Procol Harum

the Pale

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Gary Brooker: artist in profile

Douglas Adams talks to Gary Brooker

The Barbican Centre, London: 7 December, 1999

John Tolanski
Well, you can see the enormous amount of trouble Gary took to do that. Here to introduce him for you is Douglas Adams.


Photo by Peter Christian

[Clears throat]. Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Well, Iím absolutely delighted to be here this evening. I remember when I first heard A Whiter Shade of Pale all the way back in 1967, it was very, very mysterious. Where had this record come from? I mean, literally, literally where did it come from? It sounded, I mean everybody thought it, maybe it had come out of Detroit. What was a sort of English church organ doing on it, just a  ...  [sound breaks up : there's a problem with Adams's radio mike, of which he's unaware. In the wings, Brooker is not unaware] And  ... this band came from Southend. It was completely inexplicable. But that song, as you may remember (and you all look as if you do [tittering]) kind of dominated the summer of 1967. And in what was obviously the first of a ... um ... . astonishing number of sort of brilliant marketing moves, they brought out an album five months later. Was it four months? And left the song off it. And this has always kind of characterised the  ... I  ... would be ...  see this sort of came its way, to be as big a band as we all sort of thought it ought to be. But Procol Harum has been under the tutelage of its leader, Gary Brooker, I think one of the most original and interesting and most musically literate, if you like band of all the bands we  ...  Iíd like to introduce now one of my great heroes to come and talk about his lifeís work with Procol Harum and everything else: Mr. Gary Brooker.


Oh, Iím meant to be on this one, yeah , OK [referring to the seats].

Yes, thatís it.

Because Iím not, youíll be glad to hearÖ


Iím not going to be the one playing the piano tonight.

Can I check your little things, here? Is he sort of going on and off?

[Audience concurs]

Ooh, I can, ooh, yes, I can feel that. Shall I try it now?

Just in case.

Okay. All right. Well, in which case, I might take this off because itís a bit hot. Oh, no, thatís not gonna, oh thatísÖ

This is just the starter here. You want to see him later. [Laughs]

Howís that? Can you hear me now?

[Audience concurs]

Yeah, okay, right. So, Gary. [Parody of talk-show host: everyone laughs]

I must tell you actually, itís funnyÖ

Iím waiting.

Öbecause Iíve been, Iíve been such an admirer of Gary for so many years and I kept on telling people this. And one day somebody said to me, "Well, look, heís a very nice man. Why donít you just 'phone him up?" So I did. And he came around for dinner and we had dinner together and it was great evening. Thereís another friend of mine whoís a great Procol Harum fan who actually flew from Tokyo to London to Japan [sic] in order to be there that evening. And we filled Gary with an enormous amount of drink andÖ

I remember that now. I remember that.

Öand got him to try and play A Rum Tale and he couldnít even find the piano, I think. Gary, now, A Whiter Shade of Pale obviously was the sort of first moment which you really sort of leapt hugely to the publicís attention. You were telling me earlier, you had been on the stage since you were five?

Yeah. I think just about then, with my father. I think Douglas knew that my father wasÖ

No, I didnít know.

Öwell, we like to call him a famous musician in that he was in Felix Mendelson and his Hawaiian Serenaders. He played Hawaiian guitar, piano before that, but eventually Hawaiian guitar. And they were very popular and I used to sit on the side of the stage and watch them and got to play when he had his own band going some evenings. We did a duet or two on the piano.

Well, when did youÖ

And I remember the smell of my godmother.

[Laughs] Which was what?

She was Polynesian, a hula-dancer in a grass skirt.


And I used to sit on her knee whilst watching Dad play.

Heís coming all over mist, all misty-eyed.

[GB Laughs]

Now what is the, there seems to a very sort of strange sort of disconnect as far as I can see because before you started Procol Harum, everything youíd done up to that seemed to be sort of rock-n-roll and R&B. And suddenly there was this huge change with what you do with Procol Harum, which is something very classically influenced, very sort of stately, becomes very orchestral later. What, what actually prompted that huge change?

Photo by Peter ChristianWell, I donít think up till that point, Iíd been a particular wild man. In fact, in Procol Harum Ė I am now. Iíve learnt how to be a wild man. But up till then I hadnít been. And, and Iíd been listening, you know, to music for many years, since, you know, I was five, radio, not Radio 4, it would have been some other ... Home Service or Light Programme where you got a bit of classical music and then I think with skiffle and that starting. It was the only thing you heard in those days so you just grew up listening to all that stuff. And then I, I started listening to American soul music, you know, starting off with Ray Charles and things and copied that for years, tried to sing like those, totally unsuccessfully. And one day it all ran out because people like Otis Redding or that were actually playing in London and you couldnít, you know, go out and play a soul song that nobody had ever heard because they were in Hammersmith Odeon or Finsbury Park the next night. So I gave it up. I retired. I was 19. I seriously retired and thought I shall Ė I was going to work for IBM as a computer expert. Now that was one of the biggest mistakes in my life because I would have been in at the start. This was like in 1966. I would have been Ö

I donít know if you would have been a very good one, Diane was just telling me Gary. You stillÖ

ÖGary Gates!

