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Do visit ClassicRockPage for the original interviews, with soundclips and many illustrations: Part one, November 2000, Part two, December 2000
Gary Brooker takes us on a fascinating and insightful musical journey as he describes the environment, people and influences that helped him become one of Britain's premiere vocalists, pianists and arrangers. He brought to Procol Harum his passion for Rhythm and Blues and his training in Classical music, blending these and other influences to accomplish what many musicians hope for, but few achieve; the creation of a totally unique musical hybrid and an unrivalled standing in Rock history. More than thirty years later, the music of Procol Harum remains vibrant and continues to inspire (as evidenced with Metallica's recent dalliance with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra).
Gary Brooker's songwriting partnership with lyricist Keith Reid is one of the most prolific and accomplished in music history, their work together responsible for producing one of Rock's most enduring and distinguished recording catalogues. Brooker speaks of its formation and evolvement along with the creative process in and out of the recording studio. Coming off the heels of two highly anticipated and very successful shows in England in September, he also reveals future plans for Procol Harum.
A raconteur extraordinaire, his memories and experiences are related with candor, charm and humor in a conversation that is sure to delight.
The Psychedelic News and Classicrockpage.com sincerely thank Gary Brooker for taking the time to speak with us. Thanks are due to Beverly Peyton and Diane Rolph too. For more information on Gary Brooker and Procol Harum, visit www.procolharum.com
The past few weeks have been very busy for you: first the Procol Harum concert with The New London Sinfonia and The Guildford Choral Society at Guildford Hall on September 17th and more recently you put on a show in your home town.
Well, they have been, yeah. I almost retired the other night. We had a millennium concert in my village, not a millennium concert, a millennium celebration party. It's not a very big village.
How many people live in the village?
I think the population is about 750. There was 500 at the gig. So most of them made the effort. And the week before that we did one with Procol and the orchestra. So it's been a hectic couple of weeks, yeah.
The response to the Guildford concert has been overwhelmingly positive. Many fans flew in from around the world to catch the show. It sounds like it was quite a magical evening.
Well, they did that of course but they could do that and it could be a complete disaster. Luckily, it was a magical evening. It was very memorable from the band's point of view, we had a fantastic night.
I read some time ago that you wanted to ensure that Procol Harum played live at some point during the millennium year. How did the Guildford show come about?
Well, we had one or two things that had been proposed this year. We weren't particularly playing, Procol did not have any tours coming up or new product out, and therefore it was quite hard to see if we were going to play, where it would be. I think in the past couple of years we've had such a good response to the website, which of course has nothing to do with us at all that website. It's put together by fans for fans and they're quite happy to carry on without us I think. But, at some point I said, "Procol will play this year," no doubt about it, an idle boast, and come the middle of the year, I thought, you know, we should really play in the year 2000 and try and do something. A couple of propositions came along, one was playing at the Dome site ... and well, it was becoming less and less of a reality as the year went on. Then we had another proposition came up to play with an orchestra down in Guildford for a charity, and that seemed the best one to go with at the end of the day. Of course, playing outdoor in September in England is not what you should normally do.
Not your ideal weather conditions for an open air concert.
Well, no. But the Lord smiled upon us and we had fabulous weather.
Can North American fans of Procol Harum look forward to a show or two?
Well, hang on, you're getting greedy there, a show or two! Well, I suppose you could always do east coast and west coast shows because those are two separate worlds there. Well, we haven't got anything planned specifically to go to North America but on the other hand I see the millennium is coming up at the end of this year. The start of the next millennium happens from Jan 1st next year, we all know that, as long as you do your arithmetic right. So, in fact I'll get on with my second promise. I'm sure that we should play in America at the start of the next millennium, we will be there.
That's going to make a lot of people very happy.
Well, it will save them from coming all the way over here!
Are there any plans to record with the current line up?
Well, we haven't actually played with Procol for at least two years, maybe more. The line up we used the other night was myself and Matthew Fisher, Mark Brzezicki on drums, Mick Grabham and Geoff Whitehorn on guitars and young Matt Pegg on bass.
They've all done tours with us in America. Mick Grabham of course was guitarist from 1973 to 77 with Procol Harum. So, he was one of the originators on certain albums. All of those people are really willing and really want to go out and play somewhere. We just have to get it together really.
