Procol Harum were undergoing a period of turmoil and upheaval when they made Home, the fourth album by one of the most distinctive and creative British bands of the late Sixties. After hit records, heavy tours and major success in America, the band that had come to fame in 1967 with A Whiter Shade Of Pale seemed to be facing an uncertain future. It may have been due to 'road fever', or perhaps management and business problems exacerbated the situation. At any rate the band decided they needed a change of personnel and different outlook. After they completed their third album, A Salty Dog, organist Matthew Fisher and bass-player Dave Knights both quit the group. However, Procol Harum were revitalised by the changes and the band went on to enjoy a long and fruitful career.
Procol Harum became leaders of the psychedelic, flower power era when their stately Bach-tinged epic A Whiter Shade Of Pale topped charts throughout Britain, Europe and America. But their roots lay in the R&B scene of the early Sixties. Gary Brooker (born Southend-on-Sea, Essex [sic], 29 May 1945) had played banjo in a skiffle group before he switched to piano to play in The Paramounts. He formed the group with school friends Robin Trower (guitar) and Chris Copping (bass). They were later joined by another Southend [sic] musician, BJ Wilson (drums). The band went professional, signed a record contract and had a hit with Poison Ivy in 1964. After appearing on TV and supporting the Rolling Stones, The Paramounts, essentially a soul and R&B covers band, broke up in 1966. Gary Brooker came off the road and spent a year writing songs. During this time he was introduced to lyricist Keith Reid (born London, 10 October 1946), by Guy Stevens, a DJ who worked for Island records. Brooker and Reid became a writing team and when they couldn't find any takers for their songs, Reid and Stevens encouraged Brooker to form his own band to perform the material. Procol Harum (named after a friend's cat), was formed with Matthew Fisher on organ and Brooker on piano and vocals. Their first record, A Whiter Shade Of Pale, with its surreal lyrics and haunting organ sound, was a huge hit and caused a sensation when it was played virtually non-stop on pirate radio.
After a change of drummer and guitarist the line-up settled down to include Gary Brooker (vocals, piano), Matthew Fisher (organ), Robin Trower (guitar), Dave Knights (bass) and BJ Wilson (drums). The band sold records by the million and were especially well-received in America, which became a home base for their first couple of years together.
They released a succession of fine albums (now re-issued on Repertoire CD) including Procol Harum (1967) (re-issued by Repertoire as A Whiter Shade Of Pale), followed by Shine On Brightly (1968), A Salty Dog (1969) and Home (1970).
The albums were notable for their superbly-crafted arrangements, intriguing lyrics and soulful performances on such Procol classics as Conquistador, Repent Walpurgis, Shine On Brightly and In Held 'Twas in I. Their dignified soulful sound was in sharp contrast to the wilder excesses of progressive rock heard during this period, but it was just as well-received by eager audiences as the band toured the world. However, the strain of constant gigging began to take its toll.
Lead singer and pianist Gary Brooker remembers the changes that followed in the wake of A Salty Dog. 'We had a change of personnel because Matthew Fisher had never been that happy on the road. He really liked producing and had never liked touring. After A Salty Dog Matthew had said he didn't want to tour anymore, and we said 'Bloody good job' because he was such a misery. While me, BJ and Robin were forging ahead with our performances, Matthew was more of a mathematician. He was an immaculate player, but he wasn't enjoying it like everybody else. He wouldn't join in the fun and unfortunately for the bass-player, Matthew's leaving triggered him leaving as well. He was a good man, Dave Knights, and he'd always played the bass notes I told him to, so he'd done a great job! But we'd come to a phase where virtuosity in 'live' performances was coming into its own and Robin felt that Dave wasn't quite the man. So when Matthew left, Dave went too. We had Chris Copping in mind, who had been The Paramounts' bass player. He had chosen a university career instead of music, but he had taken up jazz bass again while he was doing his PhD.'
With Fisher and Knights gone, the band brought in Chris Copping (born Southend, Essex, August 29, 1945) as their sole replacement. He was a capable keyboard player as well as a fine bassist. 'We became a four-piece and made Home,' recalls Gary. 'We did in fact produce four or five tracks with Matthew, then we kind of fell out for some reason. I can't remember if he was still being too miserable about life, but we had a parting of ways! We wondered who could produce the album. I knew George Martin and went to him for advice. He recommended this young lad called Chris Thomas. I had a long talk with him and at the end of that chat I said, 'Okay, you can produce the new Procol Harum album.' So Chris Thomas produced Home at Abbey Road studios. It was his first production and he did a good job. He was a natural and he was very dedicated and worked incredibly hard. We kind of grew up together on that one.'
Robin Trower was able to contribute more material to Home, a process which had begun on A Salty Dog. Among his songs, co-written with Keith Reid, were Whisky Train, the first track on the album, and About To Die, which had a stronger guitar influence. However The Dead Man's Dream was very much a Brooker-Reid offering which Gary now describes as 'a very morbid song. In fact there were a lot of death themes on that album. It had a rather cheery cover and title compared to the actual content. A large gravestone on the front would have suited it better! There were songs like About To Die and Barnyard Story, the last line of which went 'maybe death will be my cure.' There's another one called Nothing That I Didn't Know, which is about a girl who died. There's a lot of morbid stuff on it and The Dead Man's Dream is the ultimate horror. But Whaling Stories was something different. The idea was to develop a flow of ideas that don't repeat. One of the funny things was, it started off in a minimalist way, very quietly with just one instrument, and it ended like that. Instead of a big ending it's got – nothing! I spoke to Brian May once and he said that Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody completely copied that idea. Incidentally, Pete Townsend once said that In Held 'Twas In I on Shine On Brightly had inspired him to do Tommy.'
