Procol Harum

Beyond
the Pale

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Rock in' and around Croydon

A book with some Matthew Fisher / Procol Harum revelations


Rock in' and around Croydon : ISBN 0 953161900, Wombeat publishing, 1998

This splendid book, subtitled Rock, Folk, Blues and Jazz in & around the Croydon area 1960 1980 is the answer to all those Palers, especially out in the USA, who have wondered about the performing history of the fertile South-London music scene, in particular about Matthew Fisher's home turf, Croydon (which 'sounds like an illness' as Kenneth Williams once said).

In the course of some 220 well-illustrated pages Chris Groom (author, researcher, designer and distributor 'by Renault 5, with difficulty') lovingly touches on many fascinating musical aspects of the not-universally-popular town, just 18 miles south of the capital, catapulted to greatness when it was chosen for major redevelopment in the early sixties. Having worked in local journalism which he is happy to mock on occasions! Groom has had access to some very rare photographs and clippings, and he has also exhaustively researched the gig lists for the town's famous venues the Fairfield Halls and The Greyhound as well as a host of smaller ones.

The book is organised like a sandwich with its central section devoted to a year-by-year account of who played Croydon, illustrated with various comments, press cuttings, and photos. Starting quite leanly with a few jazz bookings, Croydon eventually became an obligatory venue for almost every band of consequence up to 1980 (eleven Jacques Loussier gigs are reported); and reading the schedule makes one realize what one missed by growing up in the provinces! Readers of this page will want to know that Procol Harum are recorded as having played Croydon on 5 July 1968, 15 July 1973, 27 July 1974, 2 August 1974 and 27 Feb 1977: the Paramounts before them backed Sandie Shaw on 15 September 1965. Despite being a Redhill veteran, Groom is no Procoholic: he mis-identifies personnel in a 1968-ish picture of the band 'from a private collection' (BJ appears to be wearing a de Sade sweatshirt!); but he does comment appropriately elsewhere on the kinship of Paramounts and Procol.

Matthew Fisher on bass (right) with Mike Roberts, who also supplied the photo

The outer sections of the book present interviews with many local luminaries - among them Ralph McTell, Wizz Jones, Mike Vernon, Pentangle, Crimson's Mel Collins, Peter Sarstedt, the infamous Gary Glitter, photographer Val Wilmer, Quo's Francis Rossi as well, of course, as Matthew Fisher (the handsome young bassist pictured here in 1965 rehearsal with The Society Five). [There's another picture of Matthew from this era in the Procol biography]

The Fisher interview is very informative about the minutiae of his early bands at Selhurst School, his need to play a heavy bass guitar and his switch to organ, his piano sessions (a Carole King song), his dislike of Clapton-era Yardbirds, his electrified rocking-horse and other van-adaptations, his paying off of music tutors for lessons he missed because of gigs, his working at Butlin's Holiday Camp and his band's method of dealing with a moaner in the ranks: ' before he joined us we were the happiest band going we just got completely sick of this guy we just left him at the hall, with his kit and no lift home ': it was evidently a harsh epoch!

Matthew then gets on to better-known territory about his other early bands, sessions, and so on. Comment on Procol Harum is quite sparse: 'In retrospect, I think perhaps the worst thing I ever did was join Procol Harum everything was just going up, up, up until then when everything suddenly went straight downward. I was only with Procol for a couple of years ' At this point fellow-interviewee Mike Roberts (pictured above left) chips in with 'Matt, you're still with them,' to which Fisher replies ' well I've got nowhere else to go now, at my age I don't think anyone else would want me ' He also speaks movingly about how being in PH lost him 'my anonymity, which I rather liked.'

The interview with The Damned's Captain Sensible also paints a warm picture of Fisher, and Sensible clearly has fond memories of working with Matthew. He recalls Fisher playing a reluctant solo on a Sensible B-side, while the Captain himself played fumbling organ; he feels that the gold disc for Happy Talk 'should have gone to Matt's place' rather than to Ridge Farm where the single was mixed. And about the perennial question of the writing credit for AWSoP, he asserts that ' Matthew's bit is the famous bit that everyone remembers he should have got something, he's a terrific bloke, Matthew.' (more 2008 on this subject here)

I enjoyed this book a lot, not just for its obvious Procol content, but for its wit and its eclecticism. It wears its local heart on its sleeve (there are pages devoted to favourite Croydon music-shops) yet there are some great early Croydon pictures of international importance: Bill Haley taking tea in 1959, Brownie McGhee and Muddy Waters playing cards backstage, a fabulous portrait of Louis Jordan, and Sonny Boy Williamson in the bar with Eric Clapton in 1965. It's also got several Rock Family Trees, and is liberally adorned with little monochrome graphics of gig adverts, flyers, and so forth. Fascinating insights include the fact that one Dave Ball played with Fanny's Nicky Barclay at The Cartoon; and that Pink Floyd were charging 1,500 pounds per college show towards the end of 1970, while Mick Grabham's Cochise turned out for 85 pounds.

It's a big hefty A4 book and it's printed on very good paper, which is surprising from a small publishing venture. It would be possible to quibble about the punctuation from time to time but for all I know Croydon has it's [sic] own set of rules for placing the apostrophe? J

Although it seems to be primarily a local music book, Rock in and Around Croydon richly captures the feel of some very extraordinary happenings in ordinary England during the sixties and seventies, and as such deserves a wide, international audience. The book does have a couple of pages on the net, including a photo competition to which the author himself doesn't know the answer! Copies are available from Chris Groom: the cover price is 11.50, and Chris will post and pack it for 16.00 pounds inclusive to Europe and 20.00 pounds inclusive to the USA. Alternatively, it is available from Amazon UK

Anna and Kate McGarrigle

Finally, for no very good reason, here's a picture from the book of the 'breathtakingly brilliant' Kate and Anna McGarrigle relaxing at a local gig of which the Croydon Advertiser said ' if they had purposely tried to sabotage their own act, they could not have done a better job '. I'm including this because I know there are McGarrigle fans in Procoldom (greetings, John G! Hail, Rhythm King Frank Mead!) and because the McGarrigles self-evidently share Procol's high-quality / should-have-been-massive / started-at-the-top cult status. Moreover, they present such a wayward and whimsical face to the world, that being a PH fan seems almost straightforward by comparison. 

Browsing Chris Groom's book will remind you of dozens of acts and artists you haven't thought of for years and give some fresh insights into the work of those you think about every few minutes.


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