Interview: Gary Brooker & Matthew Fisher, Procul Haram

Parisian Walkways

Mike Harris flies out to gay Paris to catch Procol Harum on the last date of their current European jaunt, and discovers the secret behind their current reformation.

The release in February of PROCOL HARUM's The Prodigal Stranger has not yet stopped anyone dead in their tracks, but, after raising some quizzical eyebrows amongst music hacks, has, at  last,  received a seal of approval.  All fears of a disappointing reunion were firmly dispelled on first listening. The Prodigal Stranger has picked up some good reviews with positive reactions all round.

The Harum were legendary in the 60s and 70s for their idiosyncratic music, based on making classically inspired works with deep-rooted dramatic moods, all greatly enhanced by the Hammond organ's cathedral drone. Done with great care and intelligence they had an individualist quality that left them comparable to no one,  and earned them great respect worldwide. They created something that no one else emulated and sat out very much on their own in terms of rock reference.

Remembered mainly for A Whiter Shade of Pale they followed this success with a string of hits which included Salty Dog, Homburg, Conquistador, and Pandora's Box. Their passage from 1967 to 1977 saw 10 album releases and a succession of world tours. Feeling jaded and uninspired after an American tour and slightly out of sorts with the times in London, they decided to call it a day. The group finally disbanded in New York on May  15th  1977,  ironically 10 years to the day after the release of A Whiter Shade of Pale.

Now here I am 15 years on in 1992 on a wet Friday evening sitting in the back of a Parisian taxi with their press officer,  another rock journo and a Fleet Street hack. We're crawling through the weekend rush hour to see Harum on the final dates of a 5-week European tour. The venue, the Elysee in Montmartre, was once a former boxing arena and was designed by Alexander Eiffel,  he of tower fame. Holding about 1000, it boasts some stylish interior decor and is designed to allow everyone the clearest view wherever they stand. 

The Parisian crowd are almost silent. There's a respectful hush around the place,  the atmosphere one of anticipation. Harum arrive to an eruption and start with Conquistador. Continuing with old favourites and new songs from the new album they soon win the audience. The excellent quality of the PA and Gary Brooker's linguistic merits in French helping to enhance the proceedings.

An hour or so on and Matthew Fisher’s fingers walk across the Hammond and out comes that riff.  A Whiter Shade of Pale sounds amazing, and, despite its age, it has a strange timelessness about it.  An encore follows, and that's the end of the European Tour.

At the after show meal a little later the restaurateur hugs Gary and tells him how he wooed his wife to A Whiter Shade... during the 'Summer of Love.' A daughter born some months later now has a child of her own. Gary doesn't seem surprised…

“I hear that story a lot. The song, it seems, was responsible for a lot of newborns.”

Reflecting back to the gig, I remember being surprised by the quality of the band. I shouldn't have been because the line-up carried some pedigree. Alongside originator's Gary Brooker and Matthew Fisher are bass player Dave Bronze, whose work with THE ART OF NOISE and DR FEELGOOD, to name but a few, and a brilliant guitarist called Geoff Whitehorn whose stints include ELKIE BROOKS and BAD COMPANY. The drum spot is taken by former BIG COUNTRY stickman Mark Brzezicki, who informs me it is him playing on his old band's last album No Place Like Home despite a lack of credit. Lyricist Keith Reid  doesn't appear with the band but he did come to see quite a few of the shows on the tour.

Unable to collate a tangible interview the night before, I meet Gary Brooker in the hotel lounge at lunchtime the next day. The first thing I have to ask is why they came back after all these years?

“I suppose it was something on the back of my mind for some time. I spoke to Keith Reid in October 89, and we both felt it was time to make another Procol album. The reasons were vague but we both wanted to try it. We started writing together in New York to see if we could still work together, and to see how things came out. We wrote about five songs, and they sounded good to us, and other people seemed excited about them. We came back to England and did the same thing in Matthew's studio, later playing the material to Robin Trower who wanted to get involved,  and that was it”

With the lineup very much close to what was regarded as the original and the best Procol Harum, one link was unfortunately not to be included. BJ Wilson, Procol's constant drummer through their heyday was sadly lying in a hospital bed in America two years into a coma. He later died in 1990. Gary adds a personal footnote:

“BJ was a great man and a wonderful drummer. it was very sad.  I visited him a few times in hospital and would play old Harum songs on the piano. Later, when we had done some demos, I went to see him again and played them. That was the first time I got a reaction. His eyes moved to say how he disliked those drum machines. BJ would have loved to be back in the Harum again. It's just very very sad.”

