Procol Harum

the Pale

PH on stage | PH on record | PH in print | BtP features | What's new | Interact with BtP | For sale | Site search | Home

'ZigZag' Magazine No 61, May 1976

Paul Kendall

Was there ever a time like the summer of 1967? For the old music buffs, it meant an incredible revitalisation and expansion of horizons; for youngsters like myself, (I was a spotty, gangling fourteen at the time, just changing my allegiance from Fred Trueman to the Incredible String Band), a startling awakening; for all, except the ostriches, a period of fantastic excitement.

The year had begun with James Marshall Hendrix taking the country by storm, festooned with crazy clothes and playing guitar with his teeth, and that was the way it went on. John Peel was at a zenith, playing music the like of which had never been heard on British radio before; the UFO club and its favourite sons the Floyd were pioneering the way of the multi-media show, before audiences who were eagerly investigating the mind-expanding properties of various drugs; and all the while, the news was filtering through from San Francisco, the inspiration behind the summer of love vibe ... news of flower power, of love-ins and Haight-Ashbury, of Bill Graham's 'events' at the Longshoremen's Hall and the Avalon, and of the epochal Monterey Festival.

The change was apparent to everybody. 'Top Of The Pops' ceased to be the preserve of Herman's Hermits and Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich, and opened its doors to the Floyd, sitting cross-legged on cushions, doing 'See Emily Play', and Jimi Hendrix singing songs that sounded suspiciously dope-oriented, and arousing parental wrath. The Beatles went to visit the Maharishi, and made 'Sergeant Pepper', (I'll never forget hearing Radio London play that for the first time); the Stones got busted and came out with 'We Love You' -- 'We don't care if you hound we, or lock the doors around we... 'cos we love you' -- and everything in the garden was beautiful.

It didn't last, of course. Monterey soon became Altamont, good vibes became disillusionment and acid casualties, and with the benefit of ten years' hindsight, it all seems a bit silly and naive. It wasn't at the time, though, and if there are any records that can conjure up that long-lost magic feeling, they are Scott McKenzie's 'San Francisco', and 'A Whiter Shade Of Pale'.

The very day that 'A Whiter Shade Of Pale' was released, in April 1967, Procol Harum were playing at the UFO, comprising Gary Brooker, Matthew Fisher, David Knights, Ray Royer and Bobby Harrison, and that line-up stayed together through May, doing about a dozen gigs, and starting work on an album with producer Denny Cordell until, in the first week of June, the single went into the Top Twenty. Within a week, it was number one, where it stayed for six weeks, and everybody was talking about this majestically weird, exotic music, with the nonsensical lyrics that somehow made sense -- especially after they'd appeared on 'Top Of The Pops', still with Royer and Harrison, looking very enigmatic in various mock-oriental garb.

All was not well, however, and while the record continued its residency at the top, certain changes were being made behind the scenes. Royer and Harrison, the lead guitarist and drummer respectively, were not on the same wavelength, musically -- to the extent that the parts of the album done thus far had to be scrapped -- so Denny Cordell had to tell them they were out, naturally against their will. They went off to form Freedom, and Bobby Harrison is now the vocalist with Mac's favourite group Snafu... dunno what's become of Ray Royer. At the same time the group parted company with their short-lived manager, Jonathan Weston, who had taken over after Guy Stevens's departure.

'There was David Platz, our publisher, Denny Cordell from New Breed Productions, who was involved with David Platz, and New Breed Management, which was Denny and Jonathan, so they got introduced to each other. We never really chose any of them, we never said we liked any of them. After three weeks it was obvious Jonathan didn't work out. He came in after the record was released, and was on his way out soon after. When the Rolls Royce called for me for the seventh time to take me to the shops, I got a bit pissed off... he was just wasting my money. If we were going to the studio across at Barnes, I'd be getting ready to catch the bus, and find a uniformed chauffeur at the door. It was stupid."

Replacements came in the forms of Tony Secunda, who was already getting plenty of attention for the Move, and old mates BJ Wilson and Robin Trower, who strictly speaking auditioned for their places, but in fact had virtually no competition, because nobody else could think of anyone suitable. Barry was a fairly natural choice as he'd been hanging around while Guy Stevens was helping get Gary and Keith started on the road to unlimited devotion, and, in fact, he'd almost joined in the first place; but Robin had gone back to Southend and got a Cream-type trio together:

'Gary asked me if I'd like to audition, and I said OK, primarily because I needed a new group, but also because I felt they might have something new to offer, musically. I'd heard 'A Whiter Shade Of Pale' and liked it, but felt they really didn't need a blues guitarist. Still, Gary knew my style from the days when we'd played together in the Paramounts, and I told him I hadn't changed... and didn't expect to'.

