Procol Harum

the Pale

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The Mysterious Case of the Vanishing Cat:
in Search of the Real Procol Harum

Marcus Gray for BtP • Part 1

It probably won’t come as much of a surprise to 'Beyond the Pale' regulars, but in May 1967, a band called Procol Harum appeared – seemingly out of nowhere – with a near-instant number one single A Whiter Shade of Pale. Within a month of release it had sold an estimated 2.5 million copies worldwide. And everybody who heard it wanted to know how that soulful, solemn, even hymnal tune came about. (Stax? Meet Bach.) And wanted to decipher that obscure, bookish, yet playful lyric. (Eng Lit O Level? Meet Bob Dylan. And have a toke on that.)

Most of all, though, they wanted to know how the band came by that name. After a cat, was the answer. But what cat? A cat that no longer sat on the mat, it seemed, but had simply vanished. And thereby hangs a tale. A tortuous and perplexing tale. Welcome to a forty year-old menagerie of fake cats, red herrings, wild goose chases, and much barking up the wrong tree. Little wonder that the true identity of the cat and its owner was recently described as ‘one of the great unsolved mysteries of rock'n'roll’.

Guy Stevens (rear) with Hapshash and the Coloured Coat in 1967

Guy Stevens was a former Mod DJ whose keen ear for a great tune meant that just about every early-to-mid Sixties British R&B band from the Rolling Stones to the Who went to him for repertoire suggestions. Later, he worked as an A&R man for Island records, and also as a producer and manager. He lacked staying power when it came to seeing projects through, but his often chemically-enhanced enthusiasm was highly contagious, giving him the well-deserved reputation as one of the key instigators and motivators of the decade. His other undisputable knack was for names and titles. Between 1967 and 1971, Stevens would be responsible for Mott the Hoople, the Heavy Metal Kids, Spooky Tooth, Tons of Sobs, Sticky Fingers,
A Whiter Shade of Pale … and Procol Harum.

In autumn 1966, he put the young lyricist Keith Reid and pianist Gary Brooker together as a songwriting team, and, at the beginning of the following year, helped build a band around Brooker to perform their songs. Legend has it that they were considering calling themselves the Pinewoods – a name apparently inspired by guitarist Ray Royer's place of birth, though unfortunately slightly more redolent of coffins or planks – until the excitable Stevens rang up during rehearsals one day and insisted he’d found the perfect new name. ‘Guy explained it came from a friend’s cat whose pedigree name was Procol Harum,’ Gary Brooker told music writer Chris Welch for the sleevenotes to the 1997 reissue of the band’s début album Procol Harum. ‘It was kind of an ambiguous name and we were writing ambiguous music.’

In spring 1967, the band split with Guy Stevens and signed to Deram, a subsidiary of Decca. Following a warmly received sneak preview on Radio London, A Whiter Shade of Pale  was rush-released. ‘As soon as the single was in the charts, everyone wanted to know where our name came from, and I told everybody about the cat,’ said Brooker. ‘But they wanted to know more than that …’ In response to the bombardment of queries throughout the second half of May, the band’s appropriately-named management team, New Breed, produced what they claimed to be the cat’s pedigree certificate. It revealed that the cat was a male Burmese Blue, and that the band had, in fact, misheard and misspelled its name: Procul Harun. If anything, the error detail made the story of the naming of the band all the more plausible.

Nevertheless, it appeared the media, and even the band themselves, weren’t entirely convinced. There was some debate that Procol Harum (or Procul Harun) was actually dog Latin for ‘beyond these things’ or ‘far from these things’: slightly pretentious, maybe, but in keeping with the spiritual aspirations (or affectations) of the times. This information might have been more fuel for the publicity machine, but it did nothing to clarify matters: did it mean the story about the cat was a put-on or wind-up? The band persevered with the cat yarn, but didn’t always seem to be bothered about getting it straight. Keith Reid would sometimes describe the breed as Siamese, and (years later, admittedly) Gary Brooker would say it was a Burmese Brown.

The original late May 1967 press-release photograph
of ‘Procul Harun’, as reproduced in Mojo, 1995

Tony and Pandora
In late May 1967, New Breed responded to demand by issuing a photograph of the suddenly famous pet … and that really put the cat among the pigeons. The gossip page of the NME, 3 June 1967, stated that ‘Deram’s Tony Hall has a cat with Procol Harum pedigree.’ Hall was Decca’s Head of Promotions, and in charge of the band’s label, Deram. Had the NME got the wrong end of the stick? Whatever happened to Guy Stevens and his friend? Also, the proffered illustration might have satisfied the casual record buyer, but anyone who knew anything about pedigree breeds could see that the cat in the photo wasn’t Burmese Blue, Brown or Siamese.

Deram’s Tony Hall in 1967

Tony Hall’s then-wife Mafalda was in charge of New Breed’s press and promotions. A speculative e-mail finds the now-remarried Mafalda Platz at home in France, and happy to confess to a fairly typical bit of mid-to-late Sixties hype. ‘They couldn’t get a photo of the original cat, so I proposed mine and Tony’s. We did a photo session at our flat, and I still have copies of the photos taken for the band. Our cat was Abyssinian, and her name was Pandora.’ The item in the NME’s gossip page was a wink at this deception from someone in the know.

