Procol Harum

the Pale

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'A Very Fine Closed Shop'

Geoff Whitehorn talks to 'Beyond the Pale'

When (in 1998) 'Beyond the Pale' contacted Geoff Whitehorn in the hope of adding his solo CDs to the list of merchandise available from Shine On, Roland Clare saw his chance to pop the question ...

So, Geoff, can I ask you a few questions now with my 'Beyond the Pale' hat on?

Oh do, do!

Can you start with how you got involved in Procol Harum?

There was a guy who was actually working for the band who was a friend of mine, a bit of a boffin, he actually works with Steve Winwood now: Dave Saunders his name is. He lives in Nashville now, but he'd gone out on the previous Procol tour with Tim [Renwick] and that lot. He's a bit of a MIDI boffin, and he'd worked for me ten years before when I was working with Roger Chapman, and he just put my name forward, as far as I can gather.

You were aware of their work?

Oh God yes: I've got the original albums on vinyl from way back, I was a massive fan, a huge fan.

One of us, from the start!

Obviously you couldn't have missed Shade, could you? I was doing my 'O' levels summer of 1967 ... I was born in London, 29 August 1951, and the family moved out to Kent when I was about two. So I'm not really a Londoner, I suppose. Born but not bred.

Nice to think of the Procol players emerging out of the Thames delta ...

Obviously the whole R&B thing was very big around here, specially in the 60s, the whole Mayall and Clapton thing.

Who were your first influences, as a guitarist?

Ooh, Hank Marvin. Definitely. And then Clapton and then ... everybody.

And you're self-taught?

Definitely. Just the Bert Weedon book like all other guitar players of my generation. That's all there was, really.

You liked Robin Trower, presumably?

Oh fantastic. When I was with Crawler, Paul Kossof's old band ['Back Street Crawler' got apocopated about the time Geoff joined] in the late 70s we did a tour of the States and we used to open for them. Jimmy Dewar and Bill Lordan and all the chaps he had with them, they were great! Though Robin tended to keep with his manager more: I don't think he was drinking then! Whereas the Crawlers, they did it almost as much as the Procols!

Were you surprised he didn't tour with The Prodigal Stranger?

I was. I think he's great, and he played some smashing stuff on there. And I know Jerry Stevenson did a bit.

I saw him at Chiddingfold, with his guitar synthesisers; up to then I'd always thought that was a horrible idea.

The Be Sharp stuff? Jerry's the only man I've ever seen make it work, specially in a three-piece context. But he's a bit of a boffin, you know, he ends up singing and playing the guitar and doing his tap-dancing with all these pedals. Not for the drinking man to take up, that. I did play guitar synth for a bit in a little pub-band that I had and, ooh dear no! Bit like learning to drive again!

What guitar do you play with Procol Harum? 

Usually a Les Paul or a Strat, usually a combination of both. I don't take classic guitars on the road any more than anyone else does these days. There's a guy down here who's done me a couple of absolutely gorgeous Les Paul replicas and I use those. It's very much a part of the early Procol thing. I use a Strat made by a bloke called Tom Anderson in the States, a Strat that works, and they're my sort of all-purpose guitars if you like. 

And your first Procol show?  

The first show I ever did with them, which is quite comical, was the Johnny Carson show in the States, which was right at the end of 1991, sort of Christmas '91. We did Whiter Shade of Pale and we did the single, Truth: that's what we were there for, to promote that. And they insisted on Shade of course.

And then you did the European tour in 1992?

It was absolutely marvellous, one of the nicest tours I've ever done, and that in my opinion was certainly the best, because it was with Bronze and Brzezicki and Fisher.

And that's where the Utrecht recording came out of.

That was a great gig.

Why did we only get two of those tracks?

Don't know, because it's all there: we mixed it all round at Matthew's, the whole gig's there somewhere [it subsequently came out of course]. Bronze and Brzezicki together are so orchestral, they're ideal for Procol, they suit the music perfectly.

And it must be brilliant playing with Matthew Fisher?

Oh splendid (laughs), oh hilarious, he's a nutcase really. He always pretends to be not having fun, he pretends to be a complete misery.

Can I quote that?

