Of Changes, Pickles and the Grand Hotel
It's 11:30 on a Thursday morning and Chris Copping, organist with Procol Harum, is happily ensconced in his favorite seat at the hotel bar, hoping to stay there until it's time to get on the afternoon plane to Denver, their next concert stop.
"God, I don't know where he puts it," opines pianist / vocalist Gary Brooker, "especially after what he put away last night. Still, I suppose you've got to do something to stay sane while touring."
And he knows, even better than Chris, because he's been at Procol's helm for five years since A Whiter Shade of Pale sold four million singles in the magic summer of 1967, and launched them onto the stormy sea Gary sings so eloquently of. Now, with the group's latest album, Procol Harum Live With the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, topping the charts, Gary has a lot to look back on with pride as he and the band struggle to get their seventh album, Grand Hotel, completed for a January release.
Procol Harum first came to these shores in the winter of 1967, topping a memorable week's stand at the Café Au Go Go with a now legendary show at the old Village Theatre - with Moby Grape and Tiny Tim (and where are they now?); they played their entire first album that night, and the extended treatment of organist Matthew Fisher's instrumental explosion, Repent Walpurgis, almost stole the show from Whiter Shade of Pale.
The album ...
[Arrggh! looks like the next couple of paragraphs are missing. It's probably too late to send in a letter to the editor to complain]
... county jail between a gun-toting tabby cat and an escaping prisoner, with devastating guitar by Robbie Trower; and In The Wee Small Hours Of Sixpence, an organ-dominated fantasy of ageing knights and their faceless retainers.
Their third album, A Salty Dog, showed the group beginning to expand their musical horizons. Trower contributed two fine blues pieces and the lovely acoustic lament Too Much Between Us, and Fisher, besides producing the album, wrote and orchestrated the Wagnerian Wreck of the Hesperus. The title track, with it's [sic] haunting combination of seagull cries, lightly plucking strings and thundering drums, was a beautiful single which sadly sold far less than its worth. (Keith Reid maintains to this day that what inspired the lyrics was a graffiti carved into a wall in a place they once played in Cleveland which read 'Good god, skipper, we done run aground.') Shortly after the album was completed, Fisher left to concentrate on record production, taking with him bassist Dave Knights.
"The thing with Matthew," says Gary, "was that once he had something down, like the organ part for a song, he'd lose interest in it. In the end, he wanted to put down the organ completely and play rhythm guitar. He finally decided he wanted to produce records so that's what he's done."
At this juncture Gary brought in Chris Copping, who had played bass in one of his earlier groups but who was then studying pharmacology. "We wanted to try going in a different direction for a while," he says, "so we did a few tours as a four-piece group. On the songs the guitar couldn't help, Robbie would play bass, and on the rest Chris would play bass keyboard as well as organ or just bass if we didn't need the organ." In the original group Robbie's guitar solos stood out bleakly against the cathedral organ, but with Fisher gone he became more of a front man, and his singing and passionate guitar took on more prominence. He wrote two songs for the group's fourth album, Home: Whiskey Train, a straight-ahead rocker which is still requested today, and About To Die, which dealt, as did most of the album, with the incarnations of death. But the highlight of the album was Brooker's Whaling Stories, a dark night's journey of rapine pillage ending in a rotting sandwashed dawn.
The Harum did some memorable gigs in this form, and some of it has been preserved on a bootleg album which was supposedly recorded during their June 1970 concerts at the Fillmore. In addition to some of their better-known material, it includes several cuts of the band pounding out such rock revival favorites as Keep A-Knockin', I'm Ready, and Lucille in fine form.
"Those rock numbers were always spontaneous," says Brooker. "That's why we enjoyed playing them, it's a bit of banging out something ad lib. That's why it's enjoyed by an audience. Usually, if we'd had a really good night, one of our road managers would say 'Go on, get out there and do a bit of rock for the encore,' and we'd do one or two. I'd just start banging out something and hope everyone would pick up on it."
Robbie wrote almost half the music for the band's next album, Broken Barricades, including its two best [sic and sic'er, respectively] numbers, Poor Mohammed, (another heavy rocker) and the Hendrix-influenced Song For A Dreamer. Their record company laid on a heavy promotional effort but picked the wrong single and the album sold only to the same people who treasured all their other albums. It again used orchestrations well, especially the lilting string quartet accompaniment to Luskus Delph, (a cross, Gary used to say when introducing the song, between 'lust' and 'suck'), and the grunting brass on Playmate of the Mouth. Barrie Wilson (who [sic], incidentally, original group producer Denny Cordell still considers the true genius of the group) took his first drum solo on record for Power Failure.
"It was intended to fox people," Gary says, "we dubbed the applause at the end of the solo from one of our concerts. The sound was much too clean for a live track, but when you hear it you're convinced for about two seconds, and that's what we wanted."
