By Lee Zimmerman
Procol Harum reached a critical and commercial peak early on, after a string of hit singles — “Homberg,” Whiter Shade of Pale” and “Conquistador” chief among them — and several critically acclaimed concept albums, including their stirring concept opus “A Salty Dog” and the concert set “Procol Harum Live with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra,” placed them in the advance wave of British Art Rock innovators. Unfortunately, after returning to the studio for “Grand Hotel,” the live album’s sprawling, heavily orchestrated followup, Procol’s fortunes began to fade. Having lost original members, guitarist Robin Trower and co-writer and organist Matthew Fisher, founder Gary Brooker regrouped, adding first Dave Ball to take Trower’s place for the Edmonton album, only to replace him shortly thereafter with Mick Grabham, veteran of the country-rock outfit Cochise. Chris Copping, who had played with the band in its initial incarnation as The Paramounts, eventually was brought in to succeed Ball, who quit during the recording of “Grand Hotel,” thus completing the new lineup that would go on to record the albums “Exotic Birds and Fruit,” “Procol’s Ninth” and “Something Magic,” the band’s final efforts prior to breaking up in 1977 and eventually reuniting in the early 1990s.
Although that latter quartet of albums received far less critical and commercial attention than the band’s earlier triumphs, in retrospect, they merit a return listen that reveals further glories generally overlooked in the midst of the band’s attempts to reshuffle and reinvent itself. The sweeping majesty, lush decadence and orchestral settings of “Grand Hotel” recalled the aural imagery and storytelling of earlier opuses, like “A Salty Dog” and the live set, in particular. “Exotic Birds and Fruit” brought the band back to basics. “Procol’s Ninth” marked a dramatic departure, particularly in its employment of producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and, for the first time ever, the inclusion of cover songs. It also bore Procol’s final serious chart contender in the single “Pandora’s Box.” “Something Magic,” recorded at Miami’s Criteria Studios, contained the sidelong opus “The Worm & The Tree,” an ambitious suite that echoed the magnificent “In Held ’Twas in I” from the band’s celebrated second album.
Goldmine recently spoke with Brooker on the eve of Procol Harum’s latest American jaunt, where we discussed not only the recent reissue of those four albums, with bonus tracks, but also the overall state of Procol Harum today, more than four decades after its founding.
What are your thoughts about the latter-day Procol Harum’s efforts? Sadly, it seems that after your earlier triumphs, the band didn’t quite get the recognition it deserved. Would you agree with that assessment?
Gary Brooker: Well, I would. The whys and wherefores are a bit unknown. “Grand Hotel” was the first album we had out with Chrysalis, so they gave it a big push. Of course, they should have done it for the next one, as well. “Exotic Birds and Fruit” was very good, as well. There’s no reason for it to have failed. Maybe people flagged off a bit, you know? They didn’t sell as well, those two. But I don’t think it was because they were crap. Maybe it was because the band didn’t work them as much; maybe the band was a bit lazy. Looking back, you don’t really know the reasons. At the time, we were very proud of all those albums.
Could it have been that after your earlier triumphs — the singles “Whiter Shade of Pale,” “Homburg,” “Conquistador,” the live Edmonton album and “A Salty Dog” — the bar was set so high?
GB: Well, yeah, I think you’ve half got it there. We always liked to do something different. I remember after “Grand Hotel,” we all thought, “We’ve done the orchestral bit, we’ve done it live at Edmonton, we’ve done the studio version of that with the orchestrations on the “Grand Hotel” album — that was bright, big productions — let’s go back to being a rock ’n’ roll band.” That was our thought, anyway. That’s where “Exotic Birds and Fruits” was at. Maybe not everyone else was thinking we were going to do that. I always expected we’d do some more orchestral numbers and take that somewhere else. We went back to being a five-piece band that just recorded live in the studio.
“Procol’s Ninth” was also quite a change. You employed the American songwriting team of Leiber and Stoller as your producers, and you even managed to slip a couple of covers on an album for the first time.
