Gary Brooker is very glad to be here, and on tour again. In May of last year, Brooker nearly died from a skull fracture, suffered in a hotel room in South Africa. His band, Procol Harum, were performing there for the first time ever. Due to circumstances that still have yet to be explained (the bandís website has suggested that Brooker had been drugged, in a robbery attempt), Brooker fell, and ended up spending over two weeks in the hospital, before finally being allowed to fly home to England.
Many of us know the music of Procol Harum. Formed in early 1967, the bandís first single became a song for the ages, A Whiter Shade of Pale. Through the majority of the following 45 years, Procol Harum has evolved and changed, touching on pop, rock, classical, symphonic and the fringes of progressive rock. Sometimes, all in the same song. Brookerís voice and songwriting has led the band through it all, and continues to lead the band through a healthy touring schedule. The band may have missed out on a Rock Hall nomination this year, but a fantastic new biography of the band, The Ghosts Of A Whiter Shade Of Pale, is already reminding fans of just how much the band has accomplished over their history.
Just five weeks after the incident in South Africa, Brooker returned to the stage for a US tour opening for Yes. The recovery from the accident has been gradual, and is ongoing. Despite that, Brooker remains a remarkable person to talk to. He talks to you with a knowing sparkle in his eye. Down to earth, yet able to laugh about it all. It was really good to see him. Onstage, or backstage in Alpharetta, GA, where this interview was done. The world around us too often takes our heroes from us too soon, but it is always good when someone can continue, and indeed, shine on, brightly.
Let me ask first what a lot of people want to know. How are you doing, and how are you feeling after the incident in South Africa?
Iím feeling pretty good. One of the problems that came from that events there was that I got deaf in one ear, and I canít hear how loud Iím talking, and occasionally I got a little topply and dizzy. But apart from that, Iím fine. I was a bit worried about coming out here, but its all worked out fine. No problems.
Coston: Was it good to jump back into a tour?
Well, it was a target. Iíve got to get myself back in shape here for a certain date, so thatís what I did. It involved staying at home, and being pretty quiet for a few weeks.
Was that hard to do?
No. (Laughs) I didnít feel like doing much.
Has that incident made you think about what you what you want to do next? Has that incident affected you?
Itís made me think that I couldíve laid there in a pool of blood and died. But some of the lads found me, if you like, and figured out what was going on. But therefore, I survived, and I didnít have any permanent injury, hopefully. Itís made me think that every moment is quite important. Thereís a lot of people that come to that in some stage of their life. But as we were saying earlier, the one thing was to make sure that I was able to even get up on stage and hear what I was singing. So thatís got a little bit [to go], so I havenít gotten through the next stage, yet. Plenty of time to think about this while driving through the United States, though. (laughs)
This is your first time back in the United States after I saw you on the Jethro Tull tour, in 2010.
We also did some other dates on our own that year, as well. There wasnít a lot of them, and a lot of it was based around going up to Canada to play with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. We also came back about a week after we went home, and did a date with the Wilmington [Delaware] Symphony, at their Opera House. Stayed at the Dupont, all very nice. Very fair. (laughs)
Do you enjoy coming back to the US, after all this time?
Yeah, yeah. In the old days, we used to come over for about six months of the year. Itís good to come over, but I think once every two years is all right.
Would you like to come over here often with your own show, as opposed to opening for another band?
Actually, thatís worked out for me [on this tour], because I was in a bed for quite a few weeks. Therefore, I lost a bit of strength. And Iím very glad that weíre only playing for an hour, and not two. (Laughs)
There has been a number of different line-ups during the history of Procol Harum. Youíve had this line-up together now for a few years.
Geoff [Whitehorn, guitarist] and Matt [Pegg, bassist] date from '92, '93. Twenty years. And it seems that Josh [Phillips, on organ] and Geoff [Dunn] on the drums have been with us for, it could be, five years. Some bands donít last five years (laughs), so we donít have a constant line-up change. Itís not like every time we go anywhere as Procol Harum, that thereís a different team. We try to stay together, we get on well. Itís a social event, as well. Itís fun, touring. It should be fun. But itís fun going around with Yes. Theyíre similar ilk to us. Theyíre a little older than us, but theyíre good lads.
You have a new live album out [MMX].
Yes, as a download.
Is that something that you think youíd do more of? Putting live albums out via download, or would you like to go back to the more physical album?
Do you mean a studio album?
Yes. That, too.
Well, I think that weíll get back in there, at some point. The great difference nowadays is that you canít try out a new song on stage, and then go in and sharpen it up a bit in the studio. Because as soon as youíve played it onstage once, itís out there. So all that side of it is gone. Once you play it, and if you havenít honed it, or sharpened it up in that time, youíve spoiled it. So really, you canít play anything on stage unless you want it to be out there on download.
We have a method now where we record ourselves every night now, anyway. Itís just, whoever gets the terrible job after this tour of 27 dates, picking out what was a good performance, and what wasnít.
This is much a Keith Reid question, as it is for you, but one of the things I like about Procol Harum is that the lyrics are very descriptive, yet not overly so. I donít know what you guys wrote the song ďShine On BrightlyĒ about, but I know what it means to me. You can take your meanings from the song.
Well, that is what itís all about. Thatís a good example, because itís much harder to think, ďWhat the hellís that about?Ē Whiter Shade of Pale is easy, or Homburg or something, compared to Shine on Brightly. But I think that each person can get something out of it. If itís a fantasy, it could be glowing pictures, or whatever. Hopefully, the music goes with it, as well, and vice versa.
