Procol Harum

the Pale

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Gary Brooker

'An uncharted celebration'

This telephone conversation, from 10 May 1998, was recorded using pencil and paper, and has been occasionally re-sequenced for readability's sake: anything in speech marks, however, was taken down verbatim.

At the Brooker end dogs bark occasionally, another 'phone rings, Franky brings Swiss newspapers and (latterly) utters reminders that the flight for Florida is imminent. At the Clare end, Italian friends listen to Senza Luce, Il Marinaio, and other PH covers in the next room: GB decently does not comment on this cheesy coincidence.

'So I understand you're off to Florida for three weeks' holiday, Gary. How are you planning to spend your birthday?'

'I don't know yet.'

It was not quite the opening that I'd been hoping for ever since Gary's office had let 'Beyond the Pale' know that he would grant our request for a birthday interview.

As I tried to remember if any specific agenda had been set for the conversation, Gary volunteered that he might well be doing a concert 'in the Fort Lauderdale area', just himself and the piano. I asked what repertoire this would involve, Procol material or Brooker solo songs: I assumed that he regarded them as wholly separate?

I've also got a blues repertoire, Gary offered, a rock and roll repertoire, a jazz repertoire, and an R&B repertoire. 'So which one will it be on this occasion?' I ventured. 'I think I'll end up doing mostly folk,' came Gary's reply, with a twinkle in his voice to inform me that he'd just loosed one of those shafts of looking-glass logic that he has been shooting over the heads of interviewers for thirty years and more. Guessing this might be secret code for 'change the subject', I did.

Swiss Commission

Can we talk about Le Bourdon des Alpes, your commission for brass ensemble, then? How did that come about?

It had started, perhaps inevitably, with A Whiter Shade of Pale. The brass band in Gryon, Switzerland, had 'got fed up with playing marches' and the sort of characteristic oompah music that is expected of them, and had got hold of an arrangement of AWSoP done for one of the Northern British bands that are the envy of brass ensembles the world over.

This had gone down well, and the band had somehow been made aware that the man whose name appeared on the score was married to a Swiss girl from the same region (Franky comes from Aigle). 1998 was to be Gryon's turn to play host to the local Brass Band festival – the 46th annual 'Giron des Musiques du District d’Aigle' – and to provide a piece for the massed competitors (some 'four and a half hundred players', in Gary's unusual phrase) to tackle by way of a climax. And so it was that they contacted their composer-in-law to see if he would be prepared to compose that climactic offering, and Gary accepted the commission in November 1997.

Would you say that the music has turned out Brooker-like, I wondered. Gary felt that it probably had not, perhaps because he had never written for such an ensemble before, and it had been 'an entirely different sort of experience'.

Having heard that he always composed at the piano, I asked if Bourdon had started life at the keyboard, maybe drawing on tunes he already had stockpiled in his head. Not so: he'd scribbled a tune down when he was in Switzerland at Christmas time, looking out at the mountains; this was a basic idea 'which in fact never got any further' – he had resolved to keep the piece pretty simple. It will last 4 minutes 20 seconds 'if played at the right tempo', though it sounds like twenty minutes'-worth: 'I cram a lot in.' It had to be simple, as they're amateurs, although brass amateurs can be very good. 'Got to be something the crowd will like.'

It certainly sounds as though you like it, said I, noting the pride in his voice when he spoke of the piece; Gary said he would reserve judgment, until he received a trial recording from the Gryon band, which he would 'give the once-over to see that it's being done right'. He explained that certain players have to imitate bagpipes, and there's no real way of conveying that in musical notation. But the omens were good: he'd been gratified, when the piece was being tried out by his local Godalming band, that one player had turned to him and said, 'It's like a Scottish thing.' Gary felt that the massed performance would succeed provided the Swiss players could gather the intended 'feel' of it, as well as following his score accurately. Previous experience with note-readers evidently informed this caution.

