Procol Harum

Beyond
the Pale

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Keith Reid

The slightly invisible segment of Procol Harum


Michael Wale writing in ZigZag No. 30, April 1973

ZZ: The other Procol Harum interview ZigZag did was with Robin Trower (in ZigZag 27), and covered the period from the start of the group up until he left. So to begin with, can we have your views on his decision to go?

KR: You can hear it best really just listening to the Broken Barricades album, made after Matthew Fisher had left the group - which had been I suppose, a year and a half, or a year and three quarters before. When Matthew left, we decided that we wouldn't get another organist but would be a four-piece group, with the bass player playing organ on certain numbers and so, from that point on, we stopped featuring the organ as strongly as we had, and consequently the guitar came out more. Robin began to play a more dominant part in the group sound, and naturally began to want to contribute more to the songwriting side of things too so, by the time we came to make the Home album, he had written the music for two of the songs. Also, around that time we started to work more live; we became more of a live group giving live performances, so in that way he was more featured and when we eventually came to the time of Broken Barricades, he was really wanting to write a lot. When he wrote the music for a song, it was based around the guitar, usually around a riff or something like that, the way most guitarists write songs, and it got to that point where he was wanting to dominate whatever he was doing and he couldn't really do that within the group Procol Harum. I don't mean that it was like a needle match or anything, with Robin trying to get ten minute solos; it wasn't anything like that, it was just that as things were evolving and he was being called on to do more, started to do more and of course, he couldn't stop doing more, and it was just that we couldn't become the Robin Trower group. Well, then we came to make the Broken Barricades album, which really he wrote half the music for, it was obvious that he would have to go and form his own group. I hope this doesn't sound nasty, does it? It was just a natural progression, due to circumstances in that Matthew left and then we were a four-piece. Robin was called on to do more, he eventually did do more and eventually reached the stage where he wanted to do the whole thing.

ZZ: When Robin left, what trials did the group go through?

KR: Well, we decided at that point that we had obviously gone as far as we wanted to go in the direction we had with Robin, and that we were going to go back to being a five-piece group, with an organist as a permanent part; and so we set about replacing Robin and getting an organ player as well (as Chris Copping was still going to be the bass player). So we were, at that point, going to get both a new guitar player and a new organist. Well we tried to do that for a bit, but we eventually ended up getting a guitar player, which was Dave Ball, and we kinda had a brief flirtation with Matthew again after he expressed interest to return to the group, but it turned out that he didn't really want to commit himself; he just thought it would be interesting to do a tour of America to see how it went, which was just no good as far as we were concerned, because we were trying to make a constructive step ... you can't change every three months. So we had this kind of brief re-association with Matthew, and then decided not to go through with it, but we had a tour planned, songs written, we wanted to record and so on, so we decided to take Chris off the bass and put him on the organ full-time, because when he originally joined us it was with the intention of playing a lot of organ, which, through various circumstances, he never had. We said, 'Well, you play organ all the time and we will get another bass player,' which was a much easier thing to do so we got in Alan Cartwright, who was a friend of Gary's from a long while back, and there we were, back again to being a five-piece group.

ZZ: Therefore the writing reverted to Gary and yourself.

KR: Yes, exactly.

ZZ: And what was the first writing that came out of this?

KR: Well that's everything on Grand Hotel. The first thing we worked toward, when we got the group reorganised, was doing the orchestral concerts with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra in Canada and so on, and then after we had done that we started to work toward doing this album.

ZZ: How did that album with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra come about?

KR: A couple of years before we did the Edmonton thing, we had been invited to a festival in Canada called the Shakespeare Festival, which they have in Stratford, Ontario. We were invited to play with an orchestra there but it wasn't the same sort of concert; the idea was that there would be an orchestra come on and play for whatever it was, 20 minutes or half an hour, and then we would play with the orchestra for half an hour, followed by another half hour on our own. We did that, playing songs from A Salty Dog and the whole of In Held 'Twas in I, and we wanted to record that, but due to, I think, union troubles, we were unable to do so. Anyway, as a result of that, a couple of years later we were invited to do a full scale concert, a proper hour and a half thing with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra.

ZZ: Wasn't it very hurriedly put together, though, in the end?

