Procol Harum

the Pale

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

Nine Years Before the Mast
A story of Procol Harum

Angus MacKinnon in Street Life, 15 May 1976

A name is a name is a name, as Gertrude Stein might have said had she not been more interested in roses.

Procol Harum. A name and a group. The two words may have been some inspired nonsense on the part of Guy Stevens one-man lunatic fringe of British rock and roll, or simply inherited from a Burmese blue cat. Who knows? Literally, from the Latin, procol  –  far from, beyond, and harum  –  these matters. Suppose it was the cat. For cats are mysterious beasts and one might fancifully reckon that a cat from the Far East would perhaps be that much more inscrutable than most.

Indeed, according to Gary Brooker, Procol Harum's singer and pianist who allowed himself to be quoted on the subject in a press release to accompany the 'Salty Dog' album in April 1969, this particular cat had magical properties, was an uncanny cat; no-one had ever been able to take his picture. The anecdote is well in keeping with Procol Harum's early image  –  if in doubt, compound mystery and ambiguity by adding still more. At least, that's how it seemed. Maybe Procol Harum the cat did exist  –  he was reputed to have died in 1972  –  and maybe he didn't.

However, Procol Harum the group have subsequently managed throughout the past nine years to become as inscrutable a quantity as a Burmese blue cat, as unfathomable in their purpose as the Nazca lines etched for mile upon mile across the Peruvian desert. Much of the ambivalence that enshrouds the group has been contrived by circumstance, by assorted admirers and detractors, as well as by Procol Harum themselves. But matters have been allowed to get out of hand. You can take your pick from various definitions, descriptions and dismissals.

Procol Harum as musical Templars, the inheritors, practitioners, and jealous (as in Jehovah) guardians of some outlandish secret which surpasseth all understanding. Procol Harum sweeping in on vast, dark wings, a shadow over land and sea, synonymous with dearth, death, decay and destruction. Gotterdammerung and ghost galleons  –  the decline, further decline and fall of Western civilisation, a widescreen production courtesy of Messrs Brooker and Keith Reid, he who writes the words.

Procol Harum as represented in the artwork of their Grand Hotel album. Brooker in top hat and tails, seated at the piano grand, beneath a chandelier, playing a selection of waltzes and polkas. Whilst Rcid hovers nearby, an attentive champagne waiter. A fraction more extravagance, a tipple more decadence, Monsieur? S'il vous plait, merci. Or perhaps, and the unkindest cut of all, Procol Harum as a quaint anachronism, another of Britain's invisible exports. Huge in America and Malaya, so they say. Suffering exile, should have packed it all in years ago.

All this and more. The group, both as musicians and personalities, have been sometimes consenting, sometimes unwitting participants in the construction of this maze and index of possibilities. Unsurprisingly, this impression of Procol Harum as something else, something Apart, has both helped and hindered them. Whilst it may have encouraged the group to further experimentation, to keeping on regardless, it may also have denied them a pre-eminence they might otherwise have achieved. But naturally it's never as simple as that. There have been mistakes, misjudgements, misconceptions and misfortunes. To look upon Procol Harum as mere underdogs would be unforgivably patronising. They don't feel that way about their current position. On the contrary, they remain optimistic, even if sometimes resigned and world-weary. Similarly, to  –  in Brooker's telling phrase  –  "damn them with faint praise" would be just as misguided.

Instead, a little less hyperbole and a little more good sense. That said, let's introduce a cast of characters before continuing. Gary Brooker writes all the music and has done so since the departures of organist Matthew Fisher after 'A Salty Dog' and, in July 1971, of guitarist Robin Trower. Brooker is not always the terse, abruptly monosyllabic and moody Mr Midnight, although his humour remains distinctly greyish, tending towards the black. He has regrown his moustache, and busies himself with pipe, tobacco and matches as we talk, efficiently fumigating the room as if it were a glass house conservatory, luxuriant with tropical flora and fauna. Brooker makes a point of always making himself perfectly clear.

Keith Reid is not so much the owlish academic and wordsmith as an almost severe pragmatist. Reid has been a sixth (or fifth) member of the group since its inception, sharing the responsibilities and doing everything except actually play an instrument on stage. Reid is effusive, forthcoming, although peculiarly ungrammatical in his conversation. One suspects that he has been integral in encouraging the group, which he co-managed for a while in the early days, to continue. His status within Procol Harum does seem to be a most equable and sensible arrangement. Reid accompanies them wherever they play  –  hence the cherished identikit snap of him lurking in the stage wings. He is the proud possessor of a Bristol automobile.