Unfortunately, this re-shuffling of personnel meant that instead of capitalising on their sudden success, Procol Harum had to go back to the rehearsal rooms, (above the ballet school in Baker Street), and then spend a couple of weeks re-doing the album. This enforced withdrawal from the public eye and ear, coupled with Tony Secunda's policy of 'telling everybody to piss off', ('Paris Match' sent a special correspondent and photographer over when the single was all the rage in France, and they were summarily dismissed empty-handed), meant that all sorts of rumours and questions started to rise up around Procol. The exit of Royer and Harrison to make way for BJ and Robin looked unpleasantly like an old pals' act, and Bill Eyden, who had done the session drumming on the single as Harrison had only just joined, started spreading the story that they were a session group, who owed him a fifth of the royalties. This caused quite a stir in the Sunday gutter press, (remember the hue and cry over the Love Affair the following year), and of course the group, preoccupied with rehearsals and recording, and muffled by their management's policies, were in no position to reply.

Moreover, the album release was delayed for several months in this country, because of the production company's rather random licensing deals, and the group's first live appearances were in Belgium and Scandinavia, and then the United States, so, despite the follow-up single 'Homburg', which got to number five towards the end of the year, most people in this country wrote Procol Harum off as transitory one-hit wonders. It is a tag that has taken a long time to shake off, partly because they have tended to concentrate their efforts in the States, where their greatest recognition has been, and partly because from December '67, when Tony Secunda was eased out of the picture, until late in 1970, when they signed with Chrysalis, they had no proper representation in this country to hustle up any action on their behalf.

Elsewhere, though, things were going better. 'A Whiter Shade Of Pale' was a colossal, worldwide hit by the end of the summer, and by that time the group were in a position to get behind it, especially in the States, where they toured during the autumn:
 'The first job we played was the Cafe A Go-Go, to press people, and we had none of our own equipment and a Mickey Mouse drumkit, and originally we were going to do the whole tour that way -- it was a money saving idea -- but it became impossible, and we had to send for our own gear. The tour was mostly residencies, and was a disaster, though it was great from the enjoyment point of view. We had a week at the Fillmore in San Francisco, and one at the Winterland, with people like the Doors and Pink Floyd, and that was when it was red hot there, the real boiling-point. It was just going from flower power to 'speed kills', and there was a lot of madness.

We went there with about forty five minutes to an hour's worth of stuff, and found that we had to play for two hours. We just used to double up each number, because our stuff sounded wrong if you stuck in long solos, as it is based on set chord patterns, but I'm sure that is how groups like Cream started extending their numbers'.

The tour might not have been a raging success, but the album got a more timely release, as Procol were with A&M for the States, and it was well received by public and critics alike. Called simply 'PROCOL HARUM', (Regal Zonophone SLRZ 1001), it had been recorded at various London studios, notably Olympic and Advision, using a little help from percussionist Rocky Didzornu, and Denny Laine's violin player, but basically with the group playing live in the studio, and although it was done at some speed on four track mono, it's not at all a bad debut album.

The sound is obviously far from perfect, but it is surprisingly full, dominated by Matthew Fisher's classically trained organ playing, (he'd done three years at the Guildhall School Of Music), and the musicianship all round does nobody any discredit. The drums suffer rather badly in the production, but Gary's very distinctive, very English vocals come across well for the most part, and most of the songs are strong -- though I think 'Mabel' would sound more at home on a Lovin' Spoonful album -- and in fact, rather ironically, this record provided all Procol's first three hits, as the live recording of 'Conquistador' hit the target in 1972.

The original album is, of course, long since gone to the Great Collector's Item Category in the sky, though it lives on as one half of a double album, (TOOFA 7/B). wherein 'Homburg' is replaced by 'A Whiter Shade Of Pale' and the album renamed accordingly.

Before 'Procol Harum' even saw the light of day in this country, work had begun on the second album, which was recorded in late 1967 and early 1968, during gaps in the touring schedule, and it is possible to surmise that the atmosphere in America in the wake of the summer of love had a profound influence on it, because 'SHINE ON BRIGHTLY',(SLRZ 1004) has always struck me as a particularly poignant reflection of the mood of directionless searching and hoping that was the legacy of flower power.

