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

Cropredy 1995

Richard Ashworth, 1999

Richard Ashworth (see illustration) sent this very funny and appealing Procol memoir to BtP with the following caveat:

'Although this article is based on truth, many of the facts have been changed to protect the reader from boredom and the protagonists from embarrassment.'

Read on, and be richly entertained.

I was never that into Fairport; you had to admit that Liege & Lief was a classic and maybe Full House too. And Pegg and Mattacks were clearly one of the great rhythm sections. True too, Fairport had included at least one dead genius - the seraph-voiced Sandy Denny - and at least one living one: the neurotic Richard Thompson, author of 1952 Vincent Black Lightning. But it was all a bit rootsy for me, a bit finger-in-the-ear and jigging on one leg.

'So which groups did you like back then, Dad?' Henrietta, my eleven-year-old daughter, asked from the back of the car. The family space-cruiser was pulling a newly-acquired brown Alpine Sprite Caravan. The steering felt heavy and unforgiving.

'The Beatles?' asked Henrietta's twin Jessica.

'You don't understand. Everybody loved the Beatles, they were like the backdrop, the standard against which everything else was judged. Liking the Beatles said absolutely nothing about you.'

'Who else, then?'

'The Bee Gees,' I mumbled, half-hoping not to be heard. I had sworn never to lie to my children but sometimes it was hard.

'What?' they asked together. 'We couldn't quite hear you.'

'Caravan,' called little Joey from the back. It was his job to remind me that the car was loaded up.

'Thank you, Joey,' I said.

I looked in the rear-view mirror. The caravan was still there and two identical pairs of eyes were glaring at the back of my head.

'The Bee Gees,' I admitted at a volume that was close to audible. Yes they wore terrible suits, yes their lyrics were as meaningless as they were shallow: but let's own up here, they've been writing heavenly tunes for three decades or more. And shamefully it is true that at 16 I had loved them with an intensity that approached the erotic.

'The Beach Boys,' I said rapidly, changing the subject.

'The fat ones with the stripy shirts?'

Yup, that was them.

'So why are we risking mud, lice and diarrhoea?' my wife Sheila asked. 'Every time it comes to packing to go away I just want to shut the bedroom door and read a book. And this is just for three nights. And we've got put to up the bloody awning.'

'The bloody awning,' I repeated, remembering the combination obstacle-course, jigsaw-puzzle and martial art that setting it up had seemed when we practised in the garden.

'And the loos,' Sheila said. 'I thought I'd grown out of festivals. I remember Bath in 1970. I only went once. It was more than enough. After that it was the bushes. The toilet was a nightmare. The previous occupant must have been a kangaroo with dysentery.'

'Fairport are famous for their toilets,' I said reassuringly. But Oh Jesus! Why with all the choice in the world were we aiming now up the M40 into rural Oxfordshire in mid-August? We could have been almost anywhere else. Brittany. The Algarve. Home.

'Procol Harum,' I said. And I was back. When was it, 1971? 72? I know it sounds daft now but it seemed such important music then. It was beautifully thought-through, melodic, intelligent, literate, passionate and immaculately played. There were the Brooker melodies, Matthew Fisher's surprising twiddly bits of rococo Hammond, Keith Reid's lyrics and BJ's man-trapped-in-a garage tub thumping. BJ drummed like Bonham with taste but then he had material that was worth the trouble.

I remembered my cord flares, my regency jackets, my green and blue snake-skin (honest!) platforms. Kensington market on a Saturday afternoon; King's Road two deep in Afghan coats, a good proportion worn by Afghans. I felt a yearning that was like nostalgia with the volume turned up. But the very vocabulary was bankrupt. Ah Procol Harum.

'They were like a grown-up group even when we were all kids.'

As I grow older I put the age of maturity later and later. Today anybody under thirty seems like a toddler. Policeman on the beat looking young? I've seen Chief Constables who look like my classmates.

'Caravan,' said Joey.

'Thanks Joey,' I said. 'It was like ... er ... serious music. It made sense. They were sort of progressive before there was a progressive music.' AOR when Adults were Orientated anywhere but the Radio.

'Like what?' asked Henrietta aggressively. It was her favourite phrase.

