This Gary Brooker interview was conducted in 1990 by Carsten Overgaard and Niels-Erik Mortensen: we've split it into various parts: find the rest by clicking here.
Instrumentation, early albums, the press
In 1967, you were 20 years old and you've got your first hit under a new name. What was the band?
GB: (A bit astonished) Procol Harum, you mean? Yes, Procol Harum.
You continued working together with a few from The Paramounts?
Yeah. Well, at first we didn't – um, because we were after a new sound and I didn't really want to work with the people I had been working with. Um, we'd already found a bass-player, a drummer, an organist, and a guitarist, but in fact the drummer and the guitarist didn't work out very well, but the trouble was, by then we were at No 1 – and there wasn't much time to sort things out. So I said to our managers and producers, 'Well, find whoever you like, who you think could be good,' and I said, 'I know a couple of guys as well, and we'll have a run-through, an audition, if you like, everybody could come in a play through some of their songs and let's see who sounds best,' so I got in BJ Wilson and Robin Trower and there was some other people who came that the producer had found, but – um – by the time we had finished the day everybody sort of gave their vote to BJ Wilson and Robin Trower, so they then joined the band.
Could you enlighten us how was the first album made? I mean, from a technical point-of-view, did you do much of overdubbing and cutting up tape and so on?
I don't think there was any editing at all. I don't think you could edit very successfully, because it was only four-track-machines, so it was played – um – I used to sing them at the same time I played the piano, and it was all done live with the whole band and you can imagine – well, with five instrumentalists and one singing, that makes six, so you've got four tracks – so usually, bass and drums went together, and then the rhythm instruments very often – it would depend on who was to solo – if it was a guitar solo, he'd get his own track, if it was organ solo, he'd have his own, or piano or vice versa and so on, and so on. And the vocal was always on its own track, and consequently, you'd always get a lot of – of overspill from one microphone to another, which can be a problem, and it was quite a problem on AWSoP, because the cymbals and the drums came through everybody's microphones; you could not get rid of them at all, when it came to mix them. No matter what you turned down, the cymbals were still there, and I know when I sing the chorus, it comes from everybody else's microphones 'cause it's so loud, I sing loud and it came through kind of my piano mikes and everything and out of the drum mikes, so it gave some strange echo – well, now you could probably get rid of them quite easily, but you wouldn't have even thought of doing that, it just came out like that. We went in and played the songs that we've written, we knew them, we had played them once, and that was it.
Is it first takes, every one?
I can't remember now, most of them, I mean, some times we might get more than one take, because we were getting the sound as well. But generally speaking, it was – if you had an important guitar solo, for instance, it might take one or two takes – 'Yeah, Robin, that was a good solo,' everything has to be right in one take, we do a take, where I sing it well, Robin plays a good solo and there is no mistakes, and nothing went wrong with the sound. We were certainly using the tape-recorder more on our second album, because I remember we did our own choirs and things like that, so we must have been overdubbing quite a bit.
But how did it affect you as a young man to have this breakthrough in the summer of '67?
Well, we'd been a professional band with The Paramounts for four years and toured all over Britain and Europe, and at the end of 1966, I got fed up with it. I got bored with the band, and I thought I would become a songwriter, so – in many ways, we'd had a lot of experience, and honestly, one didn't have time – you see, when we wrote songs, we thought they were good, and there's no point in doing something if you don't think it is good, and we liked our songs, and we thought they were good, and we thought we did them well. Of course, every musician always thinks he's doing that, and so – it was just nice that – for a change – other people agreed, particularly the public, but there wasn't much time to think about it actually, because AWSoP came out as our first single, and we hadn't even made our album. We'd made only about four tracks, and AWSoP came out and was a success very, very quickly, and we didn't really have the time to think, 'Well, this is good,' we were out playing, writing new songs from then and until 1977.
The kind of music that PH played was a kind of setting new standards, you had something new in pop-music, the twin keyboards. Piano and organ. It was quite a new sound. Did you realize that at that time?
That was one of the original ideas that I had for the band, or Procol Harum ... or rather to play our songs was that line-up [sic]. It was a combination of piano and organ, with bass and drums playing their regular rhythm part and with a blues-guitar on the top. That was my idea of what I thought would be a good combination. Gives a lot of scope for – for playing, I mean, nowadays it wouldn't even be a – a lot of people are going back to piano and organ, piano and Hammond in particular, it was Hammond organ, it wasn't any other organ, it's always been a great sound and it still is today is the unique sound of Hammond-organ, and it goes great with the piano, despite all the technology that there now is.
I mean, if Procol Harum would have had access to the multi-timbral synthesisers that are around today, we wouldn't probably have used them, I mean, Conquistador, for example, which – our best version of that was live with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, and of course, it's got a full symphony orchestral arrangement behind it, violins, woodwinds, brass and everything, but when we play that on stage, that was just Procol Harum with, y'know, Hammond, piano, guitar, bass, drums.
If we were doing that today, I'm sure we would – one of the keyboards or both the keyboards would be playing both string-parts as well as everything else, and it would sound – it would be a good live performance, but it would sound ah – it would have the full arrangement as on the Live album.
Did that line-up work out well the first few years?
Oh yes, it was a good development. We did develop as a group after this initial ... once we got past that first album, and we were really playing the songs which Keith and I had written before we even got anyone together, we then developed more, I think, through our second album. We had quite a few experiments on that; by the time we made our third album, A Salty Dog, we were starting to have a bit more character.
And using a large variety of instruments?
I think we did. I didn't realize it until I heard it once, about three years ago. I don't think I've listened to it since we made it, that album, but some American I met in London, some musician at that time doing very well, said, 'Hey, A Salty Dog that was, y'know, my biggest influence!' I thought, 'I wonder why he says that,' so I went home and found it and put it on, and I was absolutely astonished to the amount that – variety was all over the place, y'know, everything from sort of string arrangements to blues. I mean, street-blues, not just a band playing the blues, but it was just me and Robin Trower, we just had our own approach which changed, y'know, we'd always change from album to album, almost consciously we tried not to ever repeat ourselves.
(A Salty Dog)
Did you ever feel a strain to repeat the kind of success, you had with A Whiter Shade?
Um – not really – I mean, AWSoP was just one song. I didn't seem to me any better than – Salad Days or any other song. It turned out to be much more commercial than any other song, and God, I think I'd gone mad if I'd worried about repeating the commercial success of that, trying to write something as appealing as that turned out to be, so we just carried on doing what we did.
And with success?
Well, I think – yeah, the songs came out of it for our career that were – y'know to a varying degree as successful. Most albums had one song that was – y'know – a bit different from everything else that was around.
What about your popularity in Britain?
Why, I think our first single was popular in Britain, and that was about it!
No – we had a few more in the charts, but really, I mean, the media in Britain have and always have had in fact, and the public as well, rather a strange way of going about things, and that is that they like to build up their heroes or their popular myths or their fashionable favours of the time, and then taking their great pleasure in finding what's wrong with them, and they had the ideal opportunity with Procol Harum, because what I was talking about earlier when we changed the drummer and the guitarist was while we were at No 1 with AWSoP. And that was their ideal opportunity for them to – they'd been our best pals for four or six weeks, and then, it turned out that in fact according to the press, Procol Harum didn't exist anyway, that it was just a session-band. And we were in fact a myth, and I think we've been that way ever since, 'cause we never played there until about 1969 – 1970, anyway, and then on a different scale. People had almost forgot about AWSoP, and they were sort of starting to know our newest albums, but ...