Procol Harum

the Pale

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Gary Brooker in 'Shine On'

'To cut a long story sideways'

This Gary Brooker interview was written, some while before the Redhill Party, by Paul Carter of the UK's Daily Express, and published originally in Shine On, August 1997.

Paul Carter
How do you feel about AWSoP as you come to the anniversary? I wondered if you get a bit sick of it?

Gary Brooker
If I'm sick of it I'm in trouble, because I'm playing it for the next forty nights. I'm no more sick of playing it than people are of hearing it. It's an interesting song, it's not just three chords. The words I think are fantastic. You can almost think up a different image to it every time you sing it so that adds interest all the time. And as you probably know, if I do get bored, which I don't, I can always use some of the other verses.

Do you often play the full four verses live?

If we're out with Procol we often do a three-verse one On very rare occasions, usually when somebody messes up something, not with Procol but with some sort of charity band, and somebody goes to the wrong part and you suddenly find that you're in limbo, I have to stick in the fourth one to recover.

There was a lot of interest a couple of years ago when the so-called 'missing verse' was unearthed and a writer claimed to have revealed what the song was all about. (see here)

That's one of the things about AWSoP, people often ask what does it mean. The whole thing about it is, that's what you make up. It's not nonsense as some people seem to think. It's not just a load of jumbled psychedelic phrases. You have to read it very carefully if you want to know what it means and you've still got to decide for yourself. But there is something in there, a story in there.

Is the fact that you removed two of the verses one reason why people are so baffled by the lyrics?

No. You're not really missing any of the plot. Although if you read the other two verses it expands the feeling of the thing. You get more of the images. The two verses on the record have a lot of imagery in them, in every line. I imagine a lot (when I'm singing it), whether it be sixteen vestal virgins, wandered through my playing cards, skipped the light fandango, the waiter brought a tray – it's all pictures. And the other two verses, particularly the third verse that starts off ... Um ... oh I can't remember without singing it, 'I wandered home on shore leave' [sic], that one. There's Neptunes and everything in there.

We actually cut that fourth verse out ourselves. Not because it wasn't good. It was very hard to sing, actually, because of what the words were. It wasn't the easiest verse to sing. And we also ourselves thought it was very long with four verses. The original words are now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and it's got a load of lines scribbled across that fourth verse.

And then the third verse got lost because when we went to make the record it was still about seven minutes long. Everybody said that's completely and utterly crazy so we ended up with two verses. That was four and a half minutes long. And everybody still said you're crazy. But were we going to end up with one verse? It was getting ridiculous. So we stuck with our two and it didn't matter at all that it was four and a half minutes in fact.

Was this one of the very first compositions you'd done jointly with Keith Reid?

No. We started dabbling around towards the end of '66. Somewhere in that period I'd met with Keith and he'd given me an envelope with about ten sets of lyrics in. And this friend, the late Guy Stevens, suggested that I might try writing to them. I started doing that and then thought, ooh I'll play these to Keith Reid and he really liked them. This was his lyrics coming to life, because he'd always thought of them as lyrics rather than jottings or poems.

I remember reading that you got the lyrics to AWSoP through the post one day.

Yes. After that initial period, I would get them through the post.

And did you feel that there was something special about this particular lyric as soon as you saw it?

There was something special about all Keith's lyrics. On the other hand, this was nice because it was an epic, very, very long, each verse was very long when you see it written on paper, this was a full-up A4 masterpiece. Some of them were short five or six liners, two verses and a chorusy bit, but this was a mammoth thing – I was immediately interested. I read through it once when it arrived in the post, I was living in Southend at the time, with my Mum, and I thought, oh this is fantastic. So I sat down at the piano and started playing around. Well no, I don't think I did at first, I sort of read it then put it on the piano. I had been fascinated by a piece of music that was on the TV a lot in the 'Hamlet' cigar adverts.

They only used the Jacques Loussier recording. I actually know the man who thought those adverts up. Can't remember his name now. We called him Flash, an advertising agency man who was very good at his job, and he thought up those 'Hamlet' adverts. I knew the piece anyway in the back of my mind but it came to prominence with the 'Hamlet' ads and that was about the beginning of '67 I think.

