Procol Harum

the Pale

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Procol Harum: Shining on Brightly

John Mendelson in Crawdaddy!, 1969

Judging from Franky Brooker's scrapbook, lately (2011) lent to 'Beyond the Pale', this excellent interview was published in UCLA's Daily Bruin, 23 April 1969, under the title 'Will Excess Spoil Procol Harum?'. It was illustrated with five photographs by Ron Reinberg, which we have now added to the page. Perhaps someone can write in and explain how the article came to appear in Crawdaddy! later on?

Gary Brooker, a young Englishman who looks like what David Hemmings would look like if David Hemmings were stocky, brunette and had a moustache, was sprawled on a dishevelled bed in room 1122 of a garishly posh hotel on Sunset Strip that used to belong to Gene Autry. 'Why is it,' he asked, 'that when Ten Years After plays New York, people as far away as the West Coast go wild, while when we play New York it doesn't go any farther than New Jersey?'

Mused Robin Trower, a blond, blunt-featured Cockney, from the other bed: 'We never seem to follow our reputation. Every place we play we go down well, and yet there's never any furore about us like there is with other English groups.'

Reid and FisherBJ Wilson, who'd spent the previous forty moments alternately grinning broadly and pulling the tobacco out of the ends of Camel cigarettes, noted, 'Like, in every paper I see there's a huge article on Led Zeppelin. They already have this gigantic underground following. And we've had three albums and nobody even notices us.'

Matthew Fisher sat boredly cleaning his fingernails and David Knights looked, as usual, as if he were on the verge of speaking (which he never, ever, does), while Keith Reid concluded, 'It's as if we don't exist, as if we're a figment of everybody's imagination. It seems that we constantly have to prove that we're a group, that we're together, that we play live. People don't seem to think of us as a working rock & roll band.'

'I hope,' I told Procol Harum, 'that this interview helps to change all that.'

I suppose I'm expected to preface the selections from our conversation – nothing to do with their music – and give you only a so-rough-as-to-be-misleading idea of them as people. Perhaps it will be enough to say that Procol Harum began when Brooker wrote music for a packet of Reid poems and then recorded some impressive demos of the resulting songs with friends and fellow members of Sandie Shaw's backing group, the Paramounts [sic], that one of these songs, A Whiter Shade of Pale, went on to sell an incredible number of records worldwide and make the thrown-together-and-subsequently reassembled group a major sensation in the happy, exciting rock and roll days of mid-1967, and that since then they have released three albums and at least four singles that have, despite their general excellence, been ignored by horrifyingly large numbers of people.

There were a couple of reasons why I was a bit hesitant about interviewing Procol Harum. In the first place, they had, apparently through months of devoted practice, compiled a reputation as surly, brutish, hostile, contemptuous and boorishly self-conscious artists. Secondly, I doubted my ability to ask a number of important questions – questions intended to be answered in such a way that the truth or falsity of the attributions to them of false spirituality, and of gratuitously using little snatches of the classics and Dylan for want of their own ideas, pretentiousness, and an inflated sense of their own importance various critics, ghouls, and other meanies had been known to make – without sounding accusatory, and thus offensive.

My apprehension of the first count was only partially justified – Brooker, BJ, and Reid (who rumour held to be the most incorrigible ogre alive, let alone in the group) were candid and co-operative, if not overly-enthusiastic. Knights proved an excellent listener. Only Fisher and Trower seemed to insist that, my long hair and buckskin notwithstanding, I was of-the-press and therefore worthy only of mild, subvert contempt.

Not someone who ever played in Procol HarumAs for the second count, the group seemed too secure to find my questions accusatory, I think, and you will hopefully see that they acquitted themselves convincingly.

Brooker's singing is utterly incredible. He is the only white rock singer in memory who shares Stevie Winwood's facility for sounding quite naturally black without the slightest noticeable strain. And, like Winwood's, his voice knows no upper bounds, is capable of reaching a full searing octave above the last note you'd expect it to be able to hit comfortably. [Is this why there's a picture of Steve Winwood in the UCLA Bruin article?]

