Mention Procol Harum as a word association phrase and the quick response is likely to be A Whiter Shade of Pale.
A Whiter Shade of Pale was a giant hit in 1967, and much talked about — it was the group’s first record, the organ line was a theme from Bach and it was a dirge — along with Ode to Billie Joe giving rock trend analysts a death theme to write about.
But Procol Harum didn’t rest on its Bach side. There have been seven albums, each one selling better than the one before. The sixth one, Procol Harum Live in Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and the Da Camera Singers, is gold.
The seventh one, not out long, Grand Hotel, was the occasion for Warner Brothers to give ‘the party’ of the rock season in New York’s Plaza Hotel before the group started its American tour.
Lyricist Keith Reid says, ‘l envisioned us all dressed up in our tail suits, standing up like a bunch of Charlies.’ Composer Gary Brooker agrees that he’d been apprehensive about a formal-dress party for people of the rock world. ‘But it succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. I think a lot of people felt a bit strange in a tie but they realised they looked great and all they were doing was having a good time. I’d never danced the quick step before. I had a good time: I was the last one to leave.’
The group has had its struggles. Brooker says, ‘We’ve had people leave; we’ve had big hassles within the group. We’ve had big hassles with management. It has been a bit diverse at times. But basically, the thing about the group is that Keith and I write songs. What the group does is play them — there have always been these songs. So it hasn’t changed so drastically. You can still recognise Procol Harum as you could when we started.
‘On different albums at different times, you could hear the different people. On Broken Barricades the organ wasn’t being used very much. The group is a very basic four-instrument rock band on that album. The next one, we expanded to a symphony and a choir. Most people could still tell both was us.’
Albums have been Procol Harum, on Deram, Shine on Brightly, Salty Dog, Home, Broken Barricades, Procol Harum Live on A&M, and Grand Hotel on Chrysalis.
Group members now are Brooker, piano and vocals, the only one since the beginning; Barrie Wilson, drums, six years; Chris Copping, organ, four years; Alan Cartwright, bass, two years; and Mick Grabham, lead guitar, one year. Brooker says, ‘We’re settled in, now.’
He says that playing with an orchestra was great fun. ‘But it’s a shame that it takes so much work to get it together.
‘Last September and October we played in London with the Royal Philharmonic and we went to Germany and did six or seven jobs with the Orchestra of the Munich Opera. We’d like to do some in America.
‘I had to learn a bit about clinical music to work with these other people. I’m basically self-taught; I did have music lessons. I listen to more modern music than classical, but I don’t think classical is too highbrow to listen to.’
Brooker says, ‘I haven’t aimed for a hit single for a long time, specifically. I write a song as a single in that it must be liked. I do it for eight or ten numbers.
‘If you’re working, the most important thing is to have an album out and then you go and do tours. You need to devote four weeks toward writing and making a hit single. We haven’t got that four weeks to spare. But we’re going to try to embark upon that side of things.
‘It would be a great blow if one album sold less than the one before. But nobody can tell you what is the right record to make or why a record is a success or why it didn’t do too well. If you base an album on supposed reasons why the one before didn’t go, you’d go crazy. We haven’t reached that stage and hopefully we won’t.
‘We always work like each album has to be better than the one before and be more popular. As long as we keep that idea, we ought to be all right.’
Reid says. ‘Speaking for myself, writing words, I found there are some periods in a year when I don’t write and periods when I do. We’re involved in a thing where you’re supposed to put out one album every year and if you don’t something is wrong. That kind of relates to the fact that people like us are supposed to have relatively short careers. People don’t think of us as writing songs and making records for the rest of our lives. That can affect your creativity. You can think if you don’t write songs for ten months, you’re finished.
‘There’s no logical reason why we shouldn’t wait two years to put out an album. They say we’re not supposed to; we’re supposed to pop up with another one. Well, this hasn’t affected us in any adverse way. We’ve got better as creative people and success has built.
‘But if I couldn’t write when I got older, what would I do?’
Asked about fads in rock Reid says, ‘Given enough money, you can grab people’s attention for a minute or a year. After that, it is what you do that sustains the success — not the reason you got it in the first place.
The initial impact of the Pretty Things was outrageous. Their habits were more like the Stones than the Stones, but they didn’t last. The Yardbirds were competing with the Stones and the Animals were, a bit later.
‘It is talent that sustained the Rolling Stones. A lot of people say it is image. But it ain’t. It is all talent.’
More Procol Harum history in print | 1973 tour dates | Index to PH + orchestra pages