I sat down this particular morning and I went to try and play it which is in fact Air On a G String, and I think I sort of got the first few notes and I knew that the bass line kept on going down, it was like a descending bass line, four to the bar, so I started to play it, but I think I got lost somewhere along the line: but I just carried on in my own way. I got lost after a couple of bars so I just carried on. And then I found, well, it's a bit complicated this, I started on a C and I got all the way down by keeping playing these chords until I was down at the lower C, and I thought, well, I'm there again, I'll go down again, so I just kept going round and round and round, and there were these words there and I just started to sing 'em really. I kept the chords going exactly the same but kind of changed the tune as I went along and after a verse sort of broke off and tried to play a bit of Bach or Bach-like notes.

Did it really only take half an hour?

That's not an exaggeration. Once I got that idea that you just keep playing these chords descending, I just went round and round and round. I was there. The only thing I had to do was the fact that that [sic] I thought well, how am I going to get to the repeated bit 'and so it was that later, as the miller told his tale' which is at the end of every verse. And so I just banged in this triplet, you know, just changed the tempo of the chords for a bar, then carried on with the chords again. You just have to flip it round at the end on the 'Whiter Shade of Pale' line so that you start again.

At what stage did the Hammond organ sound come in?

That was a piece of luck – I was playing a Bach-like tune but Matthew refined that because he knew exactly what I was doing, because he knew a lot about Bach as well. Luckily he knew enough not to just play Air on a G String, but he refined what I was playing and played it on the organ. That came about when Matthew joined.

I did read a suggestion that the Hammond organ part was influenced by When a Man loves a Woman. Is there anything in that?


Glad to hear it. What memories do you have of recording AWSoP?

I remember we recorded it in Olympic Studios in Barnes. It was our first studio session. We had by then played our demo to some people. We made a demo of it first which sounded exactly like the record except that the drummer tended to speed up a little, the drummer we had at the time that we were trying out. He did tend to race it a bit every now and then. We called him Tubs Drubs, but I don't know his name. He was a nice man, he was with us for about three or four weeks but I think we noticed how much he was speeding up when we did this demo. But it was a good demo, I think it was the three-verse demo, but I've never heard it. I bet a copy exists somewhere but I've never had one. So I don't know where that is, which is a shame.

But anyway, we had our first session booked, and giving the demo round we eventually found someone who was interested, which was in fact the people we were already signed to publishing-wise. Keith and I had started a production company. David Platz was a big publisher, Keith and I were already signed to him as songwriters and he teamed up with Denny Cordell, who was a big record producer, to form an independent company that would produce records. He had been doing Georgie Fame and the Moody Blues. He did Go Now, he did Georgie Fame's Yeah, Yeah and that, so Denny was a proper producer but looked at people individually. It wasn't working for Decca or EMI. He was his own man.

We had the session booked. Tubbs [sic] Drubs we gave the sack and we were still looking round and trying people out the week before we had this session. About two days before, Denny had said we haven't got anybody yet we'll book a session man in case you don't get anyone. We played with Bobby Harrison, who I'd known from years before, the day before this session, but in fact for the day we already had a session player booked and Denny said "No, let's go ahead with the sessions we've booked." All we'd done was we'd played with Bobby and said yeah we like your playing so we hadn't rehearsed or anything. He wouldn't have known the songs whereas a session player in those days was expected to be able to play along with something that he'd never heard.

In some of the things I've read it's been presented as if Bobby Harrison not playing on the recording was some kind of snub that led to him leaving the band. But that way you're telling it, that's clearly not so.

No, he wasn't actually in the band, and if he was, he'd only been from the day before. If you like, he joined after we made the recording. But he was in the band by the time we made the b-side, because we didn't do the b-side that day. The numbers I remember recording that day were the two songs we thought were our best shots, AWSoP and one called Salad Days. I don't know what happened to that recording of Salad Days either. The session drummer was Bill Eyden and it was recorded on 4-track and done live in the studio with all the playing and singing.

It must have been very exciting, but perhaps a little terrifying when it became a huge hit so suddenly. What kind of effect did that have on you and the band?

