Procol Harum

the Pale

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Gary Brooker : Radio Caroline, 26 December 2004

Interviewed by Mark Stafford (part one)


A Whiter Shade of Pale, Conquistador, Homburg, A Salty Dog, all of these songs feature the unmistakable voice of Procol Harum’s Gary Brooker. I’m Mark Stafford and over the next hour I shall be in conversation with Gary, as he takes us on a journey through forty years of his career in music from his days in The Paramounts in the early 60s, through the heady days of the 60s and 70s with Procol Harum and on to his solo career and up to date with his appearance on the Concert For George, George Harrison Tribute Night, and the recent album from the re-formed Procol Harum. Let’s start at the very beginning. I asked Gary to tell us exactly how did he take his first steps into the world of performing.

[Shine on Brightly under]

My father was a musician. I used to get up with him sometimes when I was little. And eventually, well, he was the Hawaiian, the guitarist in Felix Mendelssohn’s Hawaiian Serenaders. But actually, when they packed up, Felix died, and my father then ran, if you like, the orchestra, the band at the Palace Hotel in Southend. So, and I used to get up and do a bit there at Christmas.

[Shine on Brightly under]

So, really, your first musical roots were all based in the Southend area then?

 Oh, yeah. Yeah. Home of the Blues isn’t it? Delta.

Thames Delta. [Laughs] And then obviously the first time you came to fame would have been early 60s, '63, '65, with the band The Paramounts, along with probably what could have been considered maybe the nucleus [Poison Ivy under] of Procol Harum.

Well, no. Originally, The Paramounts was all Southend boys, all from school, really. And they did your, a real coincidence that they happened to end up in Procol Harum because Procol Harum didn’t start off with anybody apart from me, and the others were all from different places. But for various reasons, a couple of them left. And I couldn’t think of another drummer and guitarist except the ones that I’d been working with for the previous five years or whatever. So – we had auditions, with other people as well, but they kind of won through.

[Poison Ivy]

The real question that springs to mind is, The Paramounts were really an R&B, rock and roll type band and suddenly overnight it’s 1967, and somehow out of that, the jump had been made to the world of, dare I say it, psychedelic rock.

By the time A Whiter Shade of Pale came out or Procol Harum started, we’d been playing quite, what seemed a long time – and all sort of got fed up with doing covers, if you like, you know, playing other people’s songs and everything. And we’d had enough experience to, you know, have a few ideas of our own.

[A Whiter Shade Of Pale under, orchestral version] It’s the summer of love, it’s 1967, and you happened to probably produce what would be considered the anthem for that year in A Whiter Shade Of Pale. What sort of took you to that point of producing what was really the sound of the summer of 1967?

Well, all these things are really accidental. And I’ll call it luck, fate, or something. I mean, don’t forget, we didn’t record that, the summer of love didn’t exist when we recorded that because I think we made it in April. And it came out in May. [A Whiter Shade of Pale under] And it was, I suppose, it wasn’t ahead of its time really because it was a bit different. And I think people were probably ready, ready for something a bit different. And summer’s always a good time, you know. People remember it from holidays and everything, don’t they? So I think that it rather fulfilled some sort of demand that was out there – because it wasn’t like anything else, that record, that had been done before.

[A Whiter Shade of Pale]

The follow-up was Homburg, in a fairly similar style. Was that your choice to take that road or were you pushed in that direction by the record company?

Well, I think if we’d have put them out the other way around, it probably would have been all right. You know what I mean? It’s, A Whiter Shade Of Pale was quite a difficult record to follow although we didn’t feel that at the time. We just said, 'Oh, it’s just one of our songs. We’ll do another one of our songs.' So, you know, it was, it was [Homburg under], it wasn’t that difficult. It was more difficult for the, for the public and all that, or the DJs, I think, because they’re going, 'Hey, you know, let’s hear something better than that,' you know. Which – better what? Who knows?


We move on to the first, the début album, simply called Procol Harum, which was a great album of that time and the great, one of the great rock albums, including Conquistador, the original version of that (and I say 'original' because obviously people would know the live version on the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra version) and, and the song that, of course, has a great title to me and I just love, which is She Wandered Through the Garden Fence. Is there a story behind that song?

Well, I think, I mean, Keith Reid wrote the lyrics for, with Procol Harum and still does today, in fact. And I never really questioned what he meant. It always seemed to be quite reasonable to me. She Wandered Through the Garden Fence. I never thought it was very strange, really. But now you mention it, it is a bit odd, isn’t it? Well, then, so is 'your multilingual business friend'. I mean, that’s quite an opening line as well.

[She Wandered Through the Garden Fence]

That was the, the début album, Procol Harum. And you had the two successful hits, A Whiter Shade Of Pale obviously went to number one and Homburg was, was top 10. And the third of that sort of first trio in that early part of the career was Quite Rightly So, which made the top 50. It was on the second album, which was Shine on Brightly. Did you make a career move to say the time was now becoming – to move into the world of album rock rather than single rock?

Well, I think we missed the boat early on. I don’t, I mean, actually, A Whiter Shade Of Pale was not on our first album. We didn’t make, finish our first album till quite late in 1967. And our, in our infinite wisdom, we said, 'Well hang on, we’ve already put A Whiter Shade Of Pale out and we’ve already put Homburg out. We don’t want them on there. We’ve got to have different, different songs.' So they weren’t on there. Today, I mean, if you had a hit like A Whiter Shade Of Pale and it was on an album, well, you’d be talking about selling a few million albums as well. But in our infinite wisdom, we didn’t do that. [Laughs] You thought about making an album when you'd had enough singles out to sort of warrant that. But by the time the second album came, we’d also been quite successful in America. And in the course of that year, you know, albums, I think probably Sgt Pepper, or the Beatles had always sold albums, but I think Sgt. Pepper brought all that to the fore a bit more.

