Procol Harum

the Pale

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Gary Brooker on Radio Azzurra

The Antonio Costa Barbe interview

Antonio Costa Barbe is a lawyer, musician and freelance journalist. Having returned to Novara, Italy, from 1996's Barbican concert, he polished up some English and telephoned Gary Brooker. Their ensuing, good-natured conversation was broadcast on 29 September 1996 on Antonio's show Il Pezzo Mancante ('The Missing Piece') on Radio Azzurra, which reaches much of Northern Italy ...

ACB: I have here some questions for you. Your songs in the Paramounts were oriented towards rhythm and blues. How about your classical roots, and when did these roots begin to rise in your songs, and why?

GB: Oh I think ... I mean I studied piano when I was young; that was classical; but also I think that in the early fifties the sort of music you heard on your radio was kind of classical music, and it always stuck in my mind; I mean, I just like the popular classics really and I think when I started writing my own songs that that came into it.

Can you tell me please the exact title of the piece of Bach from which came Whiter Shade of Pale?

Well it didn't come from any Bach piece; it didn't, no. No, it was inspired by Bach, in other words it was meant to sound a bit like Bach in the chords and the bass line but it didn't ... in fact how it came about was that I was trying to play Bach's Air on a G String from the English Suite I think that's in D and I'd just heard it a couple of times and I thought ... I like playing things so I started to play it but I must have got it wrong but I also found 'well this is quite interesting, this!' and I developed it from just the first few notes really ... just the first maybe bar ... and then I was off on my own.

So it is not an adaption [sic] of a Bach piece, it is not based on a Bach piece, I think it would be better to say that it was inspired by Bach and it was inspired by Air on G String.

So A Whiter Shade of Pale is a Bach-style song?

Yeah ... well it's a Procol Harum-style song!

How came the idea of the particular sound of Hammond organ with the piano together, double keyboards?

Well it was just something which I wanted to do, when Keith Reid and I had written our songs, and we then decided that I was going to sing them; I had retired then, you know, after the Paramounts I had retired, but I had to come out again, out of retirement, and that was the combination that we wanted. It was based really on American rhythm and blues and gospel; it also had much more potential for making the kind of music that we were playing and for expanding. When you've got what is in fact three lead instruments, with your guitar, organ and piano ... there will always ... you know you can get a lot of power.

I mean these days it wouldn't be the same because you've got so many synthesisers that can sound like a full orchestra but there wasn't any synthesisers in 1967 and the reason for the two keyboards was that we wanted to make our music right ... we just wanted it to sound right, and I liked the combination.

Just a curiosity. Did you perform live with the first members of the group, Ray Royer and Bobby Harrison?

Yes I think we played about five or six dates in England

Home is a very impressive album with a tortured mood in the words of Keith Reid and in the music. When I was seventeen I transcribed off the record the song The Dead Man's Dream and I, with my group The Will of the Wisp [I Fuochi Fatui], I did play this song in a benefit concert when I was seventeen. Home was for me a very important album. Was the mood of the words of Keith the same mood as the rest of the group and your mood at the time?

(Brooker muses) ... well ... I mean ... not exactly, no, because I think the words to that are darker than the music is; but at the same time some of it is ... I mean The Dead Man's Dream is very dark and I suppose in many ways Whaling Stories ...

I know every chord of The Dead Man's Dream.

Well I think I've heard your recording unless somebody else has done it ... but I've heard somebody from Italy ... doing The Dead Man's Dream so it must be you (chuckles).

Yes, I am, maestro, yes ... and um ...

But um ... you know I mean there's some contrast on there ... I mean ... I don't think About To Die which Robin Trower wrote ... that probably doesn't sound as dark as the words. But you know there's um ... I mean I don't know why Keith Reid wrote all that then. Who knows? He probably doesn't know. Anyway there we are.

And how was, and is, the work with Keith? Difficult, easy?

Oh no, he's very easy to work with, Keith Reid.

How came the idea of the orchestra and why the experiment in Edmonton was so successful in America?