Drummer Barrie 'BJ' Wilson appears equally dependable. Also humorous, but in a vein considerably lighter than Brooker, Wilson is open, very acute in his observations about Procol Harum's development. Eminently sensible. Guitarist Mick Grabham remains content to leave most of the talking to others. Organist Chris Copping and bassist Alan Cartwright are absent. This lineup has been constant since September 1972.

But to begin somewhere near the beginning. Starting over again. When Brooker and Reid first met and discovered that their music and words might combine with interesting results, they had no intention of performing the songs. Instead Brooker consulted Stevens in the hope that he might be able to arouse interest elsewhere. Some demo tapes were recorded with session men and Stevens managed to conclude some sort of a deal with Denny Cordell, later involved with Cocker, Russell and Shelter Records. However Brooker decided that he would in fact prefer to perform the songs with a group. The line-up and instrumentation would be something special.

"I remember thinking at the time, " says Brooker, "that we were going to be distinctly different. These differences wouldn't necessarily show in the way we were writing or playing the songs  –  although as it happened they did  –  but rather in that we weren't subject to any outside influences. We weren't going to be told what to do, we weren't trying to tell the public what they should think of us. We intended to present everything in a certain, very definite way. Things have gone on from there; now groups, most groups do what they want to do, but the public is still in the same situation of being told what to like. That is the point that hasn't changed.

"As far as the line-up was concerned, it was Keith, Guy and I who thought it up as much as anybody. Guy had become something of a, shall we say, changed man since he heard Dylan's 'Blonde On Blonde', where you had a similar two-keyboard instrumentation. The main thing is that personally I think that a nice, big backing is good. It gives you much more scope in everything you do and gives the people who are playing more opportunity to think. Whereas in a three-piece you have to provide an entire backing the whole time, with our type of line-up the guitar, organ or piano can at any time relax and lay back. In addition you have yourself more solo instruments. Most of the records I've always liked have had  piano and organ or at the very least bass, drums, guitar and then either piano or organ. They've also had some saxophones or some strings as well. Constant melodic interest is very important."

"This was all one of the big things to start off with," says Reid, "the line-up was a statement or whatever. It hadn't been done before and there were lots of problems involved in doing it properly.
Perhaps musicians didn't want to do it at the time because it seemed so impractical. It's still difficult and impractical today to make sure a grand piano is correctly tuned. We tried every way we could think of , we even had a portable piano for Gary, but we persisted. And (laughs) we do have this unfortunate habit of persisting."

Thus in April 1967 Procol Harum were Brooker, Reid, Fisher, Dave Knights (bass), Ray Royer (guitar) and Bobby Harrison (drums). They attempted to record a single in Olympic studios. Harrison couldn't make the changes in 'Whiter Shade Of Pale' and a session drummer, John Eyden, replaced him for the recording. 'Pale' was duly released and unbelievably successful. "We arrived in England," says Brooker, "at the tail end of singles power and the changeover to albums. I suppose that to an extent we were one of the last groups to have had a really big single  –  as opposed to groups who would now have big albums given the kind of music that they and ourselves make. Although for reasons beyond our control the song was associated with things we hardly even knew about. People said it had to do with San Francisco. I was very shocked, I can assure you. Nothing could have been further from mine and Keith's intentions."

But the music press preferred to emphasise the fact that Eyden had played on 'Pale' and that Procol Harum were therefore not a permanent group, and not to be taken particularly seriously. The whole phenomenon could instead be attributed to intelligent promotion. In fact Procol Harum were already in the studios laying down tracks for their first album. But as the sessions continued it became apparent that Harrison and Royer weren't quite cutting the edge that Brooker and Reid desired. They were "asked to leave", the album was left unfinished and replacements were found in Trower and Wilson, both of whom had previously played with Brooker in the Paramounts (not that Procol Harum bore any resemblance to the R'n'B the three men had previously been playing). The group's manager was also removed and another deal signed with Tony Secunda. The first album was begun again and completed at incredible speed, in a matter of days. Cordell produced  –  in mono.

