fourth number, Shine on Brightly, marked the point at which orchestra and band started to sound comfortable together (though Circus magazine put that watershed much later, at In Held). Chris Thomas, however, rated the evening’s Shine on Brightly performance ‘a bloody disaster’.
‘It was probably very adventurous to arrange written percussion parts against a drummer who improvised,’ he told me. ‘But sometimes it just sounded as though somebody kicked a set of drums downstairs.’ Brooker expected drummers to be ‘always in time: leading you in fact, like BJ Wilson,’ as he says now. ‘It always seems to be the percussionists in the orchestra who come in late, or slow.’ Hence, no doubt, the self-castigating player in Bruce Meek’s illustration.
The rehearsal run-through, preserved here as Track 8, may suggest that Shine on Brightly was not the most inspired of the Edmonton arrangements. Or is the orchestra just holding back? ‘Mostly orchestras play badly in rehearsals,’ Gary told Disc and Music Echo. ‘They simply don’t give anything, unlike rock musicians who are trying hard all the time, searching for that something special.’ Thomas’s decision not to schedule a re-run, however, probably reflects the song’s brevity: he was already thinking in vinyl terms, and to have used the limited post-concert window to ‘rescue’ a four-minute item, rather than reprising the more substantial Whaling Stories, could have made for an unfeasibly short Side One.
This underrated song was judged a puzzling inclusion by some commentators. Gary explains now that ‘It came from a popular album, already arranged for ’cellos and brass: so it was ready to go.’ In fact the ’cello doubling of the rising bassline in the chorus, recorded by string players from the A Salty Dog session, was ousted from the 1969 mix by Matthew Fisher, then Procol’s producer (he retained the brass, added in another session). So Edmonton provided an opportunity to reinstate a suppressed component, lending additional substance to Alan Cartwright’s late-Fifties’ Fender Precision bass, which he played with a pick to emphasise the high frequencies.
‘Edmonton wasn’t too bad,’ Alan told me, though it was ‘hard to get the two forces to come together.’ Remembering his school-fellow Wilson (who died, sadly, in 1990) Alan recalls, ‘Just a lovely guy. He kept you on your toes. It was unpredictable: he played how he felt.’ On the present track BJ’s prodigious drumming couples with the wordless choral ‘pad’ in verse three to create a solemn, religious atmosphere; the attractive melodic counterpoint, and the offbeat whoops, as the high voices prepare for the final mêlée, are a step up from the wayward production the original track received, and exemplify the ‘intelligence, taste, and sensitivity’ commended by the reviewer for Great Speckled Bird.
The song ends with ten hypnotic repetitions of a classic Brooker four-bar chord pattern. Gary explained to Disc and Music Echo how Procol, who would normally change gear into the final cadence ‘when it felt right … give each other a nod’, were now obliged to count the cycling sequence, since the written orchestration left no scope for flexibility. One senses the relief when all concerned negotiate the rallentando ending together.
Sister (track 7)
Critics offered differing opinions about the role of the Edmonton orchestra with Procol Harum. Listening to the arrangement of Simple Sister captured on Track 7 in rehearsal (the concert version was never salvaged from the evening’s recordings), can we agree that Procol ‘approach it as simply a rock-and-roll group enlarged by seventy people’ (Melody Maker)? Or do we side with Bob Hunka (quoted in Coast) that ‘Gary feels the orchestra is a unique group and lets them do their own thing’?
In any event, featured soloist Dave Ball suffered from ‘very little in the way of monitors’ (as Bruce Meek’s picture shows), ‘which made hearing and reacting in sympathy with the orchestra and choir problematic.’ Sadly there is no film of the Edmonton experience, but all who remember Dave’s rousing Simple Sister with the gentlefolk and amateurs of The Palers’ Band (at Procol’s Fortieth Anniversary celebrations in London, 2007) will recognise the A&M press-release’s portrait of the guitarist in action, ‘wincing in his distinctive, apologetic-looking fashion, wringing terrified screams and angry sputters of sound’ … as he searches for that something special. Dave Ball’s death (1 April 2015) is much mourned by Procol fans.
Dog (track 3, track 9)
One wonders what sort of musical treatment Keith Reid foresaw, on passing this paradoxical ‘seaman’s log’ to his musical partner. Given the topsy-turvy opening of ‘run afloat’ and ‘explore the ship’, it’s doubtless logical that the sailors set out for ‘no mortal place’, and cry ‘tears of joy’ as they burn their vessel: and Gary Brooker’s strange chord sequence does ample justice to this ‘tortured course’. But the sublime contour of his melody, and the sumptuous simplicity of his orchestration, confer an unexpected gravity on Reid’s provocative wordplay. His ‘moons/Junes’ rhyme suggests a parody of ephemeral pop writing: yet the end-product is an enduring ballad of stirring charm and majesty. ‘It took me a while,’ Keith told me, ‘to realise what a wonderful piece of music Gary had written.’