'It was pop music but it wasn't pop music. It was deeper. More lasting.'

'You know Whiter Shade of Pale,' Alex, my teenage son put in. 'Bach with bass and drums.' That weekend he would only return to the wagon-train when he was hungry. God knows what he put into himself or indeed into the young women we saw him with from afar. He was at that time, if not the teenager from hell, the teenager from one of the lower posts of purgatory.

'But you know,' I said, 'It wouldn't be true to say that Whiter Shade was one of their weaker songs; it sold millions worldwide for God's sake and it remains one of the greatest records ever made - but they produced lots of stuff that was as good or better.'

'Was it their first record?' Jessica asked.

'Yes, ' I said.

'So they sort of started at the top and worked downwards?'

'I suppose so.'

'When did they break up?'

'Early 80s, I think,' I said.

I remembered them at the Brighton Dome in 1972 - supported by Terry Reid with David Lindley on lap steel - or has time made me a liar? I went with my friend Dave and his beautiful blonde girlfriend Jane, now long since someone else's wife, mother of someone else's kids. We were both part of the same garage band. How she broke his heart, two-timing him during band rehearsals knowing that as long as he could be relied upon to be attempting to master the introduction to Chest Fever on his Farfisa of a Sunday afternoon, the coast was always clear.

Procol were fantastic. It was the Grand Hotel tour. Robin Trower had left. They were a four-piece with Mick Grabham on guitar after a one-album flirt with Dave Ball. He wasn't Robbie but Grabham could rock. And BJ was still knocking three colours of shit out of his drums. Repent Walpurgis was unbelievable. Or am I lying again?

And at Southampton University when Gary Brooker took exception to my backstage remark about doing Poison Ivy. 'Funny man,' he said, scathingly, doubtless tired of smart-arses in his face. I was nineteen by then, an out-of-my-depth teen tycoon, so proud to be promoting a concert by these icons. How the scales fall from the eyes!

Guildford, the Festival Hall; I saw them perhaps six times. I caught the worst line-up of the Beach Boys - Reading Top Rank with all the wrong Wilsons. And the Bee Gees at the Albert Hall with Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich, The Foundations and Grapefruit. All of these made me feel vaguely ashamed looking back. Even CSN&Y whose sublime music was devalued by arch hippy quips. But not Procol. Never Procol.

'What is A Whiter Shade of Pale about?' Jesse asked.

'Drugs,' said Alex, with finality.

Who was I to argue? Me who, at that time and at his age, had bought Oxo cubes singly at a quid a throw in Soho. At least they were unwrapped. That was my excuse.

'What does Procol Harum mean?'

'Ah there I can help you,' I said. 'Far from these things, as in the irregular form haud procul harum in Virgil.' Eclogues? Georgics? Or is this total bluff? I've spent so long dealing with important things, real things like mortgages and school fees that I don't even know for sure anymore.

'What were the songs about?'

'Extended metaphors.'

'Like what?' asked Henrietta. She was unable to say this without sounding like she wanted to punch me. Perhaps she did.

'Well, Salty Dog compares the band with a ship's crew that has been away on a long voyage.'

'Similes compare. Metaphors equate,' said Jesse dogmatically.

'Excuse me,' I said over my shoulder.

'Caravan,' said Joey helpfully.

'Thanks, Joey. And Broken Barricades sort of continues that metaphor but the band seem to have become soldiers in an army.'

'What are your favourite songs?'

'Pilgrim's Progress on Salty Dog.'

'What's that about?'

'It's a song talking about itself. How it has travelled from lyricist to composer and finally out to the listener.'

'That's a neat idea.'

'Yes it is. And there's Rambling On. 'I hastened to make my reply / found that I could only lie and like a fool I believed myself,' I quoted. 'And Gary Brooker's voice towards the end of In Held 'Twas in I. Such passion and such strength at the upper end of his range.'

'In Held 'Twas in What?' asked Jesse.

'Funny old title,' I said. 'It's the first word of each of five sections of a sort of suite.'

'Sweeties,' said Joey with interest.

'Caravan,' I said by way of distraction.

'Thanks, Dad,' said Joey.

'And Luskus Delph on Broken Barricades.'