As far as recording, I think there's a little bit of, some sort of impetus going on towards making a record. You know it's strange days these days, has been for many years, and I think with Procol we were very down…we made an album in 1991 (The Prodigal Stranger) and we thought very carefully about it…we thought, hang on, make an album after fifteen years what does Procol Harum… what was Procol Harum? What is it? Well, it was certainly …it was Reid/Brooker type songs, Mathew came in and played the organ, we thought we were there and we thought we'd put together a good set of songs. I think we were rather disappointed in the…that we put our best at that time, our best effort in there and two things happened; a) it only sold …well it didn't get in the charts or anything like that and secondly, the record company that we'd probably unwisely gone with, looked at the accounts and said "Hang on, this didn't quite pay for what we paid for it. The accounts are wrong here, goodbye Procol Harum." Procol Harum has always been a band that ... we can deliver. You give us three or four years or more of writing songs and making records and we'll be able to deliver. We're not a one album band. And really to restart, if you like, after fifteen years, should have been given a bigger shot from the industry. So that took the wind out of our sails a little bit. So we're really recovering from that I think. You know, we didn't say, "Oh, well, fuck them, if they don't want to know, we'll just go get straight back in the studios", it's taken a while to recover from that.
Describe your first introduction to music. Was there a lot of music being played in the house while growing up?
By my father, he was a musician. He was a professional musician, he was a Hawaiian guitarist. He introduced the Hawaiian guitar to Great Britain almost. Which was the precursor to the modern day electric guitar. There were electric Hawaiian guitars before there were six-string, stand up and strum jobs. So I kind of grew up with Hawaiian music from an early age. I spent all my time listening to my father play, watching him from the wings and went to piano lessons from the age of about five and now and again got up with him to do duets on the piano. Unfortunately, my father died when I was eleven, he died when he was forty- one I think, of a heart attack, straight out of the blue. Kind of knocked the family apart, well not apart, but whacked it right down the middle. I don't think he was insured so we'd lost our bread winner and everything…so life was a bit tough for a few years. A bass player friend of my father's bought me a couple of years piano lessons. He kind of donated it…so I'm indebted to the man forever. My father had died and suddenly this man said, "Well, here, I've paid for them, it's all paid for, go and see the piano teacher". So I carried on and went and saw a new teacher and this was when I was about eleven or twelve, and carried on. I had a very, very good teacher, name of Ronald Meecham where I lived in South End and we worked it all out together. I'd actually got fed up, when I was young, I was learning classical pieces and things, scales and classical pieces, and you got hit across the knuckles if you didn't play it right. With a ruler. Most severely!
Yeah, it was a woman who taught me and she was absolutely vicious. I mean, these days you'd be put away for that…but I deserved it anyway because I wouldn't practice from one week to the next! She was quite right, I needed a good whap. I never felt I had been treated unkindly, I deserved it…It wasn't like "Oh, I can't play it anymore, you hurt my knuckles!" But with the new teacher he was different. I think he worked out after a few weeks (he says)…" You're not really into just learning how to read and play these classical pieces are you?" And I said, "No, not really'. So he says, "Well, what do you want to know?" and I said ,"Well, I kind of heard something the other day, a Ray Charles record". And he says, "Bring it in" So I brought it in, and he wrote down what Ray Charles was playing and taught it to me. And then we got into boogie-woogies, writing it down as well, and just playing what I wanted to play rather than classical pieces all the time.
You were eleven or twelve at this time?
Yeah, eleven or twelve and I think I worked with him until I was about fifteen. It was some point along there that I discovered Rhythm and Blues and Rock and Roll.
And that's what really got you?
Yeah. I think of two, three, four records that particularly hit me when I was young. I don't know when they came out, I was born in 1945 so by 1955 I was ten, so, eleven or twelve yeah, is about right. It was like, "Great Balls of Fire", "Tutti Frutti", Elvis Presley once he started using the piano in certain things. And fools such as I…I was listening to all that stuff all of a sudden. Ray Charles' "What'd I Say", all these raw sounds that you never ever heard before, never had on the planet anyway…the first time you heard "Great Balls Of Fire", believe me, you sat up and listened.
You've been working with Bill Wyman's Rhythm Kings. Tell us a little about playing R&B with some of those fabulous musicians.
