In 1967, Procol Harum ditched their beat heritage to spearhead rock's classical tendency. The result was 'A Whiter Shade of Pale', a song that has largely overshadowed the rest of the band's work; with the help of Gary Brooker and Robin Trower, we peer behind the enigma.
The latest development in the continuing saga of Procol Harum is the imminent arrival of a CD containing symphonic versions of many of their finest songs. Procol are an obvious choice for such a venture. It was they who almost single-handedly popularised classical rock, first via the Bach-inspired 'A Whiter Shade Pale', and then with a string of fine records culminating in their epochal 1972 live album recorded with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra.
By the mid-70s, they'd ditched the orchestral arrangements for a more pop-orientated sound, even bringing in producers Leiber & Stoller for 'Procol's Ninth'. Procol weren't immune to the late-70s malaise that seemed to affect many of their generation, and after performing 'A Whiter Shade Of Pale' at a BPI Awards ceremony, they went their separate ways. But not even frontman Gary Brooker achieved the kind of success enjoyed by guitarist Robin Trower, who'd quit the band in 1971 to pursue a solo career fronting a Hendrix-influenced power trio.
After almost a decade-and-a-half on ice, the band decided to regroup late in 1991 and record an eleventh album. Boasting the vintage late-60s line-up of Gary Brooker, Robin Trower, Matthew Fisher and Keith Reid, the record, 'The Prodigal Stranger', was supported by a series of U.S. tours in 1991, '92 and '93, and a European jaunt that ventured into all continental corners bar Britain. Only regulars of the Zero Six Club in the band's home town of Southend-on-Sea were lucky enough to witness this historic reformation (albeit without Trower, who declined to tour).
Wherever Procol go, though, 'A Whiter Shade Of Pale' follows. Gary Brooker performed a stirring, emotional version at last year's Mick Ronson tribute concert, and the song will inevitably reappear on BMG's forthcoming symphonic CD, alongside other classics like 'Conquistador' and 'Homburg'. Brooker, Trower and Fisher have all contributed to the recordings, together with Andy Fairweather-Low, Geoff Whitehorn, and Dave Bronze, plus arrangers Darryl Way and Nick Dodd, and not forgetting full orchestral backing.
The Paramounts – Street Fighting Men
RC: The Rolling Stones said the Paramounts were the best R&B band in the UK!
GB: Well, our publicist certainly wrote that (laughs)! But they did give us a lot of support. Our manager ran a gig down in Deal in Kent, and one particular night he had the Rolling Stones on with us at the dance hall down there. In fact, that week the Stones had 'Come On' out as a single (7th June 1963).
We all ended up hiding in the same room because there was a terrible fight that night between marines and East End heavies. Our manager brought these heavies down from the Krays' snooker hall 'to teach the marines a lesson', and it was a pretty fearsome battle. 'Our side', if you like, were looking around for someone to kill with baseball bats and chains in their hands. I can remember looking out of the window with Mick Jagger and we saw one of these marines run into his car and lock the door. One of our boys just went up, punched the window – which smashed immediately – grabbed the marine by the ears, pulled him out and kicked the hell out of him. We became quite close within the space of half an hour because we were all scared together.
We played that night and the Stones were knocked out with us.
RC. Did you get a particular audience? Was it a Mods and Rockers thing?
GB: It was a blues and R&B audience. They weren't anything – they were probably people who liked whatever was musically good about that stuff. There was a bit of a rave about it. A few beers and a bit of Bob – Bob Hope that is.
RC: Did Guy Stevens (DJ and later Mott The Hoople and Clash producer) influence you at this stage, or was he just a friend?
GB: He was important in our development. We used to go round to Guy's house and he became a mate. He'd say, 'Listen to this ... yeah, very rare imports.' We always used to pinch a few songs and put them in our repertoire.
RC: Weren't these records well-known then?
GB: Not in Britain, no. There was no way that you really heard Screamin' Jay Hawkins or Howlin' Wolf. Up until 1963 it had only been hit parade stuff – Frank Ifield or Del Shannon or 'pop stars'.
RC: I believe there are several Paramounts performances in the 'Ready, Steady, Go!' archives...
