Procol Harum

Beyond
the Pale

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Chris Thomas

And his work with Procol Harum


Big thanks to Dave Lee for transcribing this excerpt from The Record Producers by John Tobler and Stuart Grundy (The book from the BBC Radio 1 Series). See also transcript of the radio version


Chris Thomas [b 1947, Middlesex, England; hired by George Martin's Air London in late 1967; produced tracks for The Beatles' White Album while George was on holiday, even playing keyboards on several]

'After extremely limited success with his first discovery (The Climax Blues Band), it was a major step forward to be invited to work with Procol Harum who were still well known as a result of Whiter Shade Of Pale, but had slightly slipped in the public's estimation subsequent to that classic.

'It was a big thing for me what had happened was that Procol Harum had just gone to Chrysalis for management, and the people at Air knew the people at Chysalis, and my name was mentioned in connection with a couple of things that didn't actually come off before I was actually invited to work with Procol on Home. The band had apparently made a conscious decision to do an album with someone who was young and not too experienced, so that he wouldn't be set in his ways.

It was a successful album in the States, although it didn't do anything in Britain. In fact, I think it was their first top thirty album in the States, which is surprising, because it was following Salty Dog, and you'd have thought Salty Dog would have done really well, but Home actually did better. After that, I did Broken Barricades with them, and after we finished that, they had to go off and do an American tour about three days later. Because I was the only person that knew things like where the guitar solos needed to go, simple stuff like that, I went with them.

Later on, I worked with Procol on their live album which was recorded in Canada. What we were hoping to do for that one was to record the rehearsals as well as the concert itself, because I think everybody knows there's a certain amount of cheating that goes on with live albums nowadays, and if there had been a disaster on the night of the concert, we'd have only had one chance. As it turned out though, we weren't able to record any of the rehearsals at all. All that we had by way of rescue was an extra hour at the end to do encores if we wanted or needed to.

So I went running out there and said 'You've got to do Whaling Stories and Conquistador again', I think it was, because there were certain songs that would be important to the album. I got them to do that, they came off, and I said 'You've got to do In Held 'Twas In I again the whole of side two'.

They thought I was joking, and all this was happening in the wings with the audience still there. B.J. (Wilson) said 'I'm not fucking doing that again', and went off to the bar and got himself a large drink, but we managed to find him, threw him back on stage, and went all the way through In Held 'Twas In I again.

When it came to actually putting the record together, there were lots and lots of edits, so by the time the tape was actually being mixed, it looked like a zebra crossing, but fortunately, virtually every single edit that we tried worked, and I felt that God must be looking after us.'

After working with Procol on four American tours, during a period of a little over a year which ended midway through 1972, Chris left Air London.

'When I left Air, I was completely skint, and I mixed Procol's live album in January of that year, and we were shortly after that going to start on Procol's Grand Hotel album. I think I had ten days off in-between, and I wasn't getting any money anywhere, but I was actually going to get paid for an [ex-Jethro Tull] Mick Abrahams album, which would keep me going for four months, I think it was, at about thirty bob a week or something. Those were lean times ... I don't recall there being too much musically about Mick's albums, although there were some quite funny times, because he's a bit of a lunatic.'

Chris's main project was still Procol Harum, of course, with whom he had spent a good deal of time on the road in America. 'I suppose I was away for three months of each year, something like that, which was actually great, because it meant that I might be on the road during the summer, and then come back and do Procol's record, which was always the most important one for me at that time, round about Christmas. That was definitely a good time for me then.'

A particularly hectic period for Thomas occurred during the winter months of 1972/3 when he not only worked on Procol Harum's Grand Hotel and John Cale's Paris 1919, but was also involved in working on the mix of The Dark Side Of The Moon by Pink Floyd, one of the biggest-selling records ever. The albums by Cale and Procol Harum seemed to possess a lot of similar characteristics, although Thomas was the only common factor.

'A French journalist made the observation that he noticed a great similarity between those albums, and there's definitely a certain mood there. With Grand Hotel, I can't remember very much about specific tracks now, because I spent a long time on it. When I first worked with Procol it was literally a question of recording their songs, and on the next one, Broken Barricades, it was the first time I really thought of an idea for an arrangement of a song, which I believe was the title track, and the idea was to break the song into two parts, in the sense of the chords on one hand, and the arpeggios tinkling away on the other; and that was the first time I'd tried anything like that, messing around with sounds and arrangements of songs in terms of sound.