Um ... I think that ... you know ... Procol Harum playing with orchestras just came about as a natural progression. Firstly I mean a lot of the songs from our first and second albums were ... you know ... already had a kind of symphonic, classical structures to them, many of the songs. I mean there was actual pieces of classical music on our first album: we had bits of Holst, The Planets Suite on Kaleidoscope; we had bits of Trumpet Voluntary in She Wandered Through The Garden Fence; of course Whiter Shade of Pale was Bach-like; we were coming out with some original songs then which had nothing to do with anybody else like Shine On Brightly Il Tuo Diamante.

In Italy, I know, yes, I have this record, Maestro!

And of course In Held 'Twas in I which was like a suite, we never called it that but I suppose it was like a suite, and those things when we came ... in fact we did a couple of classical ... concerts with orchestra before Edmonton and they were most enjoyable. The thing was that the music fitted in so easily, it wasn't difficult, it wasn't a battle, it wasn't a war between the orchestra and the group, it all went very well together. You know I think even the guitar riding across on top of things was the most rocky thing about it I suppose. And maybe the vocals.

Anyway it worked and it just sort of progressed and when we made the album with Edmon ... or rather when we played the concert in Edmonton in 1971 perhaps, we only decided at the last moment to record it because it was a one-only concert and we thought 'It might be good let's record it!' and it came out OK and ... I think it was just at the right time in America; I think it was also a bit like a ... at that time after Home wasn't it? ... you know these albums that are 'Best-Ofs' or 'Greatest Hits' ... you know that sort of thing ... it was a bit like that as well I think, that it had ... I mean surprisingly we didn't do A Whiter Shade of Pale at that concert ... (chuckles) ... we were going through a phase of not playing it. I think if Whiter Shade of Pale had've been on there as well it probably would have been an even more successful album. But you know as always Procol Harum takes the uncommercial road (laughs). And, um, so Salty Dog, In Held 'Twas in I, Whaling Stories, they're really the highlights of that album ... and Conquistador.

Excuse me just a little few other questions. A short reflection of you about your solo career in the Eighties.

Yes. What about it? (pause) Are you going to ask me a question?

What do you think about your solo career in the Eighties? Was it a good experience?

Oh yes ... the Eighties for me was a very varied time. Because well (a) I was able to make solo albums ...

I have three solo albums ...

Well you've got them all then; I was able to play in other bands, I mean I started off the 1980s with Eric Clapton and er ...

Yes, Another Ticket with Clapton.

Yes, and I went on tour as well, although I don't think we played in Italy; we didn't come to Italy with Eric Clapton, no. And I also went back to my roots a bit, you know playing rhythm and blues a bit with a band in England and many other varied things, you know playing with other people, I wrote ... I got a commission for a ballet with the Royal Danish Ballet in 1989 which was premiered in 1990 actually; and I also went fishing.

Yes, you are a fishing champion!

Oh I, I did, I did win the European Open Fly-fishing championship: peche a la mouche.

Very good! Compliments! Maestro, have you a family, and what is your attitude with family life and rock musician life? It's easy, it's difficult to do ... err ... mode of life ...

No it's not difficult, no, it's not too hard anyway, I just live with goats, yes.

Yes. Just the last question. The future projects. I will come again in London if another concert of rock or of you was scheduled in the future. What is your future projects?

Oh well, I intend to do a lot of writing over the next few ... you know, however long it takes ... but at the moment I'm preparing for a concert, yes, I am playing a concert at the end of September.

In London?

No, in a church, in the country.

It will be a solo concert or with ... a Procol concert?

No, it's a solo.

Maestro you are very, very, very kind it was the dream of my life to have an interview with you!

This English-language interview was a bit of a triumph for Antonio: in his own words:

'I did not learn english at school or so, but i had learned english most TROUGH the english songs, singing these songs and translating songs, and MAXIME the songs of Procol Harum!! so the circle was complete at the time of my first english phone interview and (wow!) it was with GB! I was very frightened, excited, during.'

Read more Procol Harum interviews from Antonio at Radio Azzurra

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