Well, it was marvellous. Crikey, it was very, very, very exciting. Has anyone ever experienced it before that quickly and that big? Without any bullshit or hype, making a record and the entire world thinking it was the best thing since fire.

It was from a playing on Radio London, wasn't it, that it really look off?'

We did the recording, but we were worried that the cymbals from the drummer were clashing a lot: they had gone out over the instruments as well. He was hitting them pretty hard. We were worried about that. Denny was as well, and we wanted to hear it over the radio to see if it was a worry or not, to see if it would be all right. By then someone at Decca, who Denny's records were put out through, his name was Tony Hall, he was a plugger there, he arranged for the pirate ship, Radio London, he sent them out a demo, an acetate, and they played it on the radio, purely so that we could listen to it at home with the radio on to see if it was all right, and that was a very exciting moment because he said "Right, got this record to play you here, it's a new one," he played it, it finished, and he said: "that sounds like a massive hit."

Things happened very quickly in those days. We recorded it in April, but it was out on May 11th , it was out in about three weeks of recording it.

Almost as soon as it was released, you were playing in support of Jimi Hendrix. How did that come about?

We played at the Speakeasy Club the day it came out. We started playing through our music, which at that point because we only had ten Brooker / Reid songs, we played those and we played a few others that we liked. We played a Bob Dylan song, a Rascals song, and we played one called Morning Dew that Tim Rose had recorded, because it suited us. Hendrix was down at the Speakeasy and watching us playing and he suddenly jumped up on stage when we started Morning Dew, grabbed the bass off our bass-player, turned it upside down, and joined in. He loved us, he thought we were lovely. And with AWSoP going into the charts shortly after it was released, I think it went from nowhere to 11, then straight to No 1, we were immediately in demand to perform. I can remember playing at the Saville Row Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue after Jimi Hendrix.

You had some problems with management at the time.

Somebody came in at that point to act for us and he was a complete dingbat. He was probably there for about three or four weeks. The straw that broke the camel's back was when were meant to go to the Barnes studios from the West End, and I was just getting ready to get the 'bus when a Rolls Royce pulls up and says "I've come to take you to Olympic Studios." I said: "Well who sent you?" He said Jonathan Weston Management. I said "No, go away, I'm going on the 'bus". I'd been in bands before. I'd seen money get chucked away. Some people might like it but I wasn't keen on it.

We did have a bad spell there because it coincided with trying some recordings. When we got into the studio seriously with the drummer and guitarist, their style didn't really fit me, Matthew and the bass player for the songs. We tried seven or eight songs then Denny Cordell said look this is not working out and I said no, and he said we'll have to find another drummer and guitarist. So Harrison and Royer left and it coincided with us getting rid of the manager, so they teamed up with a law-suit. Meanwhile, AWSoP is No 1.

So it was all over the papers and the story went from bad to worse. Because by the end of it, we hadn't made the record, it was all session players. Even Bill Eyden chucked his oar in, saying "I played on this record and all I got was a session fee". Of course all he got was a session fee! That's all anybody got. It all turned bad, horribly bad. I don't think people have ever got over that in Britain. The public have always had in the back of their mind that this was just a one-off record.

But we regrouped. I knew Wilson and Trower. I said I could think of them as being our guitarist and drummer. But I said: "I don't want to be biased, I don't want to say I want them because they're my old mates. Let's hold some auditions." So we had some other people come down as well, and of course Cordell had never seen Trower or Wilson, but they came down and played, and me standing aside and being objective about it, and with everybody else in on the decision as well, they got the job.

After all that trouble, that must have given you a real sense of going back to firm foundations with your old Paramount colleagues.

Well, I never looked at it like that. A lot of people seem to think that the Paramounts metamorphosed into Procol Harum. But they didn't. I'd played with Robin for years and I didn't think that he would like Procol Harum or that he was the right man or that he would enjoy it; so I'd never naturally asked him in the first place. BJ in fact was different because he was meant to be in Procol Harum but didn't turn up. But that's another story!

I've read anecdotes about John Lennon sitting in the back of a limousine and playing AWSoP 100 times in a row.