I have a great time with Bill. We retired in 77 with Procol Harum for a while and some time in the early 80s, after playing with Eric Clapton, I went back and started an R&B band again, playing all that early stuff. In the middle of the eighties I did that. I play now and again with Bill Wyman now, that's such a great band of musicians. It's a pleasure to be onstage with them. When we're out on the tour there's myself, Georgie Fame, Alvin Lee, Martin Taylor, Beverly Skeete singing as well, good ol' Bill on bass, and brilliant brass players and backing singers and drummers, everything. To play with Georgie Fame, Martin Taylor, Alvin Lee etc is always a pleasure.
What do you remember about your early days playing the club circuit?
It wasn't always the club circuit. Clubs were great news because you went to a switched on club, that would be great. But that was like one in ten, the other ten gigs that you did would have been in suburban towns in Britain that had never heard an R&B or a black record in their life. And it was a dance hall and all they wanted to hear was who was #1 or the Top 5. So it was not all roses whatsoever. Looking back you kind of remember, "Oh, yeah, well great days" and you remember all the great club gigs and things, in Guildford, or Windsor or Central London where there was a switched on audience. But most of the time it was pure hell. It was a tough sell and there was always twelve guys waiting outside to beat you up because their girlfriends said, "Oh, they're nice".
How did you see the San Francisco music scene in comparison to what was going on in London at this time?
I only know what happened when I first went there in 1967 and saw all these bands. But the one thing that actually shocked me when I got there, to San Francisco in 1967, was that these bands that I'd heard about, which had great names and sounded as cool as The Who or The Action or Georgie Fame and The Blue Flames and countless other hip bands, and I'm not talking about Pop bands like Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas…we're talking about real bands not pop artists that got a few lucky breaks, was that they were absolutely terrible. The Youngbloods, Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company, I wouldn't say they were terrible, but they were not as good as the bands that I'd left behind in England when I left there in '67. The bands that were playing there were much more…they were better players. I won't say they had better ideas, particularly, but they were so much more professional. But it may have been a matter of drugs! That might have been the difference, too much dope in California , you know. I think the New York acts were probably slicker, someone like Vanilla Fudge or something like that, were probably slicker and more hip. And the Rascals before them, you know, but the West Coast bands were a bit of mess really.
Both the San Francisco bands and the English bands developed great jamming and improvisational skills, yet the reasons for improv were very different.
The free-form and jamming, from our point of view, from British artists point of view, came that we were quite used to playing like a forty-five minute set when we were in England in 67, let's say, and I spoke with Cream about this, Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton, and I found their experience to be very similar. They'd actually just, they were in America before Procol Harum were, but we weren't very far behind them, they were sort of four or five months ahead and what happened when you went to America was that you found that you're booked in for an hour and a half and you've got half an hour's worth of songs. And what Cream did, was like suddenly think, shit we've only got six songs, "Spoonful" and "Crossroads" and a few more and they just improvised and played solos and elongated the whole thing out. Which actually became Cream, this virtuoso, improvisarios. With Procol when we first went there, we found… we've got a song that was carefully crafted, and it was all there, but it was only two and three quarters minutes long. You've got nine of those and you've only got half an hour. And we started just doubling it up, going through the song, sticking a couple of solos in the middle and then going through the song again. But it builds up the soloing and the improvisational side of things. Which of course, Robin Trower, who was with us then, was well capable of.
During your days with The Paramounts you covered everyone from Ray Charles to Bobby Bland. I came across a quote from you, which read, "We only liked American music. We didn't like British music at all." Is that an accurate quote? If so, what was it about American Blues and R&B that so enraptured the young British musicians in the early to mid 60s?
The quote is probably fairly accurate in that I think that surprisingly, even Procol Harum was a further extension of something that started back in 1920 or something like that. That started with the Blues and Blues and Jazz and B bop and Boogie and eventually sometime in the 50s made Rhythm and Blues and the white Rockabilly side spurred off into Rock and Roll, and we took all that in and we're still a part of it , it's part of that extension. The names I mentioned to you of the records that first affected me, there weren't anything in the British charts, I mean, we were five years behind. You know we were still on the Perry Comos, or the British equivalent, which was not as good as Perry Como ... he was brilliant! We had just had a few copiers here and they didn't impress anybody. When you heard "Great Balls OF Fire" or you heard Little Richard sing, when you heard Ray Charles sing, you were touched by it. That was the whole thing, we were touched by that, it touched you, it stirred your emotions. We were all learning, really. Everybody was learning.
