Procol Harum

the Pale

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The Giant Shadow

Rob Chapman in 'Mojo' 22, September 1995

What happens when the crowd invades the pitch in adulation just micro-seconds into the match? Nearly three decades after Whiter Shade of Pale, Procol Harum have had plenty of time to consider the phrase, 'Follow that ...'

It was the Citizen Kane syndrome that did it. Reckoned by many to have put their most splendid eggs in their very first basket, Procol Harum, as Gary Brooker will admit, have rarely been in danger of hitting fashionability head on. And all because of that record.

In their pre-Procol incarnation, The Paramounts, they were contemporaries of The Rolling Stones; but when the Stones went big time all The Paramounts got were the Stones' discarded club residencies. Gary Brooker remembers seeing The Who when they were still The High Numbers, but by late '65, while Pete Townshend was penning mini pop operas by day and engaging in auto destruction by night, The Paramounts were backing Sandie Shaw on the cabaret circuit.

Even after the success of A Whiter Shade Of Pale, Procol Harum never became darlings of the underground in the way that Pink Floyd, Soft Machine or Traffic did. As pioneers of symphonic rock they saw ELP and others get all the plaudits in the prog and pomp era. By 1977, relegated to supporting Supertramp, they split. The recently-reunited Procol have been touring with Jethro Tull. Supporting, of course, just like they did on their maiden British tour in 1971. Ever the bridesmaids.

Gary Brooker's hair is a whiter shade these days, but the pigtail is still intact, so is the wit, the wry charm and the Southend drawl. Lyricist Keith Reid is still as open or as diffident as he chooses to be. 'All in all it's still the same / but call me if there's any change', as he wrote on Boredom. Of course, Procol Harum weren't always so concise. Legend has it that at one of their less-inspired concerts in the 70s someone shouted 'Fuck Mozart. Let's boogie'. A heckler's testimony that spoke volumes. Procol Harum excelled in heroic classicism and faded grandeur. Trouble is they did ponderous and dour very well too. Often on the same album. Hail the nearly-men.

Scousers had the Mersey docks. Essex boys had Tilbury. 'It's always been a pet theory of mine that anywhere that had docks had a scene – apart from Portsmouth for some reason. Nothing ever came out of Portsmouth,' Brooker muses. 'The Paramounts played a mixture of rock'n'roll and R&B covers. Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ray Charles, Bobby Bland, Johnny Otis – those kind of people. We only liked American music. We didn't like British music at all.'

The Paramounts gigged locally before venturing out into the Berkshire Delta, the source of the British beat. 'Windsor, Reading, Maidenhead, The Ricky Tick clubs. They were good R&B crowds. Very educated audiences,' recalls Brooker. DJ at most of these gigs was the legendary Guy Stevens. 'Not only was he putting on records when you thought you were the only person who knew them, he was putting on stuff you'd never heard.'

The Paramounts' debut single, a version of Leiber & Stoller's Poison Ivy, got to Number 35 in the charts but a subsequent clutch of covers sold poorly. By the mid-60s, The Paramounts were on their uppers. 'Backing Sandie Shaw was purely a financial decision,' admits Brooker. 'When you're looking at the month or two ahead and you've only got five gigs and someone says, "Back Sandie and we'll give you 50 quid a week", you do it.'

On the eve of a further end-of-tether tour with Chris Andrews, guitarist Robin Trower chose to quit the band rather than have to play Yesterday Man every night. Brooker too decided he'd driven up a musical cul de sac. 'I didn't want to play R&B covers any more because the people who made the originals had started coming over. Booker T was actually onstage in Walthamstow if you wanted to see him, so there was no point in continuing. I started listening to jazz. Went round someone's house and heard Art Blakey, and I'd had a couple of smokes and everything sounded fantastic. Then I heard Charlie Mingus.'

Enter the Mile End Milton, lyricist Keith Reid. As a child, Reid had shown sufficient promise at classical piano to win a Junior Exhibitor Scholarship to Trinity College of Music, but he hated practice, preferring the world of literature. 'I was a total bookworm. I could read before I went to school, and from the age of seven to about 14 I read compulsively all the time. I'd read biographies of New Orleans jazz musicians like Kid Ory and Buddy Bolden by the time I was nine.'

Reid came into contact with another East Ender, a certain Marc Feld. 'Long before the Mod movement – when they were still being referred to as modernists – there were two teams, one in the East End, one in the Stamford Hill area, which was where Marc lived. Everybody used to go and hang out at a Wimpy Bar near Whitechapel Art Gallery on a Sunday morning. I was 12 and I thought I was the youngest kid on the scene, but he was even younger. First time I met him he was very proudly wearing a pair of Levi's which he'd pinched from this shop in Leman Street. We just got talking 'cos we were the youngest in this scene of people who totally lived for clothes. We were two precocious snot-nosed kids. Then I didn't see him for years, until I read a piece by Maureen Cleave in the Evening Standard about this kid Marc Bolan who had made a record called The Wizard. He performed it on Ready Steady Go! but it didn't do anything. His mother used to have a fruit stall in Wardour Street and Marc was still helping out on Saturdays. Neither of us were working and we were both writing lyrics so we got pally again. Then I got together with Gary and the next thing I knew I had a hit record. Marc started Tyrannosaurus Rex and we both ended up on the same record label. 