Yeah, but emphasis on the pretend. Obviously Matthew's a highly intelligent man and he doesn't suffer fools gladly. And he's such a great player. And when Procol are kind of rehearsing or larking about down the [Brooker's] barn, he will get into playing adverts, and old TV theme tunes, or whatever ... and Matthew and Gary know all this stuff ...

It's all in their heads?

Oh totally, I mean quite apart from every hymn and carol that was ever written, and all bits of classical that pop out, it's hilarious, but semi-comedy versions. Rehearsing and sound-checking with them is always a hoot: we never used to play anything that we were supposed to be playing, we just larked about.

Do they tape these?

No, no no!

What a shame!

I know! Procol Harum playing the theme tune from Z Cars, not to be missed. Yeah, that was the classic line-up, it was just like a machine, that tour: it was quite a long one, about six weeks, and we did Poland and all sorts of strange places, and that band got really good.

And then split up?

Well no: Matthew buggered off to university, you know he was doing his 'A' levels in the background; you know we're doing ... whatever, on the 'bus and in hotels and bars and things ... and Matthew would have his nose in an 'A' level book. And the last gig in Paris on Valentine's Day, 1992, a few people had come over from England - my missus was there, Franky had come over, and various chums, and we were all looking forward to a bit of a lark.

And just before we went on, Kellogs is just trying to rally the troops, you know, and Matthew's just got his nose in this book. And Kellogs said to him, 'Come on, show a bit of team spirit,' and Matthew said, 'Look, when I was at school doing Maths all I wanted to do was play music. And now, I'm going to tell you what I wanted to tell my teacher at the time, which is "F*ck off!"' (Laughs). Now it's the other way round, and that's classic Matthew: he's very good value.

1993 we did that Jethro Tull tour didn't we, of the States, by this time it would have been Matt Pegg and Ian Wallace; it was still good, because we were playing that music; but ... there is a certain mindset that goes with playing with Procol. Ian is a superb drummer, he's played with King Crimson, Don Henley, and so on ... it's all very well being a cynical old pro - we're all cynical - but he took it a bit far.

What was it like playing Last Train to Niagara?

(Huge laugh!) Well that was hilarious, because we sort of slung it together in the barn, like you do, and the first version of it lasted about an hour!

Well this is what people have said, but I just can't believe it!

Nor could we! It's like, if we do a bit of this, and a bit of that, and cobble that on ...

How do you come to that? Has Gary got it written out in chunks?

Not at all! He's got this thing, kind of like the Niagara theme, and then it was a case of bunging in all these Procol quotes.

On the hoof?

Whoever came up with what at the time, obviously what works musically you know, key-wise ... transition from key to key.

There's lots of quite complicated modulations in there.

Oh there are! And the final version got down to about ten minutes, I suppose. That's the only version that was ever aired publicly.

And was Keith there, expanding the words to suit the growing music?

I think the words were kind of one Keith's rambles, and all the other bits were kind of bolted on around it. Obviously Gary tells the little story, he got on a train at Grand Central in New York

So are you saying the one-hour version doesn't have lots more verses?

I'm sure it does, but I can't remember. Obviously we mixed it, we weren't even getting an hour to play with Tull; it was big, bold brave proposition to actually do this thing, and do nothing from the normal set, nothing Procolesque per se apart from these quotes. I mean these quotes, having said that, they would be like half a tune.

Was that the idea, to go out and play only Niagara?

It was! But we all bottled, because it was obviously ludicrous. We'd have had stuff chucked at us!

Not by me, you wouldn't!

Spinal Tap, you know, (Derek Smalls voice) 'This is our Jazz Odyssey,' it would have been.

'This much talent!'

Exactly. Plus it would have been a great shame not to play all the other stuff.

So what's your favourite thing in the repertoire?

Whaling Stories (huge laugh): it's just such a complete piece, obviously it's rock and roll or it's blues or whatever, but it's so classically structured, it's just sort of essence of Procol, that one.

When you do that are there some bits you have to play, or is it entirely extemporised? And when you do Rambling On, for instance, are there some guitar lines, that rising theme that represents flying, that Gary says he wants to be played as they are part of the composed tune?

No, I mean, I think common sense comes to the fore. I think I play what I would like to hear were I a member of the audience. Obviously you give it a respectful nod in Trower's direction, or Grabham, or whoever originally did it. A lot of those parts are kind of integral ...