Now you're back with an album and an American and European tour behind you. What are your thoughts at this stage?

“I feel we've been proving things to ourselves as much as anyone else. We can still write good songs, still perform them live, and we're not going backwards with nostalgia.”

Did you fear you'd be accused of cashing in on the nostalgia thing?

“No, I didn't, because we came back for the right reasons. We could have cashed in on our name years back, but we only reformed the band when we felt we had something to say.”

The crowd in Elysee had, to my surprise, been mostly young, a majority in their 20s, some younger, and only a small percentage who were there first time round. Do Procol Harum know what audience they've captured?

“I don't think we can after being away so long, but it appears to me that we attract a cross section, and that's what I like because we are not coming in on any angle. We're simply Procol Harum.”

In 1971 you recorded a live album with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra in Canada and I hear now they want to work with you again.

“Yeah, their 50th jubilee is coming up and they've made an offer. I can't be 100% sure it will come off, but it would be strange going back. I don't want to repeat myself, so it would have to be something a bit different, but I'm sure it could work”

I know you made three solo albums between the split in 77 and now, but what else were you up to?

“I played in ERIC CLAPTON's band for a couple of years, and that was a lot of fun. There was no pressure, and I've always had a love for rhythm and blues. Doing that was just a pleasure, and I used to get  to sing from time to time. We often did weird versions of A Whiter Shade and Salty Dog. After that, I had an R&B band in England called NO STILETTO SHOES with Andy Fairweather Lowe. It was mainly a pub thing but it really cooked.  I think I improved my voice belting that stuff out. I really had to sing my head off. When that broke up, I started thinking about Harum and getting it together again.”

What about new material for the future?

“I'll either go to New York or Keith will come to England. I'll work some musical ideas before we meet and Keith will get some lyrics ready. Sometimes, though, Keith might just send something in the post.”

So the lyrics often come first?

“They usually do. I look at the words and usually feel a mood.  That, more often than not, is the starting point.”

When you split in 77, you were still a successful act. What buried the band?

“We'd been playing for 10 years,  made 10 albums, and done 100 Tours, and musically had gone full circle. We were tired of playing our older material. Things were a little flat. On our last album we had one side which was a spoken fairy tale, and if you put that into the context of 1977 and Punk, you'll understand the situation. Every trade paper was saying 'the dinosaurs are dead,  ambitious music outlets have the people's stuff.' We knew we were going to be slaughtered, even if we made a great album.  We had gone a little stale and the times had gone a little stale on us.”

Has A Whiter Shade of Pale become a millstone around your neck,  and don't you ever get tired of playing it?

“I don't see it as a millstone, and I'm playing it regularly for the first time in 15 years. I still enjoy the song. It still captures something.”

How do you think the band will develop?

“We couldn't do much experimentation on this new album because we'd been away 15 years and didn't want to alienate our audience, but in the future I'd like to develop some different things, be a bit more ambitious.”

As Gary leaves to do another interview, I'm joined by the enigmatic Matthew Fisher. He left the band after 3 years last time because he didn't like touring. Last night he seemed pretty disgruntled after the show, and this morning was having all kinds of hassle with missing luggage. Was he finding it all a bit much second time around?

“No, no not at all. I'm loving it. Just a few end-of-tour hiccups. I left before because I never got to see my girlfriend and missed things like cups of tea, sausages, and my favourite TV programmes. I also wanted to spend more time in my studio.  Now I don't want to spend any time in my studio, I prefer international cuisine, and would rather drink coffee than tea.  The the coffee in England is rubbish anyway and I'm also separated from my wife. The best place for me is out on the road touring.”

Well that's cleared that up! 

As Matthew sips his cup of coffee the Harum manager tells him to hurry up and get ready for a photo shoot, which is to be done in the streets of Paris. Matthew is a touch annoyed. He'd much rather stay put and talk about his Atari sampler, his Hammond organ, and all the strange things he does with his keyboards. Eventually persuaded and bullied into leaving his seat of rest and wearing a scarf he doesn't want to, he saunters off behind the others, possibly oblivious to the fact he is responsible for the best known organ riffs of all time. I wish I'd asked him what that song was about.

Mike Harris
Riff Raff
April 1992

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