Eeons ago, complete with Carnaby Street Trench Coat and Trilby, I entered the heady world of pop. Assistant cub reporter and apprentice bar prop on Record Mirror. First rung on the foot [sic] to fame and all that, plus luncheon vouchers.
My hair was very short and I was very keen.
‘Go forth’ said the editor.
It was my second week there and he was testing my initiative.
‘Go forth,’ he said, ‘and get me a … scoop.’
So forth I jolly well [sic] to find me a scoop.
High and low I searched, up Denmark Street, down Wardour Street, hither and thither I rushed, looking for leads, casting for clues, scanning for scents, pursuing paths and trailing trails. It was all new to me. Bewildering. Where? What? How? When? For days I sniffed around ace newshounds with nothing but my enthusiasm and immense physical courage and stamina to stave off the gnawing pangs of hunger within my greedy NUJ soul and rumbling stomach.
(It was not until much later that I learned from an experienced and well-respected reporter the correct procedure for obtaining a scoop. It goes as follows: Pick up a phone. Dial number. Wait for publicist to answer. Say ‘’ello Bill / Les / Keith / Dave / Mike ’ooever. Wotcher got?’ Write down notes in copious shorthand scrawl and embellish. Shout ‘Hold the front page’ to impress editor. Hand him typewritten copy and depart for pub.)
However, to me, this knowledge was still in the dim and distant future. Eventually, though, I managed to obtain my scoop. Before becoming involved in the business of pop, I had struck up a friendship with an Awfully Nice Sort Of Electric String Chap called Denny Laine … who shared a flat with a Tall Feller By The Name Of Johnathan [sic] Weston … who managed a group called … who played me a demo disc called …
That, I thought, could well be a hit. So I interviewed the group and got my scoop.
The record, when released, sold four million copies. It was called Whiter Shade of Pale by Procol Harum.
God, he said, scratching his grey and balding head (?). That seems like years ago now. Well … it was.
Procol Harum, as history knows, reached massive heights with that, their first disc, and since they have disappeared – by comparison – into obscurity.
In fact they have been playing better music than ever, and have spent most of their time in America.
Last August they returned to Britain after two years in the States. They've been working, writing and recording. And last week I spoke to Keith Reid, the non-playing member of the group, its writer and mentor.
Keith: ‘During those two years we didn't work anywhere else – we had American management. We went over there originally because it really seemed the best place for us: our album, the first one, had sold in quantity there, and so we had an audience who knew us for things other than Whiter Shade of Pale.
‘And that's when we disappeared into obscurity as far as this country was concerned. Most British groups who go over to the States get a certain feedback to Britain, but we never had that, I didn’t know why. America for us was purely a matter of work, though. We didn't settle there – we used to come back regularly to rest in between [sic] tours. We're going back there in June for eight weeks – but it will be the first visit there for a year. We have been working quite a bit in England recently – mainly at Universities and colleges. We're trying to work more in England and Europe now than in the States – we'd prefer it. Well, when I say that what I mean is that we would very much like to work in this country a lot more. What we want is to play wherever people want to see and hear us. We've got quite a few gigs lined up – Mothers and The Roundhouse and some others – and we'll be doing a lot in Europe.
‘We've been working on a new album which is just about finished now – it's scheduled for release in about six weeks, and we’re just finishing mixing it at the moment.
‘There's no obvious or conscious similarity between the music we’re playing now – the music on the album, for example, and Whiter Shade of Pale. But it's probably there. We have a style that is our own. A thing that annoys me very much about pop is that it has its values all wrong, all mixed up. In art, writing or painting or whatever, the idea of being able to achieve a recognisable style is great. But it's completely the other way round in pop – people seem to expect something different every time. And this attitude still exists, even though in other respects things in the pop business are a lot better.
‘Another thing that annoys me is people saying “You take your music too seriously”. I find that statement amazing. If people – the audience – take a group seriously enough to go out and spend a hefty chunk of their income on the group's album, then of course the group should take themselves seriously. Are we supposed to be out to con the public or something?
