Procol Harum

Beyond
the Pale

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Hollywood Bowl, 21 September 1973

The Concert Programme : Keith Reid profile


Keith Reid, in person, is only fractionally intellectual and wordy. Nothing much like the lyrical figure of your imagination: the man whose impeccable poetry has been the backbone of Procol Harum's music for six years.

But then Gary Brooker was a surprise, too. Both men hold back more than they offer and both have egos that are relatively small by Rock-n-Roll standards. There must have been many opportunities to grow in that direction since apart from steady encouragement, verging on frenzy, from the more obvious quarters, they more and more often find themselves being pursued by conductors and orchestra leaders.

Casual Procol listeners tend to underplay Keith's important role with the group since he "only writes the words". (He used to make a brief stage appearance, adopting a hesitant Napoleonic pose, to read a passage from In Held 'Twas In I, but since the piece has been dropped, he's withdrawn further into the background.)

"In actuality," says BJ, "Keith is very much a member of the group. When people don't see him onstage, it's hard for them to see it. It's very easy for everyone in the group to see. We wouldn't tour and we wouldn't be Procol Harum if Keith wasn't there."

He wasn't magnanimous [sic], since you sense BJ isn't one for idle drooling. And Chris Copping, Procol's organist, was ready to echo his thoughts.

Said Keith: "This is the one thing people who know about us understand. We know what we are and anyone who likes us and bothers to find out about us understands what we are...what else can you say?"

But surely Keith's own lyrics don't give much away about himself. On some songs, they do if you remember Crucifixion [sic] Lane, from the Salty Dog album, that was a picture of him and how he was feeling at that time. As it happened, the song went under the carpet and didn't work out well. But a lot of them are personal expression, of what he's about.

Keith is neither a particularly disciplined or [sic] prolific writer. "I don't write many songs ... certainly not one a week. I wish I was disciplined."

The way he works with Gary Brooker is quite unusual, and stems from the beginning of their partnership, when Keith gave Gary a bunch of 12 or 15 lyrics and Brooker went away to set them to music. Now, they still work that way, never meeting to collaborate during the creation of a song. The writing of words and then music are entirely separate processes.

"It's pretty difficult for two people to work together so apart and yet combine so successfully. Often I write something and give it to him, and with no changes at all it suits a piece of music that he's already written. It's an unconscious empathy and it happened right from the start."

There are never any alterations to the lyric once Gary has received it: "He's never even suggested any edits or changes. On one occasion he came up with some music and asked me to put words to it, but that's not something I do very well.

"It takes me a long time to write. It's not often I get the kind of ideas that trigger off a song. But when I get an idea, if it's a good one, it doesn't take me long to write the song."

Again unusually, he considers that his words must make sense on paper before he delivers them they must look and sound right when they're read, not just when they're sung.

"That's where I part company with everybody else my words must work on paper as well as on the record. I couldn't possibly do it any other way."

One thing he seems sad about is that no other artists ever seem to try their own versions of the songs he and Gary write apart, of course, from innumerable middle-of-the-road cover versions of Whiter Shade of Pale.

"There are writers, which is what I think we are, and there are write-performers [sic] people like Dr. John, whom we love, but who can get away with a wrong word in a song by singing it in an appealing way.

"Now no-one could ever do Dr. John's songs as well as he does, but a good singer with a good arranger and producer could do just as good a job on one of our songs as we do. People try them from time to time, but I haven't heard a good one yet. Take Salad Days though, from the first album: I think that would be great for anyone who sings other people's material, like Rod Stewart or Joe Cocker or Richie Havens. I'd love to hear one of them try it."

 


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