At Edmonton Brooker produces a rousing vocal performance, despite the background tension and lack of sleep. Comparing the released performance (track 3) with the rehearsal recording (track 9), it’s apparent that he goes for the vocal climax with similar vigour in both: in concert the orchestra rises to his level of commitment. Track 9’s rather brusque conversation about the seagull-tape indicates the pressure Procol are under, and Gary’s persistent attention to detail, which goes back to his very first Salty score: ‘It’s marked “no vibrato”,’ he told me. ‘Orchestras don’t always read every instruction, but that’s the way I want it to sound: not sweet, but rather plaintive.’
’Twas in I
The new Procol Harum line-up was already comfortable with most of this intricate suite, but In, Held, and ’Twas, which contain some of its trickiest episodes, were yet to be performed live. Luckily these rely heavily on the piano, and Gary Brooker – though ‘not the slightest bit interested in the sort of masturbatory histrionics practised with regularity by Keith Emerson,’ according to Hit Parader – had them well in hand.
Most untried of all was the ‘Held close’ monologue, Keith Reid’s second-only live performance with the band. His 95-word contribution ‘thunder[ed] out softly’ according to Circus magazine, which portrayed him as ‘a slight, stooping figure in wire-rimmed glasses and tweed coat, apprehensively clutching a sheaf of papers’. His uncertain delivery, contrasting Brooker’s forthright declamation of the pilgrim’s long devotion to the Lama (and his ‘answer’, merely another question), feels well-suited to the text’s gnomic self-interrogation. Strangely Syracuse New Times found Reid ‘in every sense [Procol’s] most important musician’.
The featured Eastern instruments on the 1968 original are replaced here, and arguably to better effect, by the native sounds of a Western symphony orchestra. And a great sense of fun informs the characteristic instrumental writing in ’Twas Teatime at the Circus, which the choir is audibly enjoying as well. Brooker clearly relishes his orchestral palette, but resists any temptation to reassign crucial melodic lines originally played by his bandmates, such as the serpentine organ that runs through In the Autumn of my Madness. The Edmonton Journal declared it could have listened many times over to the ‘… section overflowing with clamorous and ingenious figures … a passage of damnable discords from the ESO brass and the organ’.
The ‘giant footsteps’ build-up features Procol alone, heavy and elemental: the orchestral line following has a cinematic swagger; then everything winds down again for Look to Your Soul (listed on the album cover as I Know if I’d Been Wiser – clarifying the suite’s enigmatic title, an index comprising the head-words of each of its five verbal sections). Some of the original harpsichord scales are assigned to orchestral strings here. Harpsichord requires a very different keyboard technique from the organ, but Copping was unfazed: ‘It wasn’t exactly Scarlatti!’
The A&M press-release mentions BJ Wilson ‘walloping his drums with abandon … in strange and unique syncopated style’, and also notes that Brooker’s voice had, after early-evening nerves, regained ‘its ability to leap extremely difficult melodic intervals with assurance and power’. His performance here exemplifies a comment from the typically Harum-averse Rolling Stone, which called Procol’s work ‘among the most viscerally powerful and emotionally devastating music available’ and its singer ‘one of rock’s premiere vocalists’.
Again, the music winds down, this time for the slow-burning, aptly-named Grand Finale. From its gentle piano opening (derived by the suite’s co-author, Matthew Fisher, from a Haydn minuet) to its sumptuously realised climax, the all-enveloping glory of this ‘seemingly angelic recessional’ (Syracuse New Times) perhaps comes closest to Gary’s goosebump experience with The Black Nativity. (‘In Held with thirty-two black gospel singers from Georgia,’ he muses now. ‘That would be something else!’). Ball’s solo is a startlingly vital departure from the melodic arc of his craftsmanly predecessor, Robin Trower. But Dave had been praised, by Keith Reid, as ‘the only guitarist auditioned who had ‘just played’, as opposed to ‘playing along’: that risk-taking quality pays off here.
In 2009 Gary told Chris Welch that fellow A&M artist Rita Coolidge was ‘crying her eyes out’ as this suite ended. Such high emotions in the auditorium may have arisen partly from witnessing a logistic triumph, as well as from the intrinsic qualities of the music and performance.
Of course, the crowd called out for more. They might have hoped for A Whiter Shade of Pale as an encore but, as Gary now explains, that early triumph was not in the band’s current repertoire. And, perhaps surprisingly, there had been no commercial pressure from A&M to include either an old hit or anything new on the proposed album: ‘I don’t remember anybody making any influence on it, apart from myself.’