Lines like 'I'm lost amidst a sea of wheat', 'I search in vain by candle-light... for some long road that goes nowhere, for some signpost that is not there', and 'I have heard tell, that the stairs up to heaven lead straight back to hell' are the major lyrical impression, and when Gary sings 'above all else confusion reigns, and though I ask, no-one explains,' it puts one in mind of King Crimson's debut album, released a year later, when the dream had eroded even further, on which the central lines are: 'Confusion will be my epitaph, as I crawl a cracked and broken path'.

The centrepiece of the album is the lengthy 'In Held 'Twas In I' suite, (originally entitled 'Magnum Harum'), which in its five clearly defined segments runs the gamut from pieces of poetical recitation by Gary and Matthew, through more conventional song sections, to magnificently grandiose instrumental/choral climaxes. In the hands of lesser craftsmen, it would be an opus of quite ghastly pretension, but in fact it's great, and also a fine example of Procol's dry wit, an aspect of the group that most people seem to overlook. How many specialist lyricists can you imagine writing a line like 'Bring all my friends unto me, and I'll strangle them with words'? It also brings the album to a close on a note of optimism, albeit slightly desperate, with the concluding 'It's all so simple really, if you just look to your soul' preceding the searing, soaring 'Grand Finale', which positively cries out in craving hope.

Despite the production -- again by Denny Cordell, though he left partway through 'In Held', and Tony Visconti finished it -- which once more is relatively duff, sacrificing most things, notably the rhythm section, to the organ, and ending up rather woolly, nothing can disguise the power of this record, which I firmly believe to rank among the truly great. Ignored in this country, it was much lauded across the pond, and it was in America that Procol spent the better part of 1968, increasing their reputation and following, while Britain quietly consigned them to the Golden Oldies pile.

As Denny Cordell had got into new interests, (principally Joe Cocker, whose star rose with quite alarming rapidity in the latter part of 1968), the group had to look around for a new producer when they came to do their third album, and they chose Matthew Fisher:

'Matthew had a bug about production. He didn't like playing organ any more, and he was always in the control room, finding out about it and suggesting things. We believed he'd be able to do it, but he made much better jobs of his own numbers than any of the others. We spent hours on 'Pilgrim's Progress' and 'All This And More' got done I like that. .. (snaps fingers)'.

Many people regard 'A SALTY DOG' (SLRZ 1009, now the other half of that TOOFA 7/8 double), as Procol's finest hour, but I think that although it has many excellent moments, it is generally too patchy to deserve that accolade. Part of the problem lies in the fact that Gary, Matthew and Robin share the songwriting more or less evenly:

'It just gradually developed that way. If it's democratic, it's more coincidence than anything -- they were probably all the numbers that we bad. In truth, what it really is, is that people wanted to write songs; but if they're not very good numbers, then it doesn't help too much. The example there is 'Juicy John Pink', which isn't like any of the other tracks. We tried to make that sound like an old record ... we did it down at the old Rolling Stones place in Bermondsey, without using a proper machine or anything'.

In fact, things get off to a flying start with the title track, which is pure dynamite, as I'm sure you know, and should have been a big hit single here, but wasn't, and the rest of the first side is very good too, though 'Boredom' pretty much lives up to its name -- largely, I think, because Matthew sings it himself, and he is simply nothing like as good a singer as Gary. The dissatisfaction really sets in with the second side, which opens with the completely unremarkable 'Juicy John Pink', recovers with 'The Wreck Of The Hesperus' (a comparatively poor man's 'Salty Dog'), and 'All This And More', before slumping back with Robin's 'Crucifiction Lane', where somebody -- it might even be Robin himself -- assumes a gratingly bogus mid-Atlantic accent, and 'Pilgrim's Progress', sung rather weedily again by Matthew. On the plus side, the production is a big improvement, and hence the arrangements succeed in coming across more interestingly, with Gary's piano playing and BJ's drumming at last getting the attention they deserve.

