Liner note by Roland from BtP • April 2018
In contemporary interviews Gary Brooker and Keith Reid, founding mainstays of Procol Harum, portrayed 1974’s new album, Exotic Birds and Fruit, as a back-to-basics affair. After 1972’s Live with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra album, and the following year’s Grand Hotel with its choral/orchestral title-track, they were wary of being stereotyped as ‘classical rock’, and presented their Exotic Birds as a fresh chapter.
Yet the musical line-up – Gary Brooker (voice/piano), Alan Cartwright (bass), Chris Copping (Hammond organ), Mick Grabham (guitar) and BJ Wilson (drums) – was unchanged; likewise the composers and recording studio; and again they presented nine new songs, their soundscapes every bit as dense. What was different? ‘What I meant,’ Gary Brooker explains now, ‘is that we were in the studio as a rock-and-roll five-piece: no other players, apart from BJ Cole [see below].’ The opening track has strings, he admits, ‘but they’re very minimal, done by a Japanese chap.’ In fact the oriental lettering, printed in the credits, conceals Chris Thomas, producing his fourth album with the band.
‘I don’t recall back-to-basics being a specific direction,’ says Mick Grabham now, and he agrees ‘there is a lot of production.’ He rates the Exotic album ‘… my favourite, of the ones I was involved in. I like the songs.’ These are indeed robust and musically varied, the first four (or five?) arguably constituting the finest consecutive run on any Procol album. Keith Reid’s words, though – by no means as exotic as those on Grand Hotel – seethe with disenchantment and frustration. This downbeat mood, Grabham suggests, ‘reflects what was happening in the world, not the mood in the band.’
Procol started work on the Exotic album at London’s AIR Studios – where they’d recorded Broken Barricades and Grand Hotel – on 12 December 1973. Next day Prime Minister Heath issued his ‘Three-Day Work Order’, ramping up the energy-saving measures already in place due to wage disputes in key industries. Reid’s words were written during the long build-up to this national crisis, not in response: nonetheless the ensuing ructions impinged closely on the band (as Brooker details at the close of CD3-07). Paper-shortages nixed Reid’s proposed lyric-booklet and, during government-scheduled power-cuts, AIR had to work with generators, which played havoc with the Hammond organ. ‘I was travelling up and down [from Surrey],’ says Gary. ‘When things were up-and-running we really had to make the most of the time.’
Brooker and Grabham, interviewed separately for this liner note, were amused to learn how bygone electrical inconvenience had shaped fans’ interpretation of the Exotic album’s mysterious opening – the whistling feedback, suggesting a mis-handled microphone, into which someone then blows, asking ‘Is it on, Tommy?’ Some take this for a question about a generator (though if the power weren’t ‘on’, the studio would be dark). Others suppose the addressee is Chris Thomas (‘We never called him “Tommy,”’ says Brooker. ‘He’s much too posh.’) Still others insist the speaker is Gary … though both men identify the voice as Grabham’s.
We hear Mick’s voice on CD3-08, declaiming poetry, Sunderland vowels to the fore. ‘When I joined Procol,’ he told me, ‘I gradually became aware of being the Northern boy in a Southern band.’ He used to entertain with a spiel about ‘coming South on coach wi’ granddad’, which his Southern bandmates wanted on tape. Mick was reluctant (‘once you’ve done it, it’s not funny’) but gave in: to his relief ‘someone pressed the wrong button, and nothing recorded.’ Instead he gave them a shorter routine, his ‘mickey-take of Northern working-men’s clubs’ that booked fading Sixties’ stars, and were ruled by committee: ‘They were so un-rock’n’roll as to be untrue,’ he now declares. ‘I actually saw one of these guys pick a mike up, call out “Is it on, Tommy?”, then press it to his ear for an answer …’
Thus Procol Harum and their non-Japanese producer – never averse to a bit of mystification – prefaced Exotic Birds with part of the audible component of an essentially visual gag, recited by Grabham in someone else’s voice. ‘It wasn’t recorded with the idea of starting the album,’ Mick adds, ‘more in the spirit of Keith’s poem on Grand Hotel’. But whereas Reid’s spoken-word track, Mr Krupp, was abandoned, then lost, ‘Is it on, Tommy?’ has passed into Procol legend.
