Procol Harum

the Pale 

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Gary Brooker interview

Sweden's Musikermagasinet, summer 2003

Gary Brooker – Procol Harum

Few under forty know who his band was. But most of the living population of the earth have heard his musical signature and 'ghost', A Whiter Shade of Pale. Procol Harum's début single became their biggest hit and after that every new record has been compared with it. Just as the case will be with The Well's on Fire.

– Oh Ollie, the Sax-player, how are you?

Gary Brooker is songwriter, singer and piano player in Procol Harum. I emphasise, piano player. The first time we met I hadn't really sorted that out, and you could say that it could all have started better. Not that he has ever mentioned it, he is too gentle to do that, and for my part it's so embarrassing that I would never think of bringing it into light again.

A little over ten years ago we were both destined to play a week with Bill Wyman's hobby band, Willie and The Poor Boys. I was alone in the coach that went to pick up Gary at the airport. We greeted each other and after a round of small-talk I asked who would be in the band – truly, I didn't really know. He started mentioning names: Bill, Andy Fairweather Low, Graham Broad and so on, and then he finished with 'yours truly'. In my world, at that moment, in that 'bus, Gary Brooker was synonymous with A Whiter Shade of Pale. I knew he had written the song and that he sang it. Unfortunately I also believed that he was playing the organ. And I thought it would be weird to play old-school rock'n'roll with Willie and The Poor boys without piano. So based on that, and with a voice indicating 'Of course I know who you are and what you play', I commented: 'I see, no piano player then ...'

Gary Brooker, singer, piano-player and composer of one of history's best-loved, most-played songs, didn't comment on my error, he just looked at me a little bit longer than normal before – without any fuss – he explained to the idiot in the seat opposite him this was exactly the reason he was there.

I don't know if the did forgive me, but his comments during the following week were all very entertaining. First night – Gary was sitting at his piano, front  left of me on stage: he had finished his solo in a song and nodded to me to take over. I started to play, but just a few bars into the solo Gary cried out 'two against three!' During the next about twenty bars I didn't think of anything except how I could achieve that great triola feeling, but it didn't really appear. I didn't think of anything else, next day, either: plans and structure ready! The only thing that worried me was that the song might not be on the setlist. But it was: same round, Gary does his solo and nods at me to continue. I don't remember if I gave a wink of understanding, or just nodded confidently before I started to play. Oh so cool it was, riding over the rhythm, but not losing the tonal origin: innovative, but true to style. A concert in microcosm. At that moment I ruled the world. No more than five or six bars had passed before I heard Gary cry, 'You should have done that thing yesterday!'

Gary Brooker hasn't done interviews in a while. The last record, The Prodigal Stranger, came out in 1992 and the one before that, Something Magic, fifteen years before that. He isn't sure  it will make any difference, but realises that someone has to tell the world that The Well's On Fire exists.

– What I don't like is to talk with a journalist for ages and then it turns out to be just three lines about A Whiter Shade of Pale.

And then he adds,

– But as you know yourself, Ollie, most of the writers are very well informed. Irony dressed as jokes.

But even though this happens all the time, and even though all Procol Harum's other songs ends up in the shadow, he doesn't regret A Whiter Shade of Pale.

– No, never. And even if journalists can't refer to Procol Harum in way other than via A Whiter Shade of Pale, this is better than if the journalist couldn't relate to Procol Harum at all. Better to be known by a song than not at all.

After a break for fifteen years between The Prodigal Stranger and Something Magic you could theoretically think there was a great demand for Procol Harum. You can look at one of the cornerstones in their sound, Matthew Fisher and his classic Hammond B3, and they have been away a long while. His successor, Chris Copping, at least played a Hammond, but on Something Magic the loss was completed: Copping's successor, Pete Solley, played a Farfisa organ and synths. And it didn't help that Matthew Fisher was back on The Prodigal Stranger: Procol Harum's fans had either given up, or died of natural causes.

– It was a very difficult record to do as we hadn't been in a studio for fifteen years. We did our best, or what we believed to be our best, but it didn't sell and the record company wouldn't extend the contract, which made us feel disappointed.

This is the only time during the interview where Gary swears, and he asks to be excused before he says, 'We basically said, if you pardon my French, Ollie, "F*ck the record industry!"

– We just travel around and play, and we have been completely satisfied with that. Procol Harum toured a couple of years in the minor wake of that record, until even that petered out.