"When I hear that album," says Wilson, "I just feel very grateful that we had some good songs. Even though the sound was an abortion, the songs' strengths and the musicianship redeemed it all from being a complete washout. It's all very well thinking if only this and if only that. Procol Harum's history is full of if only's."

August 1967 saw the album released in America. Cordell couldn't find a British outlet for some months. The delay was to be detrimental to the group's chances of making an impression in Britain, as was their choice of 'Homburg', the second single released in the autumn of the same year. At a cursory hearing 'Homburg' didn't sound that different from 'Pale'  –  another set of very stately chords. It was presumed that this was the extent of Procol Harum's capacities. Had it been generally available, the first album, with its most catholic range of material, would have proved otherwise. But the second single should have been 'Conquistador'. "Well, at the time," says Reid, "we were oblivious, completely unaware. We never thought about the possible consequences of what we were doing. After 'Pale' our only thought was to come up with a single that would have been bigger. Somebody around us with more perspective could have seen that and suggested we follow up with something in a completely different direction, but still acceptable.

"But there are two ways of looking at it. 'Pale' and its effects were perhaps inevitable in that it was so much more successful than anything else we've done, from the point of view of both sales and impact. You could never hope to repeat the trick; it was one of those records that occupies a certain space at a certain time. It's possible that most people who bought it were the kind of people who only buy records very occasionally. But people in the rock world certainly had access to all the information and sometimes I feel the journalists should have known better. Yes, I mean taken the trouble to listen to our first album and made it quite clear that 'Homburg' wasn't the whole story."
Whence two points arise. The way in which Procol Harum were presented to the British public in 1967 and, concurrently, the general state of the music press and the kind of criticism it offered at the time. Perhaps you recall the publicity shots, all kaftans and floral shirts, everybody wrapped up and charismatic. Whether this ambience was the desired effect on the group's part or not was left open.

"Apart from anything else," says Reid, we didn't have that much time to do interviews. We were fighting battles as it was, trying to do the first record and sort out managerial and business problems. Also, as Gary said earlier, we wanted to try and let people think for themselves about the group and the music. We weren't going to force anything on them. It's easy enough in retrospect to say we should have tried to make things more certain, to emphasise that we were a permanent group. We didn't, I'm afraid, and had little control over the photographs and everything. It may sound like a pretty ridiculous situation but . . . all right, for want of a better word we were naive about things.

"We didn't want to provide the usual amount of biographical information, as we thought it would make a change not to have that. Yes, we had every intention of being different, but not to the extent of people being unable to come to terms with us at all. There is a difference."

Given the musical and social climate of the times, Procol Harum were certainly 'different'. 'Pale' may have been mistakenly connected with West Coast psychedelia and the first album may have carried the advice that it should be listened to in the spirit in which it was made, but the area within which Brooker and Reid were operating, the way in which Procol Harum played had little to do with any Summer of Love ephemeralities. This isn't the place for a detailed critique of Procol Harum's debut album  –  or any of the eight others  –  but it would be enough to point out the discrepancies between the music and words on the album and much of what was being contrived and celebrated elswhere. Reid's words may have seemed fantastically surreal, bizarre, and weird, but they explored a peculiarly 'Unquiet Zone'  –  nothing to do with conventional rock and roll inanely expounding its own consciousness. And consider the music that accompanied them and how this was shaped and crafted. As Crawdaddy critic Paul Williams remarked in his liner notes for 'Shine On Brightly': "Have you noticed how Procol Harum's first album influenced the Band's Music From Big Pink?" Williams was a perceptive individual.

"I think we were probably one of the first groups to hear the Band," says Reid, "because at one stage there was a possibility of Albert Grossman managing us when we started touring in America. We went up to his office and he told us about this new group called The Crackers, which is what the Band called themselves at the time. He played us a tape of their album, and that was after 'Shine On Brightly'.

Both the Band and Procol Harum epitomise a most musicianly approach. Neither group favours indulgence; if a musical point can be made in a handful of notes, then that's how its stated. Subtleties of texture and sound are not always immediately apparent, and there are no limelit soloists. Significantly the one occasion that a musician in Procol Harum has attempted to spread himself over too much of the songs  –  Trower's debatably prominent performance on 'Broken Barricades'  –  resulted in his leaving the group. Above his station and not at all what was required. Which is not to say that Brooker is dictatorial about such matters, but that there are limits. Reasonable limits.

