Procol Harum

the Pale

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Procol Harum: first write the songs, then form the band

Chris Heim in Chicago Tribune, 27 September 1991

In the normal sequence of rock events, some folks who play instruments get together and form a band and eventually, if things go well and they have a bit of talent, begin writing their own material. In other words, first the band, then the songs. It’s a simple enough formula, but Procol Harum got it backwards not once but twice.

The first time was in 1966 when Gary Brooker, who had been playing in an R&B cover band called the Paramounts, was introduced to a budding lyricist named Keith Reid. The two started writing songs together and then, with a loose group of players, Brooker wandered into the studio the next year to cut a few songs. Much to everyone’s surprise, a single released from that session, A Whiter Shade of Pale, sold more than 2.5 million copies in just a few weeks, and suddenly there was enormous interest in a “band” that didn’t really quite exist. A quick bit of musical chairs followed, as guitarist Robin Trower and drummer BJ Wilson (both from the Paramounts) were brought in to assist the lineup of Brooker, organist Matthew Fisher and bassist David Knights from that first session. The new crew then went in and recorded, mixed and released an entire début album in all of about a week and a half.

“Yes,” says Keith Reid with a faint chuckle. “That sounds about right. That wasn’t intentional. A Whiter Shade of Pale was a hit so quickly that suddenly there was this great demand for an album. I think that I can remember we cut five tracks in one day. I just don’t think there was any overdubbing at all; I think it was virtually totally live. In retrospect, perhaps we should have spent more time. The songs were all written, so that wasn’t a problem. But I think perhaps we should have spent more time on actually making the record. But there you are. When everybody’s shouting for a record, you get on with it.”

For a time, the story then follows a more conventional pattern. Procol Harum released nine more albums (including the Fisher-produced A Salty Dog; Live in Concert With the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, the band’s most successful release; Grand Hotel; Procol’s Ninth; and finally, Something Magic). On 15 May 1977 — ten years to the day after A Whiter Shade of Pale was released — Procol Harum called it quits after a performance in New York City. That is, until Brooker and Reid decided to do it all again — backwards — more than a decade later.

“I’ve been living in New York for about five years, and a couple of years ago I got a 'phone call from Gary,” Reid explains. “He said, ‘What about getting together and writing some songs and making a Procol Harum album?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’ll tell you what. Get on a 'plane and come to New York and let’s see if we can write some worthwhile songs.’ So he got on a 'plane and came to New York a few days later and we spent about ten days woodshedding and working on tunes. We had a lot of fun, and we came up with some good stuff. Then I went over to England, and we called up Matthew Fisher, our old organ player, and got together with him and wrote some songs and they turned out well. Eventually we started to feel we really had some worthwhile stuff, so let’s maybe go ahead and make a record.”

Trower, who left the band in 1971 (first to join the group Jude and then to score solo successes with moody, Hendrixian albums like Bridge of Sighs, For Earth Below and Long Misty Days) was recruited again, along with bassist Dave Bronze and former Big Country drummer Mark Brzezicki (original drummer BJ Wilson, to whom the band’s new album is dedicated, died in 1989). Reid continues in his usual / unusual role — a key member who does not play an instrument, record (though he does help produce) or tour with the band.

“It doesn’t seem so strange insomuch as Gary and I originally worked together as songwriters and formed the band as an extension of our writing,” Reid remarks. “When we decided to make this new record, we didn’t re-form the band. We got together and wrote a bunch of songs. We started to seriously think about re-forming the band and doing a record after we’d written a load of songs. It’s always been the songs first.

“And I write the words first and then they get set to music. In fact, really, the starting point of a lot of all this stuff is me anyway. I get together a bunch of words and song ideas and usually pretty much fully written lyrics and then hand them over to Gary. And usually I get together with him while he’s working on the music for the songs. It’s fairly rare that he would have the thing totally written. So I’m kind of in there all the time.”

Procol Harum recently released its new album, The Prodigal Stranger, and is now on a short North American tour. (The band plays the Vic [Theater] Tuesday.) The new Procol Harum is a straighter, sleeker outfit. Much of the material on Stranger is in a pop / R&B vein, something closer to, say, a recent Steve Winwood album than the surreal, cerebral, classically influenced old Procol Harum sound.

“I think the stuff on this new album is a bit simpler than some of the stuff in the past,” says Reid. “Personally, I feel I’m a much better songwriter now than I ever used to be. I think I only learned to be a songwriter, a proper songwriter, in the last five years or so, really, because I took a break from it for a while and then I also got involved in working with other people. I don’t think I used to feel that I was a songwriter before. I felt that I wrote for Procol Harum and that was it. Now I’m a real songwriter. I think [the new songs] are better. I think I’ve managed to make the stuff more accessible without losing the depth and the content. I think I’m better at making myself understood. Some of the old stuff was quite obscure, really.”

Typed by 'the triply-named Pam Miller Chwedyk' – thanks!

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