The sort of article in which Procol Harum are invited to star, usually gets titled Procol Still To Make It Here or The Most Underrated Group In Britain Today. "It sounds like an awful sob story," comments lyric writer Keith Reid, "but it's either that or the sort which tells how Gary and I came together to write."
In one way Keith would like to see Procol make it big in Britain: "I'd like to be able to work at home," he says, "On our last American tour we never actually spent 24 hours in one place for a whole month. Everywhere we go we have to fly and it all becomes very disrupting." In another way, Procol have become successful in the country which holds the major music market of the Western world, so it is not a cause for deep concern when one little island fails to get over-excited.
Keith sees the purpose of Procol Harum as being simply, "to play the songs that Gary and I write." He maintains that the interpretation of the songs must be given by Gary and the group as they are the closest to the writing and have the sound which is the brainchild of Reid/Brooker. Keith is very conscious of the close relationship which must be maintained between lyrics and music. Words have a music of their own which operates on a different level to their meaning, although we are often unaware of what is being said we would notice if their music was out of tune with the song.
Keith quotes the Stones as an example of word sounds being far more important than word meanings. At the time of Procol's conception, no-one was using both organ and piano on stage and as such, they were an innovation to the scene. "There used to be posters saying Nobody Sings Dylan Like Dylan. Now that was purely advertising, but there's an awful lot of truth in the idea that only the writers themselves can give the song its true interpretation."
Although Keith is very much a part of the band he has never actually taken the stage with them. From the audience's point of view, it could be seen to be a great temptation considering how closely involved with their music he is, but he has other ideas: "I'm not at all attracted to performing with them. I think that Procol are a very unglamorous band live." However, Keith attends every rehearsal and gig that the band do. At rehearsals he contributes ideas and at live performances he ensures that the arena's acoustic balance is correct for the sound they want.
More than performing
"I'm not just a lyricist though," says Keith, as if misunderstood in the past as to his part in Procol. "There's more to any group than just performing or creating." Trying to pursue him as to what is his actual function within the group beyond the lyrics is to trespass on shifting sands. "It's like trying to break down a marriage into, ‘What do you do?' and 'What do you do?' – It just can't be done."
On fellow songwriters: "Randy Newman is my personal favourite. I think he's really fine. His songs have been covered by Three Dog Night (Mama Told Me Not To Come) and Manfred Mann (Living Without You) just lately. Every one of his songs is a classic." Generally speaking, Keith listens to most of the music being produced today.
Theses on group
In America, students have chosen the work of Procol Harum to study for theses. One girl actually included an in-depth study of one song – Salty Dog. She explained that the song could be taken on five different levels including the sexual, the spiritual and the religious. Keith sees it as a great compliment when this happens and when people approach him for explanations of his words after a gig. "I only hope that they get the words correct," he comments. "When everyone began including the lyrics with their albums, it just lost all meaning and significance so we deliberately didn't print them. Because of this they often get misquoted."
In response to a quotation from Mike Brewer (of Brewer Shipley), saying that rock music was the new literature, Keith commented, "If rock is the new literature the new literature is a load of crap." He believes that 95% of rock is merely ephemeral and won't stand the test of time. All this is said in spite of the fact that his own work has certainly been regarded as literature, and is probably known to more people than the work of our great novelists. However, he doesn't see the medium of rock replacing the function of the written word. "Rock and roll music is the most easily accessible culture but it doesn't make at the best. As far as my own work is concerned, no artist can ever dictate how he wants to be appreciated. Rock is often pseudo-intellectualized by pseudo-intellectuals."
Keith's songs Homburg and Whiter Shade Of Pale were included in Richard Goldstein's collection The Poetry Of Rock (Bantam) although my mentioning of it was the first he knew of it. The latest album, Broken Barricades, includes lyrics to four of the songs printed on the inside cover. But apart from the words, Keith is concerned with the stage presence created by Procol. He was impressed by The Band's London performance, which he considers to be a lesson to all groups. "Stage presence," he says, "is to be in control of what you're doing. It's being aware of your audience and being aware of yourself."
Future: "Wait and see"
The future of Procol is very much 'wait and see', just living from day to day. This seems to be the philosophy which has lifted Keith from national assistance days in Notting Hill to his present affluent position. He feels that he will always be writing but doesn't see any limitations as to the field in which he'll do this. One idea of the future that he does hold to though, is that he will experience the end of the world during his lifetime. With the onrush of so many factors which threaten civilisation, and all these at the same point in history, he takes a very pessimistic view of the next ten years.
"Everywhere you look things are hysterical," he says, and then talks of recent developments which could enable Man to engineer humans at will. "It will soon be possible to produce a race of soldiers or a race of road-sweepers at will. I think that people know that they are more than machines but everything around them convinces them that that is all they are." The title track of the new album deals with the somber subject.
|It was all once bright jewels
And glittering sand
The oceans have ravished
And strangled the land.
Waste fills the temples
Dead daughters are born
The presses are empty
The editors torn.
The title of the album is also applicable in another way. Old musical barricades have been removed and a new form of expression erected. If you still think of Procol in terms of Whiter Shade Of Pale you are definitely due for another listen. Procol are now involved writing totally different sounds. Words of description would be wasted. Needless to say it's 'something new' and it's the sort of record that snatches back by [sic] waning faith in the originality of rock.
More Procol history in print