Procol Harum

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Interview with Peter Solley

Written for BtP by Ronald Smith © 1997

Mention Pete Solley and Procol fans think of Strangers in Space, one of the stand-out tracks on the Something Magic album.

The keyboard wizard joined the band for the Something Magic album and tour. While some fans questioned the use of synth for the "classic" sound of Procol, Gary Brooker was all for trying something new, and Strangers in Space (along with another highly regarded synth-dominated track, Skating on Thin Ice) proved the merits of the experiment. Most fans would have trouble thinking of two better songs on that album.

The sound of Procol had actually gone through many transformations over the years. The band had lost a lot of the "organ-piano" trademark after Matthew Fisher left and Robin Trower's guitar dominated (Broken Barricades and Home). The band had also experimented with full orchestra (Live at Edmonton) stripped down rock (Exotic Birds and Fruit, and Leiber & Stoller's production of Procol's Ninth) and eclectic combinations of rock and orchestra (Grand Hotel.)

Admittedly, Something Magic was not a successful album when it was released. By contrast, Pete Solley was successful both before and after Procol. He earned a scholarship to Trinity College of Music, in London, at the age of thirteen, studying violin, piano and composition. After college, Pete was in demand as a session player in London studios, performing every type of music. He performed with the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, (the line-up included drummer Carl Palmer and guitarist Albert Lee), and English cult favorites, the Terry Reid Band. He toured with David Coverdale's Whitesnake.

Pete Solley with his Cuban (photo by Christina Hermansson)In the 80s, following his Procol work, Pete began writing TV jingles, his clients including British Airways, BMW cars, and Coca Cola.

From jingles, he found his way into record production, and earned gold and platinum records for CBS/Sony, Atlantic, Arista and many others. Some of his best known productions include The Romantics' classics, What I Like About You, Talking in your Sleep, John Parr's Naughty Naughty, and more recently, Motorhead's Grammy-nominated album 1916. Ted Nugent, Peter Frampton, Oingo Boingo and Mountain are some of the other artists who have benefited from Solley's production skills.

Aside from producing records, Pete played keyboards on a diverse range of albums, including discs by Eric Clapton and Al Stewart. Today he operates his own Peter Solley Productions music software company. He also enjoys orchestral and jazz writing, performing and recording, and continues to ever expand his artistic horizons.

He was one of the honored guests at the Redhill re-union, and discusses most of the above in the following interview, conducted in late August, 1997.

Is it a coincidence that you're living in Florida, where Something Magic was produced? Were you already living there?

When we did Something Magic I fell in love with Florida. I was living in London then. But man, when we came down here, I thought what a great place to live! So when I started producing, after Procol, about '78, '79, I did a couple of albums down here in Florida. I moved to America because I was doing so much production work and came down here to live, so there is a correlation there.

So "something magic" happened in Florida. I guess when people went down there to make an album, it was to get away from the vibe in New York and L.A.?

Definitely. It was definitely getting away from things. You got people away from their wives and girlfriends, which is always good. Then you can concentrate on the recording.

You've said that of all the bands you played with, Procol Harum is your favorite. I assume Keith and Gary knew that when you joined. How did you get to know Keith and Gary and join Procol Harum?

I just got a call one day from Keith. I think it was Keith, but I'm not sure, actually. (laughs). I was a session player in London. I was a first call session player and I was doing really well.

You'd seen Procol perform?

I'd seen the band way back in '68. We played together in Chicago when I was with The Terry Reid Band. I think we played on the bill with them again in Paris, maybe a year later, if I remember right. Actually when I spoke to Matthew [Fisher] – I haven't really talked to Matthew for years – he remembered meeting me in Chicago and in Paris. I don't actually remember meeting them. I remember hearing them, thinking man, what an incredible band. So that's when I first heard them. Trower was with them then. What an incredible band. But I'd been working in London, doing my session work, and a lot of bands asked me to join. The Moody Blues asked me to join when their keyboard player left. I played with them for a couple of days. Didn't like it at all. The Kinks asked me to join...

Why didn't you join The Kinks?