In the early sixties, The Beatles seemed to have turned around, course that was the same learning curve they had that I had, they're just three years older than me. But they had the same learning curve The Beatles, and they took in all those influences and made it into "A Hard Day's Night".
I've read various accounts of your introduction to Keith Reid. Guy Stevens introduced you, but was it as short and curt as I've heard? Something along the lines of "This is Keith. He writes words. This is Gary. He doesn't write words." Tell us about that first introduction.
Yeah, yeah. Guy Stevens, he passed away some years ago, but he was a top R&B DJ in and around London in the early sixties. He knew everything there was to know about American R&B music, black music. Black music which has instilled a lot of soul and a lot of feeling, a lot of gospel. Guy was right in, mind you, he always pulled out great whoever it was, if it was Dick Dale and his Surfers or whatever they were called, or it might have been the Young Rascals, or something like that. If It was a good, well done piece, Guy Stevens would have always had the record in his house a month before it was available in England. And he used to teach The Paramounts their repertoire, we'd go around and hear songs there and one day there he said, "This is Keith Reid, he writes words". And I said, "Oh, really?". "This is Gary", what Guy said was, "Why don't you try to write some music for Keith's words?". "I've never written music before, why would I want to do that for, when there's all this good stuff around to play?" But I remember being handed a bag full of his lyrics. In fact, I think I went home stoned and didn't find it until quite some months later it turned up at home. I said, "What's all this then?" and there was a vague recollection of where I got it and when I opened it up I think there was about ten lyrics in there, which were absolutely marvelous. And as soon as I read them I sat down and wrote a song, with the first one. So they were inspirational, if you like, and they were well done.
Quite an experience for your first songwriting attempt.
It was marvelous. Of course, when you're a youngster like that and those things happen it all seems quite natural. Although it was no great shakes, I was very pleased that I was able to write, what I thought, was a song. You know, to construct something musical that hadn't been written before. Because I wasn't really coming from anywhere else, I wasn't using, I wasn't writing something like, hey what's happening here, I'll try to write something like what's happening. It was like, whatever came out of me and whatever these words suggested that's what came out. And it was actually just a big amalgamation of everything else that had gone before. You know, an amalgamation of Jerry Lee Lewis, Ray Charles, Bach, it was all in there.
The Brooker/Reid partnership came together rather quickly then.
I think as soon as we got going, what I mean is, as soon as I'd written a song to his words, in fact, it was from the moment I got this packet of words back at Guy Stevens, from that point, from when I got the words, and it was quite a few months until I actually found them, but as soon as I had, I told Keith that I had written something to his words and he was like, "Oh, great." When I played it to him he liked it and we went on from there.
What are some of the challenges you face when working with an orchestra and blending Rock with Classical music?
It's never been, I mean one thing is that it's not a great battle between an orchestra and Procol Harum because a lot of the music that we have, not all of it by any stretch of the imagination, but, probably throughout many albums, probably fifty per cent of it you could probably scratch together and do them with orchestra, and they wouldn't be a battle between two sides, they would kind of compliment each other. And that has always been the case and so it's never been a difficult thing for either myself or for other people that have orchestrated to accomplish something. There's always room in there for a bit more counter melody even though there's sometimes plenty in it anyway with the organ…but there's always different lines to pick out and make more of with the orchestra, more to add in and just blend up the textures even more. In earlier days, it's a little bit easier now, but we certainly, there was a slight resistance from some orchestras. They often find the volume slightly loud, we usually try and keep it down, always have. There's a lot of difference between the drum kit and an orchestra. A drum kit playing is probably louder than a whole orchestra in actual decibels. And that was another problem which I think, it's been done a few times now, many of the orchestras are made up of younger people, more people in their twenties and thirties that have lived with Rock for a few years, not like in the late sixties (where) the guys had been in the orchestra since 1949 or something and weren't really ready. Once we started playing they've always enjoyed it and they enjoy the receptions that you get because Classical music, although it's very fine, its been heard many times and it's not as fresh. The Procol Harum with orchestra usually goes down really well and is the best night that orchestras have had sometimes.