When people say, 'Oh, that sounds like a Chris Thomas production', or something like that, I think they mean that the sound and the music bounce off each other. That was a specific thing from the line about 'glittering sand', trying to make the music sound something like what's in the lyrics. You might just pick up on one particular image or a mood, so then you're playing with sound or with sound and music you can't really isolate it, because it's a whole thing. I couldn't have done that with the Climax Blues Band, where I was making a whole album in two days, and it was just the opportunity I'd been waiting for.

'Getting back to Grand Hotel, it was certainly a bit overblown in terms of production, but that was done on purpose. An the whole thing, that whole chocolate box on the title track, was really over the top. In fact, when that album was finished, I only felt it was half-finished, because I had many more layers of things to put on it. I did spend ever such a long time on that record, and they'd leave me to it, let me put things on and came back to hear it a few days later. Sometime, Gary would say, 'What the hell's that on that song?' but he was always fantastically encouraging to me, and so were the band in general, going right back to when he first asked me to produce them, and I was nervous of having to follow up Salty Dog.

'I think the album with John Cale was a direct result of the Procol live album, which was a big hit, top five album, in America. Although the live Procol album had done well, a lot of people had also liked Broken Barricades so [Cale's] Paris 1919 was the next best after that, although from a purely selfish point of view, I think I probably prefer Grand Hotel, because I'd done so much on it.

'Bryan Ferry came in at a time when Roxy Music had started their second album For Your Pleasure, but had apparently run into difficulties, so he asked me if I'd like to come and work on it, which I did. That was actually the time when I was doing Grand Hotel and Dark Side Of The Moon at the same time, but it was great working with Roxy because it was very different. Procol were pretty slow working in the studio and they'd been around for quite a while, and the Floyd was very leisurely it was great, they'd have little meetings about what they were going to do.'

1974 also saw the final work Chris would do with Procol Harum, on the band's Exotic Birds And Fruit album.

'We'd hoped that Nothing But The Truth, which was a single from the album, might be a hit, and we were very disappointed when it wasn't, because there hadn't been a hit single off Grand Hotel, and they'd actually only had Conquistador as a single hit since Homburg, which was very early even Salty Dog hadn't been a hit single.

'I think I should have stopped working with Procol after Grand Hotel, actually, because it had got to the point where I was taking over a little too much, and I was running out of ideas, because on Exotic Birds, I didn't find the songs were really inspiring me very much. I was almost having to manipulate ideas, like 'What can I think of for this one?' In fact, at one point I was sitting there looking completely vague, and the band were a bit stuck, because they were starting to wind down a fair bit, and Keith Reid said 'Why don't you do a Chris Thomas production on it?' I think he meant to tart it up a bit, in the way that I had come up with some really crazy ideas for some of their songs. For Liquorice John on Grand Hotel, I seem to remember having some very strange set-up with out-of-tune pianos I wanted the thing to sound like it was underwater, and I didn't really do it by messing around in the control room so much as trying to work out what the sound was. It was something like a twelve-string guitar being played, and then it'd be picked up inside an old jangly piano with Gary playing the same riff which would produce a weird sound. I knew what I wanted to do, although it was very hard to work out exactly what it was, but you hear a song and get an idea for the atmosphere of it, and then it's a question of trying to illustrate that atmosphere on the record. That's when the fun is, if you actually get inspired and it comes off and you know it's come off.

So when Keith said what he said, I thought that was it it was like a desperate plea as though I could pull something out of a bag and whop it on there, although he was probably just trying to encourage me. So my work with Procol just came to an end, although as I say, it would have been better to finish on Grand Hotel, because I was satisfied with the whole album.

'I was very lucky that on all those Procol albums and the early Roxy stuff I was working with (engineer) John Punter, and we developed a great working relationship, especially with the Procol stuff.'

[Chris went on to produce classic albums for the Sex Pistols and The Pretenders. He also produced Full House for Frankie Miller; 'I was hoping to go on to the next (album), but it didn't happen'.]


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