Why didn't I? It sucked. Wasn't my cup of tea at all. It wasn't something that I wanted to do. There were very few bands that I would've joined. Rainbow called me up, said would I join them. I said no. I was doing nicely doing session work, making good money, and I really wasn't interested in joining a band. And then Keith called me out of the blue. I think it was Keith. I can't remember. I don't know how they got my number or knew about me. I played on a lot of records, I played with a band called Fog [should be 'Fox'!], which had several #1 records just previous to that. But I don't know how they got my number, but they were the one band I would've responded to. I went down and played with them one afternoon and said sure, I'll do it.

Well, being so keyboard-oriented, I would think they would be a band you would feel you could contribute a lot to. If you played with The Kinks what would you have done?

Exactly. It was challenging. Plus, my coming from a classical background of course, I fitted right into that.

You were involved in classical music at a very early age, weren't you?

Yeah. I won a scholarship when I was thirteen to Trinity College in London. They had a special scholarship for a couple of gifted children every year. You'd go there after school and on weekends, and study with the big boys. Play in the orchestra and stuff. I did that for three or four years.

So you were at the level where you could play a Chopin étude by heart?

No, no, I was never actually very good. I was more interested in the composition actually. I didn't particularly enjoy college, it was very traditional. It wasn't one of the more hip colleges like the Royal Academy. I don't think I got that much out of it.

It wasn't as harrowing as the movie Shine I assume.

No, no no, nothing like that. Plus violin was my main instrument back then, which I hated. I don't know how I ended up playing it.

When you're asked to join a band, one would think that the people know you personally; they know that they're gonna get along with you. But that's not the case here. Keith just knew you were an extremely talented player.

I don't know, I guess I could ask Keith. I never really thought about it, to tell you the truth. No, I just played for a couple of hours for them in a rehearsal room and said ok, let's do it. We agreed on terms and that was it, basically, just a little negotiation on the money side, and that was it. Off we went. They were easy to get on with. I wasn't joining a bunch of young spring chickens, they were all seasoned.

And stable.

Yes, relatively stable. It certainly wasn't a question of being difficult to fit in or anything like that. In fact I was the wildest guy there. Actually what had happened was my wife had just died, like six, eight months before. She died of cancer when I was ... I guess I was 26. I had a little baby. She died right after giving birth to the baby, so I'd come through that whole harrowing experience, that whole traumatic experience for the past year. Before I joined the band, I'd just worked studios, I hadn't really been getting out and about. So when I joined them, I was actually the young wild one, 'cause I was single, and they were pretty staid. They were all married, I think. Basically they were all pretty settled, they were all very staid and set in their ways, and I was the one who was partying all night.

BJ was not partying?

He didn't party in my circles, put it that way. From what I remember he was more in the bar. That kind of thing. I was out finding women all the time; it was a different kind of attitude.

Where was your young daughter during all of this? With relatives or friends?

Well I had a house two doors down from my brother, which I bought right after my wife died, for that very reason. When I'd have to go work my daughter went and stayed with my brother and his wife and kids next door. So that worked out fine. She's 22 now.

Of course we know that Something Magic turned out to be the last album for quite a while. But at the time you and the band evidently went into recording in Florida with very good and positive feelings – that this was nowhere near the end, but just another step.

You know, I never really thought about it. Yeah, I guess it was pretty positive. I just came in and was having a great time. I hadn't been involved in the whole history of the band so I was more involved in the present. But yeah, we certainly went to Florida with a positive feeling.

And new producers. Another attempt to get a good sound from Procol in the studio.

I never thought their records sounded that good sonically. I never thought any of the records sounded as good as they could've done. Now that's not to say Something Magic was any good, because it was a bloody disaster with the Alberts [producers Ron and Howie Albert]. Later I became a producer and worked in Criteria [Studios] myself. And the more I got to know the Alberts better the more I realized the guys couldn't mix a cake. They were totally inept. Ronnie was OK but Howie was a complete asshole. So I realized we simply made a very bad choice in getting them, and that was really the worst thing to happen to the band. They were just the worst, they didn't give two shits. Then I realized that everyone they produced, they didn't give two shits about either, and they never did anything any good. They were lucky to be on a couple of records that did fairly well, but quite frankly they didn't do much on those records. Other people did most of the stuff. So I have no love for Ronnie and Howie. At the time when we did the record they were completely inept, completely uncooperative. They added nothing, simply detracted with their complete lack of enthusiasm. You couldn't have picked two worse people to do the record, who had less idea about the music of Procol Harum. I could think of fifteen producers who would be more in tune with what the band was trying to do. I mean, it was like three strikes before we started. They had no idea, they were brought up on Southern rock, I guess. They had no concept about symphonic music and about the idea of tempos, speeding up, slowing down. They wanted BJ to play to a click track! Crap like that. It was completely opposite to everything Procol stood for.