GB: I have an idea how the covers kind of got in there, because every day we’d go in and do a Leiber and Stoller song that we liked, which, of course, was out of their own repertoire — Elvis Presley, The Coasters, Ben E. King, The Drifters — anything. Every day we’d go in there and play them something. “See, this is one of yours!” I remember one day we went in and played “Baby I Don’t Care,” which I think Elvis did. And they said, “Gee, guys, that’s the best version we ever heard of that!” So they weren’t interested in us doing just any covers. They wanted us to do a load of Peggy Lee songs, which they got turned down for. What we really should have been making was a Procol Harum album. So we had a bit of a battle with them. “I Keep Forgetting” was the cover of their song that we did. It puzzles me to this day how the other cover got in there. I think we just got fed up playing Leiber and Stoller songs to them when we got in the studio and just, like, played a Beatles one. And they said, “Hey, let’s put that down,” and we put it down, and they put it down, and it ended up on the album.
How did you manage to hook up with them to begin with? Did it have anything to do with the fact that they had come over to produce Stealers Wheel?
GB: Exactly, yes. Obviously, we had been long-time admirers before this record, as songwriters and producers. They had, just prior to that, been working in Britain with Stealers Wheel and producing bands, so we thought they’re around and available, so we approached them and they were up for it.
After Trower left, following the album “Broken Barricades,” did that mark some kind of divide in the band’s trajectory?
GB: Yes, Trower left following “Broken Barricades,” and we were suddenly, for a couple of years, a four piece, which was fine. We sort of enjoyed it. But once Trower said he was on his way and moving on, I wanted to get back to a five piece, which is what we did with Edmonton. Edmonton was a live thing with orchestra, so you have to put that to one side. The next album really is “Grand Hotel,” which was back to the five-piece, and we used the organ and piano setup and, of course, we changed guitarists.
It was the guitar slot that seemed particularly fluid at the time then.
GB: Well, yes, Dave Ball played on Edmonton. Then Mick Grabham came along. He was a very musical guitarist, and he made a significant impact throughout all four of these albums. He was a very big influence on the band, and his input took us a stage further than Trower did. When we auditioned Mick, we were just starting work on “Grand Hotel,” and we had these guitarists come up to the Air studios where we were doing it. I’m a wicked man, so I said, “OK, let’s run through something”, and Mick said OK, so I said let’s do “A Salty Dog.” Nobody had ever played anything on “A Salty Dog” on guitar. Trower never thought of anything to play. I don’t think Dave Ball did, either, so I thought, if you can play guitar on “A Salty Dog,” you can play on anything. So he started messing around with his volume control and screeching in and out like a seagull, and I thought, well, bloody marvelous.
Maybe his predecessors were intimidated by the two keyboards.
GB: I saw it as a great opportunity. If you were a guitarist in Procol at any point, you got the biggest sound to back you up. With piano and organ growling behind you, you can just sail out over the top.
Procol Harum purveyed such a distinctive sound in the beginning, and a lot of that had to do with Keith Reid’s remarkable lyrics. But out of curiosity, when Keith initially gave you his lyrics, like for example, those intriguing words for “Whiter Shade of Pale,” did you ever look at him and say, “Keith, this is lovely poetry, but how do I adapt it to rock ’n’ roll?”
GB: Well, I don’t think you could ever call “Whiter Shade of Pale” a rock ’n’ roll song. The only thing that had a rock ’n’ roll bit about it was that it appealed to everybody that listened to popular music. So it had the same impact as “Honky Tonk Women,” from that respect.
Actually, we were referring to “rock ’n’ roll” in a generic sense. The point is, his lyrics were so poetic and so grandiose, they might have seemed more suited to a dramatic oratorio or a book of literature.
GB: It was never a problem. (chuckles) The day I wrote “White Shade of Pale,” I was just thinking of the chords and the bass line and everything that makes up the structure and the bars that came in between. Keith’s lyrics arrived in the post just as I was composing this, and I just sang them over what I was playing, and it just went together immediately. There was no great “What the hell is this about?” In fact, the music I was writing was a very long sequence that required a very long sequence of words, and lo and behold, that’s what arrived in the post. It wasn’t tumbling from the sky, that one.
And was it the same way on subsequence outings? It was always quite extraordinary how you managed to turn these intensely descriptive lyrics into such wonderfully melodic songs. They certainly weren’t the typical, “Hey baby, I got you” run-of-the-mill lyrics.