KR: Yes, I think it was in a way, in that these things always end up being a last-minute thing; even if you plan them three years in advance nothing gets done, until the last three weeks of it ... particularly from Gary's point of view because he was still writing the orchestrations on the plane to Edmonton. (We were on an American tour, with the Edmonton gig about halfway through, and he was still writing orchestrations on the plane going over ... and I know he didn't write the orchestration for Conquistador until a couple of days before we did the concert. He'd certainly not heard them played until the day of the concert in fact the actual concert itself.) What we wanted to do was get there a couple of days in advance and rehearse, and also get the technical problems sorted out for recordings, but it eventually ended up that we couldn't really rehearse; in fact one song on the album we had never played before with an orchestra until we actually did it ... that was All This and More, and Conquistador I don't think we actually rehearsed with the orchestra they had played the orchestration and rehearsed it once, but I don't think we actually went through it with them. So we didn't have a satisfactory rehearsal in any way before we actually went on stage.

ZZ: And yet on the album the sound is fantastic.

KR: Well, that's a compliment to the people who recorded it really; Wally Heider's mobile unit, which was incredible. The thing they set up was just like a recording studio, and I think that's due to them really and to Chris Thomas who supervised it, but basically it was an engineering job, actually getting the sound down on tape, under very difficult circumstances. It was a miracle that we got anything.

ZZ: What was the attraction of working with an orchestra?

KR: We didn't want to work with an orchestra as such, it was just that it was suggested to us to do it. 'Yeah what a great thing to do ... Let's do it, why not, let's try it.' it was like that.

ZZ: In the past, rock music and classical orchestras haven't to me seemed to work too well; they have been two separate entities.

KR: I haven't heard very much, but I think that is true. For a group or anybody writing popular songs to merge with an orchestra, you have got to have the right kind of songs. I mean, it's no good playing rock and roll with an orchestra because one thing has nothing to do with the other so you have got to have a certain scope in the basic music before you can find something for an orchestra to do ... there is no point just having strings and so on for the sake of it, just playing the same thing as the group is playing; you have got to have something which they can add to and enlarge upon. There has got to be an empathy with the music that the group is creating and the kind of music that an orchestra is capable of creating.

ZZ: Next time you used an orchestra was at the Rainbow, wasn't it just after Mick Grabham joined?

KR: Yes, which was quite a long time after Edmonton something like 9 months later. We did the thing at the Rainbow, followed by a tour of Europe; we were invited by a German orchestra to do a tour with them and we played in Zurich, Vienna, and about four or five concerts in Germany.

ZZ: Did that work out well?

KR: Yes, it was great. That was really good because it was the same orchestra on all the gigs, so we were able to rehearse with them, and by about the second or third job all the problems had been ironed out and all the people could relax and just try and play well, because there are so many technical problems; the actual time spent on playing together is minimal compared with the organisation of setting it up. It's the kind of thing where equipment men had to arrive at 10 am., and it would take them ten hours to set up you have to have 50 or 60 microphones to get any kind of balance.

ZZ: The intricacy of the sound set-up was noticeable at the Rainbow all the mikes and roadies and things.

KR: Yes, well at the Rainbow we didn't have the equipment; the equipment that we used wasn't good enough. At both Edmonton and all the German concerts had a much better mix between the group and the orchestra. At the Rainbow it was ridiculous. We didn't have enough microphones, the equipment didn't work very well, we rigged up bits of scaffolding with all the mikes held up on bits of string. They were all swinging around. Not enough thought went into it. They were still building the stage, you know. In fact, Gary was kind of designing the stage for them, I remember; it was ridiculous, we were at the office and we were trying to work out how many chairs we needed. We were all standing up with Chris saying 'Well, if he's a fairly fat chap playing 'cello he's going to need about this much room...' Oh, it was just a farce. But eventually it worked out all right and even though I don't think the sound was as good as it could have been, it was a really good concert. I felt good about it when it was all over. The other major improvement was that with the German orchestra, we also had a choir, the Munich Boys' Choir, who were incredible; they were from the ages of about 8 to 16. That was great because they were a fantastic choir, but it was quite funny to see them on stage singing like cherubs whilst round the back they were a real bunch of hooligans throwing their music on the floor and punching each other; and in fact I was standing around the side watching them one night and one of them was pinching the boy beside him: it was like a really choirboys kind of thing, but they were great. It was funny the last night after the last show, we laid on a party for them; we said 'We'll have champagne for the orchestra but what can we give the kids? We'll get a load of the 'Edmonton' albums and sign them all and give everybody an album.' So we had about 40 bottles of champagne and about 40 albums and we signed the albums and put them in a big heap ... and then the kids ran in and drank all the champagne; they got in earlier than the orchestra, and there was like all the champagne gone, and they didn't want to know about the albums. They were great. It was really touching.