BJ's drumming was the heart of Procol, the heartbeat of Procol. Unbelievable.

The whole idea of Procol was you slowed down and sped up, 'cause that's what made it dramatic. That's of course one of the problems since BJ died - that all the drummers don't get the concept, the idea of not necessarily playing in strict time, but taking things up and down, and playing them more like an orchestra would play. You come into a grand section and maybe slow it down a little, and in the verse you take it up a little in tempo.

I guess the classic example of that would be the title track from Grand Hotel.

Yeah, exactly. Exactly. I mean people like Graham Broad, who played at Redhill, they're wonderful players, in fact I produced a record with a guy called John Parr, he had a top ten hit. Graham played on that. About '84, I think. Great player. It's not the drummers' fault, but they just don't understand the concept that BJ had. I don't even know if BJ understood it, but it was the way he played, it was one of those magic things. See, you couldn't put BJ with another band because of the way he played. They'd say hey man, why can't you keep time? That's one of the reasons I think he got depressed after the band broke up.

He went to Frankie Miller and Joe Cocker. I guess neither was too suitable.

Right, he was made for Procol. Procol was made for him.

So the Alberts, when they offered any input at all, had ideas like click-tracks for B.J.

They were a pair of f*ck-ups, they were more interested in getting on that boat at the end of the day and going out fishing. And they still are, today.

So some other producer may have said, gee, The Worm and the Tree - maybe Gary should sing this. Or not do this song at all?

We had other songs, too.

Other songs to pick from? Something Magic was just re-issued. I assume the lack of bonus tracks means there actually are no out-takes or unreleased tracks.

I guess so.

Everything that you recorded is on the original record.

I guess. I can't remember. We played a bunch of songs, I can't remember what they were. I really can't.

You auditioned them but they weren't recorded?

No. We played a bunch of stuff-

And then the Alberts chose which ones to actually record?

Yeah, from what I remember.

That's kind of surprising , 'cause I thought Keith Reid especially was sort of the manager or final voice in terms of what happens on an album. I didn't realize the producer had such power.

Well, I think maybe just being in America, and the whole thing, [this was Procol's first time actually recording in the US [sic]] people were a little over-awed by the Alberts, and their crap. You know, if I'd have known then what I know now, I would've kicked their ass and told them to piss off out of the studio.

I was editing a national rock magazine called Rocket at the time. I remember on my end, the apathy between Chrysalis and Warner Brothers. Their attitude was "I got it, you take it," when it came to tickets, interviews, promo copies, anything. I'd go back and forth making calls and neither office wanted to take responsibility. Were you at all aware that Procol's problems included Chrysalis and Warners both dropping the ball?

No, that wasn't my department, I have no knowledge of that whatsoever.

Looking back from a twenty-year perspective, several of the songs are up to the quality one expects from Procol. Mark of the Claw is a great rock track, and Strangers in Space was your showcase. Was it specifically written to be a synth showcase for your talent?


It was just a song that when you heard it, you said, "Hey, I can really add a lot to this song."

Yeah. I think so. It just happened that way. Great song.

I saw you play in concert in New York. I don't know the name of the theater - they keep changing it. I remember the swirling lights during Strangers in Space.


Does that kind of thing inspire you or does it distract you when you're trying to play?

I don't think it has any bearing on it really. I guess it's kind of nice. It certainly wouldn't distract you. I go back to the Fillmore East and the Fillmore West when they used to have the real light shows, where they used to project on the back screen. Now that was distracting, because it was so great you'd keep turning around to look and see what they were doing. But no, I think it's nice when they have good lights.

You know what you're playing anyway, it's not a case of having to look at the keys.

It's nice atmosphere, you know.