Equally legendary is the BBC session Procol recorded on 22 March 1974 at Golders Green Hippodrome in London. Having completed the Exotic Birds album, they’d played six college shows and a session for the renowned John Peel that March: good, solid UK exposure. Such national broadcasts were eagerly awaited by fans, but there was no great sense of occasion for the band: ‘It was a way of promoting your new album,’ Gary told me. ‘You didn’t get overexcited about it.’
Just fifteen weeks later, on 5 July – nominally a day off during an eight-date US tour – the band recorded another live set, at January Sound in Dallas, Texas (where they’d played the 10,000-seater Memorial Auditorium the night before). This was broadcast on KZEW-FM, a station specialising, since the previous autumn, in classic and progressive rock. The KZEW mood is less formal than the BBC show, the songs generally faster and tighter. But unlike respectful BBC presenters, the US host occasionally steps on the music.
Both radio shows feature half-a-dozen Exotic selections – tracks 1, 2, 3, 4, 8 and 9 – the very same six that Keith Reid enshrined in his 2000 Charnel House lyric-anthology, My Own Choice (out of print). The following commentary discusses the whole Exotic Birds and Fruit album, song by song, adducing notes about the above broadcasts where applicable. Thereafter the ‘legacy’ songs – BBC and KZEW offerings that pre-date the 1974 album – are briefly considered, chronologically aggregated in their sequence of vinyl release.
The intricate, vital opener, Nothing But the Truth (CD1-01) has features in common with Robert’s Box, which concluded Grand Hotel: the ensemble’s falling chords, the deep extra vocal, and of course the elaborately overdubbed soundscape. From the outset the band is playing as one, a full-tilt boogie. Gary recalls Elton John praising the single release (6 April); later Jools Holland admired its rolling left-hand piano figure. But despite the song’s commercially-minded middle-eight, pace and brevity, it didn’t initiate a chart renaissance for Procol. Reid’s ‘godforsaken emptiness that fills our hearts with tears’ – to say nothing of insanity, gaping screams, and mouldy leaves – found no favour in a hit parade ruled by Paper Lace or The Wombles. Unfortunately ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris, presenting the BBC broadcast, had told the world that Procol wouldn’t be playing their new single (‘You couldn’t wish for a nicer host,’ Gary told me. ‘Maybe he had the wrong setlist?’).
Grabham’s guitar-fills, so effective on record, are somewhat swamped here (CD2-11); the BBC didn’t retain master-tapes, so it’s impossible now to tweak the original mix. At KZEW (CD3-12), however, the guitar is strong, elaborate and angry. Copping’s inventive organ elicits ‘Ooh, I like it,’ from Gary Brooker (who drops a few words in the excitement). It’s worth commenting in detail on the extraordinary, 25-second opening, which combines sparkling technique with rhythmical mischief. After a spot of free cowbelling, BJ Wilson’s hi-hat strikes up a metronomic beat, and his Motownesque snare chats chirpily with a lightning-fast kick-drum. In cahoots with the hand-clap – which was maybe initiated by his first cymbal crash – BJ fools us with false barlines, sneaking in extra beats before Brooker’s piano-glissando, itself a false opening. Two beats later – in a feat of pure Procol telepathy – the rest of the band piles in together.
Beyond the Pale (CD1-02) seems to refer to A Whiter Shade, now so far behind in Procol history; yet Brooker is singing ‘veil’, not ‘pale’. A pale is a boundary, which Reid’s lyric invites us to cross, undertaking various super-hazardous quests (the previous song used Icarus to exemplify the consequences of such hubris). Even on Procol’s 1967 début album, wandering through a fence led to torture and identity-loss: for Reid, a writer of Jewish heritage, such images of peril and flight may carry ghetto connotations.
