You can't really get away from the fact that Procol Harum is a very strange group. Not much is known about the members of the band, and they do little to hustle up publicity for themselves.
Procol's last album, Home, (regarded by some critics, myself included) [punctuation, sic] as the rock album of 1970, was mainly concerned with death and its associated symbols, such as graveyards, coffins and corpses.
The LP was vastly misunderstood by the general populace and as a result, only sold about 200,000 copies in the US. That wasn't bad, mind you, for an average band, but for such a distinguished group as Procol Harum, it was mediocre.
Procol Harum, despite its musical magnificence, has not had a single hit since its first two blockbusters of 1967, A Whiter Shade of Pale and Homburg.
Several singles have been pulled from Procol albums (Shine on Brightly from the album of the same name; A Salty Dog and The Devil Came from Kansas, from the Satly Dog LP; and Whiskjy Train from Home) but they have not fared well in a scene where the likes of Ocean, the Jackson 5, Rare Earth, Bobby Sherman and Matthew's Southern Comfort run rampant. You can't escape the fact that Procol is simply too good for the often moronic tastes of the people that program Top 40 radio in North America.
With the release of Procol's fifth album, Broken Barricades, A&M is hoping to push the group into the superstar category, a berth which should have been theirs the day Shine on Brightly beamed into the marketplace. A single from Broken Barricades, Power Failure, has also just been released. But with the sorrowful state of Top 40 radio at present, one has many doubts about the potential exposure of such a hard-hitting side as Power Failure. It's a soft, mucky and mushy marketplace and groups with the inherent sound stamina of Procol are having much trouble getting off.
The irony of being so incredibly good yet so little known by the masses is not something which overly bothers Gary Brooker, Procol’s pianist, singer and writer of most of their exquisite melodies.
Brooker was sitting on his hotel bed, lighting a cigarette and trying to raise the missing members of the group from the depths of the hotel. Drummer BJ Wilson was already present, as was Procol's producer, Chris Thomas (who was responsible for both Home and Broken Barricades).
Brooker accents the inevitabilities of the current rock scene with barely a grimace. ‘The whole business was taken out of the hands of the writers and musicians, and that's what's wrong,’ he says with a straight face. What would happen if the creators resumed control? ‘It would fall to pieces back in their hands,’ says Brooker, with continuing lack of expression.
Weren't they disappointed at the relatively poor sales response to Home?
‘Yes, I was a bit disappointed,’ replies Brooker, then adding ‘No, not really. It did about two hundred thousand. It didn't do as much as …’
He paused, uncertain of what to say.
‘It was very hard to get the album played on the radio in England. I mean we never heard Dead Man's Dream on the radio. At least in North America we have FM. We are stronger on the East Coast than the West, so our albums have received fairly good exposure.’
There was a stony silence of several long seconds, before I realised that was the limit of that particular rap. Someone expressed disappointment that the single of A Salty Dog (which was at least the artistic equal of Pale) had not graced the Top 40 charts.
Brooker looked surprised.
‘The record company wanted us to edit the single. They said it was too long for Top 40, but we didn't want to cut it. It would have destroyed the whole meaning. That's how the hits go down the drain.’
We started to rap on some of the other artists who have made it recently, be they English or otherwise. One soon discovered that although Procol's words may be sparing, they are as sharp and as accurate as John Lennon's.
‘I haven't seen that many new bands in England recently,’ said Brooker. ‘I thought Medicine Head were good … and of course, Pentangle.
‘Black Sabbath and Curved Air and groups like that are rubbish. I just don't understand music like that. From the States, Mylon is my tip for the top.’
BJ Wilson cut in: ‘I like some of the Nashville people, and Dr John. James Taylor makes the sort of records that you just go out and buy. The Band aren't bad either.’
Wilson also liked the few tracks he had heard by the late Janis Joplin. Brooker disagreed. ‘I don't think they ever got any good records of her myself.’
Neil Diamond? ‘I've never heard of him,’ said Wilson. Brooker declined.
The Moody Blues? ‘I like the guys personally, but their music is like a big wet sponge,’ said Wilson. ‘They're my favourite group,’ said Brooker, with a loud laugh. ‘As long as I don't have to hear them, it's alright.’
The Stones? ‘I prefer the Moody Blues,’ said Brooker, and Wilson answered that he preferred Ry Cooder.
Lyricist Keith Reid (who doesn't play any instruments but travels with the group on all gigs) arrived back from a shopping expedition, and took his place on a bed.
Reid was the first to offer a comment on Joe Cocker.
‘Good old Joe,’ he said. ‘It's a shame he's got into so many problems. There are so many rotten people around him. They know who they are.’