Well, we’re moving on now to, towards the. the end of the 60s and the album, A Salty Dog, which was another classic Procol Harum album, the song itself, and also on the same album you had The Wreck of the Hesperus, sort of a nautical theme. Any particular reason for that?

Oh, it’s all Southend and Leigh-on-Sea, isn’t it? You can’t stand on the mud flats at Leigh without writing songs like that. [A Salty Dog under] No, you know, it’s all the sea experience, although it's only the Thames estuary, I always thought of it as the sea. I’ve always quite liked boats. You’re not on a boat, are you?

No. We were.

You were. Ah, times change.

[A Salty Dog]

1970. We’re moving on to 1970 now and a Chris Thomas-produced album which was the album Home followed soon afterwards by one of my favorite Procol Harum albums which was Broken Barricades. Any memories of making that particular album?

Broken Barricades? Well, actually, we made it in Air Studios which was newly-built. I think it was about the first album that was made there and, which was a fantastic state-of-the-art new studio in the middle of Oxford Street. Chris Thomas had started to be experienced by then because the previous album, we sort of gave him his first job. Now he wouldn't t even work for us. He came to see us play last night though [laughs]. It was, I think, it was quite difficult to make actually, Broken Barricades. Robin Trower, who had been with us all that time was starting to sort of feel his own feet a bit. And we, we never fell out or anything like that but he was, he was sort of going in his own direction a bit. And in fact he did leave. We toured off that album but he left shortly after that.

[Simple Sister under]

One of the, probably, standout tracks on the album is Simple Sister. Is there a story at all behind that song?

That was a bit of an extravaganza really in that it was about six or seven minutes long. And there wasn’t really much to it, but – very popular in America.

[Simple Sister]

1972 [sic] was something quite brave, really, which was the release of the album, Procol Harum Live With The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra [sic]. Why the idea of the fusion of the two? Secondly, why Canada and why Edmonton?

Well, (a), I think the song, A Salty Dog on that album, we’d used a little orchestra for the first time and it seemed to work really well. We had previously played with an orchestra in Canada at the Stratford Festival there. [Conquistador (1971) under] Why? They invited us there to play. And I thought, 'Well, what should we play?' And the thing is about Procol Harum things is that they seem to fit with orchestra. We didn’t have to, it wasn’t a battle between rock and symphony. It was – they work very well together. I mean, all they had to do was ask us to come and play and we went and played. It was only a concert at first and then we decided sort of the week before that we should record it as it might be unique.

After three years out of the charts that time with a chart single, the release of Conquistador which many people thought at that time was a brand-new song but obviously had been five years old, being off the first album. Was it a surprise to you to become a top-20 singles band again?

Well it was and I think, I mean, Conquistador also had another bit in it, you know, some extra music in it. I mean, going on the 'plane to play this concert, I thought, 'Oh, we haven’t really got a fast one. What have we got in the repertoire that’s, you know, might suit?' And I thought of that one but I thought because of the title and Conquistador, I think, was the conquering horseman of the Spaniards. So it gave it a little bit of a Spanish feel. And I think that added to it. So it was a sort of, it wasn’t a different song but it had an extra half to it.


I think Procol Harum was probably due for a hit and also the material on that was almost like a, a 'Best of Procol Harum' album, you know, songs up to then [Grand Hotel under] although, of course, A Whiter Shade Of Pale wasn’t on it, but, or Homburg [laughs], but it was a bit of a ‘best of’ album as well.

So that was '72 and you’re back on the charts and successful with the live version of Conquistador. And my all-time favourite Procol Harum album was the 1973 album, Grand Hotel. And the title track is the sort of quite haunting Grand Hotel itself. What, is this a sort of follow-on from the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra era, the 'grandoise' type of Procol Harum production job on that?

Yeah, well, if you look about – when did we make Broken Barricades, in 1970? And also Robbie wrote about three tunes on that. There were only nine songs on the album. So you mean I wrote six songs between 1970 and 1973 until we came to Grand Hotel. And so I, probably had a lot of ideas hanging around in there, you know, that hadn’t, hadn’t quite been made into songs yet.

[Grand Hotel, from middle section ]

There aren’t many songs about sexual diseases but ... A Souvenir of London?

[A Souvenir of London under]

We've had the distinction of being banned twice by the BBC but not in a blaze of publicity. They just wouldn’t play it. And the first one was a Paramounts single called Bad Blood which was also about venereal disease, or so the BBC thought. That’s twice they wouldn’t play a single of ours. Never mind.

[A Souvenir of London]

So we’re on now to 1974, the Exotic Birds And Fruit album, another couple of Procol favourites, Nothing But The Truth and Beyond the Pale probably the two best tracks of that one. Any reminiscences of that album?

[Nothing But The Truth under]

We sort of wanted to get a bit more back to being a band and playing as a band, I mean, a conscious attempt not to have an orchestra on that one. The two or three albums before, you know, used quite a bit of orchestra. Even Broken Barricades did. So we were back to being a rock band.

[Nothing But the Truth]

You’re listening to The Gary Brooker Story. Our story continues in just a few moments as we visit 1975 and Gary tells us the story of Procol Harum’s return to the UK singles charts with the hit single, Pandora’s Box.

[Station break ... Radio Caroline's new look etc ... part two follows]

Thanks, Jill, for the transcription!

Procol Harum concerts in 2004: index page No Stiletto Shoes, 2004 Part Two of this interview

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