Procol ‘worked hard’, Gary says, to establish the Eastern-European sound-world (maybe it’s Hungarian, like the album-cover artist?). ‘The mandolins were probably BJ,’ he reports, ‘though balalaikas would have been nice too.’ At the BBC (CD2-05) Chris Copping’s rasping banjo is the sole residue of that hard work; listen also for Grabham’s choice fills (played, on record, with an early three-pickup SG, not his habitual ’59 Les Paul).
At KZEW (CD3-06) the pace is faster, Gary’s repositioning of the ‘buried deep’ line now entrenched. Grabham’s ingenious backing-work justifies Reid’s pre-show comment to KZEW’s interviewer: ‘We’re capable of doing things now with Mick on guitar that we never were with Robin [Trower].’ Many amusing and contradictory Brooker anecdotes about this song’s supposed origins may be found at the sprawlingly-comprehensive www.procolharum.com, ‘Beyond the Pale’. They functioned to entertain audiences during protracted banjo-tuning; in the Texan heat, Gary also speaks of ‘men landing on the surface of Venus’. Many will take his donnish unpacking of Pop Goes the Weasel for a similar flight of fancy. Predictably enough, it’s not.
BJ’s explosive entry in As Strong as Samson (CD1-03) took the band by surprise: ‘It sounds like he hadn’t played for a week,’ says Gary, ‘and was letting it all rush out.’ Grabham uses a Gretsch Viking on this track, overdubbing with a Martin D28 acoustic belonging to Ian Duck of Hookfoot. BJ Cole, Mick’s former bandmate in Cochise, contributes pedal steel guitar, and skilful production differentiates it from the organ’s similar range and sustain. Reid wrote without considering trends or markets; even in their fifth decade his words rarely sound dated. Starting from the imbalances and injustices that fed into the three-day working week crisis, the Samson lyric universalises the particular; Brooker finds a stirringly hymnal melody to convey its strongly-felt message. His pitching of the tricky chorus-end is something magic.
The words, in that difficult line, are arguably more intelligible at the BBC (CD2-06), in a version slower than the album’s. Copping’s organ-playing is superb, as is BJ’s extended fill at about 2:48. ‘He’s never just keeping time,’ Grabham says. ‘He plays the lyrics of songs as they go by.’ At KZEW (CD3-08) the speed is similar to the album’s, but the piano intro, and BJ’s entry, have developed. Grabham is very active in verse two; Alan Cartwright is strong, as always, on bass, and Chris’s Hammond-break shines. Mick also handles harmonies, not a great Procol speciality: ‘I don’t look back on the singing as a problem,’ he told me. ‘I just got on and did it.’ Procol’s wind-up, in the heat, isn’t perfect: ‘Thank you, my mother,’ says Gary, perhaps imagining that no-one but a blood relation would have applauded it.
Close listening to CD1-11, the Samson ‘D♭ mix’, suggests it’s just a slowed-down version of CD1-03. In today’s digital world, pitch and speed can be independently changed; in 1974, dropping a semitone by varispeeding the tape, you’d reduce the speed by an identical factor. Here pitch and speed have dropped by different factors, shading the process, as well as the purpose, with uncertainty. Grabham is (almost) definitive. ‘Samson was played in D, end of. Or I could have tuned down, I suppose. But I don’t remember doing that.’
Despite the straightforward imagery of The Idol (CD1-04), its import remains enigmatic. Who is this tricky, irresolute monster? Who idolises him? ‘It could be about a lot of people,’ said Reid in 1974, ‘one of them myself.’ First heard live (12 November 1973) as a Brooker solo, the song ‘worked out a lot differently with the group,’ as Gary told another 1974 interviewer. The Idol shares compositional quirks – minor chords starting the verses, choruses launching from the subdominant – with Samson. But the songs ‘weigh’ very differently: for The Idol Thomas taxed AIR’s 24-track facilities, superimposing two stereo acoustic pianos, three electric pianos, and ‘as many more guitars.’