And you're very familiar with the vinyl versions ...

Indeed: they're kind of locked into me as much as they are to enthusiastic fans. I would expect to hear them.

And I mean, working with Paul Rodgers now, we do All Right Now, of course we do, and I play that solo note-for-note because that's the way it goes: it's as much a part of the song as all the rest of it: you have to play that. And Trower's solos, I never copied them, but they're certainly à la Trower. Basically I come from that 60s blues thing and so does Trower and so there's going to be a certain overlap style wise: the roots are the same.

When you play Repent Walpurgis, I've noticed you like to come into the Bach on an E natural, marking that transition into the major chord. It's lovely, but Trower would never have done that.

I don't think Trower knows anything about that! He was playing blues over everything in sight, bless him. I loved it. Fantastic, the almost-clash between the two disciplines. Totally oblivious to the chords ...

In the most fantastic way, completely modal ...

Absolutely, it's Mr Pentatonic, doesn't matter what's going on underneath. As it so happens I know a bit more about playing over chords and things, but if you did it that way you'd end up with Procol Harum sounding like Yes or something, which wouldn't work at all.

Do you try to bury your understanding of chord structures, then, when you're soloing?

Not bury it ... you're aware of it, but if you kept it in mind all the time it would sound dreadful, very white.

Like hymns and carols, in fact.

Well it would, very white, very European, that's not really what Procol is all about. I mean Gary is always the first to say, Procol is basically a rock and roll band.

So for you it's sort of 'pentatonic lines versus diatonic chords' that makes the Procol mood?

Yeah, and you push it as far as you can whereby it doesn't sound too 'out'. I mean Trower certainly did. We've never heard the out-takes, of course.

Well they've just released some, haven't they, and some supposed Ray Royer outtakes too.

Oh God forbid. I've never heard him play anything.

Except Lime Street Blues.

That's about it.

What was it like with the orchestra at the Barbican? Very constraining?

Brilliant. Well we had done that already, of course, 'cos we'd had the reunion with the Edmonton mob in 1992.

They were different arrangements, though, weren't they? That was certainly not the Kabitz Walpurgis. When you play something like that are you following a score?

No, not at all; you have to count though.

Does a classical conductor give entries to the rock and roll players the same way that he will to the trombones or whatever?

Well he probably does but we never take any notice, as we know how it goes anyway! I mean if you actually watch the conductor, depending on how they conduct, some of them don't exactly conduct what we would call on the beat: so there you are, tapping your foot, and it's got nothing to do with what he's doing, and if you watch him ... you'll actually fall over.

Fantastic sound at the Barbican.

The mix was appalling, though, the geezer who was on the sound desk, whoever did the out-front sound, missed all the fronts of all the solos. I'm one of the chosen thirty who've got the bootleg CD of that. The overall sound is fab, but it would have been handy if we'd been working with somebody who was more familiar with the material.

It's been said that Gary bought the bootlegs himself as presents for the band?

He did, bless him, but he's like that isn't he? The Whalers, you know, they're nutters, you can't do without them.

So what prospect of more Procol Harum material, do you think?

Well I don't know, it's down to us motivating Gary or the world at large, saying 'Gazza, please ...'

That's what we hope with 'Beyond the Pale' to show him that there really is this world-wide interest ...

Yeah, I mean he doesn't want to go pissing in the wind any more than anyone does. I mean, I almost don't care, I enjoy playing the music so much anyway, but of course one has to be practical and it has to cover its costs. So if we go out playing this stuff and no-one turns up ...

Do you think if Bill Graham hadn't died there would have been more success ...

There was quite a sort of buzz about it, you know a general sort of, 'Ooh, I mean Procol, that's actually important ...' That's the impression I got.. And obviously to be asked to do it was great, you know it was like, 'here we go, at last ...'

Did you have to put something else aside to do that?

Well one's always dabbling with this and that but it was just a matter of, drop everything. Great honour. I mean, I couldn't have wished for a more perfect band to be asked to go and play with. It's just right up my Straße, you know. And the Commander's such a splendid chap.

And Redhill ...