'Richard!' said Sheila, suspecting its content.

'What's that about?' Henrietta asked with the swiftness and precision of a stealth bomber, suspecting she shouldn't know.

'PG,' I said.

'Oh Dad.'

'Trust me.'

'Have they reformed?' Sheila asked, more interested in changing the subject than in an answer.

'I don't quite know. I think Gary Brooker's always been able to fill halls in Germany and Japan whatever he calls himself but the new album is the first of new material under the name Procol Harum in over ten years.'

'Is it any good?' asked Henrietta.

'Yes. It's excellent actually.'

'Any metaphors?' Jesse asked.


'Like what?' Henrietta demanded.

'Well it seems to be about what a rock'n'roller gives up by seeking fame and fortune. It's very poignant.'

'Gives up?' repeated Alex suspiciously bringing his gaze back into the car from the clouds where he had been imagining mammarial shapes.

'Yes. Relationship. Children. Spiritual growth.'

'Oh. Yeah. Right.' His attention returned to the skies.

We pitched the caravan, struggled with the bloody awning, burned beans and sausages, mislaid Joey, finally got to bed. It was Thursday night.

Procol were topping the bill on the Friday. We awoke to a baking day, wasps in all directions. We were that tad too close to the bins which were already filling.

'Could have been worse. Could have been the toilets,' I said.

We shopped for food, toilet roll, lager at Tesco's in Banbury. It was too hot for the kids to sit out and they weren't keen on attending to Edward II (excellent though they sounded from a distance) Vikki Clayton or the Hellecasters. Alex was nowhere to be seen but Lucan-like there was the occasional sighting.

It was dark by the time Procol were due on. Sheila had decided selflessly to stay in the caravan with Joey who had flaked out. In point of fact the third volume of Ramses and a Stella or two with her friend Angie may have appeared more attractive than Procol. I took the girls, each holding one of my hands. Henrietta was in her new festival gear, clown hat, pointy shoes, Jesse more classically dressed in jeans and tee-shirt.

I think they opened with Holding On from Prodigal Stranger but it doesn't matter. I was so moved by them just being there and with Matthew Fisher back on organ.

'Are you crying, Daddy?' Henrietta asked looking up at me.

'I think I might be,' I said.

'Oh Daddy,' said Jesse, hugging me.

They did Conquistador, Salty Dog, an hour-and-a half of music I thought I would never hear live again. When they did Whiter Shade - which I had never seen them perform before, Gary feinted with a couple of false starts, going once into No Woman, No Cry and once into When a Man Loves a Woman before doing the full three-verse version ('Said I'm home on shore leave...'). Gary was in impeccable voice and Matthew's fingers danced on the Hammond. Matt Pegg was (at least) as good a bassist as they have entertained (surprise!), Mark Brzezicki muscular on the drums and Geoff Whitehorn had all the Trower parts down and then some. Have I even got this line-up right?

At one point Matthew Fisher took five and when he returned Gary did a double-take and asked 'Have you been here all the time?'

'No, I was gone for about 20 years,' Matthew said.

I know that was Redhill really.

As we trudged back with our luminous necklaces and hot dogs, Henrietta said : 'I really enjoyed that.'

'Me too,' I said

'Were you crying?'

The bloody awning fought savagely but we wrestled it to the ground. Alex found a Fairport album called The Red and the Gold.

'Is that about the toilets on the Sunday morning?' said Sheila without missing a beat.

We loaded the car and started back.

'Caravan,' said Joey informatively.

Thanks, Richard!

Richard Ashworth is a long-time Procoholic who lives in Surrey in a small house full of children. Jesse Ashworth illustrated his eight-song CD Songs to Grow Up With, which was released in 1999 (Overdrive Records 789, 10 pounds 99: click to order) He co-wrote the album Echo by Gracious! with Sev Lewkowicz and has contributed material recently to albums by House and Nostromo.

He is currently working on two novels, one an Arthurian retelling and another that does to a variety of spiritual teachers he has worked with what this article does to Procol Harum. Neither yet has a publisher and Gary, if you're ever in need of lyrics, give us a call.

More Procol Harum features

Cropredy 1995 setlist + the real line-up

Review of PH 1995 at Cropredy


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