After that they looked at their repertoire and found songs that hadn't been played since 1968 and have toured since 1995–96, mostly in America, with a repertoire that was 'very exciting to us'.

In 1997 Gary Brooker got an offer from another area: first he toured with Ringo Starr's All Starrs, and later with Bill Wyman's Rhythm Kings, and the years passed with Procol Harum in mothballs; but last year a record company made contact and wanted to sign the band, and the result, The Well's on Fire, is released now in April.

At this time Procol Harum was a band that had kept the same line-up for ten years, but had never been into the studio, which  must have been a strange situation.

– We felt like a band. We didn't have to go through the 'who-are-you-and-how-do-you-play' process. We know each other, we know the rules and we know what Procol Harum is all about.

Not that there is a rule book: Gary says it's different every time, but that 'You really must think it over before you go ahead with a record production'.

My idea this time was that, since we had toured so long together and were so 'played in', it would be nice to play as much as possible live in the studio. Not a lot of overdubs. None of that  idea of building everything up starting with piano and drums. All parts at the same time, including the vocal.

There are also potent economic reasons for working this way, as Gary confirmed later in the interview, but he asserts that eighty percent of the vocals were recorded live, and the same with the solos. There is a place in So Far Behind where Gary cries 'bridge', which I thought was added later, but that's not so at all.

– Fact is that we didn't know the song too well so I just wanted to remind everybody to go to the bridge. The producer left it in, and I don't mind, but we won't do that live. There is another great thing with the record: every song can be played live because we recorded it live. We got twelve new songs in our repertoire – though not because we needed it – so I hope it will be fun to come out and  play.

When – without thinking – I dub the recording 'old fashioned' , Brooker becomes defensive.

– I don't really think it's old fashioned. A lot of new technology is available to help people who don't know their craft very well. They sing the refrain once and then double it ... no, what is it called, they clone it. It's their way of working, but I'm sure that there are a lot of artists that are not as talented as they would like to be.

The record was recorded on a Pro Tools system, and we talked back and forth about technology (maybe mostly me) and when we (OK, mostly me), pointed out the pros of being able to edit so accurately these days, Gary became impatient.

– Yes of course you can do a lot of things, but that was not needed. There were no errors in our playing or the singing. And that is of course also a way to see it.

Procol Harum has been there since the four-track era in the Sixties, and made it through all the technology changes; I ask whether this enormous development has influenced his way of thinking, writing or arranging music.

– Technology ... recording technology? Obviously we have used certain orchestral sounds but we have always used real strings, real trumpets. If Procol Harum has a sound, it lies in the combination of instruments. The other is the organ. I think Matthew Fisher has the right Hammond sound. Georgie Fame plays the same instrument, Steve Winwood plays the same instrument, but none of them sounds like Matthew Fisher. Even if I use the same organ and the same settings as Matthew, it doesn't sound the same anyway.

Gary continues his list of unique Procol things, like Keith Reid's words, the songs and so on, but the question is whether there is any other band that has been around for so long, and still sounds exactly the same. In this mix the heavy, distorted guitar is the joker in the Procol deck. Procol Harum has heavier side, which maybe isn't so obvious to everybody.

– You are right. The fact is that Procol Harum is also a hard rock band. We, or Robin Trower, invented many of the very heavy riffs in rock music.

Here lies also some of the key to Procol Harum's sound. With Robin Trower Procol Harum had a profile. There is nothing wrong with Geoff Whitehurst [sic], but he changes Procol Harum to a covers band playing their original songs.

When you listen to The Well's on Fire what hits you first is how much the production does for the music's character. The Blink of An Eye could have sounded like one of Richard Manuel's ballads with The Band. Now it sounds 80s and Bruce Hornsby instead.

– It probably doesn't sound as modern as I hoped for, but ... the money ran out, in a way. We came to a point where we had to move on. The take was good, the singing was good, everybody played good. Of course you could have done so-or-so, but I think long-term. We haven't made an album in twelve years, and then we got an opportunity. This is not a make-or-break record. If we can prove that we can write songs, that we can work well in a studio, then we can do it next year and hopefully with a bigger budget. If we talk about The Blink of an Eye, I don't think that I needed to sing it differently, but if we'd tried out some different ideas in the band track, it would have cost two thousand pounds more.

For Gary Brooker the production is also secondary; a good song is a song that works in the pub, with just piano and singing.