By this time, heavily influenced by Bringing It All Back Home period Bob Dylan, I'd decided I should go to New York and be famous there. So I went to see Chris Blackwell [at the newly-formed Island Records] and offered him the publishing rights to my songs if he'd advance me the money to go to America. He wasn't prepared to do that, of course, and he shuffled me off to Guy Stevens instead. Guy originally tried to put me with Steve Winwood, who at the time was secretly working with Jim Capaldi, though he was still officially with Spencer Davis.'

Indeed Reid confirms that half the lyrics on the first Procol album were originally offered to the embryonic Traffic. Knowing that The Paramounts were on the verge of splitting, Stevens took Reid to see them playing, with a view to pairing the aspiring lyricist with Gary Brooker. 'Everyone ended up at Guy's house, which is what always used to happen because he had the most amazing record collection in England!' Stevens also had [sic] a pet cat called Procol Harum.

In May 1967, that record was released. The music papers gave it tentative one-line reviews of the 'unusual, could do well' variety. 'We'd recorded it live in the studio,' recalls Brooker. 'And we thought the cymbals were really clashy. We wanted to hear what it would sound like on the radio, so Tony Hall [Decca A&R genius] arranged to get it played on the pirate Radio London.' A nation immediately turned cartwheels 'cross the floor. Within two weeks of its release, A Whiter Shade Of Pale was Number 1, where it stayed for the next six weeks. Men in kaftans and capes were on Top Of The Pops singing about vestal virgins over a baroque and roll melody. The Summer of Love was officially declared open.

Ex-Paramounts Trower and BJ Wilson were brought in to consolidate a still evolving line-up – 'we were still forming our band when it all suddenly took off' – but the release of their debut LP was delayed until January 1968. Loath to play 20-minute package tour sets, they rarely gigged at home. 'We should have been bigger in Britain at that time,' admits Brooker. 'We had started playing alternative music – although we didn't think of it in those terms—before anybody else. We were doing it before Sgt Pepper came out, but we didn't become part of this underground mainstream that developed. Our early albums sold well in the States but in England they floundered.' Despite follow-up single Homburg going Top 5 (and selling a million worldwide), Procol were still shackled with the emotional baggage of that record.

Listening to Annie Lennox's drama queen enunciation I realize that for the best part of three decades I've completely misheard Whiter Shade's words – 'so it's whiter later / as the mirror told the chair / that her face had burst just ghosty'. Keith Reid laughs. A 'yes I get a lot of this sort of thing' kind of laugh. 'At least it shows you've been thinking about it,' he says to the boy who preferred Homburg. So what did he think to this flower power lark? 'Totally bogus. It was all "show me the colours of your mind" kind of stuff. Kaftans and bells were anathema to me.' Reid laughs loudly. So Whiter Shade isn't about a bad trip then? 'No.' How about Rambling On from the Shine On Brightly album, with its opening lines, 'Our local picture house was showing a Batman movie / Saw [sic] this guy fly up in the sky end thought to myself why shouldn't I?' Or 'I must have flown a mile or maybe it was eight / Thought to myself, pretty soon I'll hit the Golden Gate.' That's Eight Miles High and the Golden Gate in San Francisco presumably? 'No. That song was meant to be taken literally.'

'Keith could be very difficult to work with,' concedes Brooker, elaborating on his sometimes hesitant delivery of Reid's intensely personal, occasionally impenetrable lyrics. 'With some of those lines it was very hard to get it all in. They may have worked on the page but they were sometimes difficult to sing. I remember once he had 'plank' at the end of a line, and it's the worst thing I've ever had to sing 'cos (a) it didn't go anywhere, and (b) it rhymed with wank. But Keith was very strict, every 'and' and 'the' had to stay.

'Our claim to fame was that we didn't play at Woodstock,' Brooker continues, settling back into the nearly-man role. Procol declined the invitation to play so that Robin Trower could get home to his wife who was due to give birth, 'and of course the baby was three weeks late'. In 1970 Procol also played the original, and now totally forgotten, Woodstock II 'with John Sebastian and virtually no-one else'. They did storm the Friday night at that year's Isle of Wight, though.

Very few British bands, if any, have married rock structures and symphonic arrangements with any degree of success. The Nice should have been prosecuted under the Crimes Against Sibelius Act. Spooky Tooth and Pierre Henry anyone? And let's not forget Deep Purple's Concerto For Group And Orchestra. Pomp rock is littered with such travesties. Procol Harum's 1972 Live In Concert album with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra got nearer than most to pulling it off. Given the Air On A G String vibe of Whiter Shade, it was presumably an experiment waiting to happen. 'We first worked with an orchestra with Sandie Shaw,' reveals Brooker. 'It taught us discipline. But my first real involvement with classical players was Salty Dog and In Held 'Twas In 1, and it was those two that made me think about the possibilities of embellishing our songs further.'