Gary Brooker said that he ‘thinks Joe Cocker is terrific. He is the best thing since … He's one of the best there is.’
Reid added wryly: ‘Joe has given a lot of people a lot of opportunities.’
Dave Edmunds? ‘He's alright. I Hear you Knockin’ was a good record … I have never heard any other cover version of an old rock song that I've liked.’
Led Zeppelin? ‘Rubbish,’ said Wilson. ‘I don't honestly know that much about them,’ Brooker said. ‘I'm developing anti-feelings towards heavy rock groups at present. A few weeks ago, I would have found something good in everything. But now that heavy stuff is coming in so strong, I don't like it.’
Elton John? ‘The man of the moment,’ observed Keith Reid. ‘But I prefer Randy Newman myself.’
Brooker said: ‘Elton gives me a lot of pleasure. It's really hard when somebody is getting a lot of attention to keep it straight. Elton has written some fine songs, and he performs them very well.’
Wilson added: ‘I like Elton's records. The first album is one of my favourite records.’
Cat Stevens? ‘I like him,’ said Reid. ‘He's doing all right,’ said Brooker. ‘Yeah,’ muttered Wilson.
Crosby Stills Nash and Young? ‘I haven't heard much about them lately,’ said Brooker. ‘I always thought that if you put what seemed to be the most commercial things that have gone down in the last few years – you know, Beach Boys and Beatles harmonies – put them in a computer and it would have come up with Crosby Stills Nash and Young.’
Neil Young? ‘I don't know, continued Brooker. ‘I think I might like him eventually. I heard After the Gold Rush and sort of liked it. Then I suddenly go of it halfway through. But it’s definitely got something.’
Bobby Sherman? ‘Haven't heard of him,' said Reid, and Brooker added: ‘He's a great sax player.’
Having been somewhat taken aback by several of their comments, I ventured further and asked them to name their five all-time favorite albums.
Wilson was the first to answer: ‘Randy Newman's first album … and his second album. An LP by Albinoni called Adagio. Dr John's first album and Another Side of Bob Dylan.’
There was a long pause before Brooker piped in with: ‘The Albinoni LP, Sgt Pepper, Blonde on Blonde … I don't think I'd take any others besides that.’
Not to be far-outed Reid said he would take Randy Newman's album because ‘I think that's the best record I've got.’
Someone asked if the group had a favourite album or cut of its own. ‘I liked them all,’ volunteered Brooker. Wilson was more venturesome. A Salty Dog and In Held ’Twas in I,’ he said.
Producer Thomas suggested that Broken Barricades was probably the best album the group has made. Brooker laughed. ‘You haven't heard all our albums. How would you know?’ Thomas looked embarrassed. But he had only teamed up with the group a scant year ago, and he was along on this tour (Procol’s eighth) to look after the sound.
‘We met Chris Thomas by accident,’ said Brooker.
‘Yeah,’ continued Reid, ‘we were looking for a producer and someone introduced us to Chris and it’s worked out well.’
Thus far in its career, Procol Harum has only been able to come up with one album per year, which Brooker says is not necessarily by choice.
‘No matter how hard we work, we still only find time to make one album. In the past 18 months, we've only had one week’s holiday. In 1970, we spent 12 weeks on the road in the States, 18 weeks in Europe, and the rest was TV, interviews and the like.’
‘Broken Barricades was recorded in a hurry. We came back from our last US tour (in February) and we only had a week before we started the album.’
Broken Barricades took 35 recording sessions to complete, many of them running a full 12 hours. [feature here]
‘It took longer to cut than Home,’ said Thomas, ‘but a lot of the time was spent fooling around.’
All of the songs were written either in the studio or at home (everyone except Londoners Reid and Brooker lives in Southend) just before going to the studio.
Wilson recalled that the first two albums (A Whiter Shade of Pale and Shine on Brightly) took longer to record because of the difficulties in obtaining just the right sound.
All of the cuts on Broken Barricades were rehearsed in the studio, and then recorded three or four times. ‘But we always seemed to use the first takes,’ said Thomas.
I asked Brooker, Reid and Wilson to rap about the various tracks on Broken Barricades, as if they were doing an informational review of it.
‘Simple Sister, I think,’ said Brooker, ‘is music from the 23rd Century. Lyrically it's quite simple, and there's something very personal about it. It's probably just a quick summing up of a situation from somewhere.’
Thomas noted that it was much simpler to talk about other artists’ albums. ‘All of the talking is put into it,’ he said with just a faint air of condescension.
‘Broken Barricades is a very personal song to the group,’ said Wilson. ‘I would agree with that,’ said Brooker. ‘It's a bit strange … a very internal song really. The words set the lead for the rest of the album.’