I remember a lot of good stuff happening in the late 60s and 70s and some of it is no longer appreciated. Genya Ravan, Fanny, The Strawbs or Andy Bown - whoever you want to name - a lot of people from that era aren't represented on CD. What do you make of that? Was it that most of this stuff wasn't really as good as we thought it was, or that times have changed and we should be lucky Procol is reissued.

I don't know. I had a band in 1972 called Paladin. We did two albums in England. I think one came out here. Anyway, I get a call from out of the blue from some guy. He says "We're issuing it on CD." Why? I can't imagine. I think a lot of it just wasn't that good, actually. It was twenty years ago, I mean, people have grown up.

Thinking back, twenty years ago, what do you remember most about touring with Procol?

The whole experience for me was great. The thing that stood out for me was when we played in Romania. That was when it was still behind the Iron Curtain. My grandparents were from Romania and I was getting in touch with that side of things, and it was something I couldn't have done without Procol. It was a tremendous experience for me. They were very big behind the Iron Curtain for some reason. Poland, Romania, they really appealed to the East Europeans. East Germany. That was pretty cool. I remember that concert in Romania more than anything.

Did you get a real feel for the country itself, like it was somehow in your roots from centuries ago?

No, a feeling of sadness, at how appalling the system was. The hotel receptionist was a Jewish girl. I'm Jewish - she was about twenty, twenty-one, and I asked her out to dinner. Cute little girl. She said, "Please marry me so I can get out of here." She was really serious. "Take me out of Romania." She told me about the hotel being bugged. The system sucked. Of course now you can travel freely. But back then ... it was very interesting. And of course the audiences were tremendous. Audiences were always great for Procol. No one went to a Procol Harum concert unless they wanted to be there. It wasn't a voguish, hip thing to do, you see what I mean? People went because they really dug the band. I do think they were the greatest, certainly one of the Top Five best live bands ever in rock music. I don't think their records ever did them justice. A phenomenal electricity used to happen on a good night.

I was glad I was there back then to see some of that. How did Procol break up after Something Magic" Was there a meeting of all the band members? What was that like?

It was the end of the last American tour, whenever that was. We had a tenth anniversary dinner, in New York, and I think everyone knew that was pretty well it. When we got back to England I talked to Gary on the phone, then I drove down to his house and we talked for an hour or so. I'm not sure what everyone else did. I think that was about it. There was no big meeting. It petered out, it was not a big finale. It just whimpered out.

Did Gary act like he was looking forward to solo work or did he act like he didn't want to do anything for a while?

Man, he was tired, he'd been doing it a long time. He was tired. He carried a lot of the load. Every night he was the guy that was singing, he was the guy that was writing the songs, he was the guy who was doing an awful lot, a lot more than BJ, or Mick Grabham or Copping or me. The guy was doing a lot and I think he was just tired, tired of doing it. I know for me it wasn't a big "Oh My God." I just went on from there. I went on and became a jingle writer, got into production; all kinds of things happened, so for me everything worked out well. It was just a great experience for me and a marvelous chapter in my life.

It seemed there was a big crowd wherever you went on that final tour. The fans supported the band, but I assumed the record-

Record sales were not good for the last couple of albums.

I assume Something Magic did no worse, really. The hardcore fans would always buy a Procol album, regardless of The Worm and the Tree. The other songs I thought were fine. Did it bother you at all that some of the lyrics made no sense? When you're playing night after night and Gary's singing Wizard Man and this song makes no sense - did anybody ever ask what in the world is this song about?

I always asked Keith. I still do. "Keith, what the fuck are you talking about?" Even like when he sent that little poem over for Redhill. I spoke to him on the phone last week and I said "What the fuck were you talking about?" He said, "Well it made sense when I wrote it."

Is that the stock answer?

"It made sense when I wrote it." The songs have imagery, more than anything. It's not a question of making sense, it's just more like a tone poem. That's how I look at it.

Well some of them, yes, Homburg, or A Christmas Camel, people aren't quite sure but they had a little better imagery than Wizard Man did.

That was just a fun little song.

"Wizard Man has a magic tooth." OK. Zooming twenty years up in time. Redhill. What was that like?