More specifically, Procol Harum in '67. Their music was perhaps somewhat unfashionable, rather restrained. "We weren't much given to aural extravaganzas," says Reid, "we never have been. Gary's music doesn't concern itself with that kind of thing."

"It's simple enough," says Brooker, "I don't like songs to rely on only one of five musicians. Of course there are solos, spaces and chances for everybody to contribute. But there must be an overall balance. Unfashionable? I suppose we were. That's the price you pay for trying to organise something a little different."

"Whilst we're on the subject," says Reid, "I read that piece Jon Landau wrote in Rolling Stone. It's very true  –  that those who write about music find it difficult to talk about music itself and the technicalities, the details. They can't comment on those too well.

Procol Harum preceded the so-called New Criticism, initiated by writers like Landau and Paul Williams in America and then in Britain by Richard Williams in the Melody Maker. The group were British, had trouble getting the first album released in Britain, and even if they had been luckier it's unlikely Procol Harum would have met with any 'serious' or thoughtful reactions from the pop press, as that simply wasn't the way of it. By the time the British press had belatedly become more perspicacious, more musically expert, Procol Harum had found themselves a warmer welcome in America.

"The almost unanimous rejection we received in Britain around the time might well have stimulated us to keep going' says Reid, "it made us do things we might not have tried. I think I know what you mean though  –  had Procol Harum suddenly appeared a couple of years later, when critics were for a while at least more capable of discussing music, then we could have benefited. You can't tell, as if we had achieved that success granted to other bands, then we might have become complacent. And look what's happened to a lot of groups who were unconditionally praised. They're not doing that much now, are they? No, this business of being 'outside' has been important. Although a lot of criticism has tended towards trying to establish various meanings in music. They do like to have something they can grab hold of and hold up as evidence of 'relevance'. In which case they could have had a lot of fun with my words."

Nonetheless Procol Harum exiled themselves to America. "We concentrated from early '68 onwards for about three years on going to the States," says Wilson, "once we were over there we'd tour solidly for about three months."

"Yes (sighs)," says Reid, "America was different. They thought we were very mysterious, you see. We found it a refreshing change. Several things made it a bit easier. The American journalists had magazines where they could write about us in depth and the radio stations  –  then deep underground  –  would play whole albums. We benefited, and by touring made it quite clear that Procol Harum weren't only records."

"For a while," says Wilson, "every- body out there thought Procol Harum was a black man, a single black musician. America was a very vital place then; interest was expressed in all sorts of music, as in Scandinavia today. Audiences would come, sit and look at you, tripped out of their brains  –  but they watched, they wanted to hear music. The visual thing has taken over since then and I'm not sure a group of our nature can cope with that."

Procol Harum's second album, 'Shine On Brightly', was released in November '68, their third, 'A Salty Dog', in April '69, whereupon Fisher left, as did Knights. Chiis Copping replaced them, playing organ and bass; in which guise Procol Harum recorded 'Home', released August '70, and 'Broken Barricades', August '71. Trower left, and it seemed that Copping would be better employed concentrating on either organ or bass, instead of playing both. On 'Barricades' he had contributed bass almost exclusively, to the detriment of group sound. Alan Cartwright was brought in to play bass, Dave Ball to play guitar.

The period following 'Salty Dog' was troubled. The group began to venture into Scandinavia in '70 and hesitantly back into Britain once more with the release of 'Home'.

"There were a number of problems," says Brooker, "we recorded 'Home' with the intention of emphasising the live aspects of the group. We wanted to make a record that we could reproduce effectively on stage. We also managed to get the production side of things sorted out more to our satisfaction. 'Broken Barricades' was written in the studio mostly, and therefore somewhat haphazard. But there were financial considerations as well, we hadn't made a great deal of money and what with people deciding  –  reasonably enough  –  that they weren't prepared to carry on regardless ... well, as you can imagine, we didn't feel on top of the world. Changes in line-up always slow you down for a while and we had plenty of them."

'Barricades' was the first Procol Harum album to be released on the Chrysalis label. Previously the first four records had been available on Regal Zonophone in Britain, London and A&M in America. The Zonophone releases were distributed with a marked lack of enthusiasm and eventually deleted, to reappear in two double packages. These were initially released on Fly, which became Cube. Both sets disappeared in the interim. Fly had also managed to put out a single album compilation, as had Music For Pleasure, under licence.