That's well documented. The Beatles loved it. During this period, imagine AWSoP has come out, it's No 11 with a dash, from nowhere to No 11. We hadn't even got any clothes and we had to go on the telly that night for the first time, so we went to one of the King's Road boutiques, one of the exclusive ones where we had to ring a bell outside, and we went in and inside there were The Beatles who were in buying clothes as well. And they were all sitting round a harmonium this shop had, singing AWSoP as we came in. They didn't know we were going to walk in. I think Paul was on the harmonium and everybody else was singing it. Ringo, who I'm with at the moment, says it's his favourite song of all time. But he also seems to like Conquistador. He goes potty on that one, dancing.

How do you rate AWSoP against your other work?

When you write a song, you're trying to do two things really. You're trying to write what you think is a good song, you're trying to write something that no one has written before, and it was a lot easier to do that then because things hadn't been explored as much as they were in the post [sic] ten years. From 1967 to the end of the '70s, everything got really done then so many more people were doing it. So you sit down and a) you're trying to write a good original song and b) you're trying to write a song that will get through to the people who are going to hear it. that it's going to be good for them to listen to in some way, that it's going to bring something out, make them feel something in some way. AWSoP did that very successfully. But I think A Salty Dog is to me a better song. You can play A Salty Dog and no-one's ever heard it and they will love it. Especially these days, it gets across well.

It seems go me that one of the problems of the Whiter Shade of Pale phenomenon, and its huge success, is that people have got the impression that all Procol music is terribly refined and stately, when in fact a huge part of the music is rip-roaring rock

Procol Harum, at the end of the day, even with the professional people that know, they don't think so much of it as a rock and roll fast tempo thing. In fact probably the ones that stick in people's minds with us aren't fast tempo. I think Conquistador is the exception to that, but in America they've got their favourites as well. Simple Sister is very, very well thought of there. It's a stormer. And Whisky Train. They like the big guitar stuff.

I think the way you orchestrated Simple Sister on The Long Goodbye album is just astonishing, the way you get the whole orchestra rocking.

Oh yeah, it's good fun that. They did swing.

What are the roots of your interest in melding and fusing classical influences with rock?

I've always liked all different types of music. But classical music is the one that seems to affect me more than, say, jazz. I've always liked blues and rhythm and blues but what I was attracted to usually in that was the vocals. But once you just get down to playing notes and chords, classical stuff has got some fantastic power in it. There never used to be power in early rock records. Since then you've got power in there, especially with your big guitars. But one of the ideas of Procol was to have five instruments, two keyboards and a guitar, and more power. And with this more power, with two keyboards, you can really start to use classical types of chords, different progressions to the usual four or six that you get in a rock song.

Have you studied classical music academically at any point?

When I first learnt the piano I used to play classical things. But not as much as like Matthew Fisher, who went to Guildhall School of Music. I didn't do that. I started learning piano as soon as I was old enough to be left; five or something.

Your father played steel guitar, didn't he?

He was a professional musician all his life. Very successful at it in that he played many instruments, but he eventually ended up playing Hawaiian guitar, which had a big period of popularity after the war. He was the lead player in Felix Mendelsohn's Hawaiian Serenaders, and also he did all sessions that required that sort of instrument. He'd be on a Joan Regan record or a David Whitfield record. These were people who made records before rock and roll started. My mother's not musical but I had grandfathers who played violins. I grew up with music, I used to go along to see my father play and stand in the wings. The Hawaiian thing comes in some times. There's some faintly in Robert's Box, the last verse.

What are the problems of combining classical with rock? Many people hate the idea.

I know Procol Harum fans who love things but hate it when we play with an orchestra. That's the way it is. Robin Trower hated it. He'd never play with an orchestra. And Matthew, he played with the LSO in The Barbican but prior to that he'd actually declined. We were just about to play a reunion concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra when he decided not to come. He was not really keen on it. And there's a man who knows a lot about classics and has done arrangements on Procol Harum records. But he loved it at The Barbican.

He's changed his mind now.

It must be incredibly difficult marshalling a band, a whole orchestra and a choir. It must be very difficult staying in the saddle.