Another photograph of
Pandora the Impostor
from the same session as above
courtesy Mafalda Platz

Procol Harum’s relationship with New Breed came to a sudden and litigious end after a few short weeks in summer 1967. The pedigree certificate seemed to go missing, and the split with Mafalda meant the band could no longer run with the Pandora the Impostor scam. Gary Brooker somewhat obliquely admitted the deception in the press release accompanying the band’s 1969 album A Salty Dog, describing the band’s feline namesake thus: ‘it has magical properties, is uncanny, and no one has ever been able to take its picture.’

Procol Harum wrote a song called Pandora’s Box around the time of the fake photo-call. First recorded on 23 July 1967, it was not released until 1975 (and then in a re-recorded version). Two intriguing questions come to mind. Was the inspiration for the song anything to do with the feline Pandora? And was the delay in its release at least partially due to the can of worms opened up by the scam she was unwittingly party to? When the song did finally become a single, one meaning of the Pandora’s name – ‘she who sends up gifts’ – came true: it became the band’s last British hit single.

Pandora’s Box

The rolling programme of disinformation, contradiction and magical mysteriousness caused Procol Harum’s fans no end of bemusement. Could they actually believe anything they had been told about the band’s name? Speculation has run rife ever since, as even a brief tour of the
'Beyond the Pale' site attests.

In September 1995, Rob Chapman wrote a piece about Procol Harum for Mojo. It was accompanied by the 1967 photo of Mafalda and Tony Hall’s Pandora with the caption ‘Guy Stevens’s cat, the original Procol Harum’, which kicked that particular can right back open again. This version of the picture is reproduced on the 'Beyond the Pale' site along with the intriguing caption, ‘Legend tells that the cat was a Burmese Blue, and that he lived until 1972.’ When I e-mail Rob Chapman to enquire what he knows about this, he replies, ‘I always thought it was common knowledge that the cat belonged to legendary producer and drug fiend Guy Stevens. I know nothing of that caption. Mojo probably got that information off some fan club guy.’ Own up, fan club guy …

Four years later regular 'Beyond the Pale' theorist Sam Cameron correctly deduced that the picture reproduced in Mojo was a hoax, and less correctly asserted that the impostor in the photo was ‘a domestic shorthaired tabby’. By this time, pedigree databases could be searched online, and he and other fans of the band could go surfing for records of the feline Procol Harum. Sam found dozens of cats that incorporated the name or something like it … but many were from the Devon Rex breed, and all of them were born considerably later than 1967. They were clearly either tributes to, or attempts to cash in on, the band and the story of its naming. Sam concluded, ‘There is still no evidence of there ever being any cat bred – with any spelling variant of the name [Procol Harum] whatsoever – back in 1967, after all!’

Keith Reid was unusually forthcoming when interviewed by Adam Dolgins for his 1993 book Rock Names. He said that the cat ‘belonged to a friend of ours, just somebody that we used to hang out with when we were forming the band’. When pushed, he added, ‘It belonged to our dealer. We used to score off him.’

A few years later, a rumour began to circulate that the cat – if it existed – had belonged to an early band roadie named McGreggor. This gained credibility when an unreleased song of that title was included as one of the extras on the 1999 Westside release of A Salty Dog… plus! Actually recorded during the 1968 sessions for the band’s second album, Shine on Brightly, the lyric begins, ‘McGreggor was a soldier brave…’ and tells a traditional-ballad-type tale of a squaddie being denied his freedom after serving forty years, responding by shooting his corporal through the head, and then being ‘taken by the neck’ – nice bit o’detail, there Keith – and hanged from a tree.

It’s hard to see what this might have to do with roadies or dealers, but the two archetypes seem to have been conflated by hardcore Procol Harum fans – including Sam Cameron – into a sort of low-rent music biz version of Goldfinger. You can imagine this McGreggor lurching onstage to tap the microphones and mumble the ‘one-two, one-two’ mantra, pausing only to sell the band a quid deal before driving the Transit back to Mrs Bun’s B&B… to spend the rest of the night plotting world domination while stroking his pedigree pussy.

       The Longest Crawl            

2006 saw the publication of Ian Marchant’s book The Longest Crawl – released in paperback in July 2007 – one of those humorous travelogues with a quirk: in this case, a month-long trip around the British Isles with no need of a fridge so long as the pubs are open. Marchant writes of meeting someone called Ash in Wales. ‘“I had this cat called Procol Harem [sic],” Ash told [him]. “A Burmese, a sweetie she was. At this time, '66, '67, I was dealing acid to the beautiful people … Gary Brooker was one of my regulars … He was always around mine. ‘What’s your cat called Ash?’ he asked me. ‘Procol Harem,’ I said. So they changed the name of the band.” “But Ash, that's one of the great unsolved mysteries of rock'n'roll…” “What is?” “Who owned that cat that Procol Harem were named after.” “Is it? Well it was me.”’

Time to untangle this ball of wool. Preferably without leaving my desk …

This ongoing article is © Marcus Gray October 2007, and is reproduced by his kind permission.
Enquiries, further information etc, to red.barn at yahoo dot co dot uk

In addition to an AWSoP retrospective for Classic Rock, Marcus Gray is the author of the sometimes-acclaimed Last Gang In Town: The Story And Myth Of The Clash, the occasionally-remembered It Crawled From The South: An R.E.M. Companion, and the deservedly-forgotten London's Rock Landmarks.

The Name of the Cat | The next instalment of this story