Procol Harum

the Pale

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More praise for Barrie Wilson

Randy Whitaker

A question arose on the Procol message line (The Beanstalk) in April 2003 as to the influences in BJ Wilson's drumming style. "I hear rock, jazz,blues and more in there along with enough of a sense to work with the classical stuff. Any thoughts on particular influences?"

Randy Whitaker sent a most interesting reply and, with his kind permission, we reproduce it here.

Not so much particular influences as particular parallels of the period...

NOTE: I'm new to the forum, but certainly not to Procol Harum. I went nuts on first hearing A Whiter Shade of Pale, and won a battle of the bands back in '68 by badgering my bandmates to do AWSoP in the competition (I played keyboards).

The reason I mention this is that musing on BJ's drumming brings back memories of figuring out why it was so damned hard to get otherwise competent 'weekend / road warrior' musicians to play Procol material. A lot of the problem had to do with the drumming, and a lot of my conclusions (at that time and since) had to do with BJ's unique style / approach.

Let me make one thing clear I always thought BJ was the most underrated drummer of that period.

BJ could certainly support a wide variety of genres from music hall / vaudeville style rump-a-thump to back-row-of-the-orchestra flourishes on demand. What always struck me was that he was most 'pedestrian' when performing in the most 'conventional' way i.e., providing a steady background beat. I'm not saying he was bad or weak only that he didn't seem all that impressive when simply plodding through a (e.g.) blues-based verse.

I came to realize that he seemed most brilliant when he was in effect 'out front' as a 'lead instrument' (as opposed to a background support role). There were two occasions when this came to the fore. The first was in providing percussion for a song whose rhythmic structure carried itself (usually on the back of piano and bass), freeing BJ to play on top of, rather than simply underpin, the beat. For example, he was playing 'lead drums' on The Devil Came from Kansas (a song that could have been carried atop a variety of conventional percussion tracks you'd be surprised how good a reggae song it can be...).

The second occasion was in transitions or breaks. When the band seemed to leap off into space a la a motocross bike off a ramp, it was BJ who'd let the listener hang out there long enough to worry, then do something absolutely perfect to ring in a landing 'on the run'. He was also excellent on those sudden 'slam transitions' where a beat-deficient verse shifted into a hard-driving stretch (e.g., About to Die). Finally, there was the way he would sometimes sit far in the back 'revving' and foreshadowing what the present passage was about to transform into... These are the kind of things that wowed me even when he did them in the background.

In other words, BJ was providing 'lead glosses' and not 'background / basis'. This was unusual for the time, insofar as it was the kind of thing one associated with jazz, and not rock, drummers. However, I never thought of BJ as a 'jazz drummer', in that he didn't fluidly improvise on the fly.

This is also the kind of occasional 'flourish' to which percussion is largely confined in the classical context. Whether BJ was a 'flourish drummer' who fit into Procol's classical mode, or whether Procol's classical bent forced him to adapt thusly, is an open question...

Anyway... The parallels...

There were three better-known and widely-praised rock drummers of the Procolozoic who were credited with doing some of the things I credit BJ for providing Procol Harum. BJ was tasty and got the most out of what he did. This parallels mid-to-late Beatles Era Ringo. Ringo did more with (what seemed to be) less than any other drummer of the time (though some claim a lot of that finesse was at George Martin's suggestion). On many Beatles songs, the drums are as much a lead instrument as a foundation. The other two that come to mind were drummers praised for their over-the-top and innovative work on top of a song (rather than in the engine room) Ginger Baker and Keith Moon. Both were specifically cited as having been freed to gloss songs by virtue of beat control being shifted to a competent bassist. In the case of Procol Harum, it was Gary's piano that carried sufficient beat to free up the drummer.

I won't go so far as to claim BJ was influenced by these three. However, I will claim he was another, and unsung, example of 'the drummer freed to do lead'.

This, I believe, is the key 'influence' that made BJ's drumming so memorable...

Thanks, Randy

BJ's page at BtP

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