By Catherine Frumerman
There were the names Gary Brooker, Matthew Fisher, Robin Trower, David Knights, B.J. Wilson on the cover of that first, eponymous Procol Harum album, reading so English and looking so captivating in a typeface that telegraphed both mystery and humor. The names were of the players who would years later collectively and affectionately be referred to as the classic Procol Harum lineup.
Then there was the cover art of the spooky, Beardsleyesque lady, whose face was modeled on Franky Brooker’s, Gary’s wife, and rendered by Dickinson, the poet Keith Reid’s wife. Reid was Procol’s silent sixth member.
The album package included a poster of the cover art on good paper, the kind where you could smell the ink. And there was an instruction to seal the deal: To be listened to in the spirit in which it was made.
This array was enough to blow my 13-year-old mind before I even fitted the record on the turntable.
Then, 54 years later, through the magic of Zoom, Gary Brooker’s face materialized on my computer screen. He looked good, and his six-month-old Schnauzer puppy, Ruby, was doing her best to keep his attention.
GOLDMINE: I wanted to speak to you about the creation of Procol Harum music. What do you hope people get when they hear your music? You have a lot of different songs with different music in Procol Harum.
GARY BROOKER: I think some of it is we don’t do a lot of grooves, but we do a good bit of rock. I think down in the core, though, there’s the music where I’m trying to reach the people and to make them feel something that’s right. And I don’t mean they’re going to jump up and down and want to dance. Fine if they’re going to. But I mean if I saw a tear roll down their face that would be a good reaction; to reach people in their emotions, in the inside somewhere, not just on the surface. I think there have been those reactions. I’ve seen them, you know.
GM: You were recently voted No. 18 of the 30 best prog rock singers on the udiscovermusic.com website. This started a debate in a Procol Facebook group about how Procol Harum’s music should be classified. Some agreed Procol is progressive, some went for psychedelic. I remember you saying years ago at a concert that “Procol Harum plays Procol Harum music.” I agree with that. Then you added, “We were the original Goths.” Is this how you still think of your music?
GB: I do remember that. There was some sort of Gothic atmosphere about “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” which was amplified a bit by things like “Repent Walpurgis.” And we also went on television at that time and Matthew Fisher and I both had long monk’s robes on, and he kept his hood over. But prog — it was not invented when we started. There was no such thing as progressive music. No, what I mean is there was no such thing as prog rock. It’s better to put it like that. We always try to be progressive in what we do. So, we made our first album and then we tried to move on, to progress, to Shine on Brightly with a combination of instruments and introducing a classical overtone. And we’d think, well, let’s write something a bit longer. What? Things don’t have to be four minutes long. They don’t have to be two verses and a chorus. They can be longer. So, that was kind of a progressive move.
And then we sought it out. We used the chamber orchestra on A Salty Dog and that led us to, of course, going with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. I thought that was progressive. They probably invented the words (prog rock) sometime after that.
I had to look it up two years ago when I won an award from Prog Magazine. What did they call it? Great, great contribution [honor is called Outstanding Contribution to Progressive Music]. I had to look it up on Google to see what they meant by prog rock. And I thought, well, we were doing these things. It’s the sort of thing we started doing before there was such a word! So, I thought, maybe I deserve this award.
GM: Yes, you were doing the orchestra and the classical influences, but in a way that you could touch people with them.
GB: Yeah, but we didn’t play as many notes as them!
GM: Let me get this right — you played this slow, stately music.
GB: Yeah, good. Something people could relate to. They wouldn’t think, oh, I could never do that. I think if you listen to it, even if you were a budding musician, if you listened to Procol Harum you might be able to think, Well, I can do that. I don’t know I could work the chords out, but I could perhaps do it.
You know, we’re not those masters of the instrument like that. Except for Robin Trower, of course.
GM: Oh, is he a master of the instrument?
GB: Well, he’s certainly got his own way of playing.
GM: He does. That was part of the attraction: Robin on “Repent Walpurgis.” Everybody loved that. We were screaming about that.