Yet it’s still marvellous with the basic five-piece. At the BBC (CD2-08) it’s passionately played and sung, by both voices, with a tremendous guitar solo. At KZEW (CD3-09) the trimmed structure and swifter tempo lop ninety seconds off the vinyl timing. Grabham’s prefatory poem is curious: ‘I made the mistake of doing it one night onstage, then it became “my joke”,’ he told me. Its relevance to The Idol is unclear, but oddly ‘the moon shines on her tits’ exactly describes the album-cover of Cochise’s self-titled début (1970).
1973’s Grand Hotel booklet matched each lyric with a charcoal illustration by Spencer Zahn, who also completed three designs that weren’t used, among them ‘Picture Story’ – aka The Thin End of the Wedge (CD1-05). Reid’s rich lyric therefore isn’t new: yet its paranoid flavour does tally with much of the Exotic mood. Zahn’s illustration – blank paper, one corner blazing – rather simplifies Keith’s game of semantic tag, where one phrase’s connotations catalyse associations in a neighbour, triggering fascinating interference-patterns in the mind’s ear.
The music (‘off-the-wall weird’, in Gary’s view) is likewise memorable. With a left-hand contour perhaps seeded by Chopin (Nocturne, Op 72 No 1, 1827), the verse adapts chord-voicings from bebop, albeit unswingingly slowed-down. The chorus is more familiarly diatonic, but the whole sound-world resounds with menace. The lack of a radio version is regrettable, since Reid had teased KZEW with the promise of songs that ‘won’t come across in a 20,000-seater’. But onstage, with drums (BJ was unwell when the album track was recorded), The Wedge could be overpowering: ‘I’ve got a cassette, recorded in France,’ says Mick, ‘an absolutely storming version, magnificent organ too. One of my favourites in the whole repertoire.’
In an e-mail, Spencer Zahn evokes his 1972 self, excitedly awaiting each new Grand Hotel lyric for illustration: ‘What new room of Keith’s imagination would I awaken in next?’ When M. Armand came through his letter-box the answer was surely ‘kitchen’ (though Spencer’s drawn response shows a baleful-eyed horse). Downbeat domestic settings inform several early Reid pieces, often sharing cartoon-like narratives, literary gleanings, and gallows humour. ‘We were revisiting old ground here,’ Gary admits – though Armand’s title was punningly refreshed, to reclaim publishing rights formerly assigned to Essex Music.
It’s fitting that Procol’s Jekyll’n’Hyde song used two names: but even with its continental alias, ‘Monsieur R Monde’ (CD1-06), it was bumped from Grand Hotel, as it had been from Shine on Brightly following a tepid Olympic Studios run-through back in October 1967. It worked excitingly enough on the 1974 tour, often with Brooker on rhythm guitar and Copping on piano; but the album production feels primitive and noisy (Thomas later produced The Sex Pistols). ‘I’m not sure how R Monde fits in,’ says Gary now. ‘We should have written one more song: and it would have been a huge hit!’
Fresh Fruit (CD1-07) may seem a relative throwaway, but given the album’s name and cover image – by the Hungarian, Jakob Bogdani (1658–1724) – it comes close to being the title-track. ‘I don’t think we had a title,’ says Gary. ‘Then Keith saw [Bogdani’s Fruit and Birds] and showed us a picture of it. It seemed to fit what we’d recorded.’ Certainly the rich, dark colours and busy detail are a good synæsthetic match for Chris Thomas’s input. ‘Fresh Fruit is a nod towards the old days,’ Gary adds. Its intensive overdubbing recalls Grand Hotel, but the tuned percussion (soon to recur in 1975 chart hit Pandora’s Box) goes right back to Boredom (1969). ‘Marimba, and whistling, that’s me,’ says Brooker. ‘BJ Wilson – sometimes known as ‘Mad Dog’ – was always in charge of barking.’
But dogs don’t naturally eat fruit. Can we take Rover’s tail-wagging at face value, or is this another Procol novelty with a smutty subtext, like A Souvenir of London? Reid doesn’t specify any fruit by name, rather emphasising the sensuous verbs – touch, squeeze, squirm – associated with devouring it. Intriguingly, given the many carnal themes in Grand Hotel, this is the closest the follow-up album gets to bodily symbolism suggestive of the ‘exotic birds’ in its title.
