Procol Harum

the Pale

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Geoff Whitehorn

Talking to Richard Amey in Shine On, Summer 1996

Richard Amey talks to Geoff, in the first of a series of informal chats with band members past and present.

All five of them at The Barbican were heroes, but leading from the front, in Procol's most important British gig of their second coming, was the Cheshire Cat Incarnate himself, Geoff Whitehorn.

His enthusiasm and confidence flooded across the stage like the tide sweeping in to envelop the corpse of the Conquistador - which was Procol's opening gambit. And his after-gig quotes in the last Shine On made compelling reading. So it was time we had a chat with the lad from Gravesend.

He was born in Charing Cross Hospital on August 29, a ghastly 45 years ago. He married Ann, whom he met when he was at Gravesend Grammar School for Boys and she at the Girls' School. The two schools got together for a drama production and they met, as members of the audience, in the interval. It was surely love at first sight (or a crap play): neither of them made it back to see the second half but headed off to one of the empty classrooms.

But hold it there! Stop imagining things. It was 1967, both were a sweet, innocent 16. Their only child, Jessica, will be 15 in September.

So, Geoff, when did you take up the guitar?

In 1962. I suppose it was The Shadows that got me at it, then the Beatles and everybody else subsequently. My head was really turned, though, by Eric Clapton. His Blues Breakers album was a 14th birthday request.

Clapton was unbelievable but Peter Green probably played as well around that time. He did some pretty scary things on Mayall's album A Hard Road. I thought Mick Taylor, after him, was lovely. I saw his début gig at The Marquee.

I actually played the violin as a kid - badly. I hated it, though I suppose it was natural to rebel against being taught something. A friend of mine had a classical guitar. I just picked it up and found it easy - it had frets so you didn't have to worry about where the notes were.

My first guitar was an Egmond, white with 'f' holes, a semi-acoustic. My first decent playable one was a Shaftesbury Les Paul. I went through a few Fenders and Gibson 335s and SGs - but what I really wanted was a Les Paul original, a proper 1950s banjo (I always call guitars banjos!). I had a Strat for a week but it didn't have any welly.

I got a Les Paul reissue from the period but my first original I got for my 21st birthday in 1972 - a 1957 Gold Top: I was happy once I got that.

I've been raised on a thick bluesy sound. I use Picato strings, gauges 10 to 46 on my Les Paul replica, built for me by a friend of mine in Rochester, and 9 to 44 on my Tom Anderson Strat. I've got about 20 guitars now, including about six Les Paul replicas.

You do some magazine work now, don't you?

Yes, a monthly column for Guitar Technique. I record in my studio, then the solo is written up. Basically what I do is pull apart (he means dissect and analyse) guitarists' classic moments. I also do reviews for Guitarist; recently I've looked at a new Marshall amp. These magazines come with CDs.

Have you got an all-time favourite Clapton solo?

Not really. There's about 20 I could choose from. Perhaps Have You Heard or Double Crossing Time. He was 19 then, and what he did with Mayall turned the whole thing of guitar playing on its arse.

So what's your career record in pro bands?

My first was If, jazz rock, then I joined Maggie Bell in 1975, when I met Bad Company. When Paul Kossoff died I replaced him in his own group, Back Street Crawler in 1976. Then I was with Roger Chapman from 1979 to 1988, touring Europe.

In 1990, Mick Ralphs wanted to take a year off for some reason, so I replaced him in Bad Company - I'm always the bridesmaid, never the bride! Then Robin Trower didn't want to tour with Procol after The Prodigal Stranger, Tim Renwick did it for a year but didn't want to do it for ever, so I was called up, and I went and played in Gary's barn.

Did you know any of Procol's numbers?

I knew a lot of them. I'd bought the albums through the 60s and 70s. I've got them all on original vinyl, although I didn't get the 10th.

What was the first number you ever played with them?

Conquistador. I don't think they sent me any tapes or anything. They said they didn't want me to come along with any preconceived ideas about what to play. They wanted to see what I'd do naturally. Then a few days later we went to the States to do the Johnny Carson Show, and I got invited to do Gary's Christmas Bash, which I've done ever since.

Just how much into their music had you already been?

I heard A Whiter Shade of Pale at the time of my 'O' Levels. I thought it was splendid. We'd never heard anything so classically influenced played on the Hammond organ. I loved all that. I was into Deep Purple's classically influenced things, though not the pretentious stuff like Emerson Lake and Palmer.

