Procol Harum

the Pale 

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On The Road with Procol Harum

Harold Bronson, UCLA Daily Bruin, 11 November 1971

Many thanks to Marvin Chassman, who sends this piece to BtP noting, 'It's by the same author, and contains some of the same material as the article posted here but it's not identical'. It's well worth comparing the two: one is in interview format; the other condenses the band's responses into continuous writing, suggesting that they hadn't been prompted by questions but were just rambling on ...

'Diabolical,' Keith Reid whispered, resting in a chair at a San Diego nightclub that someone described as looking like a reconverted bowling alley. He was commenting on that Sunday night's first performance of Procol Harum, the English group for which he writes the 'words'. Reid, 'an English gentleman,' as bassist Alan Cartwright refers to him, is quite a pleasant and likeable chap, this despite the fact that most of his lyrics are solemn, morbid at times, and ominous.

Reid's pessimism and cynicism has permeated most of the group's material since that first single in 1967, the four million-selling A Whiter Shade of Pale, and culminating with the death-conscious Home. 'I don't believe anybody is a happy person,' Keith mused the next day at a popular Sunset Boulevard PR firm. 'I've never met anybody who is a happy person. Being alive is not a happy experience. I'm not a fatalist, I'm a realist, so are the songs I write. I write when I'm unhappy or troubled. I know that sounds sort of romantic. When people are content, they're somewhat happy with themselves. You find that people who write do so as an emotional release. The things that I write about are truthful I don't adopt a specific attitude. It's what life is. I don't write in a down feeling.'

Despite Home's clear pre-occupation with death, Reid amazingly claims he wasn't conscious of any theme or connection when writing it: 'People seem to think that we sit down and think of a concept like we do a sea album, or a death album, or an obscene album. The thing is, if you're creating something you have a pattern to it. For some reason at the end of making A Salty Dog we noticed that there were a lot of things about the sea in it. I wasn't conscious of any death theme in writing Home. I didn't feel that about it. You're only made conscious because of people's reactions to it. To me they're just individual songs just part of all the songs we've done.

'If someone says they can't understand a song, I can't explain it to him. I think the words are pretty straightforward. If you're trying to be obscure a song would be meaningless rubbish. My intentions are to communicate, not to mystify.'

Gary Brooker sings, plays piano and writes the majority of the group's music. In addition to folk and rock styles, Brooker has revealed a knowledge of classical music, this despite possessing not more than fifteen classical albums and having received only nominal instruction. 'I went to a piano teacher who taught me to play the songs I liked at the time, like Deep Purple. He would just write it out and I'd learn it. His method of teaching helped me because instead of starting off with scales and like that, he taught me chords. So I was almost able to play the piano straight away. I always liked American records, never English.

'I started singing when our lead singer with the group I was with, The Paramounts, left. We backed up Sandie Shaw, but only on about three tours. We just did it to earn some money. In England it's very hard to be in a band because there are about one hundred groups for every job. I used to play electric piano then. I used it on a couple of songs on Broken Barricades. Vocally I was influenced by Ray Charles. I also like Mick Jagger's singing.'

Procol Harum started out when Reid, then a clerk in a London legal book shop, wrote some poems that Gary Brooker set to music. They made a demo, A Whiter Shade of Pale/ Alfie [sic], that was enthusiastically received. Musicians were recruited through newspaper advertisements and the band was named Procol Harum, after a Burmese cat owned by a friend of Reid's. 'The actual name of the group was Procul Harun, but it was all done over the telephone and got misspelled,' related Brooker. 'It doesn't seem to matter though.'

Matthew Fisher and David Knights on organ and bass, respectively, became integral members. Other original members Ray Royer and Bobby Harrison left before the completion of the first album and were replaced by guitarist Robin Trower and drummer BJ Wilson. Early last year both Fisher and Knights left the group. 'We said to Matthew that we were fed up with him not being committed to the group,' said the curly-haired Reid. 'So he announced that he was leaving. We really didn't want another organist to replace him.'

