Procol Harum

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the Pale

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Robin Trower

Pete Frame: 'ZigZag' 27, December 1972


Robin Trower's life and times with The Paramounts, Procol Harum,
Jude, and his new trio

[a few odd mistakes in the original are bracketed thus]

1 Lean years with The Paramounts

In that period which pop historians call the "beat group era" from around 1962 to 1965, it seemed that everybody in the world was in a group, practising in bedrooms and youth clubs for the day when they would eventually and inevitably succeed the Beatles. Some got within a Stones throw, others never made it outside their own locality, and a great many floundered and flailed in a world of one-nighters, clapped out vans, Fenders on HP, flop singles, greasy Ml food, swindling managers and thieving agents, and, above all, the certain knowledge that this was only a natural, unavoidable step on the road to the stars this was "paying ones dues", a misery that every youthful band had to endure if they wanted to make it.

The Paramounts were just such a band - four Southend school-kids with high hopes and a common interest in rhythm and blues (a sphere which at the time was almost entirely controlled by Pye Records, who were the English outlet for nearly all the good American R&B of the period, but who were lamentably slow in capitalising on the new trend that was beginning to boom as a result of the Mayalls, Korners, Fames and Jaggers of this world.) The group, originally Gary Brooker, Robin Trower, Chris Copping and a drummer called Mick who was subsequently replaced by Barry (BJ) Wilson, were anxious to get out of the backwaters, and signed up with a London agency who sporadically found gigs for them.

Robin Trower: "Our first kick was when the Stones heard us; they dug our music, which was somewhat similar to their own, and they introduced us to their gig circuit, which they were in the process of leaving to do cinema tours and things like that. In fact, the Stones were about the only people who helped us: everyone else we came into contact with was out to rob us, but they even got us on the bill of some of their package shows." They learnt a lot from the Stones, both musically and also regarding visual presentation even to the extent of wearing matching waistcoats; the early Stones used to wear blue leather waistcoats (until they got nicked) and the Paramounts borrowed the idea and got some made up from blue suede; but, from the outset, the Stones were cleverly managed and directed.

The Paramounts had no such luck. None of their string of five singles, recorded for Parlophone between October 1963 and September 1965, sounded half as good as the demo tape they made originally to tout round the companies. "We did a demo of Poison Ivy which was engineered by Glyn Johns, who was as knocked out with it as we were it was real raw R&B. Then when we went to EMI, it was just into the studio and out: they let us play the instruments ourselves (unlike some groups) because we were good, but those singles were all echo and well, they didn't really show us in our true light". (Nevertheless, those singles are worth a lot of bread to American collectors, so if you come across any send them to me).

As the years rolled by, fatigue, sadness and despair began to erode the optimism and it looked as though they'd never get past their day to day existence. The people who handled a lot of groups in those days were not interested in long term development or trying to further their career; they were out to make a killing ... suck the teenage/beat music phenomenon for all it was worth before it was replaced by a new fad; sell as many hula hoops as you can and then when clackers come in, switch to those ... you know the sort of thing make bread while the sun shines, as the proverb remarks. As Robin says: "I don't know any group around that time that didn't get robbed ... and things are only better now because groups are a little bit smarter; there are still a lot of crooks in the business."

Desperation set in, and our heroes were forced to prostitute themselves or perish. As a temporary measure, until fame would come along and tap them on the shoulder they cringed in the shadows and did tours backing people like Sandie Shaw. (Can you imagine Sandie Shaw, draped in flowing white silk, leaning against a grand piano played by Gary Brooker?)

