The rock music business becomes more unusual and confusing with each ‘parade of hits’ weekend. One day you may be listening to the radio and a ‘golden oldie’ such as A Whiter Shade of Pale comes out of the endless vault of hit singles.
A disc jockey hurriedly announces that the musical memory was Procol Harum’s 1967 contribution to the history of rock and roll. You ask yourself whatever happened to the group, and suddenly an announcement says that the band is currently headlining at Fillmore West.
Unfortunately, there are no rock stars in Procol Harum. The four million seller A Whiter Shade of Pale has, however, established the group as a band worth seeing, perhaps only to observe if Procol Harum has recaptured the sound of the hit single.
Despite four albums on AM Records, Procol Harum has not had another single release worth mentioning. While Blodwyn Pig and Leon Russell do two exciting sets, Procol Harum does one relatively short performance, minus the hit single. The audience is not impressed enough to have the group continue its comeback.
Two nights of Procol Harum or any other group is not enough on which to base an opinion. Yet, after listening to Procol Harum’s albums and watching its stage performance, the question arises: What does this group have that is worth exploring, and is its sound relevant to listeners today?
Vocalist Gary Brooker, bass guitarist Robin Trower, organist Chris Copping and drummer BJ Wilson play very tight, mystic music which is extremely difficult to sing or dance to. Procol Harum’s songs have a strong tendency to sound the same, so the listener is forced to get into the heads of the musicians to distinguish what the band is saying or trying to play within the written structure of the music.
Brooker and Trower compose interesting and complex music, but the group seems unable to make the songs appealing over a period of time. For all the pains and pleasures people receive from Procol Harum’s music, Keith Reid must be responsible.
Without Reid, Procol Harum would not exist with the same musical format it employs today. Though he has only played with the group on a few occasions, Reid is responsible for the lyrics of everything the group has recorded and travels with them constantly.
Lyrically, Reid leaves a lot to be desired. His songs seem to be preoccupied with death, murder, turmoil and misery, leaving the listener with a very depressed feeling. Who needs it? Songs such as About to Die, Still There’ll Be More and The Dead Man’s Dream may be considered ‘fancy-ticklers’ and ‘mind-bogglers’ to the record company, but Procol Harum has yet to convince even radio stations of the song’s [sic] merit.
‘With so many currently popular groups one gets the impression that it’s a fashion, rather than music, that’s being dealt in, whereas, with us, people are buying the music and nothing else,’ says Reid in a publicity release.
In person, Reid is not as articulate or expressive as his publicists proclaim. Bearing a striking resemblance to Travis, the leading revolutionary in the British film If, Reid appears to be an introvert who regards conversation as a necessary evil.
Within a cramped room backstage at Fillmore West and with a sincere interest in his work, I asked Reid how he writes his songs. Reid pondered the question for a moment and then said he wasn’t sure, though he did say he did all his composing in a room in his cottage home in England.
Don’t any of your travels ever affect your writing? Do you ever get inspiration from any other people or the members of your band?
‘I spend all my time writing in my room and hardly ever leave unless I’m doing something with the band. If I got inspired from other people, then the songs would be their thoughts instead of mine.’
The logic of that last sentence having escaped me, I decided to ask Reid to describe how he wrote A Whiter Shade of Pale. Some things are hard to get used to, such as Reid getting the title of that classic song from the color of his room.
As for the gruesome lyrics he writes, Reid merely said that that’s what he’s thinking most of the time. Reid didn’t elaborate, so I didn’t ask him what he was thinking at the moment.
Since Reid was not interested in exploring the group’s music, the conversation attained new plateaus of silence surpassed only by the audience’s reaction that evening to Procol Harum’s performance.
Musicians tend to let their music do all their talking, a method which sometimes leads to quick, if not incomplete interviews. Whatever Reid has to say, the message of Procol Harum’s songs reflects his own personality. A good example is a verse in Barnyard Story.
‘Now and then my life seems truer. Now and then my thoughts seem pure. All in all my thoughts are fewer. Maybe death will be my cure.’
Or better yet, maybe Procol Harum will find a new songwriter or Keith Reid will stay in his room longer.
More Procol Harum history in print | 1970 tour dates