ZZ: You don't seem to have done so much touring lately.

KR: We have. Ever since the Edmonton Concert up until now, all we've done has been touring and recording. We've had very little time off for practically two years, but I'll agree that we haven't appeared in England very much.

ZZ: This was always the case though.

KR: Yes, this has been the case. We have done two tours of Scandinavia, tours of Germany, three tours of America each year, but very little in England.

ZZ: Have you got out of playing A Whiter Shade of Pale in America?

KR: We always play it when people ask for it. The only reason we could feel embarrassed about it is if we believe what other people said about it ... that we were one-hit wonders. But we have got the thing in perspective so whenever people want to hear it, we play it. It's usually the final thing we do if people haven't had enough.

ZZ: Can you tell us a little about Grand Hotel and when you started work on it first of all?

KR: We started work on it a year ago, in March of last year as soon as we finished mixing the Edmonton album. We started recording it, but were interrupted by touring, and I think we went back to it in about June or July, but at that point we listened to what we had got, and weren't at all satisfied with it, so we threw it all out of the window. Then we got a new guitar player, Mick Grabham, and went back in around the end of November and worked on it for about 12 to 14 hours in the studio every day for about 6 weeks.

ZZ: But it was all written prior to your going into the studio?

KR: Yes, well a couple of songs on it, TV Ceasar and a song called Liquorice John were written in the last period in October, when we last started on it, but the rest of the material was pretty much written.

ZZ: How do you go about writing things? Do you and Gary write separately?

KR: Yes, I write separately from Gary and give him the words. He writes whenever he has the chance; when he's at home, he'll sit down and try to write melodies or whatever, and when I have something ready, I'll give it to him and he'll see if any of what he's written will fit. We go on from there. As often as not, he'll have something that fits with only a few minor alterations on his part, but if he hasn't got anything, we'll specifically sit down together and he says I've got this little bit and that will go there and what about this bit and that bit.

ZZ: So, when you write the words, you don't have any idea how the tune will come out?

KR: No no idea at all.

ZZ: Isn't that a bit shattering when you get in the studio?

KR: No, I always know what it's like before we go in and record it. That's the strength or weakness of the relationship, you know. The better the words and music come together, the more perfect the marriage, the better the song; the most successful songs we do are the best marriages of words and music. With, for example, the Grand Hotel album, every song's like that to me.

ZZ: Can you tell us something about those songs?

KR: Well, Grand Hotel starts off by saying, 'Tonight we sleep on silken sheets, drink fine wine and eat rare meats.' The song is like that, the music is like that, all silken sheets, fine wines.

ZZ: Why the concept of Grand Hotel?

KR: Well, because I just thought originally, Grand Hotel would be a great title for an album, and it immediately gave me an idea for a song. Actually, I had the title before I wrote the song. The thing is, it isn't a concept album, it was just for the first time we echoed the particular song in the artwork and everything, and I guess in the promotion of the album in relationship to the song.

ZZ: Is there something that fascinates you about grand hotels I suppose you stay in a lot of them?

KR: I wish we did. That song is a bit of a fantasy, a bit of wistful thinking [sic!]. I'm all for staying in grand hotels and sleeping in silken sheets none of this out in the country for me, I'm afraid, it's the Ritz ... We are dining at the Ritz.

ZZ: A Souvenir of London was about VD, I believe.

KR: Who told you that? It's certainly about tourism, I think I can safely say that. Certainly about young men abroad, or broad young men. I can say no more, my lips are sealed.

ZZ: What other tracks can you tell us about?

KR: There is a song called Toujours L'Amour. The title is humorous because in the song the woman goes off and leaves a chap, who comes home to his empty flat to find a note she's left for him; she's taken the cat as well!

ZZ: Personal experience?

