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

Surrealists of Rock : part 4

Steffen Graefe interviews Gary Brooker, 1999

Steffen Graefe
What is your experience of the difference between stage music and studio productions ...

Gary Brooker
Well we usually ... well we always wrote songs, then went in the studio and recorded them. When you then go out and play them on stage, you start playing them better. That's what always happens. Always happened with Procol Harum, that we kind of expanded and found more about the songs when we were playing them on stage. So, I think generally Procol Harum stage performances were ... were never disappointing because you got kind of more, it was better: better than the record. It was more interesting because we had great players like BJ Wilson on the drums, who ... you know once you ... when you saw him play, you realized how great he was. He was fascinating to watch. You don't get any of that out of a record. So, stage performances were, you know, it was half of our lives at least.

One anecdote around this?

Well, I mean after Exotic Birds and Fruit, we actually made one called ... Procol's Ninth ... and we changed producers and used Leiber and Stoller who were some American idols that would have gone back to Paramounts days because they wrote Elvis Presley songs. And we thought it would be a good idea to make an album with them. It was ... I don't think we had quite as good a song ... collection of songs and they were quite difficult to work with. And I think you can hear that a bit on the record. It is not quite as interesting as other stuff. We got slightly disillusioned there I think. It was not as successful either. But the thing was that everything we always did, worked out fine. Whiter Shade of Pale worked out fine, Shine on Brightly ... .everything always worked out fine. We go to record ... well we go to play in Edmonton, and we record it, and it works out fine. You know, the sun was shining. So, disillusion to me is when things don't quite work out.

Also the understanding between the members of the group ...

Um ... well it's not ... No I think we were always ... we never had arguments.

But you spent the time only in the studio together ...

You never had time for a private life. I mean if you weren't touring, or in the studio, or doing something, then it was three weeks off and you took three weeks off... you know, you went and saw your mother and your wife, and your ... you know ... families and everything. So, but we, no we didn't really see ... but we have always been friends in Procol Harum. Very much a group of people that enjoyed each other's company. Otherwise it would be very hard.

Okay: splitting of Procol Harum?

I mean we come to make our tenth album, Something ... Something Magic. And we were actually ... 'Well what shall we do?' You know.

Procol Harum skating on thin ice, a symbolic line?

Yes ... We were skating on thin ice because ... of course the world was changing as well. Disco is big. Punks are starting up. There's a reaction against the very thing that Procol Harum probably stood for which was like, you know, doing things carefully and with feeling, you know. It was not gut aggression or anything like that. It was all done more subtly. And we were certainly skating on thin ice. We had also been the victim of the worm and the tree, which ended up on this album, which was really the story of how ... it sort of goes along with all the history of Procol Harum, it's not just whether you're getting the musical ideas, but how they are being handled, then, by the business people; by your record company; by your managers; the accountants were starting to take charge. And instead of making an album of ten good songs, we go in and make an album and one of them on there is twenty minutes long and it's a spoken word. And we finished it and of course we did our best with it. But we suddenly thought, 'We've already done a twenty minute song with spoken words, and that was in 1968. We've gone full circle.' We didn't really say this but we felt it. And we finished the tour of Something Magic and we all said goodbye. Said, 'I suppose that's it then.' And everybody said, 'Yeah,' and we just all walked down different roads. And we didn't see anybody ... again. So, but ... I rallied and thought, 'Why,' and looked out one day and there is a big world out there. Lots of music I have never played because I have always been in the Paramounts or in Procol Harum, I had only ever played with ... I think ... one drummer, thankfully, and so I made a solo album and George Martin produced it. Lots of different musicians, different types of music, singing other people's songs, and felt quite refreshed. Made some new pals; and ... in fact Eric Clapton lived nearby me and we used to spend a lot of time together. And in the end he said, 'Why don't you join the band, let's go out on the road.' So I joined Eric's band in the early 80s and spent couple of years with him. Still making solo albums as well.

Character of Eric Clapton?

Oh, a gentleman, yea. A gentleman, of course a supreme, fantastic, player.

You remember something crazy ...

I just remember that ... he knew that I went fishing. Fly fishing - à la mouche. And he said, 'That sounds good.' I said, 'Well I'll take you out, Eric.' I took him out and showed him how to cast flies and catch trout and he took to it like a duck to water. And, it gave him a great relief from the pressures that he was actually suffering at that time and it was a way of getting away from other things to go out into the countryside with nobody, you know with me or whoever, and very therapeutic kind of pastime. That's really ... I think it was probably my contribution to the Eric Clapton effort. Taught him how to fish.

Okay the reunion ...