‘But a lot of these things have certainly changed about pop. With Whiter Shade of Pale there was really just us and the Pink Floyd. We were the first two groups from outside the pop clique to make chart success – and at that time that was all that counted. I suppose there was obviously just a big market for that type of record at that time. And of course the pirate radio stations had a lot to do with the success of the record – the BBC at that time would never have played it because of their particular format.
‘American radio has a Top Forty format too – but they also have a large number of underground stations. And that's really good radio – it's the best exposure a group can get. Because of free radio, there is such a wider range. But there isn’t the television exposure for a group that there’s in this country – most of the television where you can appear is on local networks, and a thousand appearances on those wouldn’t really do you much good.
‘America made us very conscious that we had to be good onstage – when we first went there we weren't very good as a live group. But we found that being good onstage could sell records – apart from anything else – whereas before the conception had been that you had to sell records before anybody would come and see you. We discovered that we just had to get much better sound – both live and on record.
‘We really want to make a combined effort now to push both ourselves and our new album in Britain now [sic]. We had a lot of offers from American management companies who wanted to take us over – but we decided that we wanted British managers.
‘We’ve played here quite a bit now, and we've had good reaction from the audiences in this country. But a lot of people, I think, were surprised to see that we were still alive – it was mostly in London that people still knew about us. Probably because of the import shops there are here. Anyway, with this next album we’ll be having simultaneous release both here and in the States – we don't want the same situation to develop again where our audience in this country have to wait months before they can get our records.
‘Certainly we would have liked not to have put emphasis on any one country – I think we neglected a lot of our opportunities both in Britain and Europe.
‘I think we could have coped a lot better than we did after our hit – the record came out, was very successful, and we – the group – were left to cope with everything. There was absolutely no one to advise us. You need your management, your record company, to help out to a certain extent – but with us, although everyone knew the record would be a hit, nobody had thought ahead to after the success of the record.
‘Going to America when we did, and staying there, wasn't a matter of running away – we had a tour planned over there, and then we suddenly found, while we were there, that there was something we could do.
‘It's difficult to compare ourselves, to put ourselves on a level with any other groups in the States. There’s no one really doing what we're doing either there or in England. We intend to take advantage of all our opportunities now – we're happy to play anywhere and everywhere that we’re wanted. And we don't want to neglect anywhere.’
At the recent Stones concerts in this country [Lyceum, 21 December 1969 – two shows (Ed.], Procol Harum were invited to play on the same bill – and a lot of people, after seeing their performance, went away thinking that Keith had now become a musician member of the group. He had played organ on a couple of numbers.
‘It wasn't a permanent thing at all,’ explained Keith. ‘We did a couple of numbers off our new album on which I play organ – and so I played organ onstage just for those numbers, and just at that concert. Because of that a lot of people seem to have got the wrong idea. In fact our new organist – the new member of the group – is Chris Copping.
‘I write words and Gary writes music – and this group was specifically formed around that. It's how it was envisaged in the first place. I just write poems that are set to music: I don't write for other people. I think we do our songs best – some of the songs are more obviously lyrical than others.
‘I would rather expand myself as a writer than as a musician, though obviously, any musical education that I have already had, I use. I studied when I was younger, and I read music. But it is only now that I'm using it at all. But basically I'm a writer, and what I write gets set to music – so consequently I want to develop that. The music that Gary writes complements the words that I write. It adds certain dimensions. I'm just interested in making everything just bigger and better.
‘There are two things – commercial success, and artistic success. As far as artistic success goes we have got bigger and better. But commercially we have followed a downward path. Commercially we could never top Whiter Shade of Pale – it's very difficult to sell more than four million of anyone record.
We'd always thought that we'd be successful – in abstract terms we hoped for commercial success and everything that went with it. But when it arrived – well, we just weren't prepared for it in concrete terms. We’ve never really come to terms with that record, in some ways – let's face it, the majority of people consider us to be one-hit-wonders. As people, as ourselves, we managed to come to terms with it, because we went on to do more things – more satisfying things. We certainly equalled our success, artistically, and surpassed it. We never asked ourselves ‘Do we fit into pop?’ All we've ever known about is ourselves.
'I'm happy with the way things are going now. They've been going well for us since last August. Since taking time off from being on the road, and being able to get down to writing and recording, and getting new equipment. And we're certainly very happy about the new album’.
The album: Home.
More Procol Harum press