Backstage Pass: Talking lyrics with Procol Harum's Keith Reid

Surreal, dreamy, opaque — all are words that could describe the evocative lyrics of Procol Harum’s “Whiter Shade Of Pale.”

Emerging from the mists of England’s late-’60s progressive-rock bog, “Whiter Shade Of Pale” — with a little help from the offshore pirate radio station Radio London — unexpectedly shot straight up to #1 in the U.K. and stayed on top of the charts for six weeks. Stateside, it climbed to #5 and sold more than a million copies.

The man responsible for the impressionistic imagery that has confounded all who search for meaning in the song’s labyrinthian wordplay is Keith Reid.

A founding member of Procol Harum, Reid co-wrote a great majority of the band’s songs with singer/pianist Gary Brooker, including “Conquistador,” “A Salty Dog” and “Homburg.” Reid has a new album out called The Common Thread recorded under the aegis of The Keith Reid Project. On it, Reid worked with a number of A-list musicians, including John Waite, Southside Johnny and Chris Thompson from Manfred Mann.

Explain the Keith Reid Project for us.

Keith Reid: Well, you know, I’ve been living in America. I’ve been living in New York for quite a long time now. I was lyricist for and founding member of Procol Harum, and basically for a very long time I wrote with Gary Brooker, who was the pianist and singer, and a little bit with some of the other members of the band — Robin Trower and so on. But basically, I hadn’t really written outside of that. I hadn’t written with anybody else, and so everything I did was Procol Harum music, which was fantastic.

But all things sort of pass, and eventually, Procol Harum … we kind of went our separate ways. And in the mid-’80s, I thought I wanted a change of scene, and I came to live in New York City, and I started to work with lots of different other writers, which was a totally new thing for me. I mean, just meeting someone that I didn’t know and sitting down and trying to write a song … and it was great because it kind of … when you work with different people, you go into areas you wouldn’t normally touch on.

I mean, I wouldn’t say … you go out of your comfort zone, but definitely, when you’re working with a variety of different people, you explore a variety of different experiences. So this was a new mileu for me and something which I got into, and after a period of time, I started to accumulate a body of work. And eventually, I was making tapes and so on and so forth, as one does, and eventually I played the tape to a guy that I came across actually in Germany, who had a label called Rockville Records. And I was saying … he basically was saying, what have you been up to and I was playing him some of my songs and he said, “You know what?” He said, why don’t you put these together on a record? You know, there’s a continuity and there’s a certain flow here that seems as though they would work together. And in a nutshell, that’s why the whole thing started.

As far as working on these songs, were these done over a number of years or …

Keith Reid: Yeah, I would say it probably represents a five-year period of work. And of course, there were a lot more songs as well. I think we probably had about 20 songs to choose from.

And so it was kind of a question of whittling it down, seeing what worked with what … I didn’t want this to seem like a compilation album. I wanted it to seem like a … in a way, in my mind, it was somewhat like making a movie inasmuch as I got to write the script — i.e. the lyrics and so on — and I got to choose the actors, in other words the different singer

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