Procol Harum

the Pale

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Surrealists of Rock : part 2

Steffen Graefe interviews Gary Brooker, 1999

Steffen Graefe
Tell me something about the character at that time of Keith Reid.

Gary Brooker
Very, very quiet person. Very enthusiastic about the project, by now, but a very, very quiet person who pretty much kept to himself. I didn't know where he lived. Never seen him with anybody else. He just always appeared, just tumbled from the sky and I didn't know any more about him than that. But I liked him. He was a very nice person but very quiet, but a lot of drive ... a lot of enthusiasm.

Was this after the origin of A Whiter Shade of Pale? How you got the name, Procol Harum?

Well we kind of started finding our musicians. It gradually came together. We started looking for people in about January 1967.

With announcement?

Yea we did advertisements in Melody Maker: we also answered advertisements in the Melody Maker. One of our best finds was one we got from the Melody Maker saying 'Hammond organist requires work'. And we went to see this Hammond organist that required work, in Croydon, Keith and I went. By now er had ... I had put some of these songs on to ... to demos. Just piano and voice. So, we went down to Croydon and met Mathew Fisher who really did have a Hammond organ. I was quite surprised because he ... he really knew his music. He wasn't just a rock and rolling ... dirt-bag or anything. You know, talking to him, he had been to the Royal College of Organists but he'd ... he also had been playing with Screaming Lord Sutch! So, he was like ... a good cross, much as I was myself. A cross between the two things, between being kind of trained and having a knowledge, and also loving a bit of rock and roll. We played him the demos and he was fascinated. Musically speaking, he was fascinated. And I mean ... and he's told me since that when he first heard ... in fact Salad Days was one ... one of the songs which he was particularly impressed with. And that song made him think that, 'Oh, I'll join this group. Have a go.'

And then ... the name?

Yea ... Guy, now ... we were forming our band. We were learning our songs and Guy phoned up one day where we were rehearsing and he said, "I found a name for the group." And we said, "What's that?" And he said, "Procol Harum." We said ... "Well that's ... okay ... where d'you get that?" He said, "Well I'm sitting round Bob's, here, and he's got this ... kind of ... nice cat, Burmese cat and its name is Procol Harum." "So ... that's a funny name for a cat." Well he said, "It's its pedigree name, you know on its certificate." We said, well, we liked it. We probably didn't say "Yes" then, I can't really remember. But I think that we found the name to be rather ambiguous in its ... certainly ambiguous, we didn't know what the hell it meant ... and we weren't sure what our music meant. And other people certainly weren't. That's why nobody ever covered any of our songs (laughs). And so we accepted the name and we adopted it, and we then became Procol Harum. I think a few week later ... we'd made a demo of some of our songs with full band by now and A Whiter Shade of Pale was one of those. And I took it around a few contacts in the industry. Somebody said, 'It's too long ... it's too slow ... what does it mean? It will never do anything ... ' And finally the place that we had signed up with, our writing publishers, they heard it and said, 'Well we'll record it independently.' So Denny Cordell took us all in the studio and we made Whiter Shade of Pale one day and about ... it came out very quickly. I think it was out in the shops four weeks after we made it and three weeks after that ... we were No. 1 around the world (laughs)

How do you explain??

It's a supreme example of a record just capturing people's ... imagination. People could not imagine not having that to be able to listen to it. They had to have it. I saw signs in shops in London saying, 'Yes we've got it.' I thought, 'what are they ... ' Then I realized in the end that they were talking about this record that we had just made. 'Yes we've got it' in big letters in the windows. 'It's here'. And it didn't just happen in Britain, that was the extraordinary thing. It happened all around the world. No publicity. Nobody knew who it was. I can't account for it. Except for some reason, it touched people.

Well Keith Reid ... I mean Keith Reid, I think, is one of the finest lyricists that there's been. And he is very often sparked off by just an expression. I mean just going someth ... I said to him, 'Conquistador, that's a nice word'. And he wrote, in the end a whole song on it, just because I said to him, 'Conquistador'. But he did hear the exp ... he did overhear a girl saying or somebody saying that they'd turned a whiter shade of pale. We don't know who this genius was. But I think Keith is more the genius for having realized ... well ... or just it sparked something. Of course it's ... it's the wrong way around. Whoever was saying this didn't mean that. What they meant was that this girl had turned 'a paler shade of white'. She was more white ... you know, she wasn't well ... was feeling a bit strange. So, she actually was more white than normal which would be 'a paler shade of white'. But it got turned around the other way.

