Procol Harum

the Pale

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Surrealists of Rock : part 3

Steffen Graefe interviews Gary Brooker, 1999

I think Fisher leaves in 1968? ...

No, he didn't! (Coffee cups rattle; pause) I am probably saying ... you have got too much information here, probably, Steffen, haven't you?

No it's okay... for me ... starting is the most important time ... it was a big explosion of success

So it was important, yes.

Quite Rightly So was the next song?

Eh ... yes I mean ... well we then made our second album, Shine on Brightly.

And this was really like a symphony.

Well ... eh ... I mean I think that we'd ... we suddenly thought actually from going ... from writing these songs that nobody wanted to know ... we have actually ... now everybody wants to know about our songs; they've suddenly found a way in. A Whiter Shade of Pale kind of unlocked the door. And so now really anything is possible. And we immediately set about involving everybody else in the band, kind of thing, more. And Matthew ... Keith and I said, 'Let's write something with Matthew'. We wanted to do what we call a great work. Something longer, more substantial than just your three or four minute ... song. And so we pieced together and thought carefully and made ... we never called it a suite, we never called it anything. We always used to just call it The Great Work. And we were going to call it O Magnum Harum but then pretentiousness was always a great fear. So we called it what we called it, In Held 'Twas in I which was a riddle and that was very, very popular in America but it was eighteen minutes long. They used to play it on the radio there, all the time, it's when the DJs put the record on and went out to get a cup of tea (laughter)

Bigger in the USA ...

Yea I think they ... they were certainly more open to it. I think they ... the media was ahead there. They had FM stations where you could hear Procol Harum, Ravi Shankar, I am the Walrus ... you know a great mass of ... or a piece of Bach or they would ... everybody was suddenly listening to music in a broader sense rather than focussed on to a certain type ... you know. The FM stations were broadcasting good quality stereo were ruling ... that was where life came from. That hadn't happened in Europe. So, here they're still looking for the hit single still . And really the hit single off of Shine on Brightly was probably Shine on Brightly. That was the one that today is like a hit when we play it ...

But Quite Rightly So ... in the charts

Quite Rightly So ... yes ... when Quite Rightly So came out, that's a fine song and, yea that was the one that got released and that was the one that was in the charts. But again from our point of view it was just one of our songs, no worse or better than any of the other ones.

And the psychedelic influence of the late 60s...

Oh, I mean, quite a lot.

Can you describe this atmosphere?

If you can remember it, you weren't there, that's what they always say.

To give you a imagination I remember I have been fourteen at that time ... it was an explosion of creativity ...

Absolutely. It was ...

The music now in the radio charts is not very different from five years ago ...

Yeah. It was ... I mean it was very hard to pin down because I had to find a lot of music from 1968 a few weeks ago, for an anniversary, and I couldn't really find anything. I couldn't really find what the ... there wasn't a style, it was all sorts of things. I would agree with you, yes there was an explosion of creativity, an explosion of ideas amongst rock musicians and artists and lighting people and everybody was involved in it. People were very much doing their own thing. People were making clothes, that weren't trained tailors or anything. They just thought 'I can make clothes' and people liked them and they made clothes. And everybody was doing that sort of thing and everybody was very interested in art and music ... all sorts of music. I mean we ... great explosion of interest in art in the way ... specially the ones that seem to flow with lines like Aubrey Beardsley. Some of the reason Toulouse Lautrec ... you know like poster revolution that came along and people also looking at other posters - stuff that had been done that fitted in with the way your mind was. People had started thinking about Buddha and religion and 'why are we all here' and all these things were going on. There was a great interest, lots of discussion.

In your songs a little bit of fin de siècle atmosphere in the lyrics of Keith Reid

A little of who?

Fin de siècle, Romanticism, symbolism ... are you and Keith influenced by symbolism?

By symbolism, I should think so. Yeah I think that a lot of Keith's lyrics have symbols in them. Have images. I mean I see certain things cropping up many times: the clock, the sword. You know whenever there is a sword in something, it probably ... I don't know what it represents, I never worry too much. But to me ... I did ... it usually represents some sort of ... man's aggression. But then sometimes it is his valour, it is his courage. And just the one mention of that word in the song, and the sword -- and it means all of those things. And the clock is another thing. It's not just a thing which tells us the time. It's things moving.

Have you been a political ... You were not so politically involved as John Lennon, for example ... what was your position at that time ... against the Establishment?

We didn't ... we didn't find the need to have to say that, I don't think. I don't think we ever made a strictly political song. I think that there were many comments in the songs which more concerned ... you know kind of ... greed and things like that. You know, man's mismanagement of ... of people. But not specifically rich cats and poor ... poor cats. It was more a general thing that ... I mean really when it comes to most of our lyrics is that if you want to help yourself it comes ... it's from within.