[That's odd: this is almost the exact same wording as either Bud Scoppa or the other guy used in talking about this track in the Around and About PH article, which was in an earlier issue of Rock, 6/71]
In a way it was inevitable that Trower should leave shortly after Barricades was finished. He had matured into an excellent singer [sic] and songwriter, besides being one of the most distinctive guitarists around, and he wanted more recognition - or as Gary delicately puts it, "he wanted a group he could be the dominant part of." His departure left Brooker, Reid and Wilson [technically sic] as the only original members of the group. Dave Ball was added on guitar, and Matthew Fisher returned for a few gigs [really?], but then left again.
"With only four pieces, the sound was a bit smaller than I liked, because Chris was limited by playing the bass keyboard with the organ. I asked him whether he wanted to play organ and bass and he said he didn't care particularly; so it worked out that we got Alan (Cartwright, from ex-Nice drummer Brian Davison's Every Which Way) in on bass, so Chris could play organ with two hands again. That made our sound much bigger," says Gary.
Dave stayed with the group for about six months [sic]. Like Trower, his musical ideas were based in the blues, and he could give a good impression of his style on the older tunes while adding something of his own to them. His work on some of Gary's new songs was inconsistent, though, and he made some incredible fumbles onstage. At one show, during the explosive middle section of Whaling Stories, the spotlights flashed on to him for his big solo and caught him tuning his guitar. Fortunately, his playing with the group of their Live At Edmonton album was right in the groove.
Procol did one show with a symphony orchestra at Stratford, Ontario in 1969 but it wasn't recorded; so, when the opportunity arose to do a concert with the Edmonton Symphony, the first thing Brooker wanted to do was get it down on four-inch tape. Despite difficulties with the Canadian customs people and the musicians' union (which drastically limited the available rehearsal time) the album, although it contained no new material, was both a musical and commercial success. When first the single (Conquistador) and then the album leapt to the top of the charts, Procol were given their first real hit since the Whiter Shade days. The major work of the record was the orchestral version of In Held 'Twas In I, which featured Keith Reid reciting his own mysteries ("life is like a beanstalk, isn't it?"). The album even sold well in England, which had until then almost studiously ignored the group's music.
"We've made assaults on England now and again," Gary points out, "but it's really very difficult to consolidate something when we're working all over the world. We did make a concerted effort with the Edmonton album and Conquistador single, but our old English label repackaged and released a lot of our early stuff and the effort was dissipated because there were too many albums of ours on the market. When the live "Conquistador" started to move on the British and European charts, this company put out a version from our first album, so when people went into the stores and asked for it, they got whichever version was in stock."
Live At Edmonton was the Harum's last album for A&M, and the bidding for their contract waxed hot and heavy. CBS supposedly guaranteed them sales of 500,000 on their next album, but they finally chose to go with the newly-formed record arm of Chrysalis, their management company. Gary says, "We like them because we've been using them for a while and they've got the American scene sewed up. They know how to set up a tour that goes along without hassles. The primary problem with management seems to be to get things so their interests are the same as yours, so they won't make money unless they make you money."
Their upcoming album, Grand Hotel, is in what is described as "a desperate state of recording." There are six or seven tracks already down, but they were done in April and June with Dave Ball, but then he left, so Mick Grabham, from Cochise, came in for this tour. "Someone mentioned him and he sounded interesting, and he was just what we were looking for. He had really enjoyed the group and followed all our records since we'd first started, which is a bit unusual for an English musician because our early records didn't get heard over there very much. So Mick was part of the group as soon as he joined, because he knew what we were doing. We might re-record those tracks with Mick if we can do a vastly superior job on them; otherwise we'll use them the way they are. It comes down to a question of time. Some of the songs are about touring – there's Grand Hotel, which is all based on European trips and Bringing Home The Bacon, which is about American menus.
'Bringing home the bacon, tender juicy steaks, breast fed baby duckling, three day old honey fed milk fed fresh thin sliced delicious gourmet veal, wrapped in a heavenly blessing of crushed bread crumbs and egg yolks grilled to your personal delight on a bed of lettuce garnished with dill pickles' [barf]. Keith got all that off actual American menus. I suppose you could say Grand Hotel is one end of touring and Bringing Home The Bacon is the opposite end. When we get back from this tour we might have a whole different perspective on this album. I've got music for some songs that Keith hasn't put words to yet. What touring comes down to is a late night on the gig, as long a sleep as you can get, which is never long enough, then go out to the airport and fly somewhere else. But you know, we meet all sorts of people in airports, butch dykes with crew cuts and the like. Once we met a man who was going to do the tour managements and arrangements for the Moscow State Circus."
Procol Harum remain, despite their personnel reshufflings over the years, one of the most innovative and exciting bands to emerge from Britain, and with every show making them a tighter, stronger musical unit, they have gone on to a new strength that should have them shining on brightly into the Seventies.
|And from the Letters
F. Hugh Magee New York City
Thanks, Marvin, for finding, transcribing and putting in [comments]
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