Was this lightweight number positioned tactically, a sweetener to offset the bitter pill following? ‘Song order is determined after everything’s finished,’ Brooker explains. ‘Words go with music, and music with words, and hopefully together they imply some kind of mood. We could have made Fresh Fruit a sombre ballad … but then you’d be talking about the dog dying …’
The Exotic Birds songbook includes numerous characters, named (like Icarus, Samson, Scrooge, Rover) or unnamed (psychiatrists, preachers, Arabs, doctors, etc). Yet, in marked contrast to the Grand Hotel songs, few Exotic numbers portray, or even imply, interpersonal relationships. Butterfly Boys (CD1-08) is a major exception, a surprisingly forthright, specific critique of Chris Wright and Terry Ellis, the band’s management, and owners of the label they were signed to (‘Chris’ and ‘Ellis’ made ‘Chrys-alis’: its emblem, a butterfly). ‘Procol Harum is the “sinking ship” here,’ Gary told me. Wright and Ellis are ‘… the ones that “get the cake”. They were very upset about the song, and wanted us to change the words and title to Government Boys. We said “Bollocks’’’.
When Gary arranged the song for 1995’s The Long Goodbye album, delicate orchestral detail brought Reid’s itching fleas and stinging bees playfully to life. But back in 1974 it’s a supercharged rocker, driven by the mighty Cartwright and Wilson in consort with commanding piano (it’s easy to hear why the Stones wanted Brooker on their records). Mick’s Les Paul alternates between intricate back-up work and funky, eloquent soloing.
At the BBC (CD2-10) the vocal harmonies are strong, the guitar level good. In both radio performances Grabham closely follows his album solo: it has quite rightly become a set-piece. At KZEW (CD3-10) the tempo is faster; listen for Alan Cartwright’s precise and propulsive bass. Quizzed about his Beatle-like triplets, Mick declares he ‘never thought, “I’ll try and sound like George Harrison.” That kind of thing just became part of guitar language.’ The momentary fluff at 3:12 is a real rarity, but as Reid told me, ‘... if somebody screwed up, it just got broadcast that way.’
The prominent organ, transparent texture, and languid pace of the original Exotic album-closer have encouraged some diehards to view it as a deliberate homage to the supposed glory-days of A Whiter Shade of Pale. The truth is that New Lamps for Old (CD1-09) sounds simple because it was recorded in one magical evening, and additional adornment would have been superfluous. ‘I remember vividly,’ Chris Copping noted in 2009, ‘Gary came straight in with a new song. We put Rhodes piano through the Leslie, late at night. Everything about this session was mellow, just fell into place.’
Disillusionment reigns in Reid’s brief lyric: but far from ‘unable to cope’, he’s at the top of his thought-provoking game with ‘the eye of the needle, the loss of the thread’. Likewise Brooker’s melody and harmonies – surprising, yet somehow inevitable – epitomise ‘unique entertainment’. Finally the ensemble-playing, and the yearning vocal, are nowhere near the ‘end of the show’: Procol Harum, five albums and forty-four years later, still shine on brightly.
Brooker’s piano opens the BBC New Lamps (CD2-04) which, slower than the original, presents a definitively moving performance. Reid confirms this song was ‘very unusual for us to play live.’ Yet it also closes KZEW (CD3-13), having developed a strong organ counter-melody, and some delicate rubato between verses. Grabham’s guitar (a Gretsch on the record, but here his Les Paul) ruminates effectively in the background. Gary’s vocal is again passionate, though ‘falsehood’ sounds, as ever, like ‘false head’. In both radio shows BJ demonstrates that those coda sextuplets, on his ride cymbal’s bell, really can be played with one hand while the other maintains its snare dialogue with the kick-drum.