So for you ... the change of the consciousness .. the inner change was more important than the political change

Oh yea, absolutely yeah.

Can you describe ... Did you try ... with drugs and meditation ... to expand the consciousness, what have you done to do this?

Oh, I didn't have many psychedelic drugs. I had a few. But yeah, as in the atmosphere of that time, we meditated, we experimented ... we all sat in rooms going Ommmmmmmmmmmm. We concentrated ourselves and it changed the atmosphere. We always felt different at the end of the day, you know. It was all fine. But you know the trouble was you had to get up and drive to the next city (laughs).

So it was not so much ...

It was a bit of a reality (laughs).

Okay you have to make many tours but ... it was necessary to relax?

Oh ... I mean everybody was professionals. We were serious about ... I mean. We were professional about our ... well we were just trying to make better records ... you know, make our sounds come out; and there is always the element of chance in it as well ... you know ... we would not ever over-rehearse. We were a very much performance band on stage. And in the studio we didn't have a terribly preconceived idea about how it was going to come out. We just let it go ... just go with the flow.

Shine on Brightly is not an anti-militaristic song?

An anti-militaristic song!

Oh ... .I don't ... .I never thought of it like that. I have actually thought of it as a brain in turmoil, always somebody's mind in complete and utter confusion. Swimming around in some ... you know ... I don't know. I have always thought was about what was one of the lines in it: 'quite insane'.

How you got this glimpses of Nirvana?

Seen through other people's windows?

How you got this idea?

Oh, that was part of In Held 'Twas in I, that was part of our eighteen-minute extravaganza. And of course it started at the beginning and it goes to the end. And I suppose to Procol Harum the beginning is when there was nothing ... a vacuum and the end is where we rise up into the glorious light. And so it starts with Glimpses of Nirvana which is just a basic hum. There was nothing and then something starts. And that's what it does at the beginning - it starts. So ... it's a sort of ... meditation at first, but by the end ... but not the end of Glimpses of Nirvana because that is the beginning, Genesis. By the time we get to the end of In Held 'Twas in I, then we had gone up the Pearly Gates. That was very much a part of the time I think. People were meditating, experimenting. We had the sitar. We had an Indian lady on it playing sitar. I was playing Koto, a Japanese instrument, we had Gregorian chants [sic]. It was very much ... we were talking earlier about world music all coming ... you know influences. Well that's in that. That whole piece has got everything from circus music to ... choral.

The first multi-cultural production ...

Ah, but don't forget lots of people were playing sitars. Rolling Stones had one on Paint it Black, Beatles used sitar. So, we didn't invent having sitar with ... in rock music or in you know contemporary music. But we certainly got a few in there.

So Beatles Sgt Pepper ... influenced ... .

Oh! I think ... influenced everybody because it was such a great record. It was a masterpiece, of song writing and recording.

Well all of those American festivals were ... were great. I mean one nice thing about it was you're seeing lots of different artists and groups playing on the same bill with you, you know on a three-day festival in America in 1968 or 9 you would have seen amazing people (laughs). You just could not get it together now ... the people aren't there. As for an anecdote ... well I remember we played actually one in Palm Springs - Palm Springs Pop Festival and there was lots of girls with no clothes on just walking around ... without any inhibitions whatsoever, and it was okay. It was stunning at first because we're not talking about ... these, some of these were beautiful girls. But you got used to it after a couple of hours. And there were some great bands on, I remember the Allman Brothers band, people like that. When it came to Procol Harum's turn, this guy got up to announce us. It was Timothy Leary, who was a famous character of that time who of course advocated people leaving school and taking drugs. That was his message to people, I think he was -- 'Turn on, tune in, and drop out' was his little sound-bite. And he wore all white robes. Then he came and announced Procol Harum, he didn't say that this time.

Say what?

He didn't say his thing of 'Turn on', (which is smoke dope), 'tune in' (get the vibrations) and 'drop out' (which ... leave school, reject the establishment). That was ... he didn't say that. He said, 'Keep doin' it! Smoke it! Get it on!' And this crowd went 'Weyyyy!' you know like a hundred thousand of them went, and we started up playing, and it was just a great moment.


Shine on Brightly probably. Yea that was our starter. We always started with that.

Boredom ... I like very much this song ...

Oh! I think it's a ... I mean the whole Salty Dog album was a nice collection of ... of ... for the most part, pretty gentle songs. And with Boredom, we had written the song and we didn't really know how it was going to turn out. And in EMI, Abbey Road Studios, they had a room in the corner which had lots of instruments in it, that were always there. And we got the key to this cupboard and pulled everything out and ... Oh, there was xylophones and recorders and percussion instruments and all sorts of stuff. So, we got Robin, got an acoustic guitar out, and we just ... you know ... played the song through, but using all these instruments we found in the cupboard. And er, it was I mean ... it was Boredom. It's really it's a lyrical game ... the words to that. Um it's like 'some say do, some say don't'. It's just like you keep going backwards and forth. It's not boring. It's not boring lyrics. But it's meant to be like boredom. It's like ...

