When Gary Brooker reappeared for the second half of Procol Harum’s recent Royal Festival Hall show, bandaged but unbowed after a bad stumble, it was almost a metaphor for the defiant way in which the frontman will not let the band’s legacy fade gently into the night.
Barely referring to his injuries beyond a characteristically jokey, absent-minded “got a bit of a broken hand and a broken head”, Brooker proceeded to lead the group to the show’s invigorating completion. Now, as the latter-day line-up of this always-undervalued institution releases the excellent Novum, the first Procol album for 14 years, the soon-to-be-72-year-old knows it’s a record fit to refresh a noble legacy.
“The only reason I would go on stage with Procol Harum, or make a record as Procol Harum, is because I think we’ve always had – I don’t know what the right expression is – a bit of dignity in there; certain standards of music,” Brooker tells me when we meet before the mishap. “I think with this new one, we’ve really focused quite well on the fact that it’s a band playing, which is what it is.”
Novum makes its striking entrance as the famous Procol marque approaches the 50th anniversary of its unforgettable debut, when A Whiter Shade Of Pale shone like the very sun illuminating 1967’s summer of love. That was immediately followed by their first, self-titled album, our full introduction to the group’s unique synthesis of art rock invention, classical rigour, R&B schooling and sheer pop dexterity. The new release is a skilled refurbishment of that framework, down to a glance at the original sleeve in Julia Brown’s cover art.
“Life’s a lot different when you’ve got a new product out,” says Brooker. “We’ve got a good repertoire, which we rely on, and we move it all around and change things, but to have some new stuff… We’ve been very pleased with the way it came out, because we’ve not actually made a record with this line-up. Suddenly we thought, or I thought, ‘If we’ve been going 50 years, it’s time to make some sort of effort.’”
In this true collective, Novum has the bandleader co-writing at times with Hammond organ and Yamaha Montage keyboard marvel Josh Phillips and longtime guitar totem Geoff Whitehorn. Matt Pegg’s bass and Geoff Dunn’s drums stylishly underpin the entire construction. What’s absent, for the first time, is the singular imagery of lyricist, and time-honoured “non-playing member”, Keith Reid, but that’s where Procol’s new secret weapon is deployed.
All but two of the 11 new songs have words by Pete Brown, the treasured penman, poet and musician forever best-known as the lyrical foil for the late Jack Bruce, both in Cream and over the ensuing 45 years. As second marriages go, this one was simply meant to be.
Remarking simply that Reid “kind of came to some crossroads and went a different way”, Brooker explains of Brown: “I bumped into him on different occasions, made a record he produced once [as a tribute album to] John Lee Hooker, saw him at Jack [Bruce’s] funeral, of course, and a couple of other occasions. We just got to talking. But that was about two or three years ago.”
Brown takes up the story. “It was via Dennis Weinreich, the [album’s] producer, who was friends with Chris Cooke, Procol’s manager,” he says. “Between the two of them, after Keith was out of the scene, they plotted to get me involved in it.
“I’ve always had a lot of respect for Gary, I think he’s one of the great singers and he’s got that archetypal British R&B feel, which I love. It’s a weird thing, I’m not really a songwriter for hire, that’s not my thing. I will get involved in projects which interest me creatively or musically in some way, that’s what I do.
“I don’t like a whole lot of lyricists,” Brown continues. “It just so happens that I always did like what Keith did. Songs like Homburg are very fine pieces of work.”
There was a fleeting work connection between the two wordsmiths, when Bruce made 1982’s Truce album with Robin Trower, for which Reid and Brown each wrote half of the lyrics.
“That was a nice experience, not to say that I got to meet Keith that much,” he goes on. “But I was aware of his work and I’m very respectful of it. I suppose it was a daunting prospect in a way, stepping into those shoes, but my methods are completely different. Keith would send stuff to Gary, and that would be it, he was like Bernie Taupin.”
Brooker is as droll as ever in recalling the relationship with Reid. “I didn’t usually change anything, but I didn’t know what he was on about anyway,” he deadpans. “But I could make it believable. There was always an atmosphere there, and some nice lines.
“I never questioned it at all, and I never found it odd, like some other people did, even with A Whiter Shade Of Pale. ‘What’s that’s about?’ ‘Well, don’t you know? Just imagine and think, listen to the lines.’ A lot of Reid’s ones ended up [where] you could think whatever you want, A Salty Dog or whatever. He had humour. You can imagine it’s at sea, at least.”
While Procol were setting sail, Cream were defining the power trio, often with the essential adornment of Brown’s unforgettable words. Homburg was even in its top 10 singles run in the very week that Disraeli Gears arrived in the UK album bestsellers. In that less competitive era, such groups were friends and neighbours.
“I met Gary a few times,” says Brown of those days, “and I went to the first Procol Harum gig at UFO, which I remember being pretty good, actually. Because it was a smaller scene, it had elements of community. People went to each other’s gigs a lot, people were interested to see what was going on, and it wasn’t rivalry or jealousy, no one was trying to cut anyone.”
The recent Festival Hall one-off, which precedes Procol’s May UK tour, was all the more of an occasion because of its arrangements of their catalogue staples for orchestra and choir. It’s a device that, as Brooker is proud to point out, they’ve used longer than anyone, and the history includes another example of that old school inquisitiveness Brown refers to.
“It’s always been something we’re very capable of,” he says of the orchestral dimension, “and the music we play lends itself to that. It’s never been a battle of rock and classics, it’s something that works together. I think we were the first, I know this by fact. We did it in 1969, probably the early summer, in Stratford, Ontario.
“This is before the Edmonton album, as it’s known [the 1972 release featuring the magnificent orchestration of the group’s early song Conquistador].It was at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, we used their orchestra and all of their actors were in the choir. We didn’t do very much, we did In Held ’Twas In I, A Salty Dog, I think that was almost it. That led to getting to play at Edmonton.
“But when I came home from that, I saw that Deep Purple were on at the Albert Hall with the Royal Philharmonic, so I thought, ‘I’ll go and check this out.’ So we in fact played before they did. Theirs was very much a battle between heavy rock and an orchestra.”
Musing on the significance of their fusion, and Procol’s place in the musical food chain, he goes on: “That was a progressive thought, of course, but the word didn’t exist then. Well, it did, but not in regard to music. Of course you were always trying to write and record things which seemed to be progressive, rather than… what’s the opposite? Retro, I suppose. Always trying to do something different, forward-thinking.”
It’s always exhilarating to see a venerable band with new momentum, and 50 years on, Procol Harum’s momentum is palpable.
“Not that that seems a long time,” says Brooker, “but to keep a standard going that amount of time – which, although a lot of British people don’t know it, we have done – is an achievement in itself. I think the new album crowns that, [so that] they can play something other than Whiter Shade Of Pale. Which still sounds good!”
Even better for both loyal devotees and newcomers, they’re already thinking about the next one.
“I think the thing is, you’ve got to get into the rhythm of it, not lie around for five years now,” Brooker muses. “I know we can come up with ideas between us, so there’s no reason, once we’ve got the dates out of the way this year, [not to] go in and do some more. Why not? You’re fresh off the road, you’ve all been working together and it should flow smoothly on. You might need a rest in between.
“This new one,” he concludes, “is the one where every one’s worth a listen, and it’ll be your favourite in 10 years’ time. Be a bit old by then…”
Novum is out now on Eagle Rock. See www.procolharum.co.uk for more information.