Öyou still canít do, you still donít know how to get your e-mails, so you obviouslyÖ

[Audience laughs]

I think that, yes, of course, I did make the right choice. I did make the right choice. Email is still a mystery to me. Itís like a real ...

So was it a, so how deliberate a decision was it to sort of change the style in that way? Or was it just something that came about because these lyrics suddenly landed in your, in your hand and you decided to, that that wasÖ

I think that I probably would have gone off somewhere else. I mean there was, in fact, Dusty Springfield at the time wanted me to play in a band and sheíd offered me Cherry Waynerís organ which a lot of people might not know what that is but, believe me, Cherry Waynersís organ was something that you really would have liked to have played around with.

[Audience laughs]

No, to explain, she was theÖ

I think youíd better. [Laughs]

[Laughs] If thereís anybody that old here, which I canít see anybody that old, but there was Lord Rockinghamís Eleven on the Oh Boy Show and the organist on that was a girl who bopped around on something, maybe a Hammond or something but it was covered in pearl, mother of pearl. Now I could have played this. But I made a decision instead to look at this packet of lyrics that had come to me from this strange young man via Guy Stevens, a good friend at the time.

And this was Keith Reid?

Odd-job Reid, yes.

And, so it was just, it was just that kind of, just that sort of bald introduction. I mean, it wasnít somebody you sort of met or you didnít know him before? It was just, your first experience with him was just the lyrics landing on your desk?

Yeah. Well, we didnít have desks in those days. [Laughs]


Sort of a mantelpiece, I think. No, Guy said Ö

Tell me what, tell me what went through your mind when you saw the lyrics then.

I thought, well, these look like lyrics to songs. And they havenít got any music. But they were also fitted into place and read well. And I was no great, I did actually pass O Level English literature. Thatís one of my small little stars. So I did appreciate language and, and I looked at the words and although they were, you know, in some ways Americanised, some of the lyrics, I was Americanised as well. And I immediately sat down Ė after I found them again in the bottom of a bag, you know, six months later Ė and wrote a song. And Keith, for some reason, wrote a postal letter and it arrived the next day that I had written this particular song and he, the way he signed it was that he put one line out of this song I thought, you know: Kali has spoken.

Say it again?

Kali has spoken. Kali, 'the death of a snake bodes evil'. Itís an old sort of an Indian goddess that guides some of our ways now and again.

[Audience laughs]

So what happened next?

Well, I went down to the 'phone box and did my fiddle with the button A and button B thing so you didnít have to pay anything, tap the top as many times as the number is.


And 'phoned him up because he had a 'phone because they were rich and said, "Well, thatís funny, Keith. Well, Iíve just written, come down and listen to them." He listened to them and he, I think he liked them. So we carried on as songwriters. We wrote songs for the Beach Boys, Dusty Springfield, and many others.

Oh, so that wasnít A Whiter Shade of Pale at that point? That wasnítÖ

Whiter Shade of Pale ... no this was just a little bit before that.

Right, yeah.

It was songs like Conquistador and (clears throat) some other things Ė excuse me.

Ah, for some reason I would have thought thereÖ

Bit of a Dorchester there.


Bit of a Dorchester.

I thought, I thought, that for some reason, Iíd imagined that that was the first lyric heíd given you and that, thatísÖ.

Oh, no, he had to build up to that. [laughter]

Right, Okay.

Short little vignettes before that. [ ... ]

So in which case, if he had, I mean, one of the, one of the sort of famous things about the band is once you suddenly had this huge hit that you didnít have anything else ready to go, which was why, you know, that album didnít come out till Christmas.

Yeah, I mean, thatís, you know, Kali again, getting in the way. You didnít think of things so much. Albums werenít, I mean, Whiter Shade of Pale came out before Sgt Pepper. The Beatles were the only people that made albums in Britain. And I think although perhaps Beatles For Sale or something but really Revolver, thatís when I, [??] thought, I think I like the Beatles. I just finally found out I did in fact like them. And Sgt. Pepper was, of course, a very good album. But that was out after A Whiter Shade of Pale. AndÖ

Because theyíre both summer of í67, werenít they here? When did A Whiter Shade of Pale actually come out?