Swiss esteem

Bourdon means 'drone': considering this alongside the 'bagpipe' reference, I wondered if the new piece had anything in common with The Piper's Tune? 'That's my type of drone ...' Gary replied, going on to explain that he'd also inserted a reference to a Swiss folk tune, and lots of 'echoey bits'. In fact it had already gone down well in Switzerland: I could hear him turning the pages of a Swiss newspaper as he read out some of the coverage La Presse, Rivičre de Chablet had given Bourdon following the Gryon band's public run-through. 'Fondateur de Procol Harum: he composes for Gryon,' Gary quoted, his French accent authentic, his English translation Swissified for effect. There was quite a big article there, with the Edmonton album-cover on the front page: inside, a bit of 'whys and wherefores': '"Mr Brooker said he would try, and it would be an experiment ... but it has turned out to be a masterpiece."' Gary quoted with evident satisfaction.

We were talking on the day following the Eurovision Song Contest, so I reminded Maestro Brooker that this high estimation was emanating from a country who had just distinguished themselves with a total of nul points. 'Well they should have done this one,' Gary laughed, 'and they might have got a point!' In fact it seems that the piece has a very strong melody: 'It could be the Swiss National Anthem,' he joked, going on to mention the Gryon Office de Tourisme, and hoping that anyone who lived nearby, or a couple of hours away, would be able to come and hear the premičre: 'It'll be quite a big event'. The biggest ensemble ever to tackle a Brooker composition? 'I hadn't thought of it like that.'

Charterhouse connection

I had also been primed to talk to Gary about his forthcoming appearance in a concert at Charterhouse, the famous and exclusive public school near where he lives. How had this come about?

'I put my name down,' said Gary, somewhat diffidently. Subsequently it emerged that he would be playing there to reciprocate a favour granted by a member of the music staff who had helped him with the technicalities of writing for brass.

In December Gary had noticed, in his local paper, that Godalming Town Band and Haslemere Town Band were doing a concert up at Charterhouse. Since Swiss bands are closely modelled on the classic instrumentation of their British counterparts, he had decided to 'go and swot up', to get attuned to the world of brass ensembles. He started 'bending a few ears' during the interval, and eventually got talking to the director, 'a great guy, David Wright,' who had agreed to give Gary 'a few pointers'.

Some long while after his Swiss break Gary started on the scoring of Le Bourdon des Alpes. He produced his 'good sketch' in pencil, not with the Atari computer set-up he has occasionally wrestled with. He was keen to talk me through the whole process, talking down his own talent as always, and emphasising the steep learning-curve he had faced. With the score half-written, David Wright had given it 'the once-over,' pointing out some tricks 'that you can't glean from the text-books'. 'He set me straight', said Gary, explaining how he had learnt to voice the flugelhorn on top of the trombones for an authentic brass band sound.

Gary's score caters for the conventional brass instruments, with the addition of side- and bass- drums, glockenspiel and timpani; some of the bands that will be visiting Gryon use an extended instrumentation, so he has written a separate flute part and prepared instructions for the doubling of sax and woodwind sections.

'How do you cope with transposing-instruments?' I asked him, mindful of my own frustrations in trying to score for various types of horn whose middle C, for instance, conventionally appears on the stave as a B flat or an E flat. 'I gave it to someone else,' Gary guffawed, 'a girl with a computer.' He had been going to play it all into the system himself, but ' ... by the time I'd got myself together ...' This sentence was left tellingly unfinished.

So ... the Charterhouse connection?

David Wright had been 'very, very helpful', and Gary owed him a few favours; David was 'quick to jump in' with a request for assistance with his own forthcoming concert: thus Mr Brooker will guest with the Godalming Symphonia in Mozart's Toy Symphony in early July. Charterhouse, of course, is alma mater to Peter Gabriel and most of Genesis: so 'a few rock and rollers' would be joining Gary for the Mozart. I said that I knew toy symphonies by Romberg and by Haydn, but had not heard of a Mozart one. Gary suddenly sounded concerned, and after a while rooted out a letter confirming the particulars of this musical engagement. It was definitely the Mozart, he said, relieved to find that he wouldn't end up 'listening to the wrong one on holiday.' This was an unexpected insight into the thoroughness of his preparation.