It's exhilarating as well. It drives you along a bit. The one thing is you have to have it written out extremely well, because you're only ever going to get one rehearsal. I've given up thinking that we're going to rehearse for a week. If you've got it written out properly, with no wrong notes and all the dynamics and the way it should be played, and you've told the classical musicians that, you've had no problem. The other element in there is that you've got to have a good conductor that looks at me, and the drummer, and the orchestra, and combines the two. We used Nicholas Dodd last time and he's very good at it.

I was very struck on The Long Goodbye album by how many different approaches you'd taken to the old standards. It's clearly very important to you to keep pushing back the boundaries and trying new things.

Well, what it is, is that I've been so busy I haven't had time to write anything new! That's the trouble. And one's thought, well, can't just play this the way we played it another time, let's get a new angle on it. And – I suppose it says something for the songs (that they stand up to new approaches). A Salty Dog has a different life now, particularly at the beginning. I've got a new slant on Salty Dog with the Latin verses. It's another angle, but I don't think I can think of anything else. I need to write a new song. Although having said that ...

Why did you reunite for The Prodigal Stranger album?

I'd been playing with other things in the '80s, a bit with Clapton, done some solo albums, and then about '87 I'd been playing with Andy Fairweather-Low and getting back to R&B roots with that band, playing in pubs. But we stopped in about '89, because Andy was short of money and had to go off with Chris Rea. And it actually coincided with me going up to Bill Wyman's café where they had an American radio station day. They had live radio going to America, and they had about six different radio stations with DJs broadcasting live from Sticky Fingers. And loads of rock stars go up there and chat on the radio and they play the records and all that. So I was invited up there and I met lots of people and they were all talking about the band as if it still existed and with a lot of respect. And I saw people like Brian May from Queen and he said "We couldn't have done what we did without you going first". And the DJs are talking as if Procol Harum had just played last night down the road. They were saying "Hey, Simple Sister's my favourite, hey, Conquistador" and so on. They're talking about it like that, not just "What does AWSoP mean?" They were asking: "When are we going to see the band again"

So afterwards I thought, well, people still like us and we haven't played for fifteen years or however long it was. People still respect the band. And now I wasn't playing with Andy, I'd thought I was going to make a solo album but then I said to Keith: What do you think about the Procol thing?" To cut a long story sideways, we decided to have a go writing some songs and if it works out and they sound good we'll take it from there. We wrote half a dozen, we were doing it with an engineer that Keith had been working with, who also chipped in some ideas. Keith thought we should have some fresh blood in there rather than sit there stagnant which is why you see Noble on the credits. And when we had half a dozen we thought, let Matthew have a go, and it just carried on.

What makes your partnership with Keith Reid so enduring and successful?

I think it's an unspoken thing. From the very first moment I saw his words written down, and from the very first moment that he heard me play them to music, there's been an affinity. I always know what Keith's getting at in his lyrics without analysing them. By reading them once, I feel them. And every one is different (chuckles), very different. I know sometimes he even cringes himself let alone he mentions 'cringing with embarrassment' – but the worst thing in the world that you could accuse Keith of is pretentiousness. He's very, very careful and sometimes he is on the edge because of the way you have to write words and what's been said before. If you're not a scholar you could sometimes take Keith's words the wrong way. You could think "That's a bit arty farty, that's a bit silly. But it's not. I know it's not ...'

You've been through so many personnel changes, what keeps the continuity of Procol Harum?

Well the songs and the singing. But everybody has always contributed an enormous amount. And the greatest contributor of all was BJ Wilson. And I miss him. Nobody's replaceable, ever. That is the hardest thing. He was very much Procol. You can't play a Procol Harum song and tap along in four-four, keeping the tempo correct and hitting an off-beat: you've got to play the tune.

Could you tell me something about the values that underlie the music?

I think from our early days when we were around as a band – me, Keith, BJ, particularly that trio – (we were) meditating and always thought there was a greater power, and there's good guys and bad guys, there's them and us. And Keith's words have always reflected what we as people felt about the world. There's been what's morally right, and the fat cats doing us in, and the world's sometimes a nasty place but Keith has a nice way of looking at all that in something like Broken Barricades. He speaks for us all.

Gary Brooker's BtP page

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