It was funny. The other night, we were in Clearwater, Florida, and they had a young lady on the side of the stage with a light on her, and she does sign language for all the lyrics. How theyíre able to do it is a miracle, to me. How they learn to do that. And of course, I thought, if they are deaf, and if anybodyís watching this performance, what are they listening to? But Iíve been told that itís the vibration [that they can feel]. Thereís a very good percussionist with the classical orchestras in England thatís totally deaf.
But I did give the girl a bit of lip, as they call it in English, because I said, ďWhatís the worst job you ever had? Thatís becoming a signer, and you go for your first job, and you say, ĎWhat is it?í and they, ďTranslating the Procol Harum lyrics at their concert!Ē (Laughs loudly) Howís she going to do, ďYour multilingual business friendĒ? Her hands were flying everywhere. Luckily for her, we didnít do Shine on Brightly. Sheíd have had to do, ďMy Prussian blue electric clock alarm bell rings, it will not stop.Ē Anyway, she seemed to enjoy it.
What songs are you really enjoying, playing on this tour? Itís a slightly different set than when I saw you open for Jethro Tull.
Iím really enjoying every moment, because Iím really glad Iím here. You know what I mean? Whether itís somebody signing for the deaf, or just somebody on the road, or anything. Itís great fun, itís great to be here. With our sets, we worked one out, when we got here. We lost a lot of time in England, with me not being there, and it kind of worked out. We worked out so that we can try something different, and if works, or if maybe itís not quite right. Unusually for us, weíre pretty much sticking to the plan. (laughs) Iíve been sticking to the plan, but I can call it and change it in the middle of the set. ďNo, weíll do that one.Ē But no, weíve stuck to [the set list] so far, but we can still make it interesting. We havenít played it enough, weíre only on about our tenth or eleventh concert [of this tour]. Weíre not tired of it. In fact, on the contrary. Weíre sharpening them. Trying to find different ways of going with them that are better each time. When it comes to the stage where itís peaked, then weíll drop it out, and try something else.
What is it like to have that kind of a catalogue, through your history with this band?
It is a big catalogue, but sometimes it doesnít seem so large. We have a certain amount, because at some point, weíve played most of them, but I seem to have played a couple at soundcheck that no oneís ever played. Unless theyíve forgotten them. (Laughs) But we rehearse before we went to South Africa, and most of that set was meant to be for use here. So weíve quite got a good stockpile of stuff.
I want to ask you a question about Whiter Shade of Pale, without going into [the recent court case with former organist Matthew Fisher]. How was your perspective on that song itself changed over the years? Do you view that song differently now, than when you wrote it?
It hasnít changed a lot, except the way that people play it. That is always interesting to me. I can always create lot of interest on the piano, and the way I sing it, and it always remains fresh. If I hear it on the radio, I think, ďBlimey, thatís good. Whoís that?Ē And itís our record. To me, it didnít sound like it came from a certain era, but I think it always sounded like it didnít fit. People have called it lots of things. Ghostly, eerie, haunting. And it was always that. Itís one of its unique properties, I think. But when people refer to it as galvanizing the Summer of Love, I donít see that at all. That might have been the era that it was popular in, but since then, people have gotten married to it, and theyíre only 25. People get buried to it. Mind you, they were probably around when it first came out. (laughs)
Iím 39, and Iíve known that song all of my life. And again, it means different things to me.
See, you werenít even born when that song came out.
You guys were always a little out of your time. I listen to your songs, and I canít go, ďOh, thatís so 1967, 1968.Ē You guys were always a little left of what was going on.
We were always, slightly not of the time. Not quite getting in with the current, because we didnít change ourselves to go with might be the fashion, or the way to do things, or all that. In fact, if we were heard anything that was the fashion, or the way to do things, we would go the complete opposite. When Whiter Shade of Pale came out, our first LP came out a little bit later that year. Letís say September, October. And we didnít put Whiter Shade on it, because we thought, ďEverybodyís already bought that. We donít want to cheat them, make them buy something theyíve already got.Ē [Editorís note: Procol Harumís then label, Regal Zonophone, did go ahead and release Whiter Shade on the bandís debut album [BtP's note ... not in the UK!]. However, the album was released in Germany without Whiter Shade, and both the US and UK versions did not include the bandís most recent hit by that time, Homburg.] Now, you wouldnít think that a band wouldnít release an album without Whiter Shade of Pale. That wasnít their biggest hit that year, but we always worked against the plan. (Smiles and laughs.)
I wanted to ask you about Douglas Adams, who was a friend of yours, and whom I got to interview in 1996.
He was a great friend. He was such a huge fan, and such a creative person, he felt like more than just one fan, but more a whole tribe of them.
South Africa?I think the musicians know that in this band, they can take any song we play, be it a old one, or a new one, and any direction that they feel like taking. Add. Their. Bit. They can add their character, or musical notes, or anything. Now and again, thereís bits that have to be in there. Something, a song feels wrong if it doesnít hear THAT. Itís not written in stone, but you say, ďYouíve got to have that bit in.Ē For the most part, the rhythms have to be somewhere near the originals. We have tried jazzing stuff up now and again, totally change the arrangements and the feels. But people are always happy when we come back to the old version. (laughs).
Gary Brooker MBE | Procol gigs, 2012