Close to 40 years after first seeing Procol Harum perform live, Henry Scott-Irvine has written the definitive book on the band: The Ghosts Of A Whiter Shade Of Pale. It’s a fascinating look into the history of one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most under-appreciated groups. Full of never-before-seen photos and insightful interviews with dozens of people close to the band, including numerous members of Procol Harum, family, friends and business associates, this is a motherlode for fans of Procol Harum and rock music in general.
In this interview, Henry Scott-Irvine shares his thoughts on Procol Harum and the reasons that after four and a half decades the band continues to “shine on brightly.”
Marc Campbell: The Ghosts Of A Whiter Shade Of Pale is 340 pages long, quite substantial for a band that never achieved superstar status. Clearly, a labor of love and a gift for the fans of the band. When did you first hear Procol Harum and what was your immediate reaction?
Henry Scott-Irvine: The book was estimated to be 340 pages prior to writing it. The biography is actually 308 pages in length. But if you include the narrative pages along with with 50 pictures, then I did indeed deliver 340 pages.
I first heard Procol Harum’s music when “Conquistador” played out BBC TV’s Top Of The Pop’s in March 1972. As a very young teenager it reminded me of Morricone themes from Spaghetti Westerns and alluded to Cervantes’ Don Quixote, which had been specially made as a film for BBC TV around this time. I first heard Procol Harum live a year later at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall (which is Edinburgh’s Royal Albert Hall) when they debuted my home town.
During their performance of “Homburg” I heard a familiar chuckle from a couple of rows back. Much to my overwhelming embarrassment my Dad was sitting behind me wearing a Homburg hat and an overcoat that was way too long!
MC: “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” is considered one of the great psychedelic rock songs. I certainly have fond memories of tripping while listening to it. Were Procol Harum acidheads?
HSI: Well they never admitted to it at the time. But some years later (1992) Gary Brooker did tell me he remembered going to a party at Brian Jones house in the summer of 1967, but couldn’t recall a thing afterwards. I think the song ‘Shine On Brightly’ is the nearest thing to a Procol Harum acid trip! Keith Reid must have been on acid to write that lyric!
MC: The original video for “A Whiter Shade…” has almost 12 million views on YouTube. It’s a song that still seems fresh and contemporary…as does much of PH’s music. Is it fair to say they were ahead of their time?
HSI: Without a shadow of a doubt! Place ‘Pale’ in the context of what had come before in the world of Pop and it was like a bolt out the blue. There had been no 45rpm that featured that particular fusion of classical music and blue-eyed soul, until ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’. Procol Harum were leaps and bounds ahead of the competition. This is why ‘Pale’ was such a huge hit around the world. It literally caught the imagination of countless millions. There has never been an audit of just how many millions it actually sold globally.
Keith Reid, BJ Wilson, Dave Knights and Gary Brooker chat after a sound check at the Constitution Hall in Washington DC, USA in 1969. Robin Trower and Matthew Fisher prefer to sit. Photograph by William Hatfiled.
MC: How did you come to know Procol Harum personally?
HSI: I first met Keith Reid at the time Gary Brooker made his first solo album No More Fear Of Flying in 1979. I went to interview Keith at his offices in Cranleigh Gardens in the rather posh district of Kensington in London. He was running his management company Strongman Production with his associate Nick Blackburn and looking after the likes of Scottish blue-eyed soul singer-rocker Frankie Miller, Southend R&B man Mickey Jupp and Gary Brooker. I heard ‘The Miller’ in concert many times between 1977 and 1981 and I would always track him down backstage in order to meet a rather bemused Keith Reid. “Are you’ze guys Punks?” ‘The Miller’ would say to us each time with a mischievous glint in his eye. We’d tell him that we were Procol Harum fans. He would never believe us then repeatedly recall how, when he was in his first band The Stoics, he used to cover “The Devil Came From Kansas” from Procol’s third album A Salty Dog.
When Procol reformed in 1991 I was working in TV and I renewed my association with Gary Brooker and Keith Reid. Gary would invite me to his Christmas party gigs in Chiddingfold in deepest rural Surrey, every year. The likes of Eric Clapton, Dave Gilmour, Andy Fairweather-Lowe and Frankie Miller would join him and a vast ten piece band covering everything from Otis Redding, Bobby Bland, John lee Hooker and Procol Harum. A couple of us would then be invited to his local olde English pub on the village green the day after where we would join him and the band for a Christmas lunch that would last all day and continue well into the evening. Gary Brooker and his wife Franky were always warm, witty and kind. Magical times.
I went on tour with the band to Tallinn, Estonia in 1993 for a huge festival where Procol topped Faith No More. Two years later I went to see Procol play the newly re-opened Fillmore in San Francisco where they were supported by surprise guests The Doors. I remember walking up the venue’s red velvet carpeted steps to hear the strains of ‘Road House Blues’ spilling out of the theatre as if it really was 1969, and not 1995, and I was literally in seventh heaven. A couple of days later we sat with guitarist Albert Lee at the House Of Blues in Los Angeles and saw Procol Harum deliver another triumphant set. It inspired me to approach the director of the London Symphony Orchestra later that year, and in early 1996 a dream came true when Procol Harum and The LSO played London’s Barbican to a capacity 4000 seater venue. We have all remained friends ever since and a documentary-in-progress remains in the pipeline.