Procol Harum have been repackaged less than considerately throughout their career. A&M released a 'Best Of' in America containing old singles and flipsides. Continental labels have unleashed endless compilations and one notes that Decca threaten to inform us that Procol Harum have 'Roots', uncovering yet more 'previously unreleased' songs. None of this has helped.

"The thing about Chrysalis," says Reid, "was that it was the first time we've had a relationship with the company that releases our records. In America first with London and then A&M this simply didn't exist. We'd make these records and give them to the companies  –  some of our most important work  –  yet I can't recall ever being able to sit down and actually discuss our music with them. No artist contact."

"Well," says Wilson, "Herb Alpert showed us round his studio, didn't he? But this repackaging business, it's ridiculous. They released 'Homburg' again to coincide with 'Final Thrust' last year. It does us no good as a group and I doubt if it does them much good."

"It's infuriating actually," says Brooker, "so (with emphasis) we are going to have a nice double album out, with a nice package and pictures so if someone wants a representative history of Procol Harum they'll be able to get a decent view of the group and what we've done."

And that, a view of the group and what they have achieved, remains a subject for discussion. 'Edmonton', the live album recorded with an orchestra and choir, was the group's next release, in July '72. It sold very well in America and Canada, respectably in Britain. Why? Perhaps because the music, a selection of older material, represented rather too well what Procol Harum have been neatly, too conveniently explained away as  –  a group with strings. Edmonton was readily identifiable.

"Identifiable?" says Reid, "yes, it was what everybody expected to some extent. A predictable move, I suppose. But it would seem that people have trouble approaching us a group and also our records. There are a lot of misconceptions about us and what we do. I'm understating the matter, you understand . . . "

"Just what misconceptions?" says Brooker, "Good God, there are nine already in the albums we've made. I think it stretches from the broader aspects of things down to individual songs. A lot of what we do and have been trying to do is ignored. A long track like 'In Held 'Twas I' doesn't get any recognition for all the work you put into it; there we were attempting to produce an extended piece, with various link sections, both musical and otherwise  –  some music that would cohere well and sound convincing, complete it itself. Similarly the ways we've worked with orchestras, not attempting any sort of grand classical and rock combinations, but accepting strings, horns and woodwind for what they are, for how they sound, and for how they can be judiciously used.

"But if people hadn't been able to lay that classical thing on us, then they wouldn't have been able to say anything about us at all. Nobody, but nobody, would have written about us, and as it is the Procol Harum file is not as yet of copious dimensions. My music isn't that difficult, but things aren't always quite what they appear ... or on other occasions they are precisely what they appear to be. For example, you mentioned 'The Piper's Tune' on our last album. Well, the title would suggest what is actually the case  –  that there's a pibroch arrangement and pipe band drumming. I don't recall reading anything about that. Perhaps the experiment wasn't successful, but somebody might have drawn attention to it."

"I couldn't agree more," says Reid (Brooker nods his appreciation) "on 'Exotic Birds And Fruit' we had that track 'The Thin End Of The Wedge', which was an experiment lyrically and musically. It doesn't sound much like anything else I've heard. I thought this was something new ... however I was obviously misled in my enthusiasm."

"Another point," says Brooker, "if I may be so bold. Although to all intents and purposes it may appear that the group performs mine and Keith's songs, the group has always been at least, if not more important a consideration. We've solemnly stated that in every interview we've done, we've explained what the differences are between how a song sounds when Keith and I write it and the group play it. Procol Harum could do a Harry Nilsson song, and it would be different. It would be good. We work as a group. We've tried to introduce a number of things into the music over the years: the occasional rumba, the occasional waltz, a few specialities ... but it appears that if you are concerned with making and playing music seriously, without distractions, then you can't just record or play it and leave it all at that."

"No," says Reid, "we've learnt that you have to broadcast it." He gets up, walks over to the window overlooking a construction site and raises his voice: "We're up here, mate, up here!!!

"We were lucky in a way that the live album was a big hit in America because we didn't make a fuss about the fact we'd done a concert with an orchestra. It was more something that we'd wanted to do for a very long time and to the best of our abilities."

