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In 1970, after what had been, as far as Britain was concerned, three fairly fruitless years, Procol's contract with Regal Zonophone expired, and it must have seemed to the group that the weight of the world had been lifted off their shoulders, leaving them free to move forward with a little more support behind them. As the group had been without management in this country since Tony Secunda's departure in December 1967, they had to make alternative arrangements themselves, and they eventually plumped for Chrysalis, a very new company, but already a very successful one, with Jethro Tull at their peak in Britain. In fact, it was as support band to Tull that Procol did their first proper British tour in early 1971, (four years after they started off so sensationally... incredible, isn't it?), an event about which they were naturally sceptical:
'To be basic, probably the only reason we were on that tour was because there was nobody else around. If there'd been somebody else around like the Kinks, we probably wouldn't have done it. People said we should do it, that it would do us good. I said I didn't believe that it would, but we were convinced we should try it, and it didn't do us much good, because people went to see Jethro Tull, and they were aware Jethro Tull did a tour, but even though we went down really well, it didn't mean anything'.
Still it was a start at getting through to the great British Public, and it was followed up in the summer by Procol's first album for Chrysalis, 'BROKEN BARRICADES' (ALPS 9158) which was accompanied by more press coverage and promotional activity than all the group's prior work put together. I love the album, especially the title track, which I seem to recall being nominated as 'song of the year', either by John Peel or Bomber Bob, but Gary waxes less than enthusiastic about it:
'For 'Barricades', I didn't have any songs, and had to work most of it out in the studio as I went along, and I think it shows. I mean the album had a very good production -- a good sound -- but the songs aren't all I would have liked. Most people say they like it least; the people that like 'Broken Barricades' are normally Trower fans'.
You can see what he means. The album, like 'Home', was recorded with the four-piece line-up, and Robin comes out of his shell even more, contributing three of the eight songs, and making his guitar a more dominant element in the group sound; but whereas his previous compositions for the group, like 'Juicy John Pink' or 'Whisky Train' had been mucho uninteresting blues pastiches, completely out of context with the rest of what the group was doing, his songs on 'Broken Barricades' are of an entirely different calibre, and 'Song For A Dreamer', probably the best thing he has ever written, turned out to be the turning point of his career:
'I was writing a piece of music in one room, and Keith happened to be writing lyrics in another. So he comes in and says, 'I've got these lyrics, and they're sort of Hendrixy, and maybe we should do a sort of tribute to him,' then I said, 'Hey, that is funny, I've got this music, and ... You see, 'Song For A Dreamer' was the first song where I'd done it all. I sang it, I wrote it, I played just about everything on it, and it was the first time I realized that I could do something. After that there was no question that I had to go out on my own'.
Gary agrees completely: 'Trower didn't leave because he was being pushed into the background, because he was being pushed forward more all the time. There's no organ in 'Broken Barricades', and it's almost completely guitar dominated. This is the reason why he left, because he got to the point where he realized, within the group, all these possibilities'. He reached the stage where he had to do something else, to go some place else to satisfy himself. I mean, if he had been kept in the background on 'Broken Barricades', he might still be in the group, because he wouldn't have gotten to the point where held discovered what direction he was going in, and what he was capable of'.
When Robin left Procol, his first move was to get together with Frankie Miller, Clive Bunker and Jimmy Dewar in the short-lived and ill-fated Jude, before embarking on the trio format which he has pursued, with considerable success, to this very day. Yet, although he's an enormous attraction all over the world now, I still don't think his music has reached the peak that it attained on 'Broken Barricades', where his burgeoning writing and playing wedded happily with the subtle power of Procol's arrangements to create something that sounds as fresh today as it did four years ago.
From Procol's point of view, it is perhaps a slightly odd album out, being much more overtly rhythmic than is usually the case, but as anybody who has seen them live can testify, Procol will rock out with the best when the mood takes them, and anyway, nobody will convince me that the horn and string arrangements on 'Simple Sister', or the whole of the title track are not classic Procol Harum music.
