Procol Harum

the Pale

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Guy Stevens

The man who named Procol Harum

Sam Cameron writes:

Guy Stevens was surely one of the most influential figures in popular music. Either through his ideas, record collection, knack for naming, production or management he influenced a host of major and minor wonders of the period 1964-1980. Apart from Procol Harum his influence was felt in the Rolling Stones, The Paramounts, Hapshash and the Coloured Coat, Art, Spooky Tooth, Free, Mott the Hoople and the Clash. What unifies some of these artists is perhaps the incorporation of a love of black music by white English performers into their work that went beyond mere copying or emulation.

Despite his influence he remains little known to the extent where I have never even seen a picture of him. There is an artistically-treated negative picture on the sleeve of the Hapshash album but it does not identify which member is him. He is discussed in Johnny Rogan's Starmakers and Svengalis: The History of British Rock Management published in 1988 but now out of print. He also features on the Encyclopaedia of Record Producers' website which unfortunately requires a user subscription. Perhaps curiously he seldom figures in the memoirs of members of the Clash or Procol Harum.

Apart from his legendary blues collection, the only biographical facts abroad seem to be that he left school early being much dismayed by being at a Rugby-playing school, was an Arsenal football fan, took his job at Island records in 1963 and was married. He died in 1980. The person known as Kosmo Vinyl was researching his life for a book. I have sent e-mail to their address but have not received a reply.

Probably, the lack of recognition stems from his not fitting into a clear pigeonhole as he was not strictly a manager, record producer or musician in any full-time sense. He also seems to have spent longer in prison, for drugs offences, than most people in the music industry of the time. His rôle was as a catalyst that led to the coalescence of nascent talents into formidable wholes. Having performed this function, he was generally left without a meaningful position in the future development of his protégés. His management and production spells with various bands were invariably short and stormy or punctuated by prison spells for drug possession. His own musical contributions are listed as piano and percussion on some early Mott the Hoople tracks plus playing, production and composition on the 1967 album Hapshash and the Coloured Coat featuring the Heavenly Host and the Heavy Metals Kids which was released in 1967 on Imperial records and is now out on CD. This was one of the (if not the) first rock albums to feature a composition occupying the full length of one side of a vinyl LP. This was side two entitled Empires of the Sun. One searches in vain for any germs of relevance to Procol archæology on this record. There are no song structures and no song words as such. Most of the vocals are chants with some recitation, apparently in Spanish, which is followed, at the very end, by a ham actor-style monologue apparently derived from Scandinavian myths and legends.

Stevens produced this record but there is no distinctive added value lent through studio techniques or experimentation; the recorded sound is roughly like that of an early Move or Yardbirds record. Whilst not being structured as songs, the music fails to be symphonic or improvisational. Mostly, a simple riff is played repeatedly with the variation being in the chants, percussion and occasional eastern flute. Surprisingly, given the name of the band and the nature of its members, the record does not sound particularly psychedelic. It is impossible to identify who played what as the anonymous sleeve notes are singularly uninformative and I have no access to any other documentation. It seems likely that Stevens played piano and percussion given his Mott the Hoople credits. Sony are releasing a Mott the Hoople box set in September 1998 so there may be some new information there.

The maverick nature of his personality is captured in two pieces. One is a transcription of the words from a tribute to Guy [Indiscreet Harlequin] written by Patrick Campbell-Lyons of the band Nirvana whilst the other is an abridgement of the text of a history of Mott the Hoople written by Adrian Perkins to be found on his website.

I have not tampered with the original text, from the Mott the Hoople history, other than to exclude sections from it which are not relevant here. It propagates the still unverified notion that the name Procol Harum was derived from a cat owned by Guy Stevens when there seems to be no record of any such pedigree name being used until the year of his death. On the other hand, there seem to be have been few alternatives offered to the story that it was Guy who said to Keith Reid 'you look like a whiter shade of pale' or some variant thereof that was to become the title of the song. Likewise, there seems little doubt that the conception of Brooker and Reid as a fruitful pairing was his vision.

Hoople history

Indiscreet Harlequin

Guy Stevens's famous cat

More Procol writings from Sam Cameron

Some disinformation about Stevens

The Clash: Midnight to Stevens

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