GB: As in, “Hey baby, let’s get down tonight!”
Right! They were certainly a far cry from that variety of lyric. If one were to look at the words on a piece of paper, it would be hard to imagine them in the context of a popular song.
GB: As in, how will that turn out? How can that possibly turn that into a song?
Exactly. Did you ever sort of shake your head and ponder that possibility?
GB: No, I never did. When you think about the first two or three albums and the words I’d receive from Keith, they would start off something like, “White Prussian blue, alarm clock rings” … if he showed that to a rock ’n’ roller today, he’d go, “What can I write with that?” But to me… well, I think it helped being a vocalist, as well, but I never had any trouble with Keith’s words. I never thought they were strange (chuckles). I always thought, when I looked at them for the first time, “Yeah, I’m right there.” I put myself into them. I never looked a Keith Reid lyric and thought, “Wow, this is a bit weird.” And yet, some of the opening lines I had to sing, like “She wandered through the garden fence,” or “Your multi-lingual business friend has packed her bags and fled,” to name but two … I do think, “How did I do it?”
Has Procol Harum ever been nominated for the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame?
GB: What’s that?
GB: Is that in Los Angeles?
GB: In Cleveland? Never heard of it!
I suspect you’re putting us on. But it is sad that many of the British bands that dared to venture into unusual environs, especially those that veered from the mainstream, have been summarily neglected. I was astounded when Justin Hayward revealed that the Moody Blues had never come up for consideration.
GB: I imagine that one day they’ll have to wake up. One day they’ll have to realize that a band that’s been playing for 40 years and still selling out halls and still pleasing their audiences ought to be in there. Of course you can look at their music and their content, as well. If you add that into the mix, if you look at both those things, I’m sure Procol would be qualified to be in that Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.
Good points … and Procol is still active and ongoing these days, is it not?
And now your later albums are being re-released …
GB: Yes, but we’re also been working on new things. We’ve put out a few very good live albums with orchestra and things, and we’ve been playing a lot of gigs. That’s the most important thing. In fact, we were in America in June. We played around five gigs on our own on the East Coast and played a number of gigs with Jethro Tull with the two of us on the bill.
So, can we look forward to a new studio album in the foreseeable future?
GB: Well, we’ve been experimenting with some studio stuff with a new producer, and it’s all been going great. So we’re kind of making progress with that. What gives it a lack of immediacy is that the whole idea of a release of something has gotten rather dissipated. When you have 12-inch vinyl album with the fabulous artwork that the artists would do in those days, it’s a huge event. CDs, at least, were still things that you could release, and they came out in shops, although the artwork then shrunk to infinitesimal unworthiness, and the artists were suddenly out of work. But at least it was something that came out on, say, the 4th of October, and people went into Tower Records and bought it. So that’s kind of dissipated now, and I think even in America, a lot of the retail shops have simply gone out of business.
Yes, it’s a shame that physical product is so scarce now. Personally, I hate it …
GB: Oh, both you and I, since we’re involved in the rock business, you as a journalist and your magazine, Goldmine, which has been around for a long time. Very good publication, by the way.
Thank you! For the past 40 years, you’ve played with some of the greatest musicians of all time. Do you have any special moments that stand out above all the others?
GB: Off the top of my head, I’ll tell you two. One is the I think playing in the Concert for George (Harrison). I was in the band, playing at the Albert Hall that night with those people, with those songs, with that audience, was an absolutely unforgettable experience. I think it comes across on the DVD as well. It was a great moment to be there.
The only other thing that comes to mind was when we played in Edmonton Alberta with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra in whatever it was, 1970, 1971 … we played “In Held ’Twas In I,” and at the end of it was so stirring, and it reached such a climax that the audience went crazy … well, I’m sure I was floating off the piano stool I was sitting on, because it was very uplifting. So that was a great experience. That’s what you play music for, to get through to people. That’s even more meaningful and helps you to carry on.
Final question. What’s become of your old colleague Matthew Fisher? Any possibility he’ll be brought back into the fold?
GB (His voice turns ominous): Any possibility of me hiring a gunman? If you know anybody, let me know. Get the idea?
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