With Robin leaving in July 1971, before the album had even come out, the group had to go through the tiresome procedure of finding and working in a new member in time for their autumn tour of the States and Canada, and, perhaps deciding to kill two birds with one stone, they also added a fifth member, with Chris Copping moving to a permanent role as organist, while Alan Cartwright, a friend of BJ's who had previously been with Brian Davison's Every Which Way, took over as bassist. Unfortunately, finding a guitarist proved to be less straightforward, as the traditional MM small ad produced more problems than solutions:
'There were about 80 applicants for the guitarist job, and I suppose out of the thirty or forty we listened to, there was only about two who had heard our records, or were the remotest bit interested in the group. Only the couple of people that came over from America wanted to be in the group for its own sake. We had one bloke who couldn't play a note. I should imagine he goes to all the auditions; he came along and said 'What d'ya want? Jazz? Blues?', and he didn't have a clue'.
Eventually they decided on Dave Ball, who had come down from Birmingham, where he'd been in various groups:
'He was the best of the bunch. He didn't stay for a great length of time. It wouldn't be fair to him to say we took him out of desperation, but we did. He's not a bad player at all, actually, and the group survived because he joined -- we'd have stopped otherwise. The group never seemed to have a lot of contacts with outside people. Most groups who need a replacement probably know half a dozen good people playing in groups, but we never seem to have had that contact, so we had to put ads in MM. 'Top Group Needs Guitarist' -- it might have been a good idea to put our name on, but at the same time, it would seem bad to admit that you were in such a pile of shit that you couldn't even think of one person'.
Dave Ball joined in September 1971, and he and Alan Cartwright were really thrown in at the deep end, because the North American tour, which had been booked before there was even a Procol Harum to do it, included a concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and a twenty voice choir, which was being recorded with a view to a live album. No doubt everybody is familiar with the story of the gig: how Gary was furiously writing arrangements in the plane to the concert; how rehearsal time was desperately short and hampered by union men; how nerves were so rife that Chris Copping made a hash of his opening solo piece, Albinoni's Adagio, and how triumph was finally snatched from the jaws of disaster:
'I couldn't say how bad it was preparing for it. Shortage of time was the main problem, because somebody had to pay all these people to rehearse, and nobody can afford to provide two weeks' rehearsal, so if you're lucky you get to run through everything properly once. We were pleased with the way the record worked out. With a big sound like that, if it gets on tape, you're onto a winner, and it also turned out like a 'Best Of' album.
A winner they certainly were onto in every sense. The album itself is great -- five of Procol's most dramatic pieces, (though there are things I'd have preferred to 'All This And More', all of which maximise the potential latent in the earlier versions. Gary Brooker had already demonstrated his ability with orchestral arrangements, particularly on 'A Salty Dog', but I never ceased to be amazed, listening to 'LIVE' (CHR 1004) that somebody with absolutely no training should come up with scores that combine such majesty with such delicacy and sureness of touch. All of the pieces used on the album readily lend themselves to orchestral expansion, but -- as is far from usually the case when rock performers bring in string sections, choirs, etc. -- the arrangements are always an integral part of that piece, never tacked on for effect.
The album also brought Procol back into the public eye -- maybe it fulfilled everybody's idea of what they are all about -- aided by a hit single, their first for four and a half years, in the shape of 'Conquistador', which leaves the version on the first album for dead. People in Britain, at least, have tended to think of Procol Harum as a)a classical-rock group, and b)an organ-led group, and though the first assumption has never really been true, (Gary reckons Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis have been bigger influences than the classics), and the latter was only true in their early days, the live album brought them as close to that image as they'd ever been. With Robin gone, and Chris Copping concentrating on the organ, the group sound on the live album is much nearer to the original concept with which Procol was started, and an obvious pointer to the future.
Hardly had they begun recording the next album, however, when Dave Ball left the ranks, almost exactly a year after his arrival:
'We started recording, and it was not coming along at all -- it was ghastly. Dave wasn't happy, he knew it wasn't going well, so one day he said he was leaving. This time we were lucky, we had two or three names mentioned to us, and as we had the studio time already booked, we got the people to come along. Somebody who is in a big group now -- he's American, I think -- came along, and turned out to be a nutter, then Mick Grabham came along, and played a guitar solo on 'A Salty Dog', and I'd never heard anybody do that before'.