Oh, great, great, I had a ball. I loved it, I thought it was just great. It was a great experience. I went over with my girlfriend, we went to Paris for a night, went down to stay at Gary's. He's got a lovely house. My girlfriend gets on great with Franky; I've always got along great with Gary. Always. He's the nicest man. So we stayed there, and we had a great time; great food. Everyone was really friendly at the rehearsals, really relaxed, no one had any egos, you know. I just had to bone up on some of the stuff I hadn't played in twenty years - stuff I hadn't heard in twenty years. Matthew faxed me some of the charts, I did some crib jobs, and it was great.

The event was a long time in the making, wasn't it? Gary had spoken of it months earlier.

I spoke to Gary a couple of times; I saw him on the Ringo tour, he was down here, and we talked about it and he said "I'd like to do This Old Dog," the fiddle tune we used to do. I said well, I'll give it a go, I haven't picked up my fiddle for twenty years. So I said I'll let you know how that goes. He said "We'll definitely do Strangers [in Space]." He said 'We're doing In Held - would you do the orchestra parts and the choir?" I said sure, I can do all that. The strings in Grand Hotel. Whatever. When we got over there, they rented a synth, and I took my own floppy discs with my sounds on it, so I knew what sounds I had to deal with.

I guess of all the others in the band, you must've had the most responsibility because you had to do all these effects on the synth.

It was a lot of fun actually. The only thing I was worried about was the damn fiddle, you know. I hadn't played in twenty years. It went OK, I got through that.

When Redhill was coming up, the AOL group began to have these debates.

They slammed me. And I slammed them back. [America On Line has their own "Procol Harum" newsgroup to discuss the band and upcoming events. Often the postings focused on the good old days of Matthew Fisher and the classic organ sound. One Fisher fan sparked a controversy by declaring that Solley should not even have been invited to Redhill.] Yeah, they were just slamming me, saying I didn't have a right to be there or some kind of crap. So I wrote a scathing e-mail (laughs). It was kind of fun, actually. A couple of people stuck up for me, but the ones that didn't were just shaken to their boots and apologized profusely, sending me personal e-mails "I'm so sorry." Of course they're all totally obsessed with Matthew Fisher.

I don't understand comparisons. It's like when amateur rock fans talk about Ringo Starr being a better or worse drummer than Charlie Watts, or saying Matthew Fisher is a better organist than Chris Copping, or you ... I imagine that Copping, you or Matthew, would all play Whiter Shade of Pale's organ piece the same way.

Fundamentally yes. Fundamentally you'd play it the same way. We'd play other stuff differently. You can say someone is better than another person...there are various criteria. There's technical prowess...imaginative prowess...I think Matthew would be good at certain things, and I know that I'd be better than him at other things. So it's really apples and pears. I think everyone's entitled to their opinion. When I came into the band, my whole concept was, I wasn't just gonna play the parts that everyone had played before. You know, that's not what I went into it for, and if that was the case, then get someone else, because I've never done that and I wouldn't do that.

You wouldn't want to walk into somebody's footsteps step for step. That would be boring.

I came in with a different attitude, and a different instrument, and a different approach. I think it was real good for the band at that time. I know they enjoyed it. It doesn't bother me that the people in AOL have this enormous obsession with Matthew.

I think it's an empathy based on the solo albums that he made, in addition to the Procol Harum work. They know him by all these songs that he did that were filled with such angst and emotion-


They feel for him in that regard. And also that he wrote the organ track for Whiter Shade of Pale and he didn't get any credit for that.

Yeah. Well, that's his problem, isn't it. I don't mean that in a nasty way. You know, I learned that lesson long ago. I produced the first Romantics album and there was a song called What I Like About You on it. Right? Which has since become the most played record in the last twenty years. Or one of the top five.

Yeah. It's all over.

All over, still. And I wrote half the damn song. And at the time I didn't claim writership, because I was producing it. I thought well, producing it, that's fine. That taught me a lesson, big time. From that time on I made sure credit was given.

In the AOL post you mentioned that you wrote a Number One song. Was that the one you were referring to?

I wrote Talking In Your Sleep, another song for The Romantics. They had a Number One with that: "I hear the secrets that you keep when you're talking in your sleep." I produced all the Romantics albums. Case in point, when that came out, I made sure I got my credit; my writing royalties. But you know, the thing with Procol, Gary by himself was very much in control of the music. So quite frankly, even though the organ line is as important as it is, I think you have to look at it in the context of Gary's vision. I wasn't there at the time so I don't know what happened then and there, but I know I've been in situations where Gary's presented songs, and said "Look, this is the concept." And I've added stuff, but it's because of Gary's basic concept that the stuff is added. It doesn't mean that I should get a piece of the writing.