All of which gave me a nice safe place to start – I asked him about the evolution of and inspiration for his singing, to which he replied in an accent you'd never in a million years think the natural one of the voice on Procol Harum records, 'Nowadays I think that I've begun to sing the same way that I talk, except without the mid-Atlantic accent. I've never tried to put a false tone to my singing. It's just that up until recently all the best singers I heard happened to be Negroes – Benny [sic] King and the Coasters and so on. What I sing like now has evolved over a period of years during which I tried to sound like several people, to copy them. I've always been a great Ray Charles fan, and I guess it could be said that he's been my major influence.' We next discussed their first two albums, Procol Harum (Deram DES 18008) and Shine On Brightly (A&M SP 4151), their dissatisfaction with which they've seldom gone out of their way to conceal, especially since becoming self-produced. Brooker thinks that their previous producer brought a minimum of concern and enthusiasm into the studio with him, and Reid explained how they had come under Denny Cordell's wing in the first place 'It was just one of those things that Cordell had had got us. A mistake really. We had originally taken some demos to a publishing company, Essex Music. The publisher liked them and played them for Cordell, who listened and decided he wanted to produce us, which is how we wound up with him. It was never a matter of any great admiration on our part for the producing talents of Denny Cordell.'

I asked Fisher, who produced the third album (A Salty Dog, A&M SP 4179) how his approach differed from Cordell's. 'It's difficult to say really – a producer who's also part of the group can function very differently from one who's outside the group,. He did as much as a producer who isn't actually part of the group could do, which was to try to give our ideas some direction. Being a part of the group I was in a much better position to help things frilling from within.'

Wilson and TrowerAttempting to elicit their feelings on the allegation made by various prominent thickheads that Procol Harum is but an imitation of The Band from Big Pink, I asked Brooker who he thought his group moist resembled. 'We don't really classify ourselves that way. Like I don't see us as the same thing as John Mayall or the same thing as the Grateful Dead. I don't see us as the same thing as anybody really.'

People say that we and The Band have been influenced by one another, which isn't true. I can see though, that people might see similarities. Like both groups have the same line-up and there are people in both groups who have the same sort of feel about them.' (see here!)

At the mention of the Big Pink controversy Reid entered the discussion. 'I think all that was the result of a great misfortune, the liner notes on the Shine on Brightly album (written by Paul Williams, they read in part, 'Have you noticed how much the first Procol album influenced Music from Big Pink') which we had absolutely nothing to do with. They told us we'd have liner notes, but we didn't even see them before the album came out.

'I think that's the reason for the bad review Rolling Stone gave to the album. The guy was apparently very offended by something we'd had nothing to do with. A lot of things happen like that. People get completely wrong impressions of a group because of the things that have nothing to do with the music.'

Wilson and BrookerI suspected the moment propitious for asking a question that would hopefully reveal the truth or falseness of the Procol Harum As Overly Self-Conscious Artists rumors. Proceeding cautiously, I asked them if they considered their medium a serious / exalted art form. If they're the super-defensive snobs some have accused them of being, they do a good job of keeping it quiet in responding to such questions.

Reid: 'We take what we do as seriously as any creator does. I do think, though, that people do try to elevate a lot of unworthy things to the level of Art.'

Trower: 'A lot of people are producing pop music just because it's such easy money. It's as if pop music has taken over from boxing.'

Brooker: 'Certainly some parts of rock and roll are artistic. I think the writing of a song is artistic, that the improvisation of a solo is artistic. It's when you try to make it into a record or perform it on stage that it becomes, instead of art, more an invention, a commercial thing.'

Reid: 'What makes it all so confusing is the public's inability to deal with art. It becomes a question of success really. You see so many people who are just so much rubbish becoming as successful as somebody who's great.'

Fisher: 'The people who leave rock not because it's not artistically satisfying, but because it's not as stable as other forms [sic]. Like Presley, who quit to become a film star.'

Further attesting to the ridiculousness of the allegations that Procol Harum's scene is essentially to come on very cerebral and spiritual was Trower's description of the Procol audience: 'They jump and bop about, they're affected physically. We hate to see an audience just sitting there on its hands. That's why on stage we do mostly our rockers. If the audience bops we bop. Our stage presence is just a response to the mood of the audience.'

Reid's lyrics are as inaccessibly personal as any in contemporary rock, which makes a lot of people furious. One friend of mine, in fact, suspects that Reid writes 'with a Thesaurus in one hand and a mythology reader in his lap.' I got Reid to talk about that of which he is most frequently accused, pretension, and his remarks should change the minds of those who accuse him of attempting to exempt himself from such considerations 'My greatest fear is pretension, which to me is the worst sin of all. I'm always worried that what I write may seem pretentious, and that's the only judgment I try to make of myself. What I said in the opening part of In Held 'Twas In I' (an eighteen-minute collage piece on their second album) is true – when I say or write something pretentious I do cringe with embarrassment.'