2 Even leaner years with The Jam

By this time, Robin Trower had become addicted to BB King and spent many hours toiling to reproduce his style and there was no way that he could fit that kind of playing into mindless showbiz pop tunes, so he left The Paramounts and retreated to a room in Southend where he assembled The Jam, who did nothing but rehearse for six months. Meanwhile, The Paramounts struggled on valiantly; they broke from the back-up routine, added a new guitarist and a sax player and leapt off to the greener grass on the far side of the hill. They toured the Continent. Their days were numbered, however, and they split up in unlamented ignominy no one wrote to Disc bewailing the break-up, no-one shed a tear, no-one gave a toss. Diz Derrick, who had come in on bass when Chris Copping went off to University, left music in search of a firmer future, BJ Wilson backed people like Lulu, Millie and Cat Stevens (and even spent some time drumming in George Bean and the Runners there's a name from the past!), and Gary Brooker turned recluse to cleanse his soiled musical integrity and to plan a more positive career.

***********************A line of stars to denote the passage of time**************.

If I were to list the ten men who've had the greatest effect on shaping rock music in Britain, I don't think there's any way I could omit the name of Guy Stevens, DJ, adviser, producer, madman, genius, Island Records executive, guide, inspiration, writer, pioneer, trailblazer, striped blazer and red trousers: (Guy Stevens in a nutshell). It so happened than in 1967, Guy, for one reason and another, left Island for about a year and was, among other things, part of psychedelic-poster company-cum-recording group recording group extraordinaire, Hapshash and the Coloured Coat. During this time he became involved with the efforts of a pair of songwriters Gary Brooker, music, and Keith Reid, words.

Reid, a self-confessed academic failure, had confined his interests to reading and had worked, among other things, as an apprentice tailor before he became interested in the prospect of linking his poetry with suitable music to produce songs. Legend has it that he was wandering around for several months, showing various uninterested people his work, before he happened to bump into Brooker at a mutual friend's house. Their combined efforts were originally intended for other groups to record ... Brooker/Reid were a songwriting team with no immediate notion of becoming performers Brooker had already seen too many miles of motorway from a crammed van, and Reid was no musician anyway.

They took their songs to Guy Stevens, a friend of Gary's, hoping that, with his contacts in the business, he'd be able to place them with worthy artists ... and of course, Guy went potty over them: after all, this was six years ago, and songs like theirs didn't come along every day. It was decided that the best course of action was to go into a studio and cut demos of four songs, using session men to supplement Gary Brooker's piano playing and singing. Guy Stevens supervised the session and one of the songs, A Whiter Shade of Pale, supposedly inspired by a malapropism that Keith Reid had heard someone say, just knocked everyone sideways.

Everyone, that is, except Chris Blackwell, head of Island records, who was in the process of trying to launch the VIPs (later Spooky Tooth) and untangle the emerging Traffic from the Spencer Davis Group; he liked the demos, but didn't think they justified the time and effort that would have to be spent if anything was to come of them. So Guy took them to Denny Cordell, who had produced some amazing stuff by the Move and Denny Laine; he was excited enough to sign them to a deal.

By this time it had been concluded that Brooker should, after all, form a permanent group. That would be the only way of doing these incredible songs justice. From a Melody Maker small ad. he surrounded himself with what he considered the ideal group, which Guy (who was now co-manager with Keith Reid) christened pleted ['pleted': that's what it says].

Everyone in the world bought that single (backed with Lime Street Blues on Deram 126), which topped just about every chart in the Western hemisphere and quite rightly so. (That was a great single, was it not? How well I remember the first time I heard it, on Radio London ... I couldn't believe it never heard anything like that before). But things started to go sour: the press discovered that a session drummer had been used and spread the impression that the whole thing was a hype and that the group weren't competent and blah blah blah.

Cordell, however, having procured Procol Harum [sic]. The line-up was unusual inasmuch that it featured both piano and organ a favourite combination of Guy's (two later Stevens creations, Spooky Tooth and Mott the Hoople, also had similar line-ups), whose whole life had been changed by the music on Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde.

When Cordell took them down to Olympic to cut A Whiter Shade of Pale, which was to be their first single, the drummer Bobby Harrison, who had been the last to join, wasn't familiar enough with the song and couldn't achieve the fluidity that it called for, so a session drummer, Johnny Eyden [Bill Eyden?], was brought in and the track [comfinance and] a manager one Jonathan Weston immediately set to work on an album ... this was in April 1967, only two weeks after the single had been put out.

