Procol Harum’s Salad Days (Are Here Again)
Formed in 1967, the sophisticated and forward-looking British band Procol Harum had its origins in a very different outfit, the Paramounts. Along with pianist/singer Gary Brooker, guitarist Robin Trower, multi-instrumentalist Chris Copping and drummer B.J. Wilson were part of a group that focused on American-style rhythm and blues. The band scored a UK Top 40 single with Leiber and Stoller’s “Poison Ivy,” a tune previously covered by countrymen the Dave Clark Five, the Rolling Stones and the Hollies, among others.
After the Paramounts failed to follow that record up with another hit, the group disbanded. Brooker continued writing on his own, and subsequently linked up with organist Matthew Fisher, non-performing poet/lyricist Keith Reid and others. Calling the new group Procol Harum, that early lineup recorded and released 1967’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” a smash hit that today remains the band’s most well-known song. After opening for Jimi Hendrix in London in that same year, the band organized a tour.
Over the coming months, the band’s lineup would change significantly, with former Paramounts Trower, Copping and Wilson eventually joining Procol Harum. The group sustained critical and commercial success with its next several albums, though the lineup would continue to change. By the time Procol Harum broke up in 1977, five lead guitarists had passed through its ranks (Trower left in 1971 for a successful solo career).
The band’s sound had always been a mixture of the members’ R&B influences, a progressive – but not overly fussy – musical bent (aided and abetted by the presence of not one but two keyboard players), and Reid’s often impressionistic lyrical work. Those qualities had largely fallen out of favor with the record-buying public by 1977, so the members went their separate ways.
But after some 14 years without Procol Harum, Brooker relaunched the band in 1991, and has continued unabated to present day. Most every original member has returned at least once to play with the modern-day group (even Trower returned briefly in 1991), and the current lineup has been together since 2007, with three members (Brooker, guitarist Geoff Whitehorn and bassist Matt Pegg) on board since the early ’90s.
Unlike most other “legacy” bands who started in the 1960s, today Procol Harum continues as a creative force rather than a traveling oldies jukebox. After a 14-year break from releasing new material, the band made a highly-regarded 2017 album, Novum. Avoiding the temptation to rest on past glories, with Novum the band has created a work that stands up to the group’s 1970s-era releases. And a new box set, Still There’ll Be More is a comprehensive survey of Procol Harum’s work from 1967 to today, with three CDs worth of music from the band’s dozen studio album, two CDs giving official release to long-bootlegged live recordings, and three DVDs worth of concert and archival video dating all the way back to the beginnings of the band.
Procol Harum’s current tour – built around City Winery venues in cities across the U.S. – commences in February with an opening date in Atlanta. Ahead of the tour, Gary Brooker spoke with me about the band’s past, present and future.
After the Paramounts, when you started working with Keith Reid, did you have in mind a specific style or musical approach that you were seeking to explore?
I think that in the years before that, I’d absorbed lots of different styles of music. I liked everything, really – from classical to Hawaiian, blues, R&B, rock and roll – and I just thought I’d try and write songs of my own, which is what came out.
The Scopitone video jukeboxes of the 1960s predominantly featured fairly lightweight French pop acts; there are very few of what most people would call rock music Scopitones. Procol Harum’s promo film for “A Whiter Shade of Pale” was a notable exception. Do you have any recollection at all of making that film?
Well, yeah, I do. I have seen it, and I can remember making it. But the reason that it fits into that French genre is because it was a number one single in France. I don’t think even the Beatles were often number one in France! The French really took to it, and it was number one in France before it was number one in the UK. And so the Scopitone people would have wanted it on their jukeboxes, certainly.
Some critics label Procol Harum – or at least some of the band’s work – as progressive rock. Do you think that that term applies?
Well, I just won an award, my friend, for a significant contribution to progressive rock or progressive music! But of course, when Procol Harum started, the genre didn’t even exist. We pre-dated the terms progressive music and progressive rock by a couple of years, at least. I think that Procol – certainly our attempts at early things through Shine On Brightly and A Salty Dog and even the Edmonton Symphony live album – were trying to progress things in the sense that we were trying to explore new avenues that a rock group could go down. Long pieces like “In Held ’Twas in I” had us playing with a symphony orchestra.
When bands have a keyboard player as one of the focal points, it can be a little more difficult to put across visual energy, unless one uses a keytar or does gymnastics like Elton John did in the ’70s or wears a glittery cape like Rick Wakeman did (and still does). It’s pretty much a case of a guy sitting at a keyboard, and Procol Harum has traditionally had two of those. Looking back to the early days of the group, was the visual aspect of the band something that you thought much about?
No, it didn’t really figure. No concern at all, in fact. I think that in 1967, we’d had enough. We’d seen enough of the three bouncing front men smiling going “ooh.” It was very lightweight, and we were a bit more serious about things. I was actually the singer as well. So, I’m at the keyboard, and singing, and not doing particularly much … not doing what Little Richard did or even what Jerry Lee Lewis did. It was trying to make people listen and to affect the people that were listening. To get up to the stagecraft of being a madman or something was not really part of my [approach]. It isn’t today, as well. I still play and sing the songs.