Um, uh, I think about May the 12th.

[Audience laughs]

About. Morning, afternoon, just before tea?

Good question, good question. It was a Friday. I know that, but, so, you didnít think of, although, in fact, we had quite a lot of material that weíd been working on and rehearsing, we probably could have made an album and indeed did, you know, as soon as that one was out, we went, we went and we made that. I think it was probably, you know, management and record company at the time that were, we were always with independent people. They didnít look very far. They thought, "Oop Ė this is a hit, therefore put it out". Not, you know, this is going to be, "this is going to be a hit and we should think about it carefully."


Get those guys some clothes, which is what I think ...

Oh, yes, the, yes. Well, weíll come to the clothes later.


I mean, I guess itís curious to remember back then because in those days it was all music and no industry. And now itís all industry and no music.

Exactly. Yeah. Yeah.

So nobody was really very organised in those days?

No, I mean, least of all us.


I mean it was a bit of a surprise to us that we were, you know, we, we liked our own music. That was the only thing, reason for doing something is that you enjoy it and youíre confident in it. And we believed, you know, Keith and I believed we were writing good songs. Nobody else had backed us up until then. Of course, Dusty didnít do one of our songs, nor did the Beach Boys. But, well, there actually, you know, thatís why, I suppose thatís when I came out of retirement because nobody would play our songs.

So you Ö

So I was out of retirement.

You put together a band around the song. Is that right.?

No, no, no. We had a, we had a vision of being a band, not "Letís go and play this song." Oh, no, no. We, I mean, we changed one or two people immediately after A Whiter Shade of Pale because we went in the studio and it wasnít quite jelling. The chemistry wasnít quite right so a couple of people had to go.

So when did you, it was such a, I mean, how did you, how soon did you realise, you know, what a huge effect it was going to have?

On the Saturday morning, I think it was.



I can, I mean, I can remember waiting for that album to come out and I think, I think I had instructions to my grandmother and two of my aunts that that was what they were to give me for Christmas and luckily one of them came through with it.

It was a wonder there were any left by then, Douglas. I mean, this was in May. You still got one at Christmas?

No, because the, the album only came out at, the album only came out at Christmas time.

Oh, well, of course Iíd moved to America by then.



So now, right now, right from the word go, Procol Harum was very much a sort of piano and keyboard based album, uh, band, in times that everybody else was really a guitar-based band. And usually youíd find that piano playing was, was more of a sort of rhythm section thing. And you always made the piano the dominant rŰle in Procol Harum. I mean, and it was kind of odd that usually, you know, the leader of a band is up at the front with the guitar. And you were sort of, sort of halfway back, stuck behind the Steinway.


Yeah. Well, tell me, I mean, tell me how, you know, how it was that a band comes to be dominated by a piano, what a sort of strange thing that was for ...

Well, I was in charge. Thatís the main reason.



Well I was the leadÖ

But it became a very different flavour.

Well, I was the lead singer.

Yeah, yeah.

But I, you know, always recognised that, you know, Iíd never run to the front of the stage and, you know, left the piano at all. Iíd religiously always stuck at playing it and not run out to do Ö

Yeah ...

... even a chorus whilstÖ

Did that affect the way, this sort of band worked on stage, then? And the way that audiences sort of reacted to you?

Yeah. I think we, I mean, Procol never had a front man in the sense of standing up there, you know, as some sort of idol. And, I mean, I think that we probably, that people liked that about, yeah, a lot of people that liked the band liked that, that they werenít distracted by something rather, you know, a bit of acting at the front.

Right. Now since, one of the things, of course, youíve done more recently is work with an orchestra. Now as we were saying earlier, normally, when rock bands and orchestras come together, I mean, nine times out of ten, 99 times out of 100, it really falls flat on its face. And Procol Harum seems to be the one great exception to this. And I think where this comes from, I would suggest is that there was, the music you were writing had so much sort of contrapuntal detail in it. It was so, seemed to draw a lot of its inspiration right away from a sort of classical and orchestral tradition anyway ... that it wasnít a big leap to take it to an orchestra. And in fact it kind of sort of filled it out. And it seemed a very natural extension of what youíre doing. Now way back in the 60s, it was very, very unusual that music was as rich and strange as that was. Iím, where do these influences come from? I mean, where we used, we think of rock and roll as, rock music as coming from the blues and rock and roll and all those American influences. And what was extraordinary about Procol Harum was that, was that it was very, very European. I mean, you used to sort of here and there, youíd hear sort of Viennese orchestras and sort of Palm Court orchestras and sort of, sort of odd Victorian songs. And I mean there was all this that got sort of married to rock music and produced a very, very strange and extraordinary sound.