I remember ... 1970 another group had success with Boredom, it was in the chart ...

Oh, was it? Oh. It wasn't Tea and Symphony, was it?

Tea and Symphony ...

Well there you go.

They came in contact with you?

No. I don't know how they ... they just heard and liked it I suppose. Funny enough Steve Cropper from the Stax, you know who used to be in Booker T and the MGs and played the ... was the guitarist: I met him some years ago, and he said, he'd made a recording of that. I never got around to hearing it, but ...

Well, I mean with, on the album Salty Dog, one of the ... A Salty Dog, the song A Salty Dog, I thought that ... we had a great deal of trouble that, there wasn't, didn't seem to be too much for anybody to play on it. It was okay on the piano but you know it wasn't really a spot for a guitar on it at all. And it was very difficult to know what the instrumentation could be for us. And I thought we'll get some outside ... we'll do ... we'll get a little string orchestra and do it with that. And because Mathew Fisher was by now producing the band, the organist was our producer, and he said "Good idea Gary." So I had to go out and learn a few things very quickly. When we toured with the Bee Gees in Germany, I had met the viola player, a very nice man, Victor, and I contacted Victor and said 'I want to write this string arrangement for this song.' And he just told me where different string instruments sounded good, their ranges, you know, for viola, violins and the 'cellos etcetera. And so I wrote out what I thought would be the right thing and he looked at it and said, 'Well that'll work.' He said, 'I'll put the orchestra together,' and he got all these leaders from different orchestras and we thought ... you know it was about twenty, and they were all fine players, and in fact I said, 'I'll conduct them.' So, I got in the studio and went '1, 2, 3 oomph,' ... and they were late! I said, 'Let's try it again please. 1, 2, 3, oomph!' and they were still late. I suddenly realized, 'There's something different about this!' and in the end they said, 'Why don't you just let us play? (laughs) and I said, 'Okay.' So, they played it just along with it all, and it worked fine. And that led on ... because of that and also In Held 'Twas in I in the end I orchestrated for a big orchestra and choir and suddenly we had these ... this material and we in fact played once with an orchestra in Canada. Somebody saw that, and said, The Edmonton Symphony would like you to come and play it there. So we went and played and right at the last minute, we thought, 'Let's get some recording machines because we don't do this very often. And it might be a good opportunity.' And it just about came out okay, you know. Very difficult to record it. And, er, lo and behold, it was a big hit.

Yeah, we had personnel change around then, that Robin Trower, after Broken Barricades, left. Robin of course I've been playing with us since we were at school. But you know sometimes, things are for the best. And you move on. In fact I don't think we ever would have played with the Edmonton Symphony orchestra if Robin hadn't left because he didn't like that sort of thing at all. Strictly a loud, you know, big powerful guitar. But I thought he was very orchestral in the way he played, but there we are. So, Grand Hotel was an opportunity to make a better quality studio album. Technology have [sic] gone on a long way. We used a little bit of orchestra because so far we have only made it really a live album with an orchestra. So, we used an orchestra a little bit. I remember when we were making it, we thought, 'That's the end of this for now. We'll make a sort of ... a grand ... a grand recording.' I think it was a good ... good group of songs on Grand Hotel. And ... actually ... was the first time that we, I think, cracked Europe with an album.

''Cracked' means?

It means 'were successful'. We finally broke through and it was a very popular ... it was like a gold album ... even in the UK it was, in our home. It was particularly popular in Europe because it was kind of a European album. It wasn't very Americanised.

In which way, can you explain how?

I can't really explain. It's just in the listening. It's just more European than it is American. In fact, the contrary of that of course is that it was not as successful in America than some of our other albums. But it was more successful in Europe. And we, after that point, concentrated more on ... on Europe ... had started doing a lot of tours here. Eh ... once we'd finished Grand Hotel and it was out and we'd done the tours and everything, we then thought, 'Well let's make an album that is a bit more ...' suddenly we wanted to be just five people again ... you know, be a rock band. And so we made Exotic Birds and Fruit which was much more ... you know ... noisy. Again, I think, we got a good collection of songs ... and that ... you know, it all worked. You know every time you make an album, you've got a lot of new stuff to play on stage. In fact you are always expanding because you've still got the first album you can play, the second album, third album, and when you get up to sort of eight or nine, you've got a lot of songs. You know, you are talking eighty / ninety songs that you can choose to play from.

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