Noting that Gary would undoubtedly end up playing Toy Trumpet with the Symphonia, I asked if he felt a certain empathy with instruments of the brass family. Had I read in a distant NME that he played cornet and trombone in his youth? He had played cornet at school for a year, he told me, but never the trombone: that had been his father, in a marching band. So ... the vocal brass impersonations in Magdalene, on stage and on record, didn't indicate that he was a frustrated brass player: Not really, he said: he just liked 'the lovely sound they make.'

The greatest appeal in the Gryon project had been the challenge of finding out how another group of musicians worked, and, though I didn't comment at the time, it seems clear enough now that the familiar process of writing, recording and touring a fresh Procol Harum record – despite the numerous fans longing for just this to happen – simply doesn't hold the challenge for Gary that writing a miniature for brass does. And his last few performances (Redhill, Aldershot) have been by invitation, rather than by personal impetus. Perhaps the world's fans should start organising some invitations!

'Would you like to do more work for brass forces?' I asked. 'I wouldn't expect so,' was Gary's reply. Laughing, he explained that he didn't feel himself saying, 'Hey, this is the way to go,' over the whole affair. And, he repeated, he still had to hear it: despite the Swiss verdict that it was 'a masterpiece' about which they were 'trčs content', he might himself consider that it hadn't worked at all. The appetite for fresh challenges surfaced again when he hoped that '... one day something a little bit more experimental will pop up, with any luck.'

Another Gazza recording?

Like Delta, I said, your ballet, which the world is still waiting to hear. In 1990 Gary had told Danish interviewers that it would come out 'on record before too long', when he'd written the 'B' side: I asked him if Bourdon could fit that bill?

Gary replied that the massed Gryon performance was not being recorded, except by himself! He was planning to 'Pop there for the weekend ... wouldn't miss it for the world,' and take a DAT of it. 'Bootlegging your own material?' I asked. Gary replied that the occasion justified it: he wouldn't get another chance with four hundred players, the drummers and everything.

So that DAT could be put out, on his own Gazza label, in tandem with Delta? 'One day,' was the familiar reply! He said he had received 'a fairly reasonable recording' of Delta, but felt it could be improved: it was an intensely rhythmical piece – that had been the terms of the choreographer's commission – and he thought he would prefer to record it with synths that could keep up the percussion parts more relentlessly than a human orchestra. Gary seemed momentarily surprised to learn that a synthesised recording, presumably from his own sequencer, was already in circulation.

I asked if Delta were still being performed anywhere. The Danish Royal Ballet, I learned, had run out of their rights on it after five years. One day, 'out of the blue', Gary had had a telephone call asking if he wanted his music back. 'Why?' he had asked. It seemed that the young Musical Director there, under whose aegis Gary had received the Delta commission, had 'got the elbow', whereupon a traditionalist had come in with no interest in the English rocker's work. Gary agreed with me that musically Delta was far from radical anyway: yet, he explained, in the Danish Royal Ballet’s eyes the very idea of a ballet that consisted solely of movement, and did not purport to tell a story, was radical enough!

Procol arrangers

Did Gary actually enjoy the work involved in committing an arrangement to paper? Yes, he said, he enjoyed it when he was doing it. Didn't it take a long time? No, never, because he had always left it 'too bloody late!' It had been exactly the same this time: having known since November that he had a piece to compose, he suddenly thought, about March 15th, 'God I've got to deliver this by the 31st, I'd better start thinking what it's going to be.'

Mind you this is the spirit in which the orchestral Conquistador arrangement was reputedly conceived, so there is good cause to suppose that Bourdon will be well worth a listen! But I remember that a new arrangement for the Brooker Ensemble was supposed to be materialising for Aldershot, and didn't: it evidently takes a lot of pressure, perhaps from a wide public, to get Gary in from his fishing.

He told me that the scoring of the present piece was very different from the orchestral brass he'd worked out in the past: he uses textbooks for assistance (I remember a Phonogram press-release that divulged the name of one of these: Arranging Music for a Hot Dance Orchestra!) rather than looking much at other brass arrangers' scores. David Wright had given him a couple, but they were written in a 'ridiculously transposed' way, and Gary is, by his own admission, 'a chronic sight-reader, hopeless!', whose career has placed maximum reliance on what must be an excellent musical ear, rather than on his eyes.