And also ... if you go to Homburg ... the time is flowing away ... has it got to do something about the mystical approach ...

Ah ... I mean I think there is ... I think it's supreme imagery. I mean that line you just read conjures up so much. I mean it's a bit Salvador Dali .... in some way, isn't it, if you think of it? This clock with the hands going each in the opposite direction, until they meet and devout. You know that conjures up all sorts of thoughts to me. The world, you know ... the world could just implode and disappear. So ... I mean that's just one line from one song. And yet it's so much imagery in it that ... I mean with Whiter Shade of Pale still today people say, 'Well what does it mean?' This is a record that was number one all round the world for a long time and yet people didn't even know what it meant.

Yea perhaps ...

I mean that ... the only conclusion you can come to after many years of refl ... well I haven't really reflected on it ... I mean it's still loved by many people. People get buried to it now. They used to get married to it (laughs). A lot of young kids still get married and they'll have that there. I know people also do get buried to it. But the great thing is, I think, that it's a mystery.

That is perhaps always a part of fascination..

Well at that time when we were starting this, I did have a little prayer. And I said, 'Please God make this work. I will never ask for anything else.'

A prayer ...

I do. yea ... 'Dear God please make this work. I will never ask you for anything else.' Maybe He heard me.

Can you tell ... Summer of 67 ...

Well it was chaotic. We were really ill-prepared for international stardom. We had to quickly go out and buy clothes. We soon found out that the drummer and guitarist that we had weren't of the right style ... to put it ... kindly. And so we had to find ... in fact what happened is two of The Paramounts replaced them, they came and worked out ... and I suppose I thought, 'This is great, they like my music' and in fact they probably liked joining a group that was No. 1 (laughter). And that is while A Whiter Shade of Pale was actually at No. 1 in Britain. And it caused us a bit of bad press. People suddenly said 'Oh we're just a session group and anyway Bach wrote it.' Well that's what they were saying ... Bach - Johann Sebastian. People thought it was a Bach stolen or an adaption [sic]of a Bach piece but it wasn't. It was just our intention for it to sound like that. And ... but we rallied and got ourselves together and we recorded our first album and we went out touring. We come out to ... you know in the Summer of '67 we played mostly around Europe ... Britain, Germany, Scandinavia and Switzerland, and you know ... all around Europe ... France, everywhere. And then by about I think October we had been asked to go over to America and we played over there for about three weeks. That was a different world. In fact Whiter Shade of Pale only got to No. 5 there. I think they were a bit confused because they thought it was a black group. The American people thought that it was ... like black singers. And then they found out that it was these English white boys and I think it all got a bit confused; but when we got there the interesting thing for us was that our album had come out and they really liked our album. Whiter Shade of Pale was okay. They actually liked Repent Walpurgis and Christmas Camel and ... they liked everything on it actually, which in America was ... I mean we hadn't really thought too much about an album. It wasn't big album time in mid-1967. It was just kind of starting.

Starting?? Sgt Pepper ?

Well of course the Beatles were an exception really because the Beatles did make albums. I mean Revolver was an album. I mean... yeah and Rubber Soul was an album but it wasn't ... nobody else was really doing it. So that really ... you know we came back to England and in England you know it was like we're the session group that stole some Bach and had a bit of luck. In America we were a substantial band that had made an album with twelve [sic] great songs on it.

And this album was published first ...

No. I think it came out the year I say, before it came out in Britain actually. But it's a long time ago. Can't really remember ...

Homburg was the next success...

Well that was ... yeah ... that was during the summer in Europe and that was of course ... everybody was very, very anxious now to find out what our follow-up would be. And we didn't have any problem with it. We just wrote another song. And it was as good as Whiter Shade of Pale as far as we were concerned songwise, lyricwise, performance. Um but people really ... . I mean it was very well liked, Homburg, and has lasted. You know it's very well liked today. There's a lot of people who like to say, 'I like Homburg much better than Whiter Shade of Pale'. They're kind of, in their own minds they are kind of appreciating perhaps how difficult a record that was to follow up. But we didn't have any angst about it. We just went in and made one and got on with the next thing. You know which by the time when we ... by the end of 1967, we were already writing our next album, and thinking what we were going to do for that. Because that was different. All these songs so far had really been written before Procol Harum was like ... became a band and was known to anybody: it was Keith Reid and Gary Brooker's songs. By the end of 1967, we were having to actually make now a Procol Harum album which was ... gave us a lot more scope.

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