Procol Harum was formed just eight weeks ago, but already their first record, A Whiter Shade of Pale, is zooming up the charts. Instant success? 'No,' said Bobby, the drummer with the group, 'we've all been around for a long time – I personally have been playing with various groups for about seven years. We're all quite experienced musicians.' And, I would hasten to add, very talented as well – an opinion shared by many others, including Jimi Hendrix. And that is an endorsement worth having.
What is this thing called Procol Harum? I spend the afternoon with them on a photographic session, to try to find out. 'What,' I asked, 'is this thing called Procol Harum?'
'A Burmese Blue,' said Gary, the lead singer, 'not to be confused with a Siamese, or even a Persian.' I was none the wiser until Keith explained that it was the name of the breed of their cat, Claude. Keith is very much a background figure in the group – he does not appear with them on stage, and is officially their Personal Manager. In fact he was one of the founder members of the group and with Gary, he writes most of their songs – he's as much a part of the group as the other members.
Having discovered the literal meaning of the name Procol Harum, I was then
introduced to the various members of the group – apart from Gary Brooker and
Bobby Harrison, whom I have already mentioned, there are also
organ, Ray Royer, lead guitar, and
Dave Knights bass guitar. Dave was wearing a
long military jacket reaching to just below his knees – I asked him if he liked
wearing long jackets. 'No,' he said, 'especially ones that reach below the
knee.' I didn't bother to ask him why he was wearing it.
As we were getting into the van to go out on location, Keith pointed out that it was Bhudda's [sic] birthday. 'Bhudda,' [sic] said Matthew, 'was a cool guy.' Everyone agreed – I mean, who could disagree with a statement like that? After a hair-raising drive through the London traffic (and having made many unsuccessful attempts to ram cars, lamp-posts and pedestrians), we eventually arrived at a large statue where, said Trevor, the photographer, the group were going to be photographed. In fact there were many statues dotted about.., and while Gary went off in search of one he could take home with him, I talked to Bobby about girls – he'd already let slip the fact that this was a subject he was something of an expert on. He digs dolly-birds, but they must have long hair – and be skinny. 'But more important than this, they must be intelligent – no matter how good-looking they are, there's nothing worse than dumb dolly-birds. If they're not capable of conversation, then I don't dig them – they're a big drag.' Everyone agreed, and Dave said he liked mini-skirts. Very much.
We found Gary trying to push over the statue of Queen Victoria outside Buckingham Palace. He said he was trying to move it, as it would look better on the end of Southend Pier. We told him to leave it where it was, and he agreed, as he thought a statue of himself would look better on the end of Southend Pier anyway.
I sat at Queen Victoria's feet, sheltering from the wind, while the group was being photographed. Then, the session over, we returned to the van.
By this time I had got used to Procol Harum. and was able to start talking to them in earnest.
'What,' I said, 'do you think of your record?'
'Very, very good – it's a beautiful song, and we knew from the start that it would be a hit. Although we didn't expect it to happen so soon. We owe a lot to Denny Cordell, of course, who produced the record. He's very good – and a great guy as well. When you're in the studio he makes you feel at home, and he doesn't rush you – when you have all the time in the world you can get the sounds just right. Like the Beatles – time can't mean much to them – I mean, they don't have to worry about the cost of their sessions or anything, so they have the time to experiment. They are also very, very talented, of course. You know, people say 'What do you think of the Beatles?' – I hope we're in that position one day, so peope [sic] say 'What do you think of Procol Harum?' and not just 'What about this group Procol Thing, then?'
'Did you actually use a church organ to get that great sound'
'No. That was an ordinary Hammond. Matthew – that's the organist – studied at the Guildhall School of Music – he's very good.'
'I wish Chelsea had won the cup,' said Gary.
Not in the least deterred by this sudden change of topic, I came back with an immediate and cutting 'Why?'
'Because,' explained Keith, 'Chelsea is a groovier place than Tottenham.' he laughed. 'I really can't stand that sort of thing – you know – doing something or going somewhere just because it's "in".'
''That's why all this publicity given to drugs is so dangerous,' said Matthew. 'You know – kids read in the newspapers that certain pop-singers are supposed to be taking drugs – and so some of the younger fans, who perhaps idolise their pop-heroes, take the stuff. Because it's "IN". I mean, it's got to the stage where it's "IN" to be busted – and its [sic] not like 'Go up nineteen places if you're busted' or 'advance to go' – and it's not the kids I'm talking about now! It's ridiculous. The Police and the Press have turned this into a gigantic sort of witch-hunt – blown up to gigantic proportions. This is the dangerous thing – not the fact that certain people take drugs.'
'And,' added Ray from within his frilly silk shirt, red-velvet jacket, and yellow paisley trousers, 'if you look in the least bit extrovert, the Police will stop you – as if you're some sort of drug-taking pop-star, or something.'
'Are you nervous,' I asked, 'about suddenly being thrust right into the public gaze – would you have preferred more time to get used to your suddenly very large fan following?'
'Are they fans? This is our first record, you know – it's just that a lot of people happen to like our first release – I hope they become fans.
'No, we're not nervous. As I've already said, we're too experienced – individually, we've been "in the public gaze" for a long time – I don't see why we should be nervous just because we're a newly formed group.'
'How did Procol Harum start – did you know each other before you formed the group?'
'No. Keith and Gary started the group – they both had these ideas about the sort of sound they wanted. But obviously they needed more people to work with – so they advertised. We were all auditioned, and Procol Harum is the result – we were chosen because, I suppose, we all think along the same lines – musically, that is – and we produce individual sounds that blend together.'
'Why aren't you part of the group?' I asked Keith.
'Simple, I don't play an instrument, so there's no room for me. I write the lyrics to Gary's music.'
There's the answer to Procol Harum. Each person doing his own job, and producing his own sound – sounds that were selected, originally, because they blend together to form the sort of music they want – and, going by the phenomenal sales of A Whiter Shade of Pale, the sort of music the record-buying public wants.
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