The Ronnie Lyons mentioned on the sleeve, by the way, was an American who had been their personal manager, and, at a time when financial hardship and general disillusionment were threatening the group 's existence, he had helped put together a tour which proved to be something of a turning point. Procol's financial situation during their first couple of years, in fact, is a tale to bring a lump to the throat -- though they themselves seem reasonably philosophical about it. 'A Whiter Shade Of Pale' should have made them rich men, especially Brooker and Reid -- after all, John Stewart apparently lived quite comfortably for some time on the proceeds from 'Daydream Believer' -- but despite worldwide sales in excess of eight millions on that one record alone, Procol never saw a single penny:
'It did all I seem to get absorbed. We had a terrible contract with the production company, and it always cost a lot of money to get rid of all these managers and other people. It doesn't make any difference whether you've got a contract or not, because you can have a contract just by service, and in fact we did a six or eight week tour of the States, and all the money, which was a lot, went to these people who we'd never signed a contract with.

The problem about any sort of managerial problem is that you'd be stupid to carry on working with somebody who you think is bad for you, yet it would be even more stupid to stop working altogether. To go to court costs a lot of money, because it's not always the right side, morally, that wins in contractual cases, so it always ends up costing us money settling out of court'.

In the end, the constant touring and lack of tangible reward took its toll, and in the spring of 1969, after 'A Salty Dog' had been recorded, Matthew Fisher and David Knights threw in their hands. Matthew left to go into production, but had to wait for Robin to go solo before doing anything special in that department, and he made one solo album called 'JOURNEY'S END' (RCA SFS380), released in 1973, which I haven't heard, but which 'Rolling Stone' was pleased to describe as 'completely convincing'. I'm also reliably informed by Mr. Tobler that he has recently returned on DJM under the pseudonym of Obie Clayton. David Knights went into management, (he'd probably decided that is where all the money went), and looked after Micky Jupp's band Legend (which also included T Rex's drummer, Bill Legend), who made a couple of albums for Vertigo in the early seventies before splitting up ... I don't know what David is doing now. To replace Matthew and David (and maybe also to relieve the financial burden a little), Procol turned to an old friend from the Paramounts, Chris Copping, who, between drinking beer and acquiring a chemistry degree at Leicester University, had become an accomplished organist, in addition to playing bass:

'When Matthew left, we decided that we wouldn't get another organist, but would be a four piece group, with all sorts of combinations -- Robin played bass on some numbers, Chris played bass, or sometimes used pedals -- but it got worse and worse, and in the end the only way to have it sounding really good was by having the bass permanent'.

With the new line-up, Procol went into the studios in the early summer of 1970 to record 'HOME' (SLRZ 1014), their last album for Regal Zonophone, (sighs of relief, I'm sure). Matthew began work on it with them, but things didn't work out, so they got in Chris Thomas, and began a partnership which lasted, very fruitfully, until 1974: 'We knew George Martin from the old Paramounts days, and he told us about Chris, who had been studying under him at Air for a few years, and it seemed like a good point in time, with the new line-up, to have a new face around, who, although inexperienced, could develop at the same time'.

The production on 'Home' proved to be easily the best Procol had got, up to that time, but I must confess to finding it their least appealing effort. With Chris Copping concentrating more on the bass-playing side of his duties, the organ is less prominent than before, and so Robin's guitar gets a chance to step forward into the spotlight, making the music generally heavier and brasher, which is not always a bonus.

Even though the album might not have been an artistic triumph, it certainly succeeded commercially, getting into the American Top Thirty, and is of lasting interest, if only because of Keith Reid's apparently inadvertent obsession with Death, which had always been latent, but which suffuses every track on 'Home'. The original album, again, was deleted many moons ago, and 'Home' then shared another Cube Doubleback (TOOFA 10) with 'Shine On Brightly', but that also is deleted now, (though for some reason the other one is still on the catalogue, so if you want either of those albums, you'll have to go round the second-hand shops.

'Regal Zonophone gradually fizzled out, as people's contracts ran out, and they didn't want to know about re-signing. We had A&M in the States, who didn't do a brilliant job, but they did a better job, and although it wasn't a matter of policy to concentrate on the States, it's such a big place that it takes three months to cover it, and it seemed like we were living there'.

Amazingly, by the time Procol played their first big London concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in September 1971 they had already done eleven tours of America, and were equally big in several countries on the Continent; but, once free of the smothering grasp of Regal Zonophone, the time was ripe for some belated recognition in their home country, and it's their gradual advance from being forgotten heroes to receiving the supreme accolade of an extensive 'Zigzag' feature that we'll be looking at in next month's final episode.  

Part Two of this feature  | Paul Kendall interviews Keith Reid in 1977

PH on stage | PH on record | PH in print | BtP features | What's new | Interact with BtP | For sale | Site search | Home