I thought next of the Edmonton album-sleeve, which somewhat paradoxically thanks Jim Parker for his help with the orchestrations, while reminding us that the orchestral parts were 'conceived and written by Gary Brooker': had Gary, I wondered, gone through the same sort of consultative process before that concert as he had done lately over Bourdon?

Gary explained that he had thought up all the Edmonton orchestration and had known just how he wanted it to sound. Jim Parker's assistance had been simply technical, I gathered, not melodic. As Gary put it, he was always 'trying to think up some extra melodic lines, not just hammer it out' when he was playing with the band, let alone when devising orchestral parts. 'When I had time for thought', he said, he was always able to come up with additional melodic material: Conquistador was the first example he put forward, and of the orchestral Whaling Stories he said he was 'almost rewriting it'.

Then, fascinatingly, he spoke of the unconscious way that these orchestral lines tended to turn up again in band-only arrangements. 'You get seduced by it,' he said: he had recently heard a recording of Procol Harum in the USA in 1995, and had been oddly surprised to notice that he was playing 'a bit I like' from the symphonic Simple Sister.

'I've always been a complete and utter fool,' Gary went on, ruing the fact that he writes out all his orchestral parts himself. He invoked John Williams and Michael Kamen, sitting at their pianos, ‘working a few things out’ then ‘farming them out’ to the arranger. 'And I'm bloody scribbling away with a pencil worrying about it,' he concluded. I imagine that part of the pressure on Gary to do his own arrangements is financial, except where a record company specifically requires a symphonic treatment for marketing reasons.

Sticking my neck out, I mentioned that I didn't really care for the soupy texture of some of the 'farmed out' arrangements on The Long Goodbye, though the more muscular ones were good fun. 'Dodd is very sweet,' he conceded. I said that the prime offender for me was the Disney-like introduction to Homburg. Gary said he quite liked that one ' ... because you think, "Oh what the bloody hell's this?"' He reported that 'Doddy' had said, 'I think I might have gone over the top on that one,' but that Gary had assured him, 'Yes you have, Nick, but I like it.'

Conversation turned to Christian Kabitz, arranger of the symphonic Walpurgis which Matthew Fisher considered 'spectacularly ineffective'. Gary explained how he had met Kabitz, ‘a very nice man’, during the ‘Rock meets Classic’ tours in the early 80s, going round Europe on twenty-five dates, all of which Christian had conducted. Kabitz had loved Repent Walpurgis so much that he had orchestrated it for his thesis at music school: now he runs the orchestra and choir at the St. Johanneskirche in Würzburg, where he does 'lots of Bach'. Together they had played 'a few bits, including "Grand Final" as he calls it,' Gary explained. I did not think to ask, but I guess these concerts may have been the last time Gary and BJ played together on stage.

So whose orchestral Walpurgis arrangement had Procol played before The Long Goodbye album was made? Gary mused for a while: the original Harum orchestrations had been done for Stratford, Ontario in 1969, but he could not remember at what stage Repent Walpurgis had been added to the roster of arrangements; we both thought it had been played at the Rainbow concert. The Edmonton II arrangement, he thought, might have been a souped-up version of that Royal Philharmonic outing. All he could say for certain was that the Barbican one was different again.

I pointed out that Matthew Fisher could well have arranged Repent Walpurgis for the Symphonic record – his Hesperus arrangement for Procol Harum had been superb – and Gary agreed, adding, 'He never has, though.' He explained that Symphonic album had never been intended as a Procol album in any way, though it had ended up being marketed as such, and he had not initially been planning to approach people who would specifically appeal to the established fan-base: hence Kabitz, Tom Jones, James Galway and Jerry Hadley; it had been intended to have lots more guests, 'but the list just got shorter and shorter' until 'muggins' ended up doing more and more of it himself. As so often, when discussing the band’s history, he seemed to be accepting that there was a tide in men’s affairs (or in the music industry) against which he was powerless to swim.