GB: Yeah, that was back in the day, the 1960s. We always finished with that one. We never did an encore in those days. We did “Repent Walpurgis” and you couldn’t say anything else. Nobody could play the guitar like Robin in “Repent.”
GM: Procol Harum songs are introspective, and I don’t mean only because of Keith Reid’s pondering lyrics. But your singing brings to my mind a man who is alone, trying to make sense of the strangeness of the world. And there are many passages in your music that haunt the listener’s heart in that indescribable way that only music can. Where does it come from?
GB: That’s a difficult question to answer. I’ve felt alone since my musician father died suddenly when I was 11 years old — that’s me. It could be called a style. I mean, I think the way I do that — I like to sing like that, perhaps slower. I’m not a straight rocky one.
GM: You started off as a reluctant singer in the Paramounts, many members of which became Procol Harum.
GB: After (vocalist) Bob Scott left there were four of us (Paramounts) without a singer. They said, “Do you know the words?” I said, “Some of them.” So, I got the job. Mick Brownlee, who was our drummer, sang one: “Red Sails in the Sunset.” He did it like Fats Domino. Unfortunately, he passed a year or two ago. I went down to play a tribute to him with Andy Fairweather Low and some others. And I thought, what should I do? I did “Red Sails in the Sunset” for him. He was watching us from above, of course. Blew everyone away.
GM: When Keith wrote lyrics, did he write them with you in mind, as an actor, who’d be able to express the emotions therein? The characters in the songs have a certain restless, searching, even tossed by the Fates quality. Moreover, some of the lyrics can get a little horror show.
GB: With the first album, he’d written some of those without knowing me. “A Whiter Shade of Pale” he did know me. After writing 10 songs together he probably knew I could interpret what he’d written down whether it was “Long Gone Geek” or “A Salty Dog.” I could usually throw myself into Keith’s words. They never sounded weird to me. I mean, there are a few exceptions, but I don’t mind a bit of blood and gore. I can get through that. I’m not going to growl it out like Alice Cooper would. But you’ve got to make people feel there are nasty things out there as well. If you could do that, then you’ve done a little bit of your job. It was with Procol that I started using my own voice. Before that I’d try to sound like Ray Charles.
With the words I got from Reid, I was able to throw myself into them. I’d get pictures. If I read “A Salty Dog,” I’d get a picture. With “Rambling On” I actually do see somebody standing on the edge of a 20-story building with this terrible kite on, expecting to jump off and fly.
GM: And in “Mabel”: “In the cellar lies my wife, in my wife there’s a knife...”?
GB: Yeah, well, that happens in lockdowns.
GM: Let me take you back to “In Held ‘Twas In I,” which many fans name as their favorite Procol song. How did it happen?
GB: The idea was that there should be something we called “The Great Work.” It started at the beginning. The Beginning... (Brooker intones dramatically)
GM: That’s the hum. The beginning of the universe?
GB: That’s the one. Yeah. From that, I think there was a little break before “‘Twas Teatime at the Circus” in the composition of it. I remember writing that bit, and I was actually at the Chateau Marmont Hotel in Los Angeles. It doesn’t sound like it came from there, but that’s where the idea came. And it fitted very much with the words. It flowed organically. Since the seeds had to be planted and they had to sprout and grow. It wasn’t “Jack and the Beanstalk.” Didn’t happen — boom — the next day. Then things got nasty. I always think of that as like a heroin addict. That part of the music, that is. (Brooker sings the menacing, twitchy guitar part that begins about half way through the piece following the “In the Autumn of My Madness” segment.)
GM: To me that sounds like a giant spider coming down a web.
GB: And it stops now and then.
GM: It has to shake the web to see if its victim is still there.
GB: Then it goes a bit calmer and introspective, you know, when you look to your soul. And then you could rise up to Valhalla at the end.
GM: I think look to your soul is the best piece of advice Keith Reid ever put into a song. The musical themes and lyrics are all very interesting. Maybe because they’re delivered in short, distinctive lessons.
GB: That’s why we liked the idea of “The Great Work.” There’s an organic web between the whole thing. Some of the themes come up twice. There are musical links. And it has some weird timing where you have an extra beat and things in 13/8 time, all these time signatures of weirdness. But this was in 1968, yeah, before prog was invented.