"Although to be fair," says Brooker, "the only record we've achieved success with all round was 'Grand Hotel'  –  and even that was very slow. We got a silver disc for it only the other week. Perhaps to sell that number of records over a longer period means more. I'd like to think so."

This matter of elucidation. Reid's lyrics have been the cause of much altercation. He will inform you that he wrote the words to 'A Salty Dog' after seeing some graffiti in Boston, USA  –  "we done run aground skipper"; that 'A Whiter Shade Of Pale' was inspired by a malapropism he heard; 'Bringing Home The Bacon' by American hamburger joint menus; that (and this in unison with Brooker) 'A Salty Dog' (the album) had nothing remotely to do with the sea. The apocryphal (?) episode of the American college student who deemed 'A Salty Dog' worthy of thesis-length, in-depth examination comes to mind. Procol Harum and fifty ways of Western death, or something similar.

Another round of academic perusal would be unnecessary; you can take all the psycho-sociology or leave it. Reid insists that his words are really quite self-evident if only you care to investigate them sensibly. Some of them are easily assimilated, some are explicit, others are not.
"In personal terms' says Reid, 'I feel I've got to communicate something if I'm writing some words. But then again they're not intended to be immediately accessible. As you say I like images, I like evoking moods; there are various themes that I've explored on several occasions. I don't think I should provide some sort of detailed commentary on each set of words, exactly what I had in mind at the time of writing, but I'm only too happy to provide a lyric sheet as with 'Grand Hotel' and 'Ninth'. A large part of a song's effect lies in how it seems to different people. They may or may not choose to relate to a particular phrase.

"But once upon a time I assumed it was all quite obvious. I may have been wrong. I'm not screaming out for intense scrutiny of my words. All the same there's a happy medium; I would be grateful for a bit of comment from time to time. Anyway, I think my things have become a good deal more straightforward. Yes, 'As Strong As Samson' was about the Arab-Israeli confrontation and the general state of things, politics, and so on. As profound as you care to take it. As long as some impression gets across, then so much the better. Again, as with Gary's music, some things are a little more obvious than has been made out in the past.

"Contrary to popular belief I do not 'have pretensions in this field'. I've been described as a self-confessed academic failure and so be it. However, I can safely say that (pause) ... I feel that a considerable amount of nonsense has and has not been written about my words. I have (in Harold Wilsonian vein) no ready solutions, I have no ready explanations. Would I have had them if I'd been asked? More than possibly, but after a time you almost convince yourself that people aren't interested, or if they are, then you're the strange fish they say you are. It can be a peculiar ailment."

Further evidence of Procol Harum's hapless lack of synchronisation. Had Reid's words been reasonably assessed right from the start, then the issue might not have become as entangled as it has. More conditionals.

But Procol Harum continue. They have no intention of breaking up.

"In general things have got better for us in Britain," says Reid, "Our records have sold more, the audiences have increased and we've even had a hit single, our fourth in nine years, with 'Pandora's Box'. We've certainly noticed the beneficial results of working a lot more here. It's definitely not a thing of poor old Procol Harum.

"We're perhaps in the fortunate position now of people, still expecting us to come up with our best work  –  whether they like us or not.

"We work very hard," says Reid, "a lot of days in the year. We enjoy playing live here and will continue to do as many concerts as we can."

The group has recently returned from an extensive tour of Europe, playing a series of dates in Poland, one of the first British groups to have visited Warsaw and points East for some years.

"We've thought that we'd like to go and play that way," says Brooker, "not necessarily Poland, but we saw our name in the charts there about four years ago and mentioned the possibility to various people. We nearly went over in 1974 but negotiations broke down. I think that on this occasion it stemmed from an approach on their part: an exercise in cultural exchange, that sort of thing.

"It was all very different from what you might expect. We heard stories about the dockers' strikes and food riots of 1971, people killed, disappearing without a trace, a thousand people shot here and there. No, in all seriousness, that period does seem to have been rather unpleasant. Personally I thought it was going to be a bit wild but in Poland they obviously listen to a lot of music and enjoy it as well. Wherever you went there were bands playing  –  and most proficiently.

