Procol Harum are a much-travelled group. They have toured America eleven times and almost become Americans. However, they are back in Britain for a concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, tonight (Friday), when fans will be able to catch up with their progress. During their eleventh American tour they stopped off in Vancouver to do a one-nighter as the supporting act to Canada's Chilliwack group. While there, NME's Martin K Webb spent an hour with Gary Brooker in his Bayshore Inn room and got up to date on his way of thinking, which we reproduce below.
MW: I read an article in the NME recently where Keith Reid stated that the group's music depended more upon the material than the musicians. Could you explain this further?
GB: It came out wrong. What Keith was trying to say there was that the group is not a group which depends solely on the competence of the musicians. It also depends a great deal on the material. We have changed the group members quite often in our three or four years, but we're still going with basically the same sort of thing, which sort of illustrates that the songs are really important as opposed to solo players.
But it isn't a dictatorship thing, like Creedence Clearwater or Jethro Tull?
I'm quite sure that those groups do it that way, but in our group the musicians have the freedom to influence the music as much as they like, which they do.
With the new line-up, will there be anyone else doing any writing for the group besides you and Keith?
No, not at the moment. The way the group's set up at the moment it's a bit difficult to do that. It causes a few hassles you know because Keith is not overly prolific in his writing, he doesn't write that many words. If he has to supply a lot of music, well he can't do it, because he hasn't got that many words and it would just lead to frustration all around.
Have there ever been any sour grapes between the group and the people who have left? For instance, has anybody left because he felt that he was being put into the background?
Well there must be some amount of sour grapes, or else they wouldn't leave. We wouldn't part as enemies though. Nobody in our group has ever left as an enemy. Most of the time it's just a question of not being satisfied with what they're wanting to do more. Fisher wanted to go into producing records, but he hasn't. It's been two-and-a-half-years and he hasn't yet. He was going to come back, but after playing with him and talking to him for a while it was obvious that he wasn't interested in being in the group
I read in the NME news pages you are playing your first top-of-the-bill London concert on September 17 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. It seems surprising that it's taken you four years to do this.
I don't know. There's not the opportunity in Britain to play places. There are no regular promotions, so you end up getting two or three names on every show. We have played major concerts in Britain, but that's just the way they put it.
Why haven't you been a bigger hit in Britain?
I think that's the wrong way to look at it. I think it's more a case of we haven't felt the need to do it there. We haven't felt like doing a big star bit. We're doing all right economically in the States. It's not all that rosy, but we can survive without playing in Britain. We'd like some jobs there, but it's more a case of there not being the right places, and us not being on the right terms. It's very hard to play big places over here, headlining, and then go home and have to be sort of second on the bill to Slade, or something like that. We can't do it. We wouldn't feel happy doing it. We've tried it a few times; we did a tour with Tull, preceding them, or supporting them, but we were very unhappy at being in that position. It's not easy on the ego.
Do you derive a lot of your musical structure from classical music?
I would say no. One or two have been like that. The death side on Home for instance was not a conscious effort, it just happened to come out that way. When the album came out it just happened to be like that. So did Salty Dog. People think it's about the sea, but that's only a coincidence, it wasn't meant to be about the sea: it's just a case of us writing some numbers, and over a six- or nine-month period we realize that we should make another album. At that point we usually have enough to make about half an album and the rest just tends to materialise.
The Moody Blues seem to strive for concept albums.
They make very conscious efforts towards things like that. They make very conscious efforts towards sort of pseudo-spiritualism and things like that. I quite like the Moody Blues, but it's all just a bit too conscious for my liking.
Do you feel that new guitarist David Bal1 is as emotional in his playing as Robin Trower was?
This is what I like in a guitar player. When we looked for a new guitarist we didn't try to replace Trower or anything, because that's not possible anyway. It's just that for the sort of music we play, and the sort of group we are, we had a certain type of guitarist, and that was the sort of guitarist Trower was, very emotional and bluesy and gutsy, rather than sort of jazzy stuff or fancy work. It's all right for a guitarist to mess around with whatever he wants to mess around with when he's not playing a solo. He can play some nice parts, but when it comes to the solo, that's his moment, it's his time to let it all out.