Procol Harum was so different from not only what you were doing in The Paramounts, but from what was generally going on in music at the time. Was it a conscious effort to create something that was different or was the unique Procol sound the product of where your combined and varied influences took you?
I think the latter, yeah. You don't, I mean people might these days, start and think we're going to create this exactly like we'd see it, but with us it was really, it was just that, there was already a certain amount of experience although we were only twenty and things like that, we nevertheless had been playing since we were at school most of us. Everybody had, Reid that wrote the lyrics had been reading books since he was ten, everybody, Trower, Fisher, myself, everybody had quite a bit of experience and had listened to lots of sorts of music.
At the age of 20 you were already seasoned veterans of gigging …
Of course, nowadays five years goes past pretty quickly! But in those days, five years prior to Procol Harum, things seemed to last a long time.
You co-wrote one of the most revered and popular songs ever with "A Whiter Shade Of Pale". Can you tell us a little about its creation? Was it one of those "cosmic" situations that I've sometimes heard about where everything falls into place rather quickly or was it a more involved and lengthy process?
Oh no, cosmic. In that…cosmic is one way of putting it, not quite sure what it means, but it was a matter of having a musical idea at the same moment the words cropped up and at the same moment we were rehearsing our set with our band which by then had Matthew Fisher in it for instance as well, who was vastly capable of taking over the organ on it. And I think, apart from all those cosmic things, it also in the studio on the day, it got a good sound. It was not easy to get a good sound in those days with five of you playing, one singing, not the easiest of things to get a good sound. We were only on four track machines and therefore it was all done live and I think probably if we had done it the day after or if the drum kit had been on a different side of the room, it might not have turned out like that. We might have done another take of it and it might not have turned out like that.
There's a great story that some people may not be aware of. Before the song was officially released it was arranged to be played on the pirate Radio London because you wanted to hear what it sounded like on the radio. Tell us a little about that.
Yeah, it all happened very quickly, but we had made the record, the single if you like. I think we were a bit worried about the cymbals on the drums, that they were a bit splashy, not that there was a lot that we could do about it, but that's the way it seemed to have come out, and I don't know why but we were worried how it might sound on the radio. Therefore, somebody that was working with us called Tony Hall knew somebody on one of the pirate ships because there was no such thing as national rock radio in those days in Britain but there was a demand for it so the demand was satisfied by these pirate stations that were mostly on boats out in the North Sea. So the DJ played it on there and we all sat at home with our radios tuned in and listened to it and it was very exciting actually. I think I forgot to listen to see what the cymbals were like! But he announced it, he just said, "This is a new record here", and he put it on, he probably hadn't heard it, and when it finished he said, "That sounds like a hit".
Did you have any idea how successful "A Whiter Shade Of Pale" was going to be?
No, not at all.
Did you think it was a special song?
No. No we didn't think it was special actually. It was no more special than quite a few of the other songs that we were up with at the time. In fact, we went in the studio and we cut that one, and we cut two songs, and we thought either one of them could turn out well. But in fact on the day the sound was much better on "A Whiter Shade Of Pale" than on the other one. And it was a culmination of a few months work of writing and getting the group together and rehearsing so that we had a set to play when we went out. We were enjoying ourselves and we were enjoying the songs and we hoped and felt that we had confidence in ourselves that you have to have in whatever you do. And for it to be a hit, of course, was marvelous. We thought, "Well, that's good, yes, things are going right then! Things are going as we hoped!" But of course "A Whiter Shade Of Pale" took off very, very quickly, within a matter of almost hours, and days, it grew very quickly and spread very quickly into other countries as well.
Shortly after the incredible worldwide success of AWSoP, there was some turbulence that eventually led to a change in managers and in the line-up itself as BJ Wilson came in on drums and Robin Trower on guitar. A statement from manager Jonathan Weston at the time read, "The strain has been too much. It has all been too sudden." Was that period simply a matter of too much success too quickly?