GM: You had some interesting instruments on there: harpsichord, a klaxon horn.
GB: I played the koto, which comes in when the Dalai Lama is mentioned. Reid brought the sitar player in. He had a lot of connections in that world. This was in a small studio at Olympic. But then you come on to A Salty Dog, which was done at Abbey Road studio 2; they had a vast cupboard where you could find all kinds of things. Most groups do it, if you find something in the studio, you use it. We used the marimba from Abbey Road on “Boredom.”
GM: What kind of orchestra did you have for “A Salty Dog”?
GB: We had violins, violas, cellos, basses, about 20 people. They were all leaders of different orchestras in Britain. They were leaders of their sections from Ballet Rambert, Royal Philharmonic and wherever.
GM: Did you do all the arrangements for them?
GB: Yes, I did. And when I went to conduct them, they were late. I said, “Come on chaps.” Tapped my knuckles on the rostrum. They said, “Gary, you just play the track and we’ll come in.” So, we just played the track that we’d recorded, piano, bass, drums, et cetera, and they came in and conducted themselves.
Writing for strings, it was nice to hear it come out right. And B.J. Wilson, he was as courageous a drummer to ever have lived. I mean, that intro. I think he played it twice, actually. I think he’d already played that similar thing on Joe Cocker’s “With a Little Help from My Friends.” The song’s going along nice and smoothly (Brooker sings, what would you do?) and suddenly the drums come in. They don’t just come in tapping along in time. They come in like an explosion of thunder.
GM: Procol Harum’s last album, Novum, came out in April 2017. The one before that was in 2003 — The Well’s on Fire. You know I’m going to ask. Do we have to wait another 15 years for a new album? Or are you already writing new songs for this? Of course, COVID has ruined everyone’s plans. But I expect a great explosion of new music once artists can get back together.
GB: In fact, we have something out — a new studio EP, Missing Persons. [The vinyl version of the EP will be available in August.] They are fairly new songs and recordings, and fit very much with the world at the moment — lockdown and people dying. I discovered (the recording) and I thought, this sounds like Procol. It’s on CD. Everybody else gets their music sent by email. I put mine on a hard thing, because it’s real. It’s not going to get lost. But I had lost this one!
It’s from slightly before Novum. I’m working on it (and thought) here’s a recording that should be out there. But whether we’ll get anything back for all the trouble is another matter. You know, you can be streamed 500,000 times, and across the column it says $2.15. A half a million people have listened to it.
It’s a problem for the whole music industry and it will dry it up. People used to be able to make a living, and some people made a fortune and helped other people, then, from that fortune. Record companies used to make a lot of money, but they would plow it back into a new act. It was a circle that went ’round and it worked. We need something like that.
GM: Since we’re talking about songs and singles, is there a cover version of “A Whiter Shade of Pale” that you like?
GB: It’s always difficult. I don’t think it’s easy for another artist to cover “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” because it was such a massive, universal hit. It was a hit on Mars. Apparently, they just found that out with Perseverance. We heard some little creature whistling it from inside a cave.
I found a new one going through all my stuff in lockdown. It was by Psychograss. I never heard a version like that one. It’s quite interesting.
GM: Looking back on your career, is there anything you wish you’d have done differently?
GB: Hardly anything any different. But I think somewhere back there we should have had managers that saw a bit more of the potential of what we did. We haven’t got a frontman running up and down like the Stones or Alice Cooper. But there’s enormous potential there to have done something more visual within the context of us being onstage. When we toured America with Edmonton, a Top 5 album, we should have had a bit of an orchestra with us. We should have used that album to put on a bigger show. Management didn’t even suggest that. I guess they thought it would be too expensive, even if they had the vision.
GM: What is the first thing you’re going to do when this plague is finally over?
GB: I’m just going to go somewhere. Anywhere. I’m going to drive out into the countryside, and I’m going to grab some fish and chips. And a pint of beer. A proper pint of beer. Then maybe get Harum back into the studio.