Not really ... I mean I've never really liked the word 'reunion' because I never saw the record we made in 1991 as being a reunion but that's what everybody else seemed to think of it, and really it made it go slightly wrong. The way it happened was I'd been doing other things. You know I'd been solo albuming, I'd started up another rock band, you know playing stuff that I would have played in the Paramounts with some good English players, you know Andy Fairweather Low and other people. And I'd been doing this and ... I went fishing for two years. Thought I was a world-class angler. And I think by about 1989, my wife said to me one day, 'I married a musician not an angler. Not somebody who goes fishing everyday.' She said, 'We've got more trout ... we've got two freezers full of trout.'


Fish. Forelle. That's all I did.

She was unhappy, your wife?

Oh I just didn't go fishing. I made my fishing rods, I collected tackle, I opened a fishing shop, I made a fishing video, I went all around the world. I just fished. And that's what she said to me, 'I married a musician, not a ...' and I suddenly thought, 'Jeez, I haven't sung, I haven't written a song for three years.'

That was in which year?

It was about 1989. Because I had my last solo album was out in 1985. And 1989 was four years. I found that I hadn't really ... I had been ... I had gone off somewhere else. So I started ... I thought ah ... better make a solo album. And I had written some good songs and I thought 'solo album' and lots of things kind of came together all at once. A few things happened. I saw BJ Wilson. He came and played on one of my solo albums. And I realized how good he was at ... well I knew he was good ... but I missed him. I went over to seem him in Oregon. Only 'cos I was there fishing (laughs) but he lived in Oregon by now, BJ Wilson. And so, I'd see him from time to time. And he never said, 'Why don't we play again?' But it was actually eating him up that Procol Harum was not playing. And that combination ... and then one day, in fact I went to Bill Wyman's Café for a special day where there were about six American radio stations in there all dotted around all with their tables and microphones from all over America, and they invited loads of rock stars up there to be interviewed. And it was all live as well, going live to America. It was quite a well-organised effort and I hadn't had much contact with any thing really. And I went up there and spoke to all those Americans and they loved Procol Harum. And they didn't say, 'Oh yea, what happened to them?' They'd say, 'Hey Simple Sister's one of my favourite songs ...' 'Hey Shine on Brightly ...' and suddenly it's like, 'Well hang on ... this is like twelve years, yea, no ... yeah a good twelve / thirteen years after our last album - and these people are treating it like we've just been playing last night. They really like us. And people phone in on these things and it's ... suddenly I thought, 'Well Procol Harum's not kind of disappeared at all. It is still there in these people's hearts somewhere. And a lot of things happened with fans and things. And it made me change my mind, that maybe I shouldn't make a solo album, maybe Procol Harum could somehow do something again. And I asked Keith Reid about it.

And we came to the conclusion that if we were to make another Procol Harum album, that we'd do it like we did it before. If we could write some songs, that's the start. If you can't write some songs, well then there is no start. You have to say let's make a Procol Harum album, we have got to have some songs. So, I started writing with Keith and it worked out really well. So, then I 'phoned up Matthew Fisher and he said, 'Yeah I'm around'. He came down and he wrote some songs with us. And that worked out well. And so, we started recording. Unfortunately BJ Wilson died while we were recording, while we were doing this ... which was a ... which was a terrible tragedy. And so he wasn't able to take part. But I think we had accomplished a lot. It was very difficult to make an album after all that time because you're also thinking, 'Well what will people want from a Procol Harum album you know ... thirteen - fourteen years after our last one. What is Procol Harum, what does our music mean? What is our character?' We didn't know, really. All it was we could say just 'Be ourselves, be truthful.' So, we spoke the truth, and in fact it was very well received. But the suits ... you know who the suits are?


Eh ... the suits are the businessmen. Didn't get enough sales out of that. So they cut off our recording contract. They didn't think 'Oh Procol Harum, you know they're good for five albums, they'll get better and better. They don't think like that these days. It's like, 'If you put so much into an album, and you don't get it back, then let's move on to something else.' That's not music to me.

Holding On ... anti-fundamentalist song ...

Ah, I think Keith again has ... in Holding On conjured up imagery. Actually we recorded that and he wrote when the Gulf War was on ... I think you know references to deserts and idolatry and religious conflicts – contrary to what they should be, in that religion ought to be teaching us what is good ... we ought to appreciating what is good – what was coming out of it was war. And I suppose it's a little bit of an anti-war song.

And that's how it ends!

More of this four-part interview

Gary presents his own choice of music on the same radio station

The German text of the broadcast based on this interview

Visit Steffen Graefe's website (English version) or mail him

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