Bonus track Drunk Again (CD1-10) is a belter, destined only for the B-side to Nothing But the Truth. Seemingly a stronger album-contender than the retread, Monsieur R Monde, it was actually passed over twice: it had existed at Grand Hotel time, giving its title to the third unused Spencer Zahn illustration. A companion-piece to A Rum Tale¸ it shows an ice-cube, a stubby wineglass, and a female hand … more refined drinking than the present text seems to depict. Reid’s topsy-turvy word-order – ‘fly can’t bird’ etc – is a literary trope to convey the narrator’s mental state, a reinforcement for the song’s plainspoken title. Among the fevered expostulations from that befuddled brain, ‘Old Mother Hubbard’ and ‘my mother’s name’ are the only explicitly-female references on the extended Exotic album.
Brooker’s verses are chordally straightforward, and his comrades attack them with raucous fervour. Cartwright’s fluent bass dominates; Gary’s vocal and piano are superb (he also plays a National guitar inherited from his late musician father, Harry Brooker). Copping’s skirling organ changes gear into the second musical element, a rising, academically-harmonised motif signifying the repeated, momentary urge to abstain from drink. Its inevitable collapse, back into rock’n’roll mode, provides the perfect playground for BJ Wilson’s bewildering percussive decorations.
Homburg (CD3-04) numbers among several obscurities resurrected for the KZEW broadcast: to Americans it’s not ‘Procol’s Other Big 1967 Hit’, as it is back home. In a pre-show interview Reid explains that Homburgs were ‘made famous by [Fifties’ Prime Minister] Anthony Eden.’ Asked what distinguishes a Homburg from other hats, he quips, ‘About thirty bob a week.’ Some critics dubbed this great song ‘son of Pale’, but Brooker’s chord-inversions still sound fresh and distinctive. The original single faded: live, two contiguous key-changes make for a convincing finale.
Conquistador charted for Procol (August 1972) in the live Edmonton arrangement; the five-piece band deftly replicates the single’s Hispanic flavour, keyboards covering the symphonic parts. The BBC version (CD2-01) features a fine vocal, Baroque organ elaborations, and exciting drumming. Grabham is hard to hear. ‘Come on Mick!’ Gary calls: perhaps the guitar was low in the stage monitors too. At KZEW (CD3-01) Brooker and his ‘little droogies’ establish an instant groove, and Grabham’s super-tight ensemble-playing is a revelation. This time, sadly, it’s BJ’s drum sound that lacks substance.
The high rarity-quotient on KZEW may suggest Procol wanted the tape for a possible live album; instead, the set was bootlegged as Homburgs and Stetsons. 1967’s seldom-heard Mabel (CD3-11) has a chorus suggestive of British music-hall, but the Lovin’ Spoonful’s 1966 Daydream is a stronger influence (Brooker has combined the two songs occasionally at soundchecks). Originally recorded with twinkling celesta throughout, Mabel was revisited when BJ Wilson joined Procol (in the first ‘Harum shuffle’); overdubs included party-noises and a vestigial, Daydream-influenced violin. KZEW’s rhythm guitar, Hammond, and keyboard-break are further innovations, bringing the song closer to the Procol mainstream. It’s missing a verse, but it’s still an amusing novelty, foreshadowing Fresh Fruit, which revisits Mabel’s dietary images, if not its homicidal glee.
Cerdes (Outside the Gates of) (CD3-05) is an energetically-executed, bluesy favourite from Procol’s self-titled début album. Reid’s early homage to Dylan is clear in the catalogue of fanciful characters, the magpie appropriation of mythologies, then the angry rejection of received value-systems. Brooker’s vocal is occasionally reminiscent of Dylan too. This versio n closely follows the 1967 original, until a surprise ending replaces the vinyl fade-out.
Neither radio show, BBC nor KZEW, featured anything from 1969’s uneven Salty Dog album. The neglected Long Gone Geek (CD3-03) comes closest: it was issued only as the Salty B-side, its hectic energy a provocative foil for Brooker and Reid’s majestic masterpiece. Live at KZEW the song is half as long again, the lyric – Reid’s speeded-up cartoon of feline misrule in a turbulent penitentiary – more clearly intelligible. Grabham modifies Trower’s original riff, Brooker’s piano-break usurps 1969’s Hammond solo (from co-composer, Matthew Fisher); and BJ’s unpredictable drumming contributes immensely to the excitement.