When it was almost complete, the entire album was scrapped: Ray Royer, the guitarist, and drummer Bobby Harrison were found to be working 'in the opposite direction' and were kicked out, and they traded Weston in for a new manager, Tony Secunda, who was making a big deal out of The Move.

 

3 Robin Trower returns to the fold

Brooker got on the phone to his old mates, and before you could say "your trouser cuffs are dirty", Robin Trower and BJ Wilson (not to be confused with BJ Thomas or PJ Proby) were back in the group, whereupon they began re-recording their first album, currently available (like the other 3 albums recorded on Regal Zonophone) on Fly (or Cube) Doubleback series.

Considering Cordell's subsequent work with people like Leon Russell and Joe Cocker, that first Procol album is a muzzy shambles which, but for the quality of the songs and performances, might have been rejected by record buyers who were still reeling from the engineering magnificence of Sgt Pepper'. Not only was it in shabby mono, but it didn't get released here, for reasons connected with Cordell's wheeling and dealing with various record companies, until many many months after it had been thrown together.

When it was cut, in June 67, Olympic was among the most sophisticated studios in the country but even so, the equipment was limited to 4-track. Of course, these days it's not unusual to split even a drum sound on to 4 tracks one, say, for the cymbals, one for the snare, one for the tom toms, and one for the bass drum, but with 4 tracks for the whole band, it was a case of drums and bass on one track, piano and organ on another, guitar on another, and vocals on the other. On top of that, the entire album was allegedly finished in 3 days, with the band completing up to 6 songs in one session.

"I think the material on that album," says Robin, "is the best Procol ever had; it was just bad luck that we didn't have the right producer or manager. If we'd had someone to spend a lot of time and record that material with the imagination and love it deserved, then that probably would have been one of the classic albums of all time. I mean, if the sound matched the performances can you imagine what it would've been like?"

As it was, despite the long gap between Whiter Shade and the album, it was a success in America if not here (one critic, Paul Williams of the everstoned Crawdaddy, described Trower's guitar playing on Repent Walpurgis as, listen to this, "just shattering, brilliant; amid the precise weariness of the piece, he cries out like Thomas Hardy at century's end, himself exhausted, still ready to report whatever hope he finds"), and this led to their forsaking England in favour of a string of American tours. In actual fact, nobody in England wanted to know. During those early months of managerial chaos, personnel shuffling and press furore, not only were promoters scared of chancing their arm, but there were hardly any suitable venues other than UFO, where they played a few times. That's their excuse anyway ... that and the fact that English audiences considered them two-hit wonders and wouldn't be bothered to go and see them.

A second album, again produced by Denny Cordell, Shine On Brightly', took an age to record and was no sooner released than they left Secunda, left Cordell and, after a magnificent third album, A Salty Dog (get your hands on this one, folks), produced by Matthew Fisher, they actually broke up in frustration and despair ... they were labouring in such an uphill poverty-smitten struggle that they felt they, like The Paramounts, would never see any rewards for their craft.

A third manager, Ronnie Lyons, persuaded them to remain together and got an American tour lined up; a tour which happened to put them on the road to great acclaim and success but Matthew Fisher, the brilliant organist who had come straight into the band from a 3 year course at the Guildhall School of Music, wasn't prepared to go on. In Spring 1969, he quit without having made a penny.

The financial aspects of the group I found unbelievable. When you think of how much money they should've made out of Whiter Shade alone ... consider; if they were on 3% artists' royalties (a pitiful percentage, but the norm), they should've cleared around 10,000 pounds per million copies sold and how many millions that record must have done plus the fact that Keith Reid and Gary Brooker should have made an absolute fortune out of writer's royalties. (I read somewhere that a geezer called Laurie London made so much bread from just one hit that he had in 1957, He's got the whole world in his hands', that he and his dad were able to retire and live in comfort for ever!).