Well it would obviously have been fantastic to have been there, but I was in the middle of a big American tour. I worked solid all last year with Paul Rodgers. Actually got quite sick of touring in general. It was a shame, because I had actually been home the previous week but we were in between two legs of a tour and I missed it by about four days.

They got out lots of material that hadn't been heard for a while; Thin End of the Wedge, Piggy Pig Pig.

We played that once, you know, in New York: and it ... all the audience started slashing their wrists so we didn't do it any more. Gary likes to dig 'em out. When we did that tour two, what was it, three years ago, with Jefferson Starship and Steppenwolf, all that carry on, I think the playable repertoire of the band had expanded to about fifty tunes at that point, and he was digging out all sorts of stuff.

How many rehearsals do you do on a song he's just dug out, before you go on stage with it?

Well Procol never rehearses for more than about a week, and it's a question of, 'If you don't know it, you will by the end of a couple of gigs.' Gazza knows it, and he's quite a good conductor.

If you put Procol Harum together to record another album, would you be a Brzezicki man or a Broad man?

That would be a tough decision, I think. I think ... they're both so good in their own way, they're both Procol-heads. It would be tough. But it would never be quite the same without Bronzey. Broad, Brooker, Brzezicki and Bronze. They've all got a bit of a ring to them. Have both!

And you haven't written with the band. Is that a sort of closed shop?

Well it probably is, but who cares? It's a very fine closed shop. Matthew gets a look in occasionally which is all to the good. I don't think he enjoys touring, but who does? It's a fairly boring existence really. The last time Matthew came out ... he's not much of a sun-worshipper, but we were out in the States in the middle of the summer with Steppenwolf, and it was glorious really, a bit like today. All the time. But of course Matthew likes being pale, and he can never kind of find things to do; he just gets bored, as we all do. But I'm happy this time of year because I can always go and find a swimming pool.

And you've played with Josh Phillips and Don Snow. Are they fundamentally imitating Fisher's lines?

Well they don't have any choice, do they? So much of Matthew's stuff is written in stone, and only he can play it properly. I mean he's marvellous. Really great Hammond players are few and far between, and Matthew's definitely one of them.

You must put some pressure on the Commander, as you call him ...

Well I do! But he goes (Brooker voice) 'There's no demand, boy!'

It's not true!

I know! (Brooker voice again) 'No demand, boy!' Well what was all that about at the Barbican, then?

He's thinking of the 1995 'Flying Fish' tour, playing in piddling seaside places [sorry, Worthing!]

Our little bucket-and-spade tour? If that had been promoted properly that would have been smashing. But no-one knew it was on. The management, at that time, couldn't organise a piss-up in a brewery. There was one particular gig I remember up there in Nottingham up at the Royal Concert Hall there, I think there were seventy people there, literally. There's a curry house opposite the back door of this gig in Nottingham: there were more people in the restaurant than there were in the gig. It was a really good gig, too: played our arses off.

Shoot the promoter!

Well as I said to you the other day, the promoters were the local councils: they don't care, they've got their budgets for the year, 'We'll have that nice Purple Harum,' they don't care. Same to them whether it's Procol Harum or Freddie Starr, they're not into making a profit and they don't give a toss.

What a shame. And the last time you played with Gary?

Not so long ago! A Swedish swipe-card company, they manufacture the machines that process all this nonsense, it was their tenth anniversary, and the managing director is a huge Bill Wyman fan. So somebody evidently decided that it was cheaper to fly them all to Vienna and get them pissed, than do it in Stockholm, which is probably true, 'cos the price of alcohol in Sweden is not funny.

But you're not on the Rhythm Kings album?

It was just a one-off, because the original chaps, Peter Frampton and Albert Lee, it's not worth flying them in from Nashville for a one off.

So Gary just rang you up?

Yes, I think he did, bless him.

You can slot in?

They sent me the CD, and a tape from the Paradiso in Holland, and ... you know, it's R&B, three-chord R&B, which we know, so ... it's not a great problem.

... after which the conversation reverted to CD business, ending with a cheery ...

All the best, mate! Good bye!

Thanks to Geoff for sending us the photograph (by Paul Rodgers aficionado Lucy Piller), which shows him on stage with Rodgers at the Corn Exchange, Cambridge, 1997

Geoff Whitehorn's BtP page

Solo CDs

Geoff interviewed in Shine On


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