KR: No, not yet I've still got the cat. Then there's a song called TV Ceasar and that comes from being in America a lot. They have these talk shows. Particularly a couple of years ago when David Frost was really popular there and Johnny Carson and Joey Bishop and all those shows, and the idea of the song was like they are all TV Ceasars Ceasars of the television; they are running everything.

ZZ: It certainly seems that way with Carson.

KR: Yes, well he's fantastic, I mean, wow! I really like him! The song sort of says, well, there you are sitting watching them, eating your TV dinners. They are creeping in through you eyes and ears, finding out all about you, and the idea is that they run everything, because to a certain extent in America I think their lives do revolve around television. I mean people do watch TV so much and if you listen to them talking, they talk about 'did you see so and so on the Frost show last night?' A lot of their life has to do with what opinions people express on these shows ... the things they talk about.

ZZ: Have you ever been on one of these chat shows?

KR: We've never talked on one of those shows, but that's our ambition. We've been on the David Frost Show, and on the Smothers Brothers show once. The David Frost show was incredible; it's done on the day-to-day kind of thing: he doesn't come to the rehearsals but turns up at around 6.00 and shakes everybody's hand. For the rehearsals, they have a wax effigy of him sitting in a chair ... you can't tell the difference. Hope you are not reading this David! He's such a powerful man. But they have a big wax dummy of him sitting in the chair, and then they slip the dummy out and he slips in.

ZZ: Did he say anything about you? What did you play?

KR: I don't know, we did Salty Dog a long time ago, 3 or 4 years ago, but we didn't see it because it didn't appear until a few weeks later. Apparently it was diabolical.

ZZ: What about the Smothers Brothers show: that was meant to be a satire, wasn't it?

KR: Yes, but once again we did a musical thing we just played on the show. I believe that was pretty diabolical as well ... we didn't see that one either though.

ZZ: For Conquistador, Top of the Pops did a film, didn't they? Did you ever see that?

KR: I did. Say no more. That was terrible, that was really a diabolical film. They should have had Pan's People dancing to it. In suits of armour.

ZZ: Why weren't you on it?

KR: I don't know, I think it was one of those things, if it had gone a bit higher the following week we would have been on. Something like that. I don't know.

ZZ: You seem to me, compared with the modern pop scene, to be very much a loner. You are apart. Do you see yourself like that?

KR: Yes, I suppose so, and I think the group as such is kind of apart. I think that's probably our strength.

ZZ: And then of course, at the Rainbow, you came on and read your own lines.

KR: Yes.

ZZ: On Grand Hotel do you do anything like that?

KR: Well I did do something like that, but I went off to Jamaica and they decided to cut it.

ZZ: What did you do?

KR: I recited a poem. The idea was for it to be at the end of the album. It's a poem called Sayonara: [Gary Brooker told Roland Clare (October 1999) that the words of this Sayonara derived from an epitaph reported to the band by his mother, Mrs Violet Brooker!]

'Henry Higgins
fell from the riggins
In Yokohama Harbour
He hit the deck
and broke his neck:
Sayonara.'

What we did when we said 'He hit the deck and broke his neck' was we had the crunch of the neck and the thud of the body hitting the deck. Anyway they cut it out.

ZZ: Why?

KR: Probably no good.

ZZ: Are you writing any poetry at all now, besides lyrics?

KR: Not really very much. Usually anything I write we use, though occasionally I have done things which just were not capable of being made into songs. When I sit down to write, I sit down to write something that is going to be a song ... I don't ever sit down to write just a poem or something.

ZZ: Do you see yourself writing for anything else but the group, or the group doing perhaps, for want of a better word, a rock opera. More of a concept thing?

KR: I'd like for us to do, not an opera as such, but something like that. A concept kind of album, yes.

ZZ: I think opera is a rather overweighted word combined with rock.

KR: Well, it has been rather abused. I mean if you are going to do an opera you have to have different characters and you have to have a story, which is quite a hard thing to do. If I write a song it's usually written in the singular one person speaking about himself or about a relationship between people, but it's not usually different characters. It's not a Mr. Big Man and Mr. Little Man and so and so, but I would very much like to do something like that; I think it's the sort of thing we could do well. But whether we will or not that depends on me really, and Gary.


Keith Reid's page at 'Beyond the Pale'


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