Procol Harum are back. Conquistador is edging up the charts. On September 22 they play London's Rainbow Theatre with the Royal Philharmonic. Gary Brooker and Keith Reid might argue they'd never been away. Maybe it's just in my mind.
But on the West Coast of America a few weeks ago suddenly the radios were alive again, as in 1967, with the distinctive sound of Brooker's music Reid's words, with a song that they wrote and recorded first of all years ago and only came to life again when re-arranged with the full backing of a Classical Symphony Orchestra from Edmonton, Canada. It was part of their latest album, Procol Harum Live at Edmonton, recorded in Canada last autumn, an album of distinction and taste.
But when I returned to England, Procol's A Whiter Shade of Pale, the tune that became unmistakably linked with that flower-powered summer of 1967 in San Francisco, was back in the British charts, all part of the turn-the-clock-back British musical attitudes, fostered by mentally lethargic disc-jockeys, record companies eager not to have to make decisions about the present, and welcomed by the corpulent middle-aged grabbing at youthful memories.
At one time at [sic] seemed the truly ironic thing would happen, the group's current music wouldn't take off. Fortunately after a lot of hard slogging it has.
Currently the group are putting the finishing touches to their new album Grand Hotel in George Martin's AIR London studios above Oxford Street. Gary Brooker says: 'It's a fantasy. The ultimate of us [sic]. When you go to Europe you stay in really grand hotels. We always drink and eat really well.'
One of the songs on the album is called Souvenir of London. The Souvenir? VD. In the past Keith has been accused of writing pretentious words, or words just for words' sake.
Keith scholastic background in the East End of London was not very academic, but he admits to having been a bookworm and that's why he eventually became a lyricist.
He says: 'When I write something I'm aiming to write it in the same way a poet writes a piece of poetry. It has to work within itself, and I give it to Gary and he adds to it and makes it something else, complements it.'
In 1969 they had an invitation from the Stratford, Ontario, festival to play with an orchestra there. Gary says: 'We only did two numbers, one of which was Salty Dog. It was a fine orchestra and the choir was made up of all the cast of plays and church choirs in the locality, so the orchestra contained about 40 voices. We enjoyed that concert. But you have to be invited to do it.
'Then last year the Edmonton orchestra asked us to do the same thing. This time we expanded it more. In the course of organising the concert we thought it was a good thing to record it.
'It cost a terrific amount. It was a one-off thing and done in an enormous rush. We had hoped to tape the rehearsals, but as circumstances would have it there was hardly any rehearsal, in fact about half-an-hour, that was all. At least one song was never rehearsed and that was Conquistador. I wrote the arrangements on the plane and in the hotel in Edmonton.'
Perhaps the worst thing that can happen to a group besides total failure is the instant success Procol Harum experienced. A Whiter Shade of Pale was their first single and was an immediate hit, and will it still they did not have that much faith in it. Keith recalls: 'We recorded a version of it and it was in the days of the pirate radio, so we got Radio London to test play it, that is play it over the air so we could hear it and the public could judge it. Fortunately, hundreds of them wrote in and asked where they could buy it, so we went ahead and released it'.
After that onslaught, the group's work was always more popular in America, where they worked for several years. Worked, but did not live there as many people think
Gary says: 'We've always lived over here and just went to America to tour. In fact, to tell you the truth when we wrote A Whiter Shade of Pale we didn't know whether San Francisco was on the West or the East Coast.'
Many more pages devoted to the Edmonton concert