‘Memorial Drive is the song which we start our concerts off with. It's a good one to dance to … a bit of a boogie-woogie. It went well in the studio,’ related Brooker.
Wilson said that Luskus Delph should be banned because of its inherent obscenity. ‘It's like a Viennese waltz,’ Brooker said, putting the flame to another cigarette.
‘When I think of erotica,’ he continued, diverting everyone's train of thought, ‘I don't relate to modern-day things but to women with cake make-up and old fashions.’
‘Luskus Deplh is very gentle and very dated. Also it's very fragile. It might remind you a little of Sleepers’ Awake [sic], the way it falls right into your head.’
Brooker admitted that he liked Power Failure. ‘It's about touring on the road, and what it's like when everything breaks down in the middle. The situation where the mains cut off, and it's all left to BJ on drums to carry it through until the power is restored. This song is very much sort of what it's like.’
There was a long silence after I mentioned Song for a Dreamer, broken by a sharp rap on the door. Brooker looked up from the bedspread, and said, to no-one in particular: ‘See who that is – maybe it's someone who can answer this question.’
The door was opened to reveal Keith Reid, who'd returned to his room a few minutes earlier to find something. Brooker smiled. ‘Writing up a storm then Keith?’ Read [sic] also grinned. ‘I'm just dotting the t’s, and crossing the i’s.’
Reid sat down, then rapped about Song for a Dreamer. ‘It's Robin Trower's song. He was the most responsible for it anyway. It's his pet track. It gives an indication of where he's going with his playing.’
Brooker threw in: ‘Whatever it is, I think it works.’
Playmate of the Mouth, not surprisingly, turns out to be another obscene cut, in the words of BJ Wilson.
‘It's one of the tracks we have to cross out when we send our albums to our mothers,’ Wilson said. ‘Otherwise, they write back saying “What’s this filth? That Keith Reid is getting more perverted every album”.’
Keith looks amused. ‘Gary just brought the tune into the studio,’ Reid related, ‘said to everyone this is it, and everybody got into it. It was done as a live track, even the vocal.’
‘Poor Muhammed [sic] was the first track we did,’ recalled Wilson. ‘It was the first time we've worked at AIR Studios in London and we were finding out about the sound. We were knocked out.’
‘Robin plays steel guitar on the track,’ said Reid, ‘and he also sings on it. But he won't do it on stage. He reckons he can't sing and play at the same time.’
It was the second album on which bass player Chris Copping took part. Copping joined Procol about 15 months ago, after Mathew [sic] Fisher left the group. Fisher now runs a little demo studio in Kingston, just outside London, according to Brooker.
The rap about the commerciality of Procol was fairly fruitless, since no one was too anxious to discuss the gap between the group and the mass audience.
‘We don't think in terms of what people would like to hear when we cut an album,’ said Brooker. ‘We just cut it. I think Barricades is the most commercial album we've done. If it doesn't make it, it will be a miscarriage of justice.’
Reid elaborated. ‘I think our things are a little ahead because people have been unaware of what we're doing. It's not that people weren't ready for what we were doing three years back … Just not enough of them were aware of us. I don't care who or what makes it, as long as the other things aren't overlooked. Right now too many people are pushing what's successful and some good things are being overlooked.
‘I don't know. I still like all our albums. Perhaps our first is my favorite. The songs and performances were both very good.’
Brooker agreed. ‘I think we deserve a bit more. I'd just like more people to feel the way about us that some people do now. It's the quantity not quality that worries me.’
Nobody in the group would deny that Procol has often been misunderstood by critics and record buyers. The sombreness and morbidity of Home did nothing to aid that cause.
‘Home wasn't deliberately a death album. It's just that a lot of Keith's writing at that time was a bit gloomy, to say the least,’ said Brooker. ‘He's got out of that now. Last year it was death. This year it's sex … and violence.’
Reid didn't offer comment. Someone asked if Procol had done any orchestral gigs since the highly successful appearance with the Stratford (Canada) Festival orchestra in the summer of 1969.
‘Yeah, I'd like to do some more gigs like that. But no one has asked us. I think we should get some by rights. Deep Purple did a gig with the London [sic] Philharmonic, but it wasn't very good. It was really a TV thing. They even had the audience holding painted placards.’
Reid revealed that Procol has almost no material in the can, and nothing much written.
‘There's only a handful of songs that we have never recorded. With several release dates delayed, we've had to throw away a few things. But not much.’
Reid was getting ready to go back to his room. Brooker got up to put on a coat for a sound check. And someone asked anyone if the group got on well together.
‘We get on alright,’ said Brooker, with a little surprise. ‘We all get on pretty well. It's certainly not a business relationship. It must be love that keeps us together.’
And for once, they all laughed.