Procol Harum

the Pale 

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Remembering Dave Ball

Among his fans and friends

Roland from BtP writes (1 April 2015)

When Jens and I asked Dave Ball to give the keynote ‘Talk to Fans’ at the Wuppertal Procol Convention in 2013, we wanted to ensure that all the partygoers … not just the 3am diehards who would gather round him in the post-show bar … should experience and enjoy the hilarious cocktail of warmth, wisdom and wildness that invariably cascaded from this most gregarious and affable of men.

Collage by Richard Beck (2000)In that respect – as in all others during our fourteen-year friendship with Dave – he delivered, in spades (and in that curious half-Antipodean accent). A couple of self-accompanied songs from his fine solo album, Don’t Forget Your Alligator, numerous rock’n’roll anecdotes, some self-deprecating career notes … and these ingredients were fearlessly accompanied by a warts’n’all account of what was then merely his ‘brush with bowel cancer’.

Grateful to be in remission, Dave told how he had offered to put himself forward – to the MacMillan Cancer charity – as ‘the face of bowel cancer’, an ambassador for the positive, undaunted attitude that characterises a survivor; and he was perhaps a little bit miffed that he hadn’t been taken up. But then he actually showed us ‘the face of bowel cancer’ – as filtered through the Ball funnybone and gurning addiction – puckering his mouth into a perfect likeness of the sphincter at the opposite end of the digestive tract. Small wonder he didn’t get that particular gig.

He contributed immeasurably to ours, however. It would be redundant and unseemly for mere amateurs to spend too many words saying what a great musician he was. He’d played on the most successful-ever Procol Harum album, for God’s sake; what higher praise could there be? But the Dave Ball package contained much more than his bluesy voice and fearless guitar-playing on Conquistador, GonnaDoThisGonnaDoThat, Fresh Fruit, Yours if You Want Me, All This and More. He was encouraging (a few well-placed words, never fulsome) and practical; he brought a seasoned perspective to the excited wannabe atmosphere; he endured a Stakhanovite rehearsal-regime with genial charm; and, as we gathered pre-show in the band room backstage, he dispelled the ‘excited nervousness’ in the air with an unapologetically scurrilous rendering of The Shithouse Blues, verse after verse after filthy verse [small picture below]. I think it’s fair to say that everyone just loved him, and he made a lot of friends who are going to miss him terribly. 

Dave first played with the Palers’ Band in 2000, our first, scarcely-rehearsed outing (pictured, left). It’s hard to remember the exact sequence of events by which this excellent professional became involved in the musical activities of the fans of his former band. I think we simply invited him, and he – characteristically, as we would discover – said ‘yes’. We had no idea at that time whether a miscellany of strangers would be able to play Procol tunes at all: having a real Procoler on board could have contributed stress and embarrassment all round. Nothing of the sort! Dave mucked in, played Conquistador, A Christmas Camel, Long Gone Geek and Toujours l’Amour, egging us on and mingling without reserve. My daughter Jane, then just 18, comments now that it was ‘amazing he was so friendly, and willing to play alongside schoolchildren’. She remembers his amazement and delight when, during A Salty Dog, Linda Clare chimed in on bosun’s whistle from the audience. In short, Dave was a man who played like the pro he was, yet was able to think like a fan  (to be fair, he met his match among the fans on occasion: it was most amusing hearing Palers’ Band guitarists reminding the great Dave Ball about details of the lead guitar underscoring in Conquistador … the track with which he helped restore PH to the charts in 1972, and which contributed to the band’s Gold Record. ‘The thing is,’ he declared, ‘You blokes have listened to that record a thousand times since it came out. And I haven’t.’)

Dave with Gary Brooker and the Palers' Band in Wuppertal, 2013I’d gained an idea of his demotic credentials, having witnessed his generosity at an abortive Procol gig at Cambridge University in 1972: the band’s gear-lorry didn’t materialise, but Dave and Chris Copping came out and treated the disappointed troops to an hour of jamming, cycling around all the instruments of the support band – Supertramp – with blokeish virtuosity. Dave can be seen playing a houseful of instruments (drums, bass, guitar, piano, mouth-harp, sax) in one of his ‘Retirement’ videos. He was happy, in the Palers’ Band context, to play whatever made sense, as much or as little as fitted in with everyone else. This included recreating, with Ian Hockley and Linda, the treble-recorder lines he’d recorded on Bringing Home the Bacon. (video clip here)

It was a pity that for various logistic reasons a proposed spin-off from the 2000 event, involving Dave and
Sev Lewkowicz, never happened; likewise Dave – at that time gainfully employed in one of his many real-world guises – wasn’t able to make our Convention three years later in Los Angeles. But he came back into the fold at our 2007 foray at St John’s Smith Square, playing both with The Palers’ Band (Simple Sister and Seem to Have the Blues (Most All of the Time)) and with Gary Brooker's 'Procol Rarum', a wonderful reunion with The Commander after 35 years or so. This time we had four days’ rehearsal in Southend, galvanised by Dave’s arrival – from Germany – midway through. As he launched into Simple Sister ‘the years fell away’ as they say, and we all felt transported to the world of Procol’s famous Beat Workshop TV special. With the exception of the Paler drummer, bassist, organist, singer and six pianists required to play the build-up in the middle … everyone else became a cameraman. Dave, it has to be said, was unfazed by the adulation.