"My own impression of Poland was that they're a very strong people, with a definite sense of national identity, very different from Yugoslavia, which is more like a poor man's Spain. Very few good bricklayers there. But I think we were appreciated and so it was worth all the trouble to go and play just for that. Yes, you could say it was something of a boost. It was almost as if they'd taken lessons in Procol Harum, with instruction in what songs we played and how  –  all spot on.

"Understandably," says Reid, "they had no conception of all the amount of equipment a group needs on stage. But the road crew were very helpful and tried as hard as they could to do everything properly. We were lucky that it didn't snow, otherwise the roads would have been impassable, though it was somewhat cold . . . "

"Cold?" says Brooker, "it was sunny, about 30 below. No problems there."

"There's a possibility," says Reid, "that the one State record company there will release 'Ninth', the problem being that they need to keep foreign currency, and are only allowed to pay a much lower rate of royalties than in Britain or America.

"Ten thousand pounds," says Brooker, 'or fifty crates of cut glass. No, the experience was interesting and most enjoyable. Audiences were very discriminating; if we weren't playing on top form, they would notice. They listened. A very studious crowd. Most gratifying. Keeping us on our toes so to speak. I hope we can go back."

Procol Harum will soon be starting work on their tenth album, with Lieber and Stoller producing again.

"The new album?" says Reid, "well, we're getting the odd tune together. It's going very well and will be the best album we've ever made. We don't accept that we're only able to achieve a certain amount of success in different countries. As we've said, we have got to come to terms with our situation. It comes down to information, but there's no need to make any kind of compromise. There are probably a few people who'd be very glad if we were to knock it all on the head. In fact their names are etched upon my brain. Well, we intend to keep them in suspense, I'm afraid.

"Are we enigmatic?"(Reid glances at Brooker, who shrugs, smiles and relights his pipe) "I've no idea. We have encountered problems in getting ourselves across, we shall attempt to remedy the gap. Forthwith. "

"What's the expression," says Brooker, "the one they always use for this sort of thing? Ah yes, don't call us, well call you, as the plumber said to his mate."

But at times the telegraph lines have been down. The Latin procol harum implies a degree of separation and seclusion. Procol Harum were "different" in '67; in some respects the group has wanted to keep it that way, in others the estrangement has been involuntary. Unfashionable? Consider other veterans, new recruits and contemporaries. Consider how the music has been presented and played these last nine years. Rock and roll as brash, physical dynamism (The Who, the Stones and Zeppelin), as bright and shiny (fools?) gold (Roxy Music, Queen and once-upon-a-time Bowie), as costly spectacle (Pink Floyd). By comparison Brooker's aesthetic seems rigorously austere. He may lead Procol Harum through a waltz or two with flamboyant dash, but makes few other explicit concessions to theatricality or extravagance. Similarly Procol Harum music is without technological (Yes, Genesis, ELP) bias. Brooker has no time for electronics or synthesised keyboards; he prefers to play grand piano and to work around and about song structures.

Procol Harum lack what are currently considered by many to be the necessary prerequisites of media interest. Brooker and Reid feel the group has been presumed Out Of It, undeserving of close scrutiny. Which, paradoxically, is one of several good reasons why the group have remained something of an unknown quantity, "a most mysterious essence". Reid confesses to having felt "alienated" in the past; he and Brooker answered scepticism with a certain amount of cynicism and deliberate obfuscation. A protective shielding. With reference to Reid's 'Butterfly Boys' lyrics: "they tell us that we're savages / that we haven't got a vote / that we haven't got a choice / (they) refuse to recognise our voice / that we're sailing in a sinking ship / (they) put their fingers in their ears / butterfly boys, itching like fleas, stinging like bees / ... give us a break / we've got the groceries you've got the cake".

Procol Harum sells albums and (the BBC allowing) singles, they fill concert halls. Brooker and Reid ask for a fair hearing. They're prepared to elucidate (up to a point)  –  and there's not a lot more they can or could be expected to do under the circumstances.

But some aspects of Procol Harum's constitution remain intangible. For just as the Band have assiduously gathered up an American heritage, so Procol Harum have celebrated a similar communion with Europe. Something to do with Paris and Vienna, even if the Devil did come from Kansas. And not simply because Brooker plays 'the occasional waltz'. A certain amount of Romanticism, and more. Reid complies with faded, sepia daguerrotypes.

Such sensibilities course strongly and deeply. They often prove most durable. So draw your own conclusions.

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