Like his predecessor, Mick was pitched right into the thick of things, making his debut at the Rainbow on September 22nd in a concert with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and then going back into the studio to complete work on 'GRAND HOTEL' (CHR 1037) which eventually saw the light of day in the following March. No doubt Mick took it all in his stride though, being a man of considerable experience having played with The Plastic Penny, who had a big hit with 'Everything I Am' in early 1968, and the excellent Cochise, and made his own album earlier in 1972, ('Mick The Lad' -- UAS 29341), as well as doing various session work to keep the wolf from the door:
'It wasn't much fun, but it was very good money. For a jingle session, you get paid the same rate for an hour's work that you do for three hours of ordinary work. I was getting a bit cheesed off with all that silly stuff, though, and just at that time, when I was thinking of getting my own band together, I got a call to go and have a blow with Procol.
I was pretty flabbergasted I can tell you. I'd never had an offer to play with a 'name' band before -- although quite ironically just as I was leaving the house to have my second blow with Procol, Andy Fraser rang and asked me to join his band. That was a bit of a dilemma, after having done practically nothing for a year! But I'd been buying Procol's albums since the very first one, and I've always rated them very highly, so it was a pleasure to join them'.
The 'Grand Hotel' album gives Mick a somewhat erratic role, presumably because he joined the group midway through its making. On 'Bringing Home The Bacon', he is very prominent, and the track has a similar feel to the stuff on 'Broken Barricades', but on most of the other songs he is all but lost amidst a sea of swirling organs, soaring strings, and heavenly choirs.
Reaction to the album was varied. Those who had always labelled Procol as a bit pompous, ponderous and po-faced, came tumbling out of their closets, with plenty of fuel for their arguments in what is certainly Procol's most grandiose production. Those, on the other hand, who like their Harum majestic used adjectives like 'grand', 'stimulating' and 'powerful'.
Three years on I still haven't made up my mind about it. The extravagant arrangements work superbly on the opening title track, which achieves a rare fusion of lyrical and musical feel, but too many of the other pieces are like Falstaff -- plenty of bluster and wit, but overweight, slow-moving and a bit superficial.
I'm not too sure about the lyrical content either. Gone is the provocative and emotive obliqueness of the earlier albums, and instead Keith seems to be offering autobiographical snippets, written in rather flat, uninspiring rhyming couplets.
This new simplicity proved to be a drawback in more ways than one, as it turned out, because 'Souvenirs Of London' is so blatantly about diseases of the naughty bits, that even the BBC realized, and banned it when it came out as a single. To be fair to Keith, though, the fact that 'Grand Hotel' was the first Procol album to have all the lyrics printed with it reduces their mysterioso element, and when he talked in ZigZag 30, shortly before its release, he was perfectly happy with it:
'That's the strength or weakness of the relationship, you know. The better the music and words come together the more perfect the marriage, the better the song; the most successful songs we do are the best marriages of words and music. With, for example, 'Grand Hotel', every song's like that to me.
I just originally thought 'Grand Hotel' would be a great title for an album, and immediately gave me an idea for a song. Actually, I had the title before I wrote the song. The thing is, it isn't a concept album, it was just that for the first time we echoed the particular song in the artwork and everything, and I guess in the promotion of the album in relationship to the song'.
The happiest aspect of 'Grand Hotel' is that, apart from further strengthening Procol's Position in this country and in Europe, (they calculated that every record-player owner in Portugal bought the album), it gave rise to what has proved to be their first truly settled line-up since the upheavals that followed 'Salty Dog' in 1969. The benefits of this are immediately apparent on their next hot waxing, 'EXOTIC BIRDS AND FRUIT' (CHR 1058), which came out in April 1974, and which demonstrates perhaps the most fully integrated group sound that Procol have ever achieved, with the trimmings of 'Grand Hotel' stripped away, leaving the emphasis firmly on the basic material and the group's performance of it.
From all points of view, it's a very strong album, as demonstrated, I think, by the fact that it makes a very major contribution to their current live act, although it didn't meet with everybody's approval at the time. 'Rolling Stone', in fact, pilloried the album in a quite extraordinary manner. I quote:
'Exotic Birds and Fruit' is another slab of false majesty for which this band has become noted,: elephantine, grandiose production, pretentious, empty lyrics, and the sort of artistic posturing that would embarrass Ted Baxter ... Procol Harum is a perfect example of a band that has outlived its usefulness, and even staunch fans will undoubtedly be disappointed with this latest effort.'