You’ve done a significant amount of work outside the band, both when the group was inactive and even during times when Procol Harum was together. Do endeavors like playing with Bill Wyman’s band or Ringo’s group fulfill you creatively in ways that Procol Harum does not?
Yes, they do. For a start, in those bands the onus of entertainment or the onus of presenting it is not always on my shoulders. It is when it’s my turn, but it’s not there for two hours or for however long the band plays. When I was with Eric Clapton’s band as well, it was the same thing. I used to sing a couple and take the reins, but generally, I could, if you like, relax and be the piano player. And that’s quite a relief sometimes!
Novum stands on its own as an excellent album of new material. Can you tell me about the circumstances leading to making the first new Procol Harum album in many, many years?
Well, that’s a very nice comment, I must put in there. Thank you very much. Because that is something which you constantly think of when you make a new album. We haven’t made that many in the last few years, so it was quite important. But we are aware that we’re Procol Harum and you can’t, certainly, come out sounding like Lynyrd Skynyrd or something like that. People will go, “What’s going on? That’s not Procol Harum.”
So we are Procol Harum, but we’re Procol Harum because I’m singing, because of the instrumentation we’ve got. That will always be there, but this time, we just had a different outlook on things. We were inspired. We suddenly found out that Procol Harum had been going for 50 years, so we thought we’d better do something.
But also, the band as it stands today has been together for 11 or 12 years playing live, and we thought, “Oh, hang on. That’s a long time, and we haven’t actually made a studio album in all that time.” So, it was time to go in, and we had a very good producer. We had a concept song-wise. We also had a concept for the production of it, in that we wanted to play it all live in a studio, not overdubbing and spending six months doing it. It was quick. And there’s not an overdub on it, I don’t think.
I found it fascinating that Cream lyricist Pete Brown is the lyricist for the album. While he’s not, I don’t think, in any way trying to copy Keith Reid’s approach, there’s definitely the sense of poetry about the lyrics. Tell me about choosing to work with him.
I’ve known Pete Brown since his Cream days, since ’67 or whatever. We’ve seen each other now and again, and we have congregated because he also worked a lot with Jack Bruce. Because I worked with Jack Bruce in Ringo’s All Starr Band for about two or three years. I got to know Jack and saw Pete now and again, and – I think it was at Jack Bruce’s funeral – when I saw Pete again, he said, “Look, if you ever want any lyrics for Procol, I’d be honored to be given a chance.” So, a year or two after that, we’re suddenly thinking we’re going to make a new album and I thought, “Right, okay. Let’s get Pete Brown in and give it a go.”
This tour that you’re doing in North America includes a lot of City Winery gigs. Do you and the band approach those sort of performances differently than you would a larger hall?
I think it will be a different approach. I think that sometimes if you’re in a very big situation – with two thousand people – then you can crack on; they like it to be noisy, big, and fast even. But I think if you were listening to that in a City Winery, your ears might get blown out halfway through. So, I think that this will give the opportunity to play a lot of songs that are a bit more chill.
How does touring in 2019 differ from when you were doing it in your early 20s?
Well, I can’t remember that far back! But it’s really not like that. My memories of that, particularly in the USA, are of playing to a lot of colleges and university audiences back in the late ’60s and ’70s. Now we play to the converted, and their children and grandchildren. There are a lot of younger generations that they are very interested in a group like Procol Harum, a group that’s got history and that’s done big things, and yet is still there. And I think they sometimes come to see, “Well, why are they still there? What do they do?”
We’ve just done a tour of Europe and it was very, very successful and the audiences were fantastic. But we haven’t played in America for about four years now, at least. We haven’t been there since Novum’s been out. So, it will be interesting to see what’s changed, what’s different, who’s coming to see Procol Harum today. It’s nice to play some new songs for people.
I mean, we always play some standards and we always play some repertoire that perhaps people won’t expect or haven’t heard before. There’s always, let’s say, six songs in there out of 18 or 20 that we won’t play tomorrow night and we won’t have played the last night. That keeps us alive and interested, and it’s also good for people that come.
Once the tour is over, what’s next for you and the band?
We’re doing quite a few festivals around Europe in the course of the summer. Then, we’ll probably sit back and think, “Right. What’s next?” Once we finished making Novum, writing new songs and recording it, we said, “Let’s do this again very soon.” And time really catches up with you pretty quickly. What we would turn our minds to next, is actually just making another album, something that will mean something to us.
I’m very unhappy that there’s not the CD in shops anymore. I like to make a product that, “There it is, it’s in your hand.” We make it, you’re meant to put it on and listen to it loud until the end. I think I’ll still stick with that formula. I just can’t think of streaming two tracks from an album; that doesn’t mean that much to me.
Fifty-plus years on, what do you think explains the enduring popularity of Procol Harum?
I don’t know the answer to that. I’m very pleased. I love the fact that we are still in demand, let’s say. I have to sing these things, right? And if I was tired of singing them, then I think everybody would be tired of listening to them as well. And I think that a lot of Procol Harum stuff over the years has not been out of fashion and it’s not really got dated. The lyrics always seem to be fine today as they were 50 years ago, and the music is the same. “A Whiter Shade of Pale” was our first record and that was completely different from the time. And yet if you hear it on the radio now, it still has the same effect on you.
Photo by Alex Asprey.