GB: We were on it every time we had a record out and I think we even played other songs as well. One often got the chance to play more than one song, and we always played live.
RC: You backed Sandie Shaw in late 1965 ...
GB: Yes, we did. By then it was drying up a bit. We'd lost the exclusivity of our repertoire --Otis Redding had gone from being an underground artist to public property. So we signed up with Brian Epstein's NEMS. It was a financial decision to keep us going for a few months, and it wasn't really our bag. It was the beginning of the end. The end itself came when Sandie's manager said, 'Could you back Chris Andrews?' Again it was a financial decision, but Rob Trower drew the line at that and left. We then got in another guitarist along with a sax player, and toured Germany with Andrews for three weeks in early 1966. After that, we packed it in (laughs). It was too much for me as well after that.
Procol Harum – Bach in the U.S. of A
RC: There seems to have been a year between the end of the Paramounts and the debut of Procol Harum. Tell me about this period.
GB: Well, once during the early part of 1966, when the Paramounts were still going, we were round at Guy Stevens' house, and Guy introduced us to Keith Reid. Keith gave me this big envelope full of words which I took away. When the Paramounts split up a few weeks later, I found this packet and thought, 'Oh, I remember these – that bloke up at Guy's.' So I looked at them and wrote a song.
By some strange coincidence, the next day a letter arrived from Keith. He had signed it at the bottom and quoted from one of his songs, which was the very song I had written music to the day before – 'Something Following Me'! So I phoned him up. The idea was that we'd write songs and get other people to do em!
RC: Did Guy Stevens help to promote you as songwriters?
GB: I don't remember Guy saying, 'Look, I'll take the songs around for you.' I think there was an unspoken plot between Reid and Stevens to get me to sing the songs. But I'd retired (laughs) – I was only 20, but I'd retired from being a performing rock person.
We had written songs for particular people. There was one for Dusty Springfield, one for the Beach Boys, 'Conquistador' what a big influence they were!
RC: On you?
GB: Oh, I think on everybody. I'm not talking about twee surfing songs, more like 'God Only Knows' from 'Pet Sounds'.
RC: What did you write for Dusty Springfield?
GB: I think it was called 'I realize'. But it wasn't to be and Reid said, 'Well, you'll have to sing them instead!'
RC: Procol Harum's sound was unique at the time. Was that a conscious decision?
GB: Well, yes! Keith Reid, Guy Stevens and I decided what sort of band Procol Harum should be. You don't ever get away from bass and drums. I was there playing piano and we wanted a Hammond to give that expansion the group missed. We also wanted bluesy guitar with this background sound – a bit from Booker T, a bit from Bob Dylan.
RC: With 'A Whiter Shade Of Pale', was it pirate radio that broke the single?
GB: Pirate Radio claims a lot of honours there. When 'A Whiter Shade Of Pale' was mixed, the cymbals on it sounded a bit clashy. We wanted to hear what it sounded like on the radio and we got in touch with the pirate ship, Radio London. It sounded fine. Afterwards, when the record finished, the DJ said something like, 'Well that sounded like a huge hit to me. That was great!' On its second week of release it went to No. 1, just by popular demand. This was just before Radio 1 started.
RC: Procol Harum played with Jimi Hendrix at the Speakeasy in 1967. Did you jam with him?
GB: He appeared in London as if he'd tumbled from the sky. I remember I saw this figure in the Charing Cross Road, on the other side up near Denmark Street, dressed in a green cape and a green suit with a mop of hair. And I knew it was Jimi Hendrix. I don't think he even had a record out then.
We played our first gig at the Speakeasy the day 'A Whiter Shade Of Pale' came out. Jimi joined us to play a song called 'Morning Dew' by Tim Rose. He would jump up with anybody. He ended up grabbing Dave Knights' bass and sort of turning it upside down, because he was a left-hander, and somehow got a tune out of it.
RC: You played at the UFO Club, didn't you? Who with?
GB: Yes we did. We played with the Pink Floyd, the Graham Bond Organisation. I remember Bond saying, 'Go Ginger!' when he gave Ginger Baker a solo. Always stuck in our mind that! I didn't go to the UFO a lot. I went to some psychedelic night at the Alexandra Palace around then, but it was so psychedelic I can't remember it! That was a 'happening' place for a while. We played the Saville Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue with Jimi Hendrix around the time he did 'Purple Haze'.