Whaling Stories (CD2-02) stays true to the epic ambitions of 1970’s original recording, sustaining an extravagant range of moods and images over almost nine minutes, with a gravity that fussier ‘prog’ rivals could merely dream of. The declamatory episodes, from 4:32 onwards, truly push the envelope of rock-band composition. Copping borrows the ‘daybreak’ music from Brooker’s 1971 Edmonton orchestration; his evocative organ prelude continues the number’s evolution. Brooker’s sparkling piano and voice epitomise this masterpiece’s perfect fusion of music and words.
Grabham has reservations about the 1971 album that Simple Sister (CD2-07) originally kick-started: ‘I had all the [Procol] records,’ he told me, ‘and loved them all, until Broken Barricades … not keen on the sound of that one.’ But he does baleful justice to the opening riff, his tone every bit as threatening as Reid’s ensuing strategies for suppressing sibling discord. Like Whaling Stories, the original recording builds an extended instrumental over a repeated bass motif. Often omitted from stage shows, it works well here, over more than two minutes: without the record’s chattering piano collage, the percussion-section becomes the main ear-grabber.
Perhaps it was natural for Procol, sweltering hot and far from home, to air Power Failure (CD3-07), their skilfully-worded 1971 account of rock-band touring privations. The composed music – and the harmony singing – are less distinctive than the compelling, if unfathomable, 140-second rhythm-narrative from Procol’s one-man big-band. It’s not just the Buddy Rich-like dexterity and invention that amazes: BJ’s instruments have an inimitable sound.
The ambitious Grand Hotel (CD2-09), title-track from Procol’s 1973 album, is warmly received by the BBC audience. It soon finds its stately tempo, and Brooker delivers Reid’s rich libretto – cataloguing the decorous excesses of an imagined high-life – with soulful dignity. Alan Cartwright’s inventive, muscular bass animates the early verses, before the cantering circus-theme and the reflective piano solo. If this haunting air – which the ensemble transforms into a gentle tango – really echoes a Russian song, Gary didn’t knowingly borrow it. ‘But of course,’ he told me, ‘one’s ears are unconsciously open to everything.’
Bringing Home the Bacon is a red-blooded rocker that presents the antithesis of Grand Hotel’s measured evocation of elegant dining. Brooker’s piano keeps time, liberating Wilson for rhythmical adventures. At the BBC (CD2-03), Copping’s vibrato Hammond line dominates the guitar, and the ensemble-playing doesn’t always gel: this performance wasn’t broadcast. But at KZEW (CD3-02) Grabham’s guitar shines out, his second solo a reckless joy. Bacon was an audition-piece, at AIR London, before Mick joined Procol in September 1972. A Salty Dog followed (a Brooker wild-card, having no guitar part!) and Mick’s stellar showing clinched his invitation to join. In fact he’d worked out the changes at London’s Roundhouse. ‘Backstage with Cochise, I was plonking around on a rickety upright,’ he confides now. ‘Once you find that flattened fifth at the start, it’s fairly straightforward. I’ve got no classical background, but I was always into chords.’ A Salty Dog remains the most surprising omission from these eclectic, and otherwise delightful, Procol radio concerts.
This 3CD liner-note ends with an authoritative verdict from Procol Harum’s Hammond organist, Chris Copping: ‘Exotic Birds and Fruit represents the best of the band,’ he told me. ‘I love every note, every word and above all the mighty production. Chris Thomas was at the absolute height of his powers when he recorded us. It’s my favourite album.’
© Roland Clare, Sydney NSW, April 2018
Many thanks to Gary Brooker MBE and Mick Grabham for new assistance with these notes, and to Chris Copping and Keith Reid for past help; also to Jacob Cunningham and Spencer Zahn, and particularly to Prof. Sam Cameron, my collaborator in the ongoing ‘Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes’ pages at www.procolharum.com, to which readers are referred for more detailed consideration of the songs discussed above.
|More liner notes from the same author | About this remastered CD|