– The fact is that I wrote The Blink of an Eye one morning when Keith Reid came around. I had an idea and it worked, fitted with the words. The next day I was with some friends in a pub, and I thought, 'I'll test this song on everyone here.' The bar was full of people and they became absolutely quiet. They were listening. People took it. A good song does that. You can always have a smart idea or put together a production but when it comes down to it that's not what the essence is. And if it works in a pub it will be much better in the studio.

That Gary wrote the song at home is unusual. Mostly he writes in the studio, and not the way you might think.

– Mostly I write when the others have gone to the control-room to listen to a take. Then I stay in the live room and write a song.

I fall completely silent, so he fills in for me:

– I like to work under pressure, you understand.

And even though it's impressive, he is seldom happy with what he makes.

– I have always had the vision to write a whole album with completely homogeneous songs, not that mixture of styles it always turns out to be, but I  never succeed. I suppose that depends how I'm feeling. And the lyrics of course. Certain lyrics require certain music.

The lyrics to Procol Harum's songs are written by Keith Reid. And even though Keith Reid has never [sic] played with Procol Harum or been on the stage he is probably, after Gary Brooker himself, the most well-known person in the band. Keith Reid presented himself to the world with the following lines: "We skipped the light fandango. Turned cartwheels 'cross the floor". Exactly: the opening lines of A Whiter Shade of Pale. "Conquistador a vulture sits upon your silver shield" opens Conquistador. In Grand Hotel it is "serenade and sarabande, the nights we stay at Hotel Grand". "We sailed for parts unknown to man, where ships come home to die," it says in A Salty Dog.

It is fantastical, pretentious, weird and astonishing, and fun, but never production-line stuff, even though it rhymes 'moon' with 'June', the Englishman's way of saying hjerte and smerte (heart and pain), in A Salty Dog. That's why I become disappointed when I hear lines like "living on easy street" and "the whole nine yards" in The Well's on Fire. True Americanisms.

– There are more lyrics than finished songs and many of the lyrics are, maybe not American, but they have elements, or as you say, Americanisms in them, and there are only certain tunes you can write to that kind of lyrics. And we must not forget that Keith Reid has lived in New York for many years. He lives only three blocks from what used to be World Trade Centre, and I think that every artist that lives there has at least once expressed their  feelings about what happened 11 September. Wall Street is Wall Street, life is not like that in Europe, or what? But on the other side it's a global thing. We all lose our pensions when the market falls. We have that in common. I don't mind singing  American lyrics (and of course he doesn't say 'I have no problem ...': Gary says 'I am very comfortable singing an American lyric'), it is not strange to me. But when we worked with the record we came to a halt about seven songs into the record where we had rather a lot of aggressive American lyrics lying around; but when I went through Keith's lyrics again I found a couple that had another feeling and that made me happy.

Two of the lyrics gave also birth to two of the strongest songs on The Well's on Fire.

It felt like I had finally got good material to work with. They were both difficult to write and difficult to present to the band, and you can hear which one was most difficult, because I am almost the only one playing. If we'd had two thousand pounds more it would probably have been enough to pay for strings.

The song Gary means is This World is Rich. It is a musical cousin to A Salty Dog, and very straight forward for a Keith Reid lyric. It is about the uneven distribution of wealth in the world and is dedicated to a man in South Africa, Stephen Maboe.

– It's probably wrong to call him an activist, but he made a speech during an international conference in South Africa, a talk about differences, about medicine in Africa being more expensive than in the western world and all the rest. Procol Harum have probably never been very political but we have always had a moral attitude, and I can easily relate to that perspective.

The other is The Emperor's New Clothes and here I think Gary tells me what he has said to himself many times when he has read one of Keith Reid's lyrics.

 I don't know exactly who or what it is about, but it is really a thought provoking lyric ...

A Whiter Shade of Pale has been recorded in 252 different versions. I had intended to ask Gary which of them he had heard about, which he thinks is fair to the song and which he dislikes the most. When we had been talking for an hour it seemed unimportant. I wouldn't ask anymore. I leave that to you instead. You can start with some of the five Swedish musicians that for some reason took the responsibility to improve Procol Harum's original: Landslaget, Lars Roos, Vikingarna, Tityo and The Telstars.

Have fun.

Thanks, Chris F; trans. Jens Anders Ravnaas

More Procol history in print   

This article in Swedish, with illustrations

PH on stage | PH on record | PH in print | BtP features | What's new | Interact with BtP | For sale | Site search | Home