There are certain things about England (especially in This Jubilee Year Of Ours) that never change, though governments and other ephemeral fashions come and go: Big Ben, Freddie Truman, sporting defeat, rain, the BBC ... but what could be more stubbornly English than the rounded pipe-smoking frame of Gary Brooker? For he it was who penned the immortal Whiter Shade of Pale ten years ago, along with his lyricist Keith Reid.
That song, for some reason, became the anthem of British rock. Everyone has heard it, even if no-one has yet quite managed to figure out what the words mean. Not that it matters, since the song itself became a sort of archetype for a host of others, opening the gate for classically-influenced music in the rock world. But this was not the be-all and end-all of Procol Harum. It just so happened that Whiter Shade was their big hit single, and anyone who heard that and no more would be astonished to learn that Robin Trower played in Procol for a long time, until just after the Broken Barricades album.
In fact Procol's musical style is elusive. The set during their recent tour has ended every night with a very loose rock'n'roll thrash, in which all pretensions of being a Serious Band dissolved before your very eyes. Suddenly we were all back in Southend with the Paramounts, hacking through the top ten like there was no tomorrow. Young Brooker, whose father played with the legendary (I think) Felix Mendelsohn and his Hawaiian Serenaders, took piano lessons for several years, and occasionally played on stage with dad.
'Then I went through the usual things at school – skiffle and that, and in fact started the Paramounts while we were at school. I think we started in about 1959 or something, and we went on with them until '66. By then I'd already met Keith Reid and had a go at writing songs.' It was a little surprising to learn that Gary had spent about seven years in a group before he got around to writing a song. No matter. He's caught up since then. Was the first incarnation of Procol a conscious attempt to improve the quality of rock, I wondered.
'Not quite in that way. But on the other hand, it was an attempt to play things in the way that I saw them, and to fill some sort of gap that happened to be around .... It's just the larger scope you've got with keyboards, I mean you've got more scope with one keyboard than with the guitar group, and with two keyboards the combination of sounds you could have seemed practically limitless.'
Bands with two keyboards are not exactly a novelty now, but in 1967 they were. One might have thought that the resultant musical style would have been heavily orientated towards the keyboard – and yet it never really has been. 'We've never had a style of writing particularly. And the songs on our first album were pretty much the first songs I wrote. They were all different things, drawing on a lot of different influences. One would be a bluesy-type number, one would be a classical-type number, one would just be a pretty straight rocker, and so on.'
As I had feared, when it came to pinning him down, he became somewhat vague and non-committal, as undramatic as the English climate. Why haven't the band made a bigger impact since their first gigantic hit? 'I think it's possibly that we're not as commercial as other groups.' Should have had more recognition? 'I think it'll come eventually.' And that, it seemed, was that.
Another approach. I asked about his method of working with Keith Reid, who seems to be an essential part of Procol Harum – more so than the musicians in the band, apart from Gary. 'When he gives me words I set them up on the piano, and whenever I sit down I look at the sheet and start to tinkle around. Very often I'll have a tune already and then fit it to some of his words – find which set it goes with. It's quite easy when you sing as well as play. It's very easy just to manipulate it to fit ... Keith looks to me to say, "Well that's a nice set of words, they'll work." And then when I play the tune to him he might say, "Yeah, that's right". Which is what normally happens.'
What? No Lynyrd Skynyrd-style hotel room blood baths? No smashing of chairs and Wild Turkey bottles over heads when the band have a difference of opinion? 'No, not at all. He never says, "This could be a slow one, or this could be something else." He just leaves it to me. And very often he says anyway they do come out a lot like he thought they would.' But don't they ever disagree? Doesn't Keith ever dislike what you do with his lyrics? 'No. I mean, there is an empathy between us. I don't think that could really happen. I don't think I could misunderstand his words enough to balls 'em up ... His words reflect the mood of the group. He travels around with us, busying himself with little things. It's important that, in that way, he's part of the group. I think you'd start to get a bit alienated if somebody else that was nothing to do with us was writing the words. Every time Keith gives me a set of words I can understand what it means.'
His lyrics may be centred around [sic] the activities of the band, but many people regard them as more widely important. Several PhD theses have been written purely on the subject of Reid's writing. Now how come Bernie Taupin doesn't get that sort of treatment? The answer of course, is that Keith does not set out with the sole intention of co-penning a hit single. Hence such amazing concepts as In Held 'Twas In I and Whaling Stories, both of which can be heard to best advantage on Procol's Live with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra – my own personal favourite. The centrepiece of the new album (Something Magic) is a composition that takes up the whole of the second side. Entitled The Worm and the Tree it is an allegorical piece which is spoken, rather than sung, all the way through. What determines whether he sings or speaks the words? This is not, after all, the first time he has used speech in the music.
'It's when I can't think of a tune! It's difficult sometimes. In previous songs they were spoken for a particular reason, and on this one the problem with it was that all the words were in the same metre, and it's difficult to get the variety. In the end I was writing a lot of tunes for it, getting themes and working variations, and I got the aye from everybody that it sounded alright talking it, so off it went. But I think that's got a long way to go really. We haven't done a lot with it yet.'
It was written originally with the intention that it should become a multimedia event: with ballet perhaps, or animated film. On the tour they had to be content with slides. 'It just gives it a lot more scope. But I'd like to see some dancers in that one. I think it would be a nice thing to do – just three mime dancers.'
One of the main reasons for the continued survival of Procol Harum has been the fluid nature of its membership. Brooker and Reid are Procol Harum, and the other members have come and gone (although drummer BJ Wilson and bassist Chris Copping seem to have made themselves almost permanent fixtures). The newest member is Pete Solley, who plays a variety of keyboards, including synthesiser – an instrument which the band have never used before. He also plays a Farfisa organ instead of a Hammond.
'It's got far more possibilities to it than a Hammond. For instance, Strangers in Space is just the Farfisa organ. He does get some amazing sounds out of it. And then besides that he uses the brass and strings section of the synthesiser, and then the normal solo synthesiser. He's very good at fitting in the right bit at the right time. I couldn't handle all that. Mind you, I have to sing at the same time, so that would be a bit too much.'
Surely this doesn't mean that Procol Harum are about to launch themselves into synthesised music in a big way? 'Well it's bit late in the day to be pioneers in that field, but really I think there is no other way to play music these days. All those sounds enhance and add colour to the numbers we're doing And to take them away now you'd have to make a very serious change in the whole musical idea.'
Something which the band have been more traditionally involved with is orchestral arrangement. Until you've heard Live with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra you haven't really heard it done properly in rock context. The orchestration and the sound balance, not to mention the use of a huge choir, are infinitely superior to any other attempts I have heard. Gary has plans for future collaborations of this nature, but with a smaller group of musicians to establish more contact and better continuity than is possible with a really large orchestra. :
But apart from all that, what else is coming up? 'I'm going to work on some new things – a double album with eight songs on it, two on each side. I haven't written any yet. I'll leave that till the last minute! I dunno ... I nearly changed my mind the other night. Really it depends what happens with this album, I think. I mean, we try things out always, and they're down, and that's that. But if it doesn't get the acceptance that we believed it should, there'd be no point in doing a similar idea again.'
A momentary air of depression seemed to descend, but with typical British stoicism he shrugged it off and made his way resolutely to the bar.