So Procol played a scheduled encore, the grandiloquent 1967 instrumental Repent Walpurgis (or, as the Edmonton Journal chose to express it, ‘Bach’s Prelude No 1 in C major from The Well-tempered Klavier sandwiched in an original composition. Aaaaaah Yes!’). Interviewed in 2018 neither Brooker nor Copping remembers having played this, but Chris Thomas has no such problem: ‘My orchestration? Painful scribbling it all down, even more painful listening to how boring it was, unlike Gary’s absolutely fantastic arrangements. I’m glad it’s never seen the light of day.’ The sole fragment of Repent to have leaked into bootleg-land is the selfsame Bach prelude (played in its entirety by Brooker and Copping) … perhaps all traces of the rest have been destroyed?
To the Edmonton Journal it seemed that ‘the whole show received a standing ovation so warm that the three groups [band, choir, orchestra] elected to play almost the entire program a second time.’ Chris Thomas’s account is more pragmatic: ‘At the end of the show I went back and told them, “You’ve got to do Whaling Stories and Conquistador again, or we haven’t got an album.” I didn’t say, “You’ve literally got to do the entire concert again,” because that would have been too disconcerting.’ (‘That was the art of Chris Thomas,’ Copping recalls, ‘how he managed to persuade everyone to do some numbers again’). Thomas didn’t merely want more consistent performances: judging that ‘the sound had been completely consistent through the night,’ he was planning to mix and match between the duplicated renditions.
Conquistador was duly played, then Whaling Stories broke down once, before coming off well. Thomas ascertained how much time remained from the union point of view and then, as he laughs to recall now, ‘I told them, “We’ve got to do Side Two again as well, because it’s completely fucked.” BJ said, “I’m going to the bar, this is ridiculous.” He was literally having a drink when he was dragged back on the stage, and that’s where Gary made his little announcement to the hall. “We’re working now: if you want to stay you’re welcome, or you can go home.”’
‘Scarcely a person moved,’ A&M’s press-release reported. ‘One got the distinct impression that, had Procol gone into the wee small hours in an attempt to perfect its performances, it would have been in front of the same full house.’ Luckily most of the rock fans probably didn’t have far to travel: Edmonton College (home to 18,000 students) was just a few blocks away.
‘These seem like big decisions now,’ says Chris Thomas, ‘but there wasn’t much choice.’ Thus Procol delivered what Dave Ball remembers as ‘an extremely extended encore’, which Coast called ‘a full-fledged recording session, complete with […] over 2,700 A&R people’. And it was a triumph. One member of the formerly-indifferent orchestra shared his feelings with Gary Brooker as they left the stage after this final leg of the Edmonton marathon: ‘Sure beats playing Beethoven every night!’ Backstage Lawrence Leonard appeared in good spirits, and Chris Copping was smiling ‘like a small child who had just finished his first piano recital before his relatives’ according to Coast. ‘It could have been a better concert for the people,’ Copping reportedly said, ‘but we’ve got an album now.’
‘We’ve got an
‘The record?’ wrote the Edmonton Journal. ‘Don’t trust it to judge the show. They can do anything with tape these days.’ Its correspondent may have been thinking of well-known ‘fix-ups’ of ostensibly live albums, The Who’s Live at Leeds or The Stones’ Get Yer Ya-Yas Out for instance. And Procol fix-ups might have been possible, given the ‘sixteen cleanly-separated tracks’ that the A&M press-release would later mention. But Thomas’s story is again markedly different.
‘Separation? Basically there wasn’t any: the strings had drums all over them, the brass had strings …’ This was scarcely surprising given the small quota of orchestral microphones used (a far cry from Procol’s live symphonic DVD, recorded in 2006 at Ledreborg: the Danish National Orchestra was so densely miked that when Procol bassist Matt Pegg asked for ‘more ’cello in my monitor’ the talkback’s answer was ‘which player?’!).
‘It was a question of doing my best with what I had, which was seriously less than minimal,’ says Chris Thomas now. ‘In this day and age you would probably have abandoned the entire project.’ When the tapes came back to AIR No 2 studio in London, Dave Ball wanted to replace his Conquistador guitar solo (all tracks being full, the original had to be wiped to create space for the upgrade). Luckily the original guitar had not ‘bled’ on to other tracks; but unluckily Dave’s second foray was less inspired. ‘We are not going to be stupid and do this again,’ Thomas declared. ‘What is there is there!’