RC: Tell me about Procol's first visit to the States in 1967.
GB: Everyone there knew our first album. They all liked it. We played clubs in Los Angeles and New York and three nights at the Fillmore in San Francisco. The following weekend we moved on to the Winterland and there was us, Pink Floyd and the Doors. The summer of love was over, though. People were starting to die from taking too much speed. It was a bad scene. The love had gone.
RC: You didn't tour in the U.K. for a couple of years. Why?
GB: There wasn't much of a scene outside of the UFO Club. England didn't catch up till 1969 – up until then, everything was underground. In 1969, we played at Parliament Hills. We also played the Isle of Wight pop festival a bit later. ('A Salty Dog' appeared on 'Isle Of Wight – The Album' in 1970.)
RC. In 1969, Procol were invited guests of the Stratford Festival, Ontario. Were you the first rock band to perform your own compositions with an orchestra?
GB: I would have thought so, yeah. It came about for two reasons. One, we were invited; and two, 'A Salty Dog' had a classical string arrangement – not a pop string arrangement. I loved the experience. I mean, at the end of 'In Held 'Twas In I', I was almost in tears. To hear it played for the first time with a great choir and orchestra belting out, rising to a tremendous crescendo ... I thought it was bloody marvellous. Rob Trower hated it, because he had to play quietly, and couldn't get the sound he was used to at that volume.
RC. In 1969, Procol's Hammond organist Matthew Fisher and bassist Dave Knights quit. What happened?
GB: As soon as Matthew went on the road he didn't like it – he really wanted to be a producer and to get to know that side of things. He produced 'A Salty Dog', so that led to his departure.
We also wanted a different direction after 'A Salty Dog', and the decision was made that Dave Knights should go, and Chris Copping should replace him and play both bass and organ. It was a strange decision to become a four-piece but I went along with it.
RC: Procol Harum in 1970 were, in effect, the Paramounts reformed and you recorded an album of rock'n'roll covers which was never officially released.
GB: We played a load of Paramounts repertoire. A lot of Jerry Lee, Little Richard, the Coasters. I think we did 30 or 40 songs directly onto tape. We called it 'Liquorice John Death & the All Stars', because a Paramounts fan used to say to me, 'Gary wouldn't that be a good name for your band?' In fact, he jumped off a 50-storey building at some point. Out of respect for him, we used that name for the session, and also wrote a song called 'For Liquorice John' on 'Grand Hotel' in 1973.
RC: Procol released two albums as a four-piece – 'Home' in 1970 and 'Broken Barricades' a year later. Robin Trower's guitar came to the fore on these albums. What was happening behind the scenes at this time?
GB: By the time we did 'Broken Barricades', we'd found out that you can't do without a bass player so we ended up not using organ much. It gave Rob a bit more space and he started to find himself on 'Song For A Dreamer'. I think his departure coincided with us being asked to record live with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra.
RC: In 1974, Procol changed direction.
GB: Well, yes, enough of this poncing around with orchestras! 'Grand Hotel' had sold well across Europe. It sold well in England. We changed. Suddenly, everyone found a Procol they liked and identified with, and then we made 'Exotic Birds & Fruit' which is like, 'Let's get back to rock, boys.' There was some interesting stuff on it, and it did well in Europe.
RC: Why were Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller brought in to produce 'Procol's Ninth'?
GB: Well, we'd done five albums with Chris Thomas at Air Studios and we'd become sick of the place and sick of each other. So it was definitely time to say goodbye to everybody. Leiber and Stoller were hot and they were working a lot in England.
But it was difficult working for them because they had different hours. At half-past seven, they'd say, 'We've got a dinner engagement, we'll see you tomorrow.' Which we put up with. Also, when we first got to the studios, it turned out that they wanted us to do an album of their songs!
RC: In 1976, after playing in Poland and Mexico City, Procol recorded 'The Blue Danube' for the city fathers of Vienna to celebrate Strauss' 200th birthday.