So which had been your favourite album?

Home, I think. Trower had finally learned to put it all together. Whaling Stories, I thought, was devastating: I really wasn't prepared for that. And Whisky Train was out of character and good.

I enjoyed Broken Barricades after then immensely. Trower's sound had improved even more.

What do you feel about your other predecessors in the band?

All I heard of Dave Ball was the Edmonton album when he was obviously having to play down in volume. I didn't see him live. Mick Grabham, well he obviously understood all the chords and knew what to play over them He struck me as an up-to-date George Harrison, with his melodic element. Mick is one of the best guitarists I've ever heard, to this day. Nobody's ever had a thicker sound, and he was a serious blues player.

How about your all-time favourite Procol number: is there one?

I'd say Grand Hotel. If you wanted to demonstrate to someone what the band were all about, it'd be that one. It's got all the pomp and circumstance, but it's also got the blues element from the guitar, and a blazingly good vocal by Gazza. His voice had got so good by then. That number is the essence of Procol.

What solo to you always look forward to playing yourself?

Grand Hotel. It goes like the clappers - it's a good tear-up. And Repent: that's always a good laugh. Play what you want; stop when you've had enough! Bringing Home the Bacon's a very clever, upside down riff. Typical BJ. Procol are a disciplined band: trained musicians, but with a hooligan element - with the guitar, and Gazza's vocals. Without that, they'd have been just a serious classical band - like several others that came on the scene - they'd have been as dull as ditchwater.

Are there any numbers you feel you've been able to add to?

Yes, on some of the stuff they didn't have guitar on, I've been able to do something. As for A Salty Dog, I've just taken up what Mick Grabham did and developed it - and there's now my seagulls! I just use a stereo delay unit, about a second gap, swell it in, play a high note and bend it at the same time

Already, you've played with several other different drummers and bass players in the band. What impresses you about them?

Mark Brzezicki's a very orchestral drummer, very musical; not your standard bash artist. The drummer has the most difficult job in the band. On guitar you can just slot in and float about. So much depends on the drummer. Henry Spinetti's a great feel drummer and a lovely bloke. And Graham Broad did a smashing job last year. He can also play keyboards and he's into computers and sequences. Did you know he's the drummer on Eastenders? That's him.

Peggy's a good modern bass player and he's horrifyingly young - 24 or something disgraceful- That's 20 years younger than me: not nice. So he's the band victim. He's young, so we all hate him and bully him! Bronzie's probably the best bass player in the world. He's very educated and he just plays bass. He knows why he's playing those parts in Procol's music. He never, ever plays more notes than necessary; he hates the slap-and-tickle type of bass playing, though he plays it sometimes to make fun of it! And he's got a great big, huge sound.

Geoff, this summer you were in Hyde Park, playing on The Who's Quadrophenia ...

Yes, it was excellent. We took it to the States for six nights at Madison Square Garden. We'll be doing a tour round the States and there's talk of England and Earl's Court.

I played all the electric guitar because Pete Townsend's got tinnitus and just wants to play acoustic guitar. So he's let me do the twiddly bits. I'd never met him before this, though I'd played with Daltrey and Entwhistle on tour round the States with Tommy numbers, other Who hits and also Quadrophenia. We played with orchestras, though the ones outside the big cities weren't as good.

It's been really enjoyable talking with you, Geoff. Just before we stop, here's a few chuckaway questions - Who are your three favourite guitarists?

Clapton and Hendrix, they're both givens, so I suppose Steve Lukather of Toto; Jeff Beck, he's probably still the guv'nor, and Eddie Van Halen of Van Halen, he's a real innovator.

Your favourite beer before a gig?


Your favourite food after a gig?


Your favourite breakfast on tour?

The everything breakfast! With the black pudding, the fried slices, with extensive cups of tea. It's bad for you, of course. You're supposed to lose weight on tour. I don't!

Have you any absorbing interests outside music?

Nah, not really! Slobbing out. A bit of Hifi; cars, I suppose; the pub; the curry house .........

And finally, Geoff says his other employers, Bad Company, have got an album ready for release at the end of the year. He's playing on it, of course.

Thanks for your time Geoff.

BtP talks to Geoff Whitehorn

Whitehorn solo albums

Geoff Whitehorn's BtP page

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