How much, I wondered, had Procol actually made from Whiter Shade? Robin: "No-one in the group saw one single penny in artist's royalties ... anything we earned went towards paying off ex-managers who were suing us and on expenses that we didn't have any idea we were incurring ... legally, it was spent on our behalf, but we didn't see any of it."

In fact, they've had to settle out of court with 3 ex-managers. "It was a matter of lack of judgment really ... you put your trust in people, but well, Procol Harum were unlucky to a great degree and foolish to a certain extent".

So, who made all the money? It's the same old story, isn't it?

 

4 Procol down to four

So, Matthew Fisher, totally bored with life on the road, split to "become a producer" and Dave Knights left to become manager of a band called Legend, and it was back to the MM small ads to find replacements. After several abortive attempts to find another Fisher, a change of plan was adopted; they'd get a bass player who could double on organ where necessary, but in future they concentrate on organless arrangements. Chris Copping, ex-Paramount, had by this time been through university and was holding down a good job as well as playing in a group in his spare time. Robin phoned, and along he came just in time to embark on this six-week rebuilding tour of America.

The fourth album, Home (like subsequent albums), was recorded under the supervision of Chris Thomas, a George Martin protege from his AIR studios, and the improvement in sound quality was marked . . . and Broken Barricades, their first on Chrysalis (who were now managing them too) was even better, though most of the songs were written in the studio and lacked the majesty of much of their earlier work.

Meanwhile, they were slowly climbing in the States. Each tour saw increasingly better gigs and bread, and corresponding improvements in hotel and travelling facilities. Broken Barricades was the turning point for Trower, however, because, being a guitar-dominated album, it required him to step out of the background and stretch himself. Had he remained in the shadows, maintains Brooker, he'd probably have stayed with the group, but on Barricades he discovered he was capable of playing a much wider range of music than that which fell within the somewhat constricted sphere of Procol, which after all was a group where the songs were more important than the personnel.

Much to my amazement, Procol hadn't even begun to turn into one of those bands content to stumble on to the stage and crank out their hits in a mechanical, patronising manner, not caring whether or not they were particularly good. Quite the reverse; they strove for perfection in every performance. The very nature of their material necessitated it apart from anything else.

Robin: "Procol always felt the need to work hard on stage; a band can go on and play loud, fast rock'n'roll really badly and still go down well because of the atmosphere and immediacy and excitement but Procol always aimed at a really great performance, because if they were sloppy or off-form, the music died. To reach the audience with much of the music, which is after all very ponderous, meant working hard all the time and reaching for an emotional concert-hall contact. I mean, you can't bop to it or leap around to it, so you have to reach inside, if you like, and to do that in a big dance hall, say, means working very, very hard, especially if you're second on the bill to Ten Years After who have attracted an audience basically interested in rocking out."

It was a somewhat courageous decision to walk out of a band which was at the top and likely to stay there for some time, but at the same time, Robin was having to work within limitations which were becoming increasingly boring. Song For A Dreamer was the track which finally convinced him that to remain in the group and continue writing would be impossible because his ideas were no longer in keeping with the policies and styles which had been Procol's trademark. In July 1971, he left, and the group resorted once more to the MM: PROCOL HARUM are looking for a GUITARIST: Telephone 493 7758.

At this stage, Matthew Fisher almost made a reappearance; they'd decided to return to a five-piece and he had expressed an interest in returning to the road. The idea was vetoed when they discovered that he intended to do one tour and then split again, and Chris Copping took over role of organist. Meanwhile a friend of BJ's, Alan Cartwright, from the crumbled Every Which Way, arrived as a bassist, as Brooker went through the laborious process of auditioning some of the eighty-odd applicants who hoped to take Trower's place.