MC: In writing the book, who did you interview?
HSI: I interviewed virtually everyone who is and was in Procol Harum with the notable exception of the late BJ Wilson to whom the biography is dedicated. The band gave me exclusive interviews.
Here is a list of some of the others whom I interviewed:- Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin) Pete Brown (Cream) Will Birch (The Kursaal Flyers & The Records) John Denton (Wilko Johnson’s Solid Senders) Chris Thomas (producer) Dennis Weinreich (producer) Ken Scott (engineer) John ‘Kellogs’ Kalinowski (former manager) Doug D’Arcy (former manager) Derek Sutton (former manager) David Pelletier (former sound man) Ann P Munday (Chrysalis Records) Simon Platz (music publisher).
The book’s Foreword was written at my personal request by Martin Scorsese. The Introduction was also written at my personal request by Sir Alan Parker as was the Afterword by author Sebastian Faulks MBE.
MC: Were there any members of the band who were unwilling to talk to you?
HSI: The bass player David Knights declined to be interviewed for the book. He had decided to put the music business behind him. Almost all of the subsequent bass players were impossible to locate and are not interviewed as a result. The current drummer Geoff Dunn and organist Josh Phillips and I made contact after the book was completed, sadly.
Procol’s drummer [the late] Barrie James Wilson relaxing in 1971. Photograph by William Hatfield.
MC: How long did it take you to research and write the book?
HSI: It really took a lifetime to research it! In truth I started at the beginning of January 2012 delivered the final version at the end of July 2012.
MC: How did Martin Scorsese come to write the forward to the book?
HSI: I wrote to his office and the reply was almost instant. He was keen to do it and flattered to have been asked. I nearly fell over. What a Goodfella!
MC: Like many bands of the Sixties, Procul Harum made albums that were intended to be listened to in one sitting. They were immersive experiences. You could put a pair of headphones on, close your eyes, and disappear for a half an hour or more. I miss those days. How about you?
HSI: With some Americana and Alt Country I think those days are returning. British bands Muse and Radiohead probably still mirror that ethos, too, I think.
MC: Bands are starting to return to making albums that hang together as a whole entity. Richard Hawley, Jonathan Wilson, Mark Lanegan, Nick Cave are a few artists that make albums that cohere and benefit from being heard as one piece of music. A lot of hip hop artists are also making albums that revive the old idea of the “concept” album. I think it’s important keep the tradition alive. Do you agree?
HSI: Yes I do agree. And I have always liked Hawley - especially his new album. Cave has been consistently interesting throughout his career. Of course there were good Rock Operas and bad “concept albums” throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s. Many of the latter category were dreadfully pretentious - especially albums by Rick Wakeman, Yes, Genesis, and the Moody Blues who I think are all wrongly bracketed next to Procol Harum to whom they bear little or no resemblance musically or lyrically. As Trower said to me of Yes, “They are are like musos – excellent musicians - like jazz musicians almost - each masters of their own instrument.” Each showing off and musically masturbating like some Jazz musicians, if you ask me! [I stole that latter quote from Beatles’ producer George Martin who said to me in 2000, “Jazz is basically musical masturbation.”]
Five Procol albums were assumed to be “concept albums”: - most of side 2 of Shine On Brightly was indeed a concept [‘In Held Twas In I’]
A Salty Dog was wrongly presumed to be about “the sea,” but in fact only contained two songs about “the sea” and two more songs that alluded to the word “sea”; Home was presumed to be a concept album about “death” and certainly five songs seemed to reflect the spirit of “death”; Broken Barricades seemed lyrically preoccupied with “sex”; Grand Hotel, looked like a concept album because the artwork reflected the title track; and Something Magic was indeed a “concept album,” “reflecting the spirit of Zen” as the Chrysalis Records’ PR insisted way back in 1977. But it was really something awful!
Keith Reid, Gary Brooker, Dave Ball. Photograph by Dave Ball (Procol’s guitar player from 1971-1972. He left mid way through Grand Hotel)
MC: In this era in which we all seem to suffer from attention deficit disorder, can a band like Procol Harum cut through the clatter and get people to slow down and really listen?
HSI: I think young people who take an interest in our collective cultural heritage would be very open to Procol Harum, but they are probably in a cool minority. Interestingly Procol are far more accepted in other countries and by many areas of ethnicity. They are touring Japan for two weeks right now and have done lots of TV and Radio. Procol Harum were, and continue to be, far bigger in Scandinavia than they ever were in Britain. They will tour there in March 2013 with the Danish National Orchestra. And there has always been an audience for Procol in North America!
MC: What bands are you listening to these days?
HSI: BMX Bandits (Scottish Indy just reformed) The Electric Stars (new UK Mancunian Psychedelia) The November Five (UK-meets-Detroit Rock) 12Dirty Bullets (new UK Indy) Elliott Schneider (Psych-Meets-Power Pop from San Francisco) Ana Egge (new singer/songwriter produced by Steve Earle) Slaid Cleaves (singer/songwriter from Austin, Texas) and Tandy (new Alt Country from the East Cost of the USA).
MC: Any future book projects?
HSI: Yes one comedy book, and one film maker biography.
Thanks for the interview!
Henry Scott-Irvine - author - Procol Harum & The Ghosts Of A Whiter Shade Of Pale published by Omnibus Press and available online everywhere as a UK export through http://amazon.co.uk now.