Well, he may have said that but it was…I mean, we parted company with him for various reasons. And I can't remember the exact ones now, but I remember I was going to the studio and this Rolls Royce arrived at my door to pick me up. And I said "Well, no thanks", you know, I said, "Where have you come from?" and he said, "Your manager sent me", I said "I can get the bus from here, this is ridiculous". So I sent him away and got the bus. I thought, well I don't like people just wasting…spending money because of course he wasn't going to pay for it, that's for sure. You know, he would have arrived a year later and said, "Well, hang on, we've just had a hit record, we've been all round the world working, how much have we got?" and that's when they tell you, "Well, I'm sorry you owe us £25000", or whatever. Which did in fact happen to some extent and that wasn't a happy story. "A Whiter Shade Of Pale" did happen very quickly. We really weren't quite ready for it to happen that quickly. We didn't have any clothes, and we were still testing ourselves out, the members of the band. We had actually been in the studios just the once, and when we got in again, various things came to light in the style of people and so we did have a bit of turmoil while we were still number one at the time. But with Procol we always wanted to get it right and so we just sort of closed up for a few weeks and had a look 'round…we were after in fact a drummer and a guitarist. I just put forward two of my friends' names that I'd played with in The Paramounts as you know, and I said, "Well, I'm not saying they should join up unless you play with us and audition and get whoever else you like as well." A few other people came…just in a hall and play together for a while and nobody else apart from myself knew Robin or BJ Wilson but everybody else in the band, the managers and Keith etcetera etcetera, said, "Well, they're the boys", and so we got our heads down then and made an album.
What were the recording sessions and creative processes like for Procol Harum? Were the musical ideas very structured prior to coming into the studio or was there room for the song to evolve and travel in different directions?
Well, I think it always traveled in different directions. I think with the first album the songs were kind of already written and we'd rehearsed them a bit and that's the way they went. But I think with our second album it was much more of an organic thing and it growing more in the studio and people being able to add their own talents to it beyond the song but in their playing as well, and other people started writing immediately by the second album.
The outdoor rock and roll festivals of the late 60s and early 70s. We know what Pete Townshend thought about performing at Woodstock in particular and at large open-air events in general. You've played in front of hundreds of thousands at some of the biggest festivals ever. Some of the line-ups and the diversity of the acts were incredible while some of the festivals have taken on somewhat mythical proportions. What are your memories about playing some of those massive outdoor shows like The Atlanta Pop Festival, Isle Of Wight and Woodstock 2?
I don't remember any of that! I remember the Atlanta Pop Festival at the raceway and I remember the Miami Pop Festival and I remember one out in Palm Springs as well and there's also another one out San Francisco way. But they were great events, marvelous events. The bills were amazing for some of them. It was amazing. It was fantastic to stand on the side and watch all these people and such a feeling of…well the quality was good, the atmosphere was amazing and there was a great feeling of friendship. All the other bands, all the other singers and artists and the audience as well, and they were all half naked! I remember Atlanta, yes, I remember it now, there was a lot of naked women there!
The Psychedelic News put together a tribute to The Atlanta Pop Festival (30th Atlanta Pop Festival tribute issue) this past August. One of the features of that issue was a piece written by Richard Beck that was originally posted at the BtP website. He was one of the hundreds of thousands who took in that show and he put together a vivid memoir of his time at the show with a vivid recollection of Procol Harum's set. Anything stand out for you as far as the musical acts?
That was the first time I'd seen the Allman Brothers. They were playing a type of music that I wasn't really all that familiar with, not really. The psychedelics and people like Dr. John and people like that. Because of course you were still getting pop artists on those things as well, people that had been around for a while like The Turtles or something I remember when we were at the Miami Pop festival. You got a great mixture as well. The crowd and the rest of the artists, everybody had good respect for each other and gave everybody the time. The Jazzers and the Indian players and everything.
You contributed your hand-written notes to the Beyond the Pale website detailing the frenzied activity and difficulties you faced leading up to the brilliant "Live With The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra" in 1972. They provide a fascinating personal insight into the behind the scenes challenges of putting that show together. Tell us about the making of that album and for those not familiar with your notes, the problems you encountered.
I only found them just a couple of months ago in the back of an old book of some sort. They were actually on BOAC paper, which at that time was the British Over Seas Aircraft Corporation, who were the ones that used to fly across the Atlantic. And I thought, "Oh here they are then!" When we were up there I think…the idea was I was going to have a little diary and I thought I might be able to make some notes, perhaps some liner notes or something, didn't know what was going to happen anyway. The fact that it came out as a record happened afterwards almost. But I only found them the other day and I thought, to some fans or something that's probably of some interest.