GB: Yeah, it came out in Austria. And there's another rare recording from that time – Albinoni's 'Adagio'. French Chrysalis phoned up, wanting it for a single. It came out, but we never heard of it again.
RC: 1977's 'Something Magic' received dreadful reviews, didn't it?
GB: At that point we should have turned round and had a good look at ourselves. But everything was weak – the management, us; we had a slight sickness of some sort. We went to Criteria Studios in Florida, which was producing all the good sounds at the time, like the Eagles and the Bee Gees 'Saturday Night Fever'. So we played our 16 songs to the producers, these two brothers Ron and Howie Albert. We went back into the control room and they said, 'Well, what do you want us to do?' So we said, 'We want you to engineer.' Silence. Then they said, 'Well, y'know, you can take a dog shit and cover it in chocolate, but when you bite into it, what have you got? Dog shit!' We still made the album, but it didn't really go very far after that.
Life After Procol Harum – the Solo Years
RC: 1979's 'No More Fear Of Flying' stands up as your best solo album. It was produced by Beatles producer George Martin – how did that come about?
GB: I first met George when The Paramounts were signed to Parlophone and I'd kept in touch ever since. The album was a big departure for me – I was doing songs that I hadn't written, and I'd have no limitations on what instruments I could use. The most lasting success on that seems to be 'No More Fear Of Flying', which was the only song I wrote with Keith. It was a hit in Holland.
RC: How did the Eric Clapton collaboration come about?
GB: Around this time I bought a pub. Eric lived nearby, and he'd come in with his band. I hadn't seen him since John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, so we'd swap stories and just have a good time socially. Then I organised a couple of blues nights and we had great fun. The first time we played together there we ended up performing for seven hours! So Eric said: 'Do you want to come out on the road?' So between 1980 and 1983 I went all round the world with him.
RC: Was there ever going to be a Brooker/ Clapton album?
GB: I don't think so. We wrote songs together which turned up on one another's albums.
RC: 'Echoes In The Night' featured contributions from Keith Reid, B.J. Wilson and Matthew Fisher. Had you been in touch with Fisher?
GB: I hadn't seen him since 1971. It was good to work with him again.
RC: Did you ever do any solo gigs?
GB: Yes, I've had an on-going thing with the man who promoted the 'Grand Hotel' orchestra tour. He has been in the habit of putting on extravaganzas – mixtures of classical and rock music. I did many things like that in Germany in the 80s, and I'd always stick a couple of solo numbers in with the Procol stuff.
RC: Is 'The Angler' Gary Brooker?
GB: I got interested in fishing in 1986, and in 1987 I became Europe's fly fishing champion. I won the European open! But I never drifted away from music. I formed a band called No Stiletto Shoes which came about from the pub days. Eric would sometimes play, but we got down to a hardcore of musicians, including Andy Fairweather-Low (guitar).
RC: What happened at the end of 1990?
GB: Andy said he was going to join Chris Rea. It was a financial decision because we weren't really into making money. I thought about making a solo record, but decided, 'No! What I really want to do is make another Procol Harum record.' I phoned up Keith Reid who was living in New York and he agreed.
The Reunion – the Prodigal Strangers Return
RC: How did people respond to the 1992 reunion?
GB: There wasn't a reunion in that sense that someone said, 'Let's get the old boys together and see what happens.' But Keith and I knew that there was a bottom line we would consider to be Procol Harum – a certain integrity of thought. Robin Trower expressed a great desire to play on this record, that says something. But he didn't want to tour. I mean, I've been forced to come to the conclusion that Robin Trower is not important – simply because he's not in the band.
RC: There was a quality in 'The Prodigal Stranger' which I hadn't noticed in the other albums. There's a wide range of emotions.
GB: There's spirit, there's inward thinking, there are reflections. There weren't so many stories on this album. It's more of a general look at things.
RC: Procol Harum's 1992 European tour concluded on Valentine's Day in Paris. If an audience of uninformed guests had turned up to this gig, I can guarantee they would have been knocked out by the sheer dynamism of the band.
GB: We improved every night. The criteria of any band is that it should be better live than on record. All of the touring band played on 'The Prodigal Stranger' – apart from guitarist Geoff Whitehorn. Live, we hit the spot – 'Grand Hotel' is what it always should have been like.