So if Gary was the one who said "I think a little Bach-type organ would be good here..."

Well, I wasn't there so I don't know. But that was my experience in how we used to work out new stuff.

Well, you were appreciated at Redhill by all the fans, and from what I've read, all the band members enjoyed themselves and each other too.

Everyone was loose as a goose. It was great seeing Mick again. And Chris Copping I hadn't seen for twenty years. It was great seeing him, and he hadn't changed at all, he was exactly the same. He played pretty good. Everyone played pretty good, actually. Mick Grabham played pretty well, and nobody made any mistakes. I played piano on A Dream in Every Home. Gary wanted to stand up to sing the song, so I played piano on that. I actually didn't know the tune; we brushed up on that the day before. It was pretty simple.

The fans had a great time, especially meeting the band.

It was a great atmosphere. It was nice meeting some of the people afterwards, we went out front and said hi.

What is your recollection of what the fans were like twenty years ago?

I think they were really good fans, and very loyal. Maybe a little obsessive. But you get that with every group's fans. I went on the road with Whitesnake. Their fans were more "Hey let's party, dude." Procol fans were not "Hey, let's smoke a doobie, man." They used to bring stuff, they used to bring pictures that they drew themselves of the band. Presents. They were very into it. The band was very accessible.

I guess they knew their fans were good people.

They were the nicest kind of fans. Very nice. Non-threatening.

Well that's always good...

Same at Redhill.

Well it was the same people! Everybody came back feeling pretty good.

It was just a lot of fun, and then I came straight back the next day or the day after. Bought a bunch of Cuban cigars. I'm a Cuban cigar aficionado.

Must be awful when you're so close to Cuba and you have to have them flown from England!

Luckily my brother has a good supply in England. So I get good Cubans.

Those of us who weren't there would like to know...will a soundtrack of this appear? Did anybody tape this professionally?

No, no, we ran a DAT from the mixing board but no one recorded it professionally. No, it was very much an informal affair. It grew to be a little more than originally intended. When I got back I called Keith in New York and said "Hey, why the hell weren't you there?" He was doing his apartment, he didn't realize it was going to be as big a deal as it was. He was kind of surprised and a little miffed that he didn't go, because really, it's probably the last time Procol's ever gonna play together like that.

The last time?

Gary, what is he, fifty? Fifty something? You know he's got a lovely life. I see no reason he would want to go on tour with Procol Harum again. It makes no sense to me. He loves his life. He does his little solo thing.

I do get the impression all the members of Procol seem to be a lot happier than they were perhaps when they were recording twenty years ago. Some of the songs were a bit dark and now it seems everyone's lightened up and are quite content with life.

Everyone was very content when I was with the band.

I guess looking back, Something Magic is the lightest Procol album. Maybe that was the problem, it was too upbeat. There wasn't the usual angst and ire of Strong as Samson or Typewriter Torment. The album had a fable, and Wizard Man, and very little really dark emotion in the lyrics.

Keith has never been dark. He writes certain ways, but he's actually the sweetest guy, and actually very humorous. Gary certainly has never been dark. He's a straight arrow. BJ, you know, I was never really that aware of his dark side and his alcoholism. I didn't hang with him in bars, so I don't know. I used to go my own way.

It didn't affect his studio work, I assume?

I don't recall him having a problem. I think it came out more after the band broke up. He was lost, he didn't know what to do with his life, I guess. Of all the band members he was the one that really was affected. Mick Grabham had a kid and his wife had a business, so he was able to stay home and raise his kid. And Chris went to Australia and I think he's done OK there. Of course the bass player at the end was Dee Murray, after Chris went a little loopy and we changed bass players. Dee died of cancer. Who else is there? That was it, right? And I went on and I did all right.

And you're up on the web!

I have my business, and I still produce. I've got more into jazz in the last few years, playing, writing, doing stuff that I really enjoy.

There's always a chance the elusive Procol Harum will return...isn't there?

I know nothing's written in stone ...

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