Brooker, PA, and KnightsI consider Reid's lyrics to be one of the most interesting things about the music of Procol Harum, and I succeeded in encouraging him to discuss his life and times as the group's resident poet (his sole function, incidentally, is to write lyrics – he does not perform with the group on stage) 'When I just started out I would look at something I'd written and think that it would be nice turned into a song. Lately I've become aware of the pressures that we've got to do so many songs a year, that so many lyrics have to bc written.

I've usually written my lyrics when I've been unhappy or troubled, which can be any time of the day or night. They just start off from a single line, from three words that I've fit together. For the first song lyric I wrote, Something Following Me, I just had the idea of someone being followed about by his tombstone. Nowadays I just fit some words together and that sets my mind functioning for a whole poem in that particular way. I don't think much about what I'm doing.

'I can't sit down and think out a whole poem before I write it. My writing just has to flow.

'I read that Paul Simon spent six months writing and rewriting The Sounds of Silence.' I simply couldn't do it that way.

'I'm not really annoyed when people ask me the meaning of something I've written – it's just that they're missing the point. It's like looking at a picture or going to the cinema. You needn't ask what the meaning of what a piece of art is [sic] because its meaning is explicit in whatever you intuitively feel that meaning to be.

'Only when I look back at something I've written do all its possible meanings become evident to me.'

As was noted above, critics have often accused Procol Harum of lifting things from the classics in an attempt to endow their own music with a sort of spiritual pomposity. The music for A Whiter Shade of Pale was allegedly borrowed intact from Bach's Sleepers Awake. Parts of the arrangement of The Wreck Of The Hesperus from Wagner's Tannhauser, and the inspiration for the lyrics of A Salty Dog from Jenny the Pirate, a selection in the Three-Penny Opera. I asked each of the defendants if the similarities between the pieces with which I associated them and their classical counterparts was intentional and / or conscious.

Fisher: 'When I wrote The Hesperus I didn't have any orchestration in mind. When I arranged it for the orchestra I included the Wagnerian bit simply because it happened to come into my mind at a time when I was looking for something that fit in that particular place. It just sounded appropriate, so in it went.'

Brooker: 'Pale was really more of an exception than a rule as far as my songwriting goes. It was an attempt to have a guy singing over a background of Bachy-sounding instrumentation. Certainly it wasn't deliberately copied from anything. I'm not even familiar with Sleepers Awake.'

Reid: 'I've heard Jenny the Pirate, but any similarities between it and Salty Dog are unintentional.'

That resolved, we turned our attention to the Salty Dog album. Fisher explained the seemingly incongruous clapping, falsetto-laden tail or Pilgrim's Process: ''I couldn't for the life of me think of a way to end it except for the very obvious way, which would have been to go back to the beginning bit. That would have been anti-climactic. Even before I finished writing the song I had that sort of closing bit in mind for the end. It may look as if it were stuck on as an afterthought, but it wasn't.' Of Juicy John Pink, a very crude twelve-bar blues that I originally thought was a parody, Trower said, 'It's us trying to get a really dirty Muddy Waters type sound. It was recorded in a friend's basement with two old microphones and Gary standing about ten feet away. The name isn't any mysterious English pun – when Keith and I had written it we thought it should be recorded on Blue Horizon and that we'd call the artist Juicy John Pink.' He described his awful singing on Crucifiction Lane' .as an attempt to give the song 'a sort of Otis Redding feel.' Reid's answer to my question of what inspired his many references to sailors and ships and seas throughout the album was, 'I just love nautical vocabulary, which I find so very rich.'

My supply of intelligent questions exhausted, I grabbed for an old standby and asked the group what musical directions they looked forward to exploring.

'I'd like to play some flower music,' replied Brooker, having become bored.

'We're not really moving off in any different directions, but instead attempting to get deeper into what we've been doing,' replied Fisher, solemn and erudite to the last.

Anyway, I went and saw them. perform the evening of the day I interviewed them and left their performance convinced that they are really neither more nor less than an incredibly moving rock and roll band (Brooker's singing, Trower's guitar playing, and BJ's drumming are all indescribably good, right, but that's a subject for another article). Don't let all the silly nonsense you've heard about their being stuffy and pompous and pretentious musically keep you from listening. You'll be missing an awful lot.

Read another fine feature from Crawdaddy!

More about Procol Harum and The Band | See also here

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