One anecdote from 2000, however, really epitomises the way Dave related to Procol Harum fans. He simply enjoyed the company, and the stories, and the socio-economic arguments that come with the territory: having already stayed his planned night at the basecamp hotel for the Guildford Convention, he found he was enjoying himself so much that he booked another … only to sit up in the bar chatting right through to daybreak, when his taxi came to whisk him away!

Another late-night session, following Procol Harum’s orchestral/choral excursion in Copenhagen, 15 January 2011, revealed the very considerable scope of Dave’s ambition, following his decision to retire from sensible, wage-earning work and devote himself to recording, writing, art, and speaking (see his WorldSlump website for details). He told me about an artefact he was planning to make, a wooden box containing CDs of at least a hundred original songs he’d written, with books of his writings and drawings. It would have sounded mad from a less unpretentious soul; I took it to be his way of focusing his creative energies, a goal-setting strategy perhaps informed by inklings of mortality.

Certainly in later years he played a lot of music! He founded Dave Ball’s Ballbreakers, the name contributed by Palers’ Band drummer Poul Achton, who played in one incarnation of that band. Dave also played in Poul’s outfit, The Procol Harum Project, on their Copenhagen début, contributing not to the PH tribute element, but to the four-song bluesy coda: Hoochie Coochie Man, Ain't Nobody's Business, Crossroads, and Stormy Monday Blues. Dave was absolutely in his element. He also played an excellent set at London’s Marquee Club, a gig set up by another fan, Henry Scott-Irvine. Many other Ball performances (here, for instance) may be found on YouTube.

Dave was a marvellous keeper-in-touch. I greatly enjoyed his late-night Skype chats, typed or spoken, which covered so many topics with such wit and humanity (he joked that he realised he would not now make old bones, but at least he would still make long ones). How I now wish I’d taken up the invitation to spend a weekend at his place in Burton, where he promised ‘plenty of toys’ (presumably musical!).

In 2014 we talked over the possibilities of his coming to play with the Palers’ Band again on Long Island. ‘Couple of toons sounds great Roland’ was the verdict in April; but by June it was ‘dealing with some new internal lumps and bumps … chemotherapy starts next week! My travel is restricted somewhat. Prognosis not bad, so expect to be back fully fit(ish) within a month or two.’ He was worried that the treatment was making his fingers rusty, but it seemed to me that a half-powered Ball would still be a force to be reckoned with. It was not to be, however, and in July, when he sent his very touching audio message to the Procol Convention (which says so much about his relation to the fans, and the Band itself) the covering note said, ‘Chemo is tolerable. Chat soon.’

I think our last chat was in November 2014. Finding myself on the committee for the Fourth International End-of-Life Palliative Care Conference in my native Bristol, I sounded Dave out about his possible participation in a suitably-bonkers fringe-event. The response came back from Down Under, perky as ever, ‘Fighting the curse again. Catch me in your a.m. Bonkers is good! Talk to me!’ Sadly of course, we weren’t able to take it any further.

The last note Dave played with his Paler friends was the orchestral cymbal-crash that concluded Wuppertal’s climactic Rule Britannia, archly tacked on to TV Ceasar in imitation of Procol’s Hollywood Bowl recording. This was a classic Ball moment, Puckishly centre-stage, having the last word, his lanky stature only slightly compromised by the club’s low ceiling, which necessitated a little more caution than we’d seen in rehearsal (pictured). Playing alongside him … so proud, so loud, so watchable … had been a delight for everyone.

This brief piece of writing doesn’t set out to catalogue Dave Ball’s talents, his discography, his achievements, his many careers. It’s just a rumination on his unusual interaction with music fans, and the lasting affection he inspired in so many of us. What his passing must be like for his long-standing friends and family, it’s hard to imagine: our thoughts go out to them. As Gary Brooker wrote for this website, ‘the contribution [Dave] gave to us and his many friends around the world will last – but the MAN and his presence will be very sadly missed.’

'So glum, I’m so glum. I lost my chum.'

Dave Ball's page at BtP The Palers' Band

Dave's last interview: essential reading

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