How did that all happen?

Well, I, Iíd played all of those things and heard all of those things when I was a little bit younger. Thatís the thing. I mean I used to play piano in pubs when I was about twelve, thirteen. Iíd seen Palm Court orchestras in some of the nicest hotels in, in the country when travelling around with my father, knew that sound. And I mean the first few songs that I wrote were actually a bit more contemporary in that I was thinking well, trying to do it like a Mose Allison song, and trying to do a Ray Charles song and keeping it up in sort of what was then the current vein. But then I started to go out a bit further and started to draw in anything that came into my head and many of the things, you know, would have been, I mean, Palm Courts came a bit later I think. But I heard good, I always liked Mars, one of the Planets suites.

Right, yeah.

I thought that was a, that was like a, I didnít think it was a rock song because that type of rock came a bit after. But it was powerful. You know, it was terrifying stuff. So I stuck that in a song, and a few of those chords then.

Which, which Ö

Thatís in Kaleidoscope, I think.

Hmm. One of the things you always hear people saying when they listen down to, when they sit down and listen to Procol Harum songs is, "What on earth are those chords?" I mean you, thereís song after song that people canít figure out one way or another, like Nothing But TheÖ

You make them up.


You make them up. One of the great Ö

But you, you just do it much more, you make them up much more than anybody else does.

Well, one of the great thing, I think one of the great things about song- ... I mean, Iím not bad at songwriting because I, I find a chord that I think that nobodyís ever played before. Thatís the start. And thatís getting more and more difficult to do.


But one time, I mean, Iíll probably be corrected but, like with Homburg, where you change the chord, you go from F to G major, to B flat, but you donít change the bass note. And that hasn't actuallyÖ.

So from F toÖ

You just keep it on F.

Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Right, yes. And then youíve got the, yeah, yeah, yeahÖ

But you change the chords even if they donít quite seem to go with it andÖ

Now a lot of your songs seem to be built from the bass upwards. Is thatÖ

Yeah, well, thatís just like a quirk of mine. I like bass. I always thought a lot about bass and bass in pop music was usually following the tonic, you know, sticking with the chords. And I liked to introduce thirds and you know B flats against C chords and all the rest of it. Itís all common knowledge now but at the time I thought I was, why Iíd never heard any thing, so I was thinking, this is a new chord. Itís just nice. And all youíve got to do then is sing over the top.

How much musical training did you have?

I found some certificates from Trinity CollegeÖ

[Audience laughs]

Öthe other day.


The first and second grades there, which I think was when I was six and seven.

And that was it?

Yeah, basically.

I mean, when we, when we first met, I remember sort of going on about the way that A Rum Tale works. I mean, whatís very interesting, what I always particularly admired is something that appears to be very, very simple that conceals a huge amount of skill and complexity. And, now, A Rum Tale, now for those of you who know anything about chord structures, it is one of the strangest things youíve ever seen because itís, I think itís in F. Is that right? Is it, do you play it in F? [read this!]

I think itís in F but I never knew what key it was in. ButÖ


No, it is, no, it is, youíre absolutely right. It starts in F.

But about, about three-quarters of the way through it modulates to E which is as about as, because itís only a semitone away, is about as remote as you can get.

Thatís in your version, Douglas, I presume.


Sure it goes ...

Well, Iíll get you to play it in a moment. Iíll show you. Iíll show you. Iíll come and watch and see if youíre getting it right Ė and then modulates back up again all, it modulates back up just in the last line without appearing to do so. And then you go to D for theÖ

Oh, I know where you are now. Yes.


Oh, youíre only halfway through the first verse ... Oh, sorry.

Yes, yes.

I thought you meant the solo. [Laughs]

Yeah. Then three quarters of the way down the verse you go down to E.

Well, that, in fact, was a very, very fast, I didnít even know those chords were there.


They just sprung out as quite a few songs do.

I remember spending weeks just trying to figure it out, how youíd done it. Because then you go to D in the middle eight. And then you get up to, you get up to F again at the end.

D? How do I get to F then from the D?


Well, we, why donít you go and play it? Go and play it for us.

Aw, come on.

Audience: Yeah.


Now I want you to listen, ladies and gentlemen. This is a very, very simple sounding song with an incredibly ingenious piece of harmony.

Tailor-made to completely go wrong, I should think.


Well, I havenít played this song very often because Iíve been Bill Wyman-ing. So I havenít got the chords here.

Okay, F.

Iíve just got a note from my mum which I was going to read while I was playing it ...

(thanks, Jill, for the transcript)

Brooker at the Barbican 1999: index page


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