Procol Harum

the Pale

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The Return of Procol Harum

Hans Piët in UIT, 31 October 1991

Many thanks to Fred Schröter who found, and translated, this article for 'Beyond the Pale': UIT is a supplement of a Dutch paper issued in The Hague, the Haagse Courant. UIT publishes the weekly programmes of the theatres. This interview could be seen as an advertisement for PH's new record, and the then-forthcoming concert at Utrecht.

Gary Brooker composes the music for a Laura Dean ballet ... 'I cannot afford to be lazy' ...

"To me Kate Bush is a talent that you have to cherish ... and she’s so sweet.

A short while ago she invited me to play on her new album, which she is recording now in her home studio. She called me and asked if I wanted to come and play Hammond-organ on one of her compositions. Of course! I did not tell her that Matthew Fisher always played the organ parts of Procol Harum music. I would be nuts; I won’t let such an invitation slip away and of course I did my utmost.

Originally I would only play on one number, but eventually it became three." says Gary Brooker, who celebrates his return to the recording industry with a new Procol Harum album The Prodigal Stranger, the first one in almost fourteen years.

Gary, who got together his old mates Matthew Fisher, Robin Trower and Keith Reid for this project, says: "I should have very much liked to play again with BJ Wilson, but he died last year after a long illness. He had been in a coma for three years and did not wake up again. In his place we invited former Big Country drummer Mark Brzezicki, a man with an enormous love for drumming. He knows his instrument inside out.

If I look back on the last two years I have the idea that we are better organised now, know better what you can and cannot do in the recording studio. A record is no longer a question of months. Earlier on we needed three days of studio-time for the drum sound only for each number we recorded. Now it can be done quicker, which improves the spontaneity. Besides, Prodigal Stranger is the product of a number of people that had the urge to record a new Procol Harum album, but at the same time doubted whether it would work.

First I flew to Keith Reid (lyricist) in New York and we started to work. Keith (with whom Brooker has collaborated since the sixties) is one of the best lyricists in rock-history.

He knows like no other how to put human feeling and daily events into a song form. His work has to be sung for he is not a poet at all. As a singer and a composer I feel at home with these lyrics. Sitting behind the mike I can interpret them quite easily. What is more, his work has so much of an atmosphere, that as a composer I get the music presented through his texts.

It seldom happens that I write music and ask him to write the lyrics to go with it. On this record it only happened once. Holding On emerged in this way and was only put on the album, because I thought there was not any track that was suitable for airplay on the radio. Of course, afterwards it turned out to be nonsense.

Waste Bin
With this record we went very carefully. Each time after a recording session we played the recorded material to others, like our friends and people in the recording industry and if there was a track nobody talked about it ended up in the waste bin. To me that is the most significant difference between Procol Harum then and now. We make no compromises, what is not good enough is dropped.

It means, of course, that we wrote an enormous amount of numbers; even on the last recording day Keith came up with material.

Compositions that did not make it have disappeared forever. Sometimes I had to part with pain in my heart, although from all this material there exists a first version somewhere."

Gary Brooker got the idea to put new life into Procol Harum in October 1989.

"I called Keith Reid and asked if he would like to work together with that idea in mind. He just said: "Come down to New York". That is what I did. We were in no hurry, except that we would make this a well-considered product.

I also accepted the challenge to write ballet-music for the American choreographer Laura Dean. In the end it turned out to be a rather amusing project, but when I phoned her for the first time I was not sure about that.

To me ballet is Swan Lake or Nutcracker, a dance with a story, but when I had her on the phone she said: "But Gary, did no-one explain to you that I don't work with characters? I want to base my dance on a driven rhythm of twenty-five minutes or so."

That was hard to swallow. I had to go by my own fantasy. The only thing I knew was that it concerned a group of eight men and women.

I wrote a musical piece that not only had the rhythm asked for, but also a melody, that would give their dance an emotional context. The public and reviewers were overwhelmingly enthusiastic. Now we have to hope that the rest of the world can see it some time. The choreography was for the Royal Danish Ballet and especially meant for pushing the company into a new direction. After two and a half centuries the artistic director wanted something different from the classical pieces danced over and over. It really has become minimal art, especially when you take my contribution into account. I am greatly satisfied with it, so much that I am thinking of making a record of it.

A great honour
"Why they have asked me I don't know, but I didn't hesitate. If you have been a musician for all your life and write music, then you cannot refuse if the artistic director of the Royal Danish Ballet calls. Apart from that it is a great honour, it is also a great challenge. Something completely different from composing a rock song. Moreover, I am now a real composer and no longer a writer, piano-player or member of a pop group. (Laughing) How do you think it will appear seeing on my card: Gary Brooker: Composer..."

"What I have learned especially during this last period is that I need the big stick to get to work and I only make an effort when there is light shining at the end of the tunnel. I have a friend who is a dancer. She once said to me: "Shall we make a ballet together?" The first question I asked was, "Will it be performed?"

Ideas are too valuable to waste them, tomorrow I may have dried up. I have learned my lesson. Two or three times I have composed film music, used good ideas for that which at the last moment ended up in the waste bin, thanks to the director.

Composing film-music is a soul-destroying occupation, in which I don't like to get involved, in spite of the fact that you can make a decent living in that line of work.

Producers rely more and more on pop artists in the last few years. Take Mark Knopfler. They think: if we use a big name and the title song becomes a hit, it helps to sell the movie."

"I don't do anything unless the result is in sight, like with Procol Harum. We enjoyed making this first new record so much, that we are thinking of a second. But we are no longer in a hurry [sic].

Before it was different, then we were more or less victims of circumstance. We released a record, went on an endless tour and if we came home tired, the record company told us: we reserved studio time for you, you've got four weeks to write the songs. Six weeks later the next record was finished. I don't want that anymore; it is not that we produced bad material because of time pressure, but I want to do things calmly, take a little more time. The positive influence from Procol Harum is that I am forced to work.

This is my main handicap: I have no self-discipline. That is why my solo projects took longer each time. It will be finished, but with a lot of effort. Now there is the pressure of the other members. Keith may call with the question when will I be there or Matthew can come by with an idea that needs to be elaborated on. I cannot afford to be lazy. Besides, I have a different view on the industry. The pressure has changed. What counts is the artistic goal. And if you become older, other matters take their toll. I have a mortgage that needs to be paid, but also a wife and a liquor cabinet that needs to be taken care of.

Apart from that there is a burning desire in me to be number one, not with a single but with an album. I want Procol Harum accepted in the whole world as a group that stands for quality.

I think that The Prodigal Stranger can contribute to a better world, simply for the reason that the listener can have a lot of fun and will invent something new in it again and again."

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