I suppose the trouble is that by now most people have become so set in their attitude towards Procol, that their reaction to any new album is 50% preconditioned. The above comments might have been understandable if directed at 'Grand Hotel', but 'Exotic Birds', so far from being the work of 'a band that has out-lived its usefulness', is evidence of a bard that has acquired a new vitality.
Such vitality, however, is dependent on external stimuli as well as the internal situation of a group, so it seems to have been a desire for new faces and places as much as anything that prompted Procol to part company with producer Chris Thomas, after five years of recording in the same studio with the same technicians.
To take his place, they enlisted the services of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller -- a surprising choice, as although they are two of the truly great figures in the history of popular music, one doesn't normally think of them working with musicians as individual and outside the pop main- stream as Procol Harum. Still, both sides must have been pleased with proceedings, because at the time of talking, the partnership was going to be continued for the next album, after 'PROCOL'S NINTH' (CHR 1080) took the group to another commercial peak in this country, and went straight to the top of several continental charts.
Not surprisingly, in view of Leiber and Stoller's remarkable hit-making record, the album gave Procol the latest in a very irregular series of chart successes with 'Pandora's Box', and as a whole it has far more overtly 'commercial' appeal than their first eight releases. All the songs are economical and snappy, around the three and a half to four minute mark, and the production is very clean and poppy, with the rhythm section pushing through much more sharply than before. The arrangements, even when using outside horn and string sections, have an immediacy about them that suggests a concentration on group playing, rather than a 'Grand Hotel' job, and although the overall production and the use of riffing horns are not in the traditional Procol mould, they are very effective. Not so effective, I'm afraid, is the other big break from tradition in using material from outside the group. Leiber and Stoller's 'I Keep Forgetting' was presumably some sort of obligatory inclusion, but it is hardly one of their best songs, while Lennon and McCartney's 'Eight Days A Week' is fun as a concert number, but makes a strange ending to a Procol Harum album, especially when they throw it away in disinterested style. Moreover, both are love songs pure and simple, which is something Keith Reid has never written, so they sit rather uneasily alongside his songs, which, as on 'Grand Hotel', are straightforward outpourings of personal trials and tribulations -- or at least they seem to be.
Again, it could be that the efficacy of the words is impaired by having them in print before you, but I can't help but compare Keith's recent lyrical efforts unfavourably with his work on, say, 'Broken Barricades' or 'Shine On Brightly'. Nothing's better left unsaid, but its impact depends largely on how you say it. I can't imagine anybody writing a thesis on the words of 'Procol's Ninth'.
Since that album was recorded in the spring of last year, Procol have been involved in several unusual adventures. They became the first European band ever to play a concert in Mexico City, at the special request of the President himself; they have contributed a version of the 'Blue Danube' -- a delightful moment in their concert performances -- to an album commemorating the 150th anniversary of Strauss's birth (see here); and they undertook a very successful tour of Poland at the start of this year.
No doubt similarly eccentric activities will continue to crop up in the future, because throughout their history, Procol Harum have always trodden a path away from the vast majority of their contemporaries in rock music, exploring new worlds and going where no man has gone before. Maybe it has worked to their detriment in terms of achieving superstardom and untold riches, but I suspect Procol aren't especially interested in that sort of success anyway. What's undeniable is that in the course of nearly a decade, Procol Harum have made much great music -- erratically, of course, no artist or group of artists can maintain a creative peak over that length of time -- and that they will probably continue to do so for the next decade, because in a world where shooting stars are the norm, and where superficial or transitory factors are often put before basics, Procol Harum will last and grow, because they have the talent and they have the style.
The last time I saw Procol Harum play was in March, shortly before I spoke to them, and I was a little apprehensive at the prospect, because everything I'd heard and read suggested that they might be getting past it -- running out of inspiration and motivation. Nothing could have been further from the truth. They played for over two hours, drawing on every album they've made as well as the general Golden-Oldies bag, and they did everything, old and new, with tremendous verve and sincerity. Finally, for about their fourth encore, they did 'A Whiter Shade Of Pale', treating it as a welcome old friend rather than a skeleton in the cupboard, and it was as magical then as it had been back in the halcyon days of 1967. Glimpses of Nirvana indeed... long may they recur.
Part One of this feature | Paul Kendall interviews Keith Reid in 1977
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