'Listening to the records I haven't any complaints about what David did,' confessed Brooker. 'I don't know how much better it would have been if Chris (Copping, replacement bassist and organist) had played bass. David wasn't very good at improvisation and we always told him what to play on the bass, almost note for note. On some of the older songs bass notes were very important as to what chord was being played. If he heard a G chord that's what he'd play, but it might be important for him to have played a B. Things like that I had to tell him.'

At the time that the pair left, there were serious doubts as to whether Procol Harum would continue to exist. But the prime reason for its existence is to serve as an outlet for Reid-Brooker collaborations. Copping came along and joined, leaving a doctoral program in chemistry.

A year and two albums later Robin Trower left. 'Robin wanted to form his own group,' explained Copping. 'Before that I had been playing both organ and bass and found that taxing. We decided that I should restrict myself to one instrument, so I chose the organ.' A blond and hirsute bass player, Alan Cartwright, was asked to join by Gary Brooker. His history includes backing up jazz people, and recently being a member of Every Which Way, a band led by ex-Nice drummer Brian Davidson. Lanky guitarist David Ball was recently a member of Peter Noone's [?] abortive Big Bertha. He looks not unlike Noone, shiny boyish face, but he favors scotch and Benson and Hedges.

Although the band has been well established four years now, no concrete overall image really exists, like for that of the Rolling Stones, for example. Instead people relate to the group personally: 'People think that we're really bitter,' said Keith, 'bitter about not being as big as Led Zeppelin, or bitter about our court cases (involving numerous changes in management), or never making any money. That comes mostly from the press because they ask these questions. We don't propagate an image by the music we create. Each album has always been different, it's not like we're a dope and sex group.'

'Fans see us as a very close personal type of thing,' said Gary. 'They relate to us, they feel they know us as people. We're not something temporary like a weekly chart breaker.'

Ever since toiling over Reid's supposed lack of awareness of Home's themes, I thought I'd ask Gary about the album's title, being that half of all the reviews interpreted Home as meaning graveyard, man's final resting place. 'We had nothing to do with the title, it was just a name on the cover. It could just as easily been called Woosh!' So much for that.

Later, I approached Keith, now hunched over as he sat on the billiard table, gazing through blue colored, round sun glasses. His favorite song writers, he says, are Bob Dylan, Randy Newman, and Joni Mitchell, and he also enjoys the Bonzo Dog Band, Free, and Paul Winter. Keith, who doesn't consider himself an intellectual, was the only one in the community of his youth who could read. Consequently he did a lot of reading. Although his lyrics reflect the romanticism of the 19th century, Reid denies being heavily into that literary period. He is very interested in films and plays. Home's About to Die was inspired by Midnight Cowboy, and Nothing That I Didn't Know was influenced by a Stevie Smith play, I think he said. [seems unlikely]

Because he essentially does nothing with the group on tour, I asked Keith why he travels with the band. He started touring with Procol Harum long ago, he replied, and he's 'too weak' to change his life style and stay home. Keith did play organ with the group during one concert. 'Around the time when we were rehearsing for songs on Home, Chris was playing bass. I can read notes and Gary wrote a part for me to play on Piggy Pig Pig and I also played a few chords on About to Die. We also did one concert and I played the organ on those two songs. We didn't do those again so my career was over.

'I started the piano as a lad, then I went to music college for a while, then I dropped out. Actually it was due to the kind of life I was leading. I can read a part if Gary writes it out, and I've got a sense of rhythm, but that's quite different from being a part of a group and being able to improvise. I never thought of composing music.'

Although Keith felt that first set in San Diego 'diabolical' he was quite satisfied with the second set Procol Harum are nothing less than an incredible rock band. Brooker is perhaps rock's best vocalist, BJ is certainly rock's most creative drummer, Copping is progressing on the organ, and newcomers Ball and Cartwright are fitting in nicely in their positions; indeed, Procol Harum have never sounded better. In all my years rocking and rolling I've never seen a finer band.

More Procol history in print

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