The Grand Hotel album released in 1973 was perhaps Procol Harum's last high point. A life on the road album unlike any other, it featured The Swingle Singers' Christianne Legrand (sister of Michel) on soprano, oozed elegance and decadence in equal proportion, and contains the best song ever written about venereal disease by a white man, Souvenir Of London. 'We were witnessing the last portals of grandeur in those European hotels,' says Brooker. 'Waiters in tailcoats. String quartets in the corner.'

After dropping the Mozart and upping the boogie for their next album, Exotic Birds And Fruit, Procol were sick of working with the same producer (Chris Thomas) in the same studio (Air) for five albums '... and getting sick of the sight of each other actually'. Enter the unlikely combination of Leiber & Stoller, fresh from producing Stealers Wheel – a pairing perhaps not as incongruous as it first seemed given The Paramounts' debut with Poison Ivy. But although the studio was graced by the presence of Ben E King – 'that's the kind of thing that happens if you work with Leiber & Stoller' – Brooker remembers the self-titled [!] Procol's Ninth being a difficult album to make. 'Mike Stoller was an easy-going guy whereas Jerry Leiber was much more the pushy Building type. They had a lot of very strange habits and were very set their ways. Jerry Leiber would only light his cigarettes with the sulphur from when the match is first struck, so there was this phosphoric smell in the control room all the time. We'd start work at 11 o'clock in the morning and at seven they'd say, 'OK, we're off for dinner now', and they wouldn't come back. They wanted us to do all these songs they'd had rejected by Peggy Lee! We'd say, "Can we do Baby I Don't Care?" They'd go, "Did we write that? No – let's do this one we wrote for Peggy." Mind you, they did produce Pandora's Box which got us in the charts.' For the last time as it turned out.

By 1977, the proverbial wall was covered in writing. After playing second fiddle to Supertramp in their Breakfast In America prime, Harum recorded their next album, Something Magic, at Miami's Criterion Studios. 'We played the songs to Ron and Howie Albert [disco wizz-kid engineers],' Brooker recalls, 'and they said, "What do you want us to do?" We said, "Produce". They said, "Let us tell you something: you can take dogshit and you can cover it in chocolate, but you bite into it and what have you got? Dogshit."' Reid concurs: 'We were definitely past our sell-by date then, but it was a case of 'the band's always the last to know.'

 Then there was Something Magic's somewhat less than magical tour de force, the 20-minute The Worm And The Tree ('an artistic faux pas' – the normally devotional Zigzag magazine, April 1977): 'The worm can be killed yet the tree be not dead / For from the roots of the elder a new life will spread.' It was Procol's Stonehenge moment. Brooker took stock. 'I thought, "Hang on. we did a long suite on our second album nine years ago: I think we've gone full circle."' And with that, Procol Harum called it a day, playing their last gig exactly 10 years after the release of Whiter Shade.

Gary Brooker bought a pub and enjoyed the easy life. He had frequently stepped out of his Procol frontman role – to play keyboards on George Harrison's All Things Must Pass and Paul McCartney's Back To The Egg, for example – and again took a musical backseat, touring with Eric Clapton in the early 80s. He recorded three unsuccessful solo albums (the best, Fear Of Flying, was produced by George Martin) and became European fly fishing champion! 'I taught Eric to fly fish, actually. I think it was very therapeutic for him.'

Procol Harum re-formed in 1991 and recorded the AOR-friendly Prodigal Stranger LP. Well received in the USA, ignored in the UK, as usual. But it rekindled the band's desire and they've been touring ever since. And what was it Marx said about history repeating itself twice? First as tragedy. Then as a concept album. Another 20-minute epic beckons. 'Halfway through recording Prodigal Stranger I tried to do a long song which would encapsulate every song we had ever written,' says Reid. 'So I wrote Last Train To Niagara. It's in the style of Bob Dylan's 115th Dream with about 12 verses.'

There's unfinished symphonic business as well. An album of orchestral arrangements of Procol Harum numbers featuring the LSO and a clutch of guest vocalists is due for release in the autumn: Tom Jones sings Simple Sister, James Galway plays flute on Pandora's Box, Matthew Fisher gets to play a real church organ on Repent Walpurgis. Brooker says the project is 'Putting these songs to bed. Grand Hotel, for instance, is now lost to rock forever. I’ll never be able to play it again. It's become a classical number.'

In the final analysis then, Gary, A Whiter Shade of Pale – millstone a milestone? The salty old dog offers a less than politically-correct scenario. 'I always imagine that if I ever get stuck in one of those cauldrons on the Ivory Coast and the cannibals are about to cook me, I'd just have to mention that I did A Whiter Shade Of Pale and they'd let me go.'

Actually, knowing Procol's luck, they'd probably reply, 'Sorry mate: we preferred Homburg.'

Mojo continued this piece with a Matthew Fisher feature entitled The Part-timer

Another version of Gary's cannibal story here

PH on stage | PH on record | PH in print | BtP features | What's new | Interact with BtP | For sale | Site search | Home