Later in the conversation I asked him why it was that Chris Copping hadn't done more arranging on the Procol Harum albums he had been involved in, given that his Skating on Thin Ice orchestrations had sounded so polished. Gary's voice filled with immediate enthusiasm: 'Such a capable musician, Chris Copping.' He had always done 'a nice job' with the band, but he could have done so much more. He could compose brilliant songs – he evidently makes a good living in Australia, as Copping Music, writing high-class commercials, winning big-budget contracts such as BMW – but had never submitted one idea for Procol Harum.

How come he had done that orchestration, then? Gary's voice rose again in amused frustration. 'Because I told him to get off his f*cking butt and do something for the damn band,' he laughed. He had told him, arrange this, come on, out you go, and Copping had come back with the instrumental parts the very next day. 'He's got the capability,' Gary insisted, 'when he's not drinking beer.'

And who was Mike Lewis, credited with arranging the title track on Something Magic? Gary told me this was just a jobbing Miami arranger who had written out the part for strings and a bit of brass that had already been present in the band-arrangement which Procol had been touring before settling in the studio. But the Albert brothers' production, he felt, have not done justice to the sound on the album. He invited me to listen to the CD – if I had it! – in tandem with the vinyl LP, 'A / B-ing them' to pick up subtle differences in the orchestral sound. I assured him that, like most fans, I had bought the Castle re-issue the moment it became available.

With self-mocking gravity Gary mentioned that he believed the album was nicknamed Something Tragic 'on the web', and pressed me to say whether this was 'because it was Procol's last album, or because it a tragic mistake?' When I told him that I'd enjoyed The Worm on hearing it played, band-only, in Bristol, he expressed the gravest doubt that they had ever performed it in Britain! 'We were playing it in Germany ...' he contradicted me genially.

But it was played in Bristol, and I told him that it had seemed to present great possibilities for development, with more slides than had been projected the night I'd seen it. 'It could have developed,' Gary mused, recalling that James Mason had been intended originally to do 'the oratory.' Again, swept on some ineluctable tide, 'muggins' had ended up doing it himself. Was it true, as has been reported, that he would eventually have figured out how to sing it, as opposed to reciting it?

It was very organic, the way it had got written, Gary explained, warming to this particular reminiscence. He had had 'the worm of an idea' but had never thought they would ever get round to playing it: neither had Keith. It was all down to the Alberts' dislike of the other material the band had got ready: they had heard bits of The Worm and jumped at the chance of completing it, and everything had got done very quickly.

They probably jumped at the attractive individual tunes, rather than at the whole thing, I supposed. Gary said he could never figure out 'if the music states what has just happened, or what is just about to happen.' We both enthused about the way Mick Grabham's guitar depicts the destruction of the worm (see here). 'Well yeah, good set of chords, ultra-dramatic!' he said. I commented that it was nice to see Keith's prophecy, 'from the roots of the elder a new life will spread' fulfilled, to an extent, in the recycling of Worm material in Last Train to Niagara.

One eye on the future ...

I would not have risked my next question, had the topic not arisen naturally in the course of our conversation. As it was, I simply took the plunge: were we likely to see Niagara on a new record this side of the new millennium?

'That's got nothing to do with my birthday!' was the gruff reply. But I pointed out that 'Beyond the Pale' had a substantial readership who would feel somewhat let down if I did not at least ask this most pregnant question. Gary didn't have to answer!

There was a long pause – the only one in almost an hour's conversation – before a reply was forthcoming, Beckettian in its guardedness. 'We're not dead, you can quote that,' Gary finally said.

'The "Palers" will be very glad to hear that,' I told him. And this mention of the PH website soon had him back in full flow.

'Reid and I did check in on the web,' he informed me – as with the CD release of Something Magic, he imagined this was something a Procoholic might have overlooked! – and he explained that he had subsequently given Keith some encouragement in the matter of correcting the song-words BtP published. Gary had noticed that a lot of the punctuation was wrong, 'which on occasions totally changed the meaning'. I explained that the method Reid and I had evolved was that I wrote out my best estimates of the words – keeping the punctuation to a bare minimum – and sent them to Keith to amend as required.