In an interview with Penny Valentine in Sounds (25.9.71), Brooker expressed his amazement at the standard of the applicants: "Out of the forty we listened to, only about two had heard our records or were the remotest bit interested in the group; mostly, they would come simply because they were out of work and wanted a job." In the end, Dave Ball, who had been in various Birmingham area groups including Big Bertha, fitted the bill.

For Trower, it was a matter of contrast as much as a desire to change his style: "After playing for so long in that emotional way, always aiming at an emotional peak, I was beginning to feel very limited, apart from anything else ... every time I played it was to carry the majesty of the music to a higher level, and even if my playing was great at times, it didn't really lead anywhere unless I let go, which was against the basic structure of Procol's whole style and tradition."

I wonder how audiences in general think about Keith Reid? I've never met him myself, but I've often seen him flitting around at a Procol performance, standing at the back of the hall, taking in everything he sees, or standing in the wings, hands thrust deep in the pockets of a long overcoat, observing in silence. And at almost every interview, he's there to interject his comments, which sometimes give me the impression that he's long been worn down by fools who don't understand and other times makes me feel that he's as happy as a king but I always feel that he's running the show. He's like a Josiah Wedgwood, running a small family concern which turns out high quality pottery; obviously he requires skilled workmen, but they've got to toe the line and work within the tradition that's been established . . . he doesn't want some bloke coming in and thinking "I don't like this blue base colour, I'll exert my own preferences and change it to red." Do you see what I'm getting at (in my simple bumpkin way)? Procol is primarily a vehicle for the songs at least, in theory, though I don't think it works that way now so much.

Robin: "it wasn't really that way. Keith didn't go around maintaining discipline ... we worked as a co-operative unit and everybody put forward his own ideas when a song was first arranged and prepared for recording. But you're right to an extent; like when a member leaves, they don't get in a big name who'll try and play his own style across every song: they'll find someone who's good, but will continue the Procol style. I think, in the old days, Keith probably used to give a strange impression of himself in the Press; he tended to look down his nose a bit because people didn't understand what he was talking about but as I see it, it was his problem, not theirs, and it always will be his problem because he lives in a different world, certainly as far as communication goes. He's one of the nicest blokes I know, and I counted him as one of my best friends but he always had difficulty getting his ideas across to the papers, and as a result the band was often made to seem like buffoons rather than in our true light."

5 The rise and fall of Jude

Jude, which got together in the Autumn of 1971, comprised Trower (guitar), Frankie Miller (guitar and vocals), Clive Bunker (Jethro Tull's ex-drummer) and Jimmy Dewar (the bass player from Stone The Crows). "It was great for a brief spell, but looking back, the musical policy was just too narrow to allow it to breathe and grow. At its peak it was ok, but it dropped off and we packed up rather than try to recapture something that was never really there".

That was last April, after which Clive Bunker "retired", Frankie Miller began to gig with Brinsley Schwarz at their pub gigs, and has recently released a nice album (backed by the Brinsleys) on Chrysalis, and Robin and Jimmy Dewar, having found a musical compatibility, are now in the middle of recording an album to be released under Robin's name. On drums, Reg Isidore (ex Quiver) completes the trio and Matthew Fisher ("a great talent but a dormant one: he can't get out of bed in the mornings") is producing.

After Jude had split, Robin left Chrysalis to see what sort of offers he could attract for the album, but as it turned out, Chrysalis offered the best deal and so he's back with them, adding the finishing touches so the record is ready for release in January. "We decided to get the record done before we go out on the road because touring can knock it out of you to the extent that you lose your direction. You see, playing live changes your axis you have to concentrate on visual aspects and the parts of the music which will have the most impact, especially when you're the support band playing to an audience which hasn't come to see you anyway. We're going to wait until the record does something, either here or in the States, before we go on the road ... you're knocking your head on a brick wall if you go out too soon as we found out in Jude".

So you won't play live at all if the record's not a success? "Oh, the record will be a success ... even if not commercially, it will be artistically".


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