Keith Reid agrees that Home is a rather dark album. 'It was quite doomy. Very much so. When I listen to it now it seems incredibly dark. At the time I probably wasn't aware of it, but in retrospect I must have been going through a deeply depressed state. The band was in a lot of turmoil. Matthew had left and we had been through a lot of problems with managers. We'd actually gone off to the country to get our music together and rented a farm down in Surrey. We were living down there and working with a new keyboard-player. We were very conscious of the fact that Matthew had been a big part of our sound. We decided to push the band in a slightly different direction and our thinking on the record was that we'd do it 'live' without any overdubs or strings. People would know what to expect of us. But lyrically it was very black and some of the music reflects that. It's hard to remember now why it was so doomy and bleak. It starts with Whisky Train, which is the most up-beat track on the album. That was cut totally 'live' in one take and it was our first record with Chris Thomas producing. We had started recording with Matthew producing then decided we didn't like the results, scrapped it all and started again. Chris was recommended to us and he'd been a protégé of George Martin. He was young and had loads of ideas: Chris Copping had joined us on bass and that made a big difference. Up until that time bass-playing on our records wasn't creative. There was no real thought being put into that side of things. The new guy was a really good bass-player and suddenly there was a whole new area that hadn't been explored. Chris had been in the Paramounts and I believe had taught Robin Trower to play. But he'd gone off to university to become a rocket-scientist and beer drinker!'
The Dead Man's Dream is undoubtedly the most morbid of all the songs on the album and led to problems when the band came to record it for a broadcasting session, as Keith later explains: 'When I listen to it now, I wish we had never recorded it, as it seems so depressing. It's supposed to be some sort of Gothic fairy tale I think.'
Many of the songs on Home seem to reflect Keith's bleak and intropective mood, like Still There'll Be More. 'I wanted to write something as bitter and twisted as possible and I was always intrigued by having a swear word in a song, so in the chorus I put 'I'll blacken your Christmas and piss on your door. You'll cry out for mercy but still there'll be more.' It was vengeful. Nothing That I Didn't Know was a sort of Scottish folk story that I quite liked. It was a lament. The music to About to Die was written by Robin first and I wrote the words later. I was obviously still going through a very morbid phase. I suppose it was kind of catharsis. Maybe if I hadn't done that album I wouldn't be talking to you all now.'
Procol Harum did have some fun in the studio during making of Home however. Piggy Pig Pig was Procol in Beatles-ish I am the Walrus mode. Whaling Stories was a long piece with different verses. Explains Reid: 'It was a continuous work and each verse had a different mood. You couldn't get away with it these days, but it was very popular live. Most of the songs on the album we played in concert and they worked very well.'
Your Own Choice was a 'hopeful song in a more optimistic mood', says Keith. 'The album wasn't so successful when it was released but the track Whisky Train got a lot of plays on rock radio in the States. It was by far the most popular track. The others weren't so radio friendly. I remember when we did the John Peel Show on BBC Radio we were going to play Dead Man's Dream and he objected! The producer came up to us and said that John didn't want the song played on his show. He probably doesn't remember it now. It was for one of his In Concert shows. I remember there was a blazing row in the studio about censorship, but he thought it was morbid and he probably was right.'
Procol Harum broke up in 1977 after ten years of hard work. They had achieved much, but in the wake of punk rock, the writing was on the wall. Gary Brooker made some solo albums that explored the funky side of his musical nature and in 1991 reformed Procol Harum to make a new album and play concert dates. In the summer of 1997 he was asked to join Ringo Starr's All Star Band for a US tour where he was one of the featured soloists.
After 1977 Keith Reid, the 'sixth member' of Procol Harum, needed time to stop and think about his life. Says Keith: 'I gave up at that point. I was fairly burned out and didn't do any songwriting for a couple of years. Gary was the only person I'd ever written songs with and I didn't know anybody else. So I wasn't even sure if I could work with anybody else. But people started calling me and asking if I fancied doing some writing and I got back into it. I started again in 1983 and now I'm anybody's. I'm a right old tart!'
The morbid phase that seemed to afflict him during the making of Home has long left Keith Reid. He now resides in New York and continues to write music [sic].
'I'm very happy with life now. I wake up everyday with a song in my heart! Gary and I got together in 1991 and wrote a bunch of songs for a new Procol Harum album called The Prodigal Stranger. We spent a year and a half working on that. It's a fairly loose arrangement now, but it remains a unique partnership. There is a bit of *** between us. I don't think we realized at that time we had such a unique relationship and it's only something you think about later. He and I hadn't worked with anybody else [sic] before we started writing together. It's only when you go out into the world and work with somebody else you realize how different it can be.'
Were they always good friends?
'We weren't always good friends. We had our share of disagreements, but it went a bit deeper than that. There was a very strong professional relationship which kept it together. I feel I'm a lot better writer now than I used to be. I'm more secure and confident in my ability now.'
Chris Welch, London, 1997
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