'I don't think Keith likes much punctuation,' Gary said, 'except for apostrophes.' I asked who had overseen the very careful punctuation of the word-sheet that accompanied the original vinyl Home album. Far from naming the culprit, Gary could not recall the insert, until I mentioned the David Bailey portrait that adorned it. 'Ooh that must be pretty rare,' he said. I admitted that there had been two inserts in my record. 'You must've got mine,' he quipped.

I went on to express interest in the words of songs that the band had never issued or played, and we briefly touched on MacGreggor. 'We shall sing it again one day,' Gary suddenly said, answering from the blithely outgoing side of his character, the creative musician who loves to play onstage as opposed to the cautious side, reluctant to tackle the music industry afresh. We wouldn't want anybody else using the unreleased words in some way, he said, 'pinching a couple of lines and claiming no knowledge'. He said there were few enough words around these days, and a couple of lines from one of 'Reidy's old songs' could probably give some plagiarist the thought to sow the seed. That took us right back to Niagara, where Reidy's old words had been comprehensively plagiarised for one of his newest creations!

'We were astounded when we went out in 1992,' said Gary: Procol Harum had 'popped in to America' and gone all round Europe in a state of amazement that the audiences had 'sat there for fifteen years' and still retained any interest. The fans must have been listening to the same things over and over again, he noted, qualifying this with '... from time to time, when they put something on,' as if he couldn't believe that some us really had been playing his oeuvre constantly throughout that wide space of time!

'It shouldn't surprise you,' I said: music that wasn't written to be trendy in the first place can't really go out of fashion. Brooker could not agree that the music had been deliberately crafted to last: 'It's not a conscious thing,' he said, once again enforcing the notion that much of what happened in Procol Harum took place at an instinctive, intuitive level. 'That's the way the band is, or Reid and I, we're not great followers of fashion.'

So, was there any verdict as far as future recordings was concerned?

'As soon as something happens, you'll be the first to know,' Gary told me, 'I can't say fairer than that.' He made it clear that he did not know what would 'happen', but added, 'We did think that if we do something we ought to have new product out.'

Without wishing to quash that enticing suggestion, I pointed out that he could probably put together a fresh tour based on material that the band had worked up and never recorded. 'Haven't you got lots of unused gems in your catalogue?'

'Probably have,' he replied.

You could start with Something Magic out-takes, I said: there's not many of us have heard I'm a Reader, or One Eye On The Future. Gary seemed unsure whether they had ever played those numbers on stage, and mentioned a few others, including Musical Fish, and A la Carte, which have surely never seen the light of day. I mentioned enjoying So Far Behind at Aylesbury in March 1976. 'I didn't know we'd played that,' was his reply.

I asked if it was unsettling to have a following that evidently recalled his every action far better than he did himself. 'No no, we appreciate everybody's interest and loyalty,' he replied. I regaled him with some BtP statistics (as many as 150 hits a day on the front page alone, where habitual visitors presumably never go) and pointed out that the growth of the Internet community meant that there was now an ever-increasing audience eagerly awaiting the next Procol excursion.

'But come on,' he protested, 'isn't it the same fifteen people over and over again?'

I told Gary that many of the visitors were young fans, newcomers, and I mentioned the great quantities of appreciative mail that 'Beyond the Pale' culls from Procol Harum fans worldwide. He sounded impressed.

'If I got that much mail praising what I was up to,' he said, 'or supporting in some way ... that would be very satisfying.'

I started explaining that any praise for 'Beyond the Pale' was praise for Procol Harum: 'You'd be receiving it yourself, if you were on-line ...'

'Ah, that's a ways off yet,' said Gary, contemplating the business of connecting his modem to the telephone service. 'Life's too busy ...'

And suddenly he must have glanced at the clock.

'I've got my bags packed here,' he said, with the famous audible grin. 'All right, Roland!'

'Thanks for ringing, Gary,' said I. 'Happy birthday!'

 Gary's enthusiasm for 'Beyond the Pale' led him to take time out from his Florida holiday towards the end of May to visit us again: his message (here) tells of fishing and 'a splendid uncharted celebration' of his birthday, or of 'the end of World War II' as he puts it!

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