Having endured so many frustrations on the Canadian front, it was delightful for Chris to be dogged by good fortune as he started comparing variant versions. Invariably, when there was a clanger on one take, the corresponding passage in the other was usable. ‘We didn’t make safety copies, we were just cutting between two master-tapes,’ he told me. Some edits were as short as one drum-fill. ‘The dark magnetic tape and the white adhesive joining it looked like a zebra crossing. We’d recorded one version an hour after the other – no click-tracks back then – yet, by some miracle, every single time we did it, it worked!’ Arguably one exception was Brooker’s hilariously fumbled line in which ‘the cloud crapped’: the alternative version must have been even more problematically flawed.
So, is it disingenuous to call Edmonton a live recording? Not at all. For all Thomas’s application of what Copping calls ‘huge talent and patience’, almost every note was played live in situ. Amazingly track after track matches, even exceeds, the emotional weight and drama of that influential You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling (‘Greatest record ever,’ according to Brian Wilson in 1965). Yet whereas Spector overdubbed top session players in layer after layer (the vocal alone requiring almost forty takes), Procol Harum recorded their album in a single evening.
Procol Harum Live in Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra was released in early 1972. The critics – including snobbish snipers from the Stratford excursion – lined up to praise both concert and ensuing record. Procol had demonstrated ‘disciplined musicianship, especially in rehearsal’ (Coast) and were ‘exceedingly virtuous about old-fashioned memorable melody’ (Edmonton Journal). They possessed ‘that intrinsic sophistication and polish that separates them from any other group’ (Syracuse New Times) and uniquely produced ‘music with enough sensitivity and depth of emotion’ to transcend other bands’ ‘adolescent emotional level’ (Great Speckled Bird). The new record was ‘an album of distinction and taste’ (Melody Maker) which offered ‘a sense of majestic splendour that exhilarates the emotions’ (Los Angeles Times); it was the ‘fulfilment of all [Procol’s] leanings toward magnificence’ (Rolling Stone).
It was the first album with rock band and orchestra to go Gold (the band shared their award with Ritchie Yorke, by now ‘Canadian Journalist of the Year’) and it eventually sold Platinum. Peaking on 11 July 1972 at #5 on the Billboard album chart, it was Procol’s highest-ever placing (no mean feat: ahead of them lay Elton John (Honky Chateau), The Rolling Stones (Exile on Main Street), Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway (self-titled) and Bill Withers (Still Bill). Everything vindicated Gary Brooker’s last-minute decision, so many months before, to record the show ‘in case we didn’t get the chance to do it again.’
Do it again
But Procol did get that chance, by invitation, again and again. September 1972 saw them play London with the Royal Philharmonic, then they toured in Europe with the Munich Symphonic Orchestra and a boys’ choir. The following year their Hollywood Bowl concert with the Los Angeles Philharmonic was a much-repeated radio hit. During the Procol ‘gap years’ (1978–1990) Brooker performed many of his arrangements at Germany’s ‘Rock meets Classic’ concerts.
Since the band’s 1991 renaissance their tally of high-profile live collaborations has continued to grow: to date it includes one-offs with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (a live radio broadcast), the Delaware Symphony Orchestra, the Gävle Symphony Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Senbla Concert Orchestra, the Hallé Orchestra, the National Arts Centre Orchestra, and the New London Sinfonia. They played fifteen shows in various cities with the Danish National Concert Orchestra (co-stars of the Live at Ledreborg DVD); four more with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra (fervently-attended celebrations of the Jubilee Auditorium show); and two with the Sinfonie-Orchester Wuppertal (that partnership seeded by a long-time Procol fan in the choir there, by name … Michael Ackermann).
The Royal Danish Ballet commissioned a non-Procol piece, Delta, from Gary Brooker in 1990. But unlike Keith Emerson and Jon Lord, who made forays into ‘serious’ symphonic music, Gary has pursued the orchestral muse primarily in the context of his own songs. ‘It’s all down to individual capability,’ he says now. ‘They’re very capable piano-players … but can they sing?’
A huge international public has certainly found something irresistibly moving about the soulful voice, the mysterious words, the dramatic drums, haunting organ and tempestuous guitar, all framed by the majestic architecture of a symphonic setting. And at the time of writing Procol Harum are poised to repeat their Edmonton album, in full, at a sold-out choral/orchestral concert at the London Palladium: a richly-deserved validation, in their own country, for a unique and enduring musical milestone.
© Roland Clare, Bristol UK, August 2018
Many thanks to Gary Brooker MBE, Chris Copping, Bruce Meek and Chris Thomas, who gave fresh interviews for this essay; to Dave Ball, Alan Cartwright and Keith Reid for less recent assistance; to Minnie Yorke at ritchieyorke.com; and to fellow-fans Michael Ackermann, Peter Christian, Ian Hockley and Frans Steensma for creative insight and research shared.
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