I only read those notes once and I seriously had not found them since probably writing them so it wasn't something I'd held on to and found every now and again or kept in a file thinking I can use this one day in some way. So I just read them once and thought, "Oh, well that's a bit of fun." So, I read them the once and now I've forgotten what they said. But of course after the event, years after, or even probably a few weeks later, you forgot all the bad parts and you remembered all the good parts, which is just a more positive way. It certainly brought back a feeling of, "Oh yes, I remember, it wasn't all sunshine." There was a lot of problems, a lot of problems, and I did have a terrible clash with the conductor and I believe he also got drunk, a lot of whiskey, and then started shouting at me and he got so very arrogant. This was the night before the concert, the night we arrived in Edmonton in the cold. So, it was a little bit of a worry and we also lost our equipment. It was very, very late getting there, it got held up somewhere and there were some songs that we…I know that we never rehearsed "Conquistador" with the group and orchestra, we ran through the music of it just with the orchestra, because I'd only just written it on the plane, the arrangement, you know, trying to find a fast one for the night, something a bit more rocky, and I thought of a different way of doing "Conquistador". We never got to try that with the band because we'd run out of time with our equipment being late.
"Conquistador" was never fully rehearsed?
No! It wasn't!
The difficult circumstances you faced in Edmonton resulted in some spectacular music. It's interesting how friction within a group or situation can sometimes lead to incredible musical moments, The Beatles and Cream I guess would be perfect examples.
I suppose that's true in music. Although, I don't think it's the… you shouldn't be too conscious about it. You don't try and put together a load of completely opposite maniacs in order to make some good music. It sort of comes about without you really realizing it, clashes of personality or jealousy or somebody wants to be better than somebody else or somebody's getting too many girls after him. You know, all sorts of things can happen. And I think in Edmonton, yeah, the tension of everything made everybody keep on their toes as much as they could and a lot of adrenaline ... I mean BJ Wilson on the drums was bursting energy, you could feel it coming out of the whole track, especially on "Conquistador", he's like saying, "Come on orchestra, quick, come on, follow me."
Speaking of BJ Wilson, in January classicrockpage.com along with the help of the BtP website, put together a mini tribute to BJ Wilson (BJ WILSON Tribute). I'd like to add your recollections of him to the piece. What are some of your lasting memories of BJ as a drummer, band mate and friend?
Well, I'd always thought he was very much younger than me but…it'd be a couple of years younger than me, no more than that. But, when we first met him he was about fifteen and was very accomplished. He was a total drummer, totally dedicated to his instrument and knew so much about it. I just used to look at him on stage and I used to know exactly what he was going to play, not because he played it before, because he very rarely repeated himself, but I just knew what was coming and of course he also knew at the same time what I was going to do. He had about three things going with his kit all the time, he would add bits that went with the vocals, or went when there wasn't the vocal and he would have bits that were going on with my piano…he wasn't so much a drummer that just sat down and played with the bass player. He sort of played more with the lead and interest that was going on. He was totally into it every time he played and that came out. Anybody that ever saw him would know that, he was totally absorbed and almost in another world. All he was doing was drumming, every little ting on the top of the cymbal was very involved. And he had a great background, he had played as a young lad, that was probably in the story of him, he was in boys bands and that so he knew that military style and he used that to great effect at times. He also took drum lessons with Joe Morello the Jazz drummer for some time, I think he went one day actually, though he learned a lot, he took it all in. He used a different grip to what most drummers do, with his sticks, and he got terrific power. You don't have to wield a great stick from great heights as if it was a club, he had it gently resting between his fingers but when he whacked it, it was just as loud as anybody else. He was a good man and sadly missed and he was a good friend and anybody that met him, you know, BJ was the one out of the band that they always remembered. He was the one that would be talking to the other bands always, very friendly.
Some of the Procol Harum music played on our Internet radio station, CR Net Radio, are lesser-played songs like "Boredom" and "Repent Walpurgis". The station has been compared to the underground radio stations of the 60s ...
Well, that's a compliment. It's over formatted, even the classic rock stations have been over formatted as well. I know Procol Harum has suffered from it in that you might hear just four tracks that you kind of hear, it might be more, I don't know, but that's the ones you hear. When you say something like "Boredom" or "Repent Walpurgis", it's nice when that suddenly comes out the speakers and I'm sure other people enjoy it as well.
