Procol Harum

the Pale 

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Proving there's life in the Old Cat yet

David Whetstone in The Journal of Newcastle, 24 May 2002

It is 35 years to the day that A Whiter Shade of Pale was released [sic] and tonight the band that made it famous plays on Tyneside. David Whetstone talks to Gary Brooker of Procul [sic, passim] Harum.

It is a rather combative Gary Brooker who answers the Procul hotline. The unspoken challenge seems to be: "Go on, make my day. Ask me something I've never been asked before."

The band 'as they were in their hey-day'

The trouble is, it's the same old questions that still require answers.

What does the famous old band's name mean?

What is the exact meaning of the lyrics of the greatest hit of all, A Whiter Shade Of Pale, a hippie anthem that helped to define the "Summer of Love" in 1967?

"We skipped the light fandango and turned cartwheels cross the floor, I was feeling kind of seasick but the crowd called out for more." And so on as the organ accompaniment soars and dives.

It says in my big black book, The Faber Guide to 20th Century Popular Music, that Procul Harum split up in 1976.

"Huh," says Mr Brooker, "Shows how much your book knows.

"Actually, we went right through up to and including 1977 and then we had a rest. We were together for more than 10 years which in those days was an awful long time. Everyone went their separate ways and we didn't even think about doing a new Procul Harum album until 1989."

Brooker telephoned old Procul Harem [sic] wordsmith Keith Reid in New York and tentatively suggested a new Procul project. The result was the album The Prodigal Stranger, released in 1991.

Since then, the band has been busy. There have been lows – the death of long-time band member BJ Wilson who "went into a coma and never came out of it: a great blow for us" – and highs, including a 1995 [sic] concert with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Centre which, it is said, prompted the longest standing ovation in the venue's history.

Another historical landmark will be reached tonight when the latest manifestation of the band performs at Newcastle Opera House exactly 35 years after that song first entered the charts.

Asked to reminisce about that song, Gary Brooker says: "What, you mean Homburg?"

He knows fine well that I don't although Homburg was also a big hit for the band. No, like it or not, Procul Harum will forever be associated with A White [sic] Shade Of Pale, inspired by "not based on," says Brooker firmly, Bach's Air On A G String.

Booker did the music, Reid did the words but the icing on the cake was the organ played by Matthew Fisher.

"I can't remember if we wrote the song at the end of '66 or the beginning of '67 but it was at a time when we forming the band and getting together the players and instruments we felt would sound good together," recalls Brooker.

"I'm the singer and piano player so we were looking for a blues guitarist, a bass player and someone with a Hammond organ. In the end we saw an advert in Melody Maker and pounced on it. That was how we met Matthew. He fitted in straight away.

"Keith wrote the words for the songs. I'd receive them in the post because I didn't have a telephone and I'd read them and pick up on something."

The lyrics to the then tuneless A Whiter Shade Of Pale didn't faze him. Not for him the agonising over the meaning of the words. "It just means whatever you want it to mean," he says defensively.

"So much has been written about the song but what's wrong with lines that just conjure up a picture of whatever you want? It's like when we used to do Shakespeare at school. You would study these lines and have to work out exactly what they meant.

"I was fascinated by what Keith had written but I just thought it was brilliant."

With the music added, everyone agreed. Some 11 million people bought a copy of the single when it was released, ensuring that Procul Harum would be remembered as a one-hit wonder at the very least. In fact, the band followed up with Homburg and then, in the early 1970s, with Conquistador.

Gary Brooker, born in London 57 years ago, says music has always been his hobby. As he has got older and attained more control over what the band does, he has enjoyed it more and more, collaborating with the likes of Eric Clapton, Bill Wyman and Jools Holland as well as with big orchestras.

"We do a few gigs when we feel like it. The last gig we did [sic] was at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester last July with the Hallé Orchestra and that was quite something. It was good to see quite a lot of young people there.

"I expect a lot of kids pick up on Procul Harum from their mum's and dads."

As ever, Procul Harum is offering an alternative. Back in the 1960s it was at the same game, wowing audiences with its eclectic sound and lyrics which chimed with the mood of flower power.

"We were pretty unusual for the day," says Gary Brooker. "It was a very unusual sound."

He wants to talk about the new Procul Harum DVD which includes live footage of a concert in Copenhagen last December and fly-on-the-wall insight into rehearsals for the 2001 European tour. So we do. Procul Harum fans will probably love it, delighting in the evidence that there is plenty more life in them yet. .

But what does Procul Harum actually mean? There's an inaudible [?] harrumph on the end of the line. "It doesn't mean anything. It was the name of a cat that a friend of ours had."

So that's that.

Procol Harum concerts in 2002: index page

 More about the intended Newcastle show

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