The role of a guitarist in our group has changed quite a lot since the beginning. What we were working towards in the first couple of albums didn't turn out because the production was so terrible. Not everything came out. I mean the first album was a complete mess as far as sound goes. Lots of times you couldn't hear vocals; lots of times you couldn't hear anything of which any particular instrument was playing. The second album improved maybe slightly; but we were still losing most of the stuff. The guitar work just kept disappearing .
We certainly improved the bass and drum sound on Salty Dog, and the piano and organ sound. Fisher produced that album but he still didn't have a good ear for the guitar and he couldn't bring it out. Then on Home Chris Thomas took over production and he did the first really good job on bringing things out, so that you can hear everything, and next on Broken Barricades it's even more improved.
Trower didn't leave because he was being pushed forward more all the time. There's no organ in Broken Barricades and it's almost completely guitar-dominated. This is the reason why he left, because he got to the point where he realized, within the group, all these possibilities. He reached that stage where he had to do something else. He had to go someplace else to satisfy himself. I mean, if he had been kept in the background on Broken Barricades he would still be in the group because he wouldn't have gotten to the point where he'd discovered by the end of making the last album what direction he was going in and what he was capable of.
Is there any chance of re-mixing the first album to improve the sound and reissuing it? (See here also)
I don't think there would be any chance whatsoever because it's only four-track recording in mono. I wouldn't imagine that one could improve it that much. We have a minimum of five or six things going on the four tracks, bass, drums, guitar, piano and organ, and vocals, plus anything else you can put on top, so if you look at the four-track tapes you're going to have a pattern of something like: drums and bass on one track, piano and organ on another, guitar on another, and vocals on the other and then the tape's full so that there's not really much you can do with the sound of it.
Your first album generally sounds as if it was recorded in someone's living room. I made some tapes of a few of your Winterland performances about four years ago, on a cheap portable, and they sounded better.
It was done in a proper studio, about the best studio in London at that time. Techniques in those days weren't what they are now either. That was back in '67, just on the verge of the recording studio breakthrough. The Beatles were the first people to take charge of a studio really. It took them six months and goodness knows how many hours of recording to make that Sergeant Pepper album, which was just before our album. We didn't have the time or the money. It was the second time that we'd made that album. We made it once and we then scrapped it and made it again. We made it in three days. It was very rushed. We were doing six songs in one evening, which was too much. The performances were good I feel. We can use eight and sixteen tracks now which is a great help to recording. For instance, even with eight tracks you don't have to have the drums all on one track, and with sixteen track recording you can have separate tracks for bass drums, snare and tom toms, and you can really get a fantastic drum sound.
I can remember Leo Lyons telling me that when the eight and sixteen track machines first got into England nobody knew how to use them.
I can remember that stage. I can remember the first place in London that got an eight track and we were there about the second day. It took hours just to get things worked out.
Did they charge you for all the time?
I don't know, but they probably charged us double!
Do you think that the pop festivals have caused any harm to pop music?
I don't think that the effect is lasting. It's very hard for a group that makes it big on a festival. Now if you were at Woodstock, and you were on the film, you can go out and pack out any hall anywhere now, but you've got to play the number that was featured in the Woodstock film or else nobody will want to know. Probably eighty per cent of the kids that are there are going to scream out for the number that was done. Sha Na Na are a great group, and they have a lot of great numbers. They didn't make it when they visited Britain because a lot of their numbers the kids in England didn't know. They were American hits which didn't mean anything to the kids when they were parodied. But anyway, everybody yells for them to play At the Hop, which is probably about the worst number that they play, and the kids won't be happy until they hear that. It's the same with Ten Years After and Comin' Home or whatever, and the Who and Tommy: most kids won't be satisfied until they hear that.
It's funny to hear you say that you like Sha Na Na: Procol Harum doesn't exactly play fifties rock and roll.
We have done it. For about the last two years we've been playing some rock and roll at the end of our act.
I really can't imagine you doing a Jerry Lee Lewis at the piano though.
I do it at home! In fact, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard have been my influences more than classical music. Thanks to Sam Cameron for sending this to BtP.