What comes to mind when I mention the following Procol Harum songs? Maybe a brief thought or memory, something about its creation, recording or performing it live.
Boredom, oh Boredom, in fact I only found out the other day that I wrote it with Matthew, I'd forgotten that. As he kind of sang it, in the mist of time, I always thought that he wrote it. It turns out we both wrote it, apart from Keith's words as well. Matthew was the originator of the idea in the first place and I think it's one of those great, well not particularly great, but one of those studio recordings where you take advantage of what's around, which in that case meant that we got our recorders out, we found a marimba or xylophone or something in the studio, and just used some different instruments.
Repent Walpurgis. That intro hits you every time no matter how often you hear it.
The organ or the drums?
Well, yeah, one sets the other one up doesn't it. Well, I actually stuck the middle in it. I remember that because I thought it just went round and round and round and I said "Well, let's add something different in the middle Matthew." "What?" "Well, we'll just put this little part in" And Matthew always wanted to call it Repent, and I thought it should be called Walpurgis, so we compromised.
For Liquorice John
Always interested in that one because it's one of those Procol ones that goes off ... it's a different direction. Maybe not so much a different direction so much really, but it's a different kind of song, you know the actual composition of it. But it was really a sad song because it was about somebody that we'd known who jumped off the top of a building and it was a tribute to him really. So, it was a bit of a sad one.
I think Procol from the start, what we wanted on the guitar was Blues guitar. We didn't want Jazz guitar or anybody too fancy. It was the emotion of Blues style of playing, or modern electric Blues playing, that we wanted and it was sometimes…you had to think quite carefully if I was the one that was writing the song that I wanted it to be actually a guitar based song, I'm playing the piano and there are plenty of songs where the piano or keyboards seem to take the lead and sort of drive the whole thing. Simple Sister, I wanted to write a good guitar song, that's what I wanted to do.
Certainly did the job.
Yeah, but basically you can almost play it around one chord, but it's got a few little nicks in there which Robin managed to find his way around, but I bet if you just heard the guitar on its own it would sound like he was playing in C minor all the way through.
A Salty Dog. BJ Wilson called it the most beautiful song he had ever heard.
That's sweet of him. He did love that one. Everybody comes to like it at some point. It seems to have lasted very well as well. I mean "A Whiter Shade Of Pale" is always the obvious one that seems to have lasted and everybody has heard but "Salty Dog" I was out playing that in America when I was with Ringo last year, and I had to play that in the middle of his show, well it was Ringo and the All Stars, and it was where everybody went offstage. So, I had to play on my own, sometimes with 10,000 people that were still coming down off of "Yellow Submarine".
Quite the mood and tempo change.
Tempo change, mood change, any change you can imagine really. I just used to throw myself into it, pull the veils down, let the waves wash over, and settle in. And the audience always settled in as well, which I thought was really lovely of them because they could have said, "Hey, man, we're going out for a beer" or, "Where's the ice cream man?", but they didn't, they always went lovely and quiet. I usually think of BJ Wilson when I play that one anyway.
You've recorded and toured with an incredible array of musicians, everyone from Eric Clapton, George Harrison and Paul McCartney. Do you enjoy the role of the sideman musician? Is it nice to be able to take a break from the front man role?
Well, when I first did it yeah. I was with Procol solidly from '67 to '77 and then I got the chance to play with some other people. Played with the saxophone, girls, things like that. So it was enjoyable and playing with Eric, which I did in the early '80s, it was just great not to have too much pressure on you really and be playing somebody else's music. It was just a bit of a relief after many years of doing your own thing. And I learned a lot from it as well and I'm still doing it now. Still enjoy playing with other people and playing their kind of music instead of what I would do.
Are you aware of any Procol Harum material in the vaults (live or studio) and if so do you think they'll ever be released?
Well, there might be the odd thing but I don't think were talking about sort of anything like different songs. I mean there might be one or two somewhere but I don't think there are because we used to write songs and we'd try and write them as best we could and we'd go in and record them, and that was it. Ten songs or however many it was, the amount of time you could get on vinyl, which I think was a maximum of forty minutes, and that was how many we wrote and that was how many we recorded. We worked on them and recorded them and mixed them. We didn't go in with twenty songs and not know what we were doing.
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