According to The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “42 is the answer to the great question – The meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything”. Maybe the late Douglas Adams, the writer of the Guide, who was a friend of Procol’s “Commander” Gary Brooker, knew more than he was letting on.
2009, 42 years from the release of A Whiter Shade of Pale, sees their monumental first smash hit being awarded the accolade of the most-played single of the past seventy-five years.
Procol Harum. never resting on their laurels, also have four re-mastered CD albums and the acclaimed DVD “In Concert with the Danish National Concert Orchestra” already in the shops (in addition to the anthology Secrets of the Hive and the “Live at Union Chapel” DVD), with another three re-mastered albums and a special 4-disc DVD/CD box set – All this and More – already scheduled for late summer. In addition, the band has been in the studio recording some new tracks. It could be termed a plethora of Procol.
Gary Brooker is most famous as the founding member of Procol Harum, along with Keith Reid; yet music fans have also appreciated his excellent work with such artists as George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton and Bill Wyman, Kate Bush, Wings, Mickey Jupp and even Lonnie Donegan.
Gary, “the Commander”’ to one and all, still leads from behind the piano. For him, it’s all about the songs. “Procol does not deal with pastiche or trying to re-do a blues or a be-bop,” he insists. “We really enjoy playing challenging things.”
Below decks lies a purring engine of a rhythm section in the hands of bassist Matt Pegg, who joined Procol in 1993. Formerly with the band Blinder, he had also followed in the footsteps of his father (Dave Pegg of Fairport Convention) by working with Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull.
Geoff Dunn (the new boy) in the hot seat at the back – having been the driving force with such luminaries as Jimmy Page, Dave Stewart, Van Morrison and Manfred Mann – has fitted in well, bringing his own personality to the rhythm section, contributing added excitement for band and audience alike.
Josh Phillips actually filled in for Procol in 1993 but has been in full charge of the Hammond since 2004. His career starts in ’79, with a long and fruitful association with Pete Townsend. His ‘office job’ at present is writing TV music (with ex-Chris Evans producer Dan McGrath), celebrating the recent success of the theme-tune for the BBC's Strictly Come Dancing; he is also busy dividing his playing time between Procol Harum, Midge Ure and The Crazy World of Arthur Brown.
Last but not least, we have 18-year veteran Geoff Whitehorn who, since filling the sizeable boots of Paul Kossoff in Back Street Crawler, has supplied guitar by appointment to Roger Chapman, Elkie Brooks, Paul Rodgers, Roger Daltrey and several more of the British rock aristocracy.
This, then, is a band with a golden future and an undeniably illustrious past. They have twelve studio albums, three DVDs and numerous live projects to their credit and – though some have commented on the change of personnel over the years – each new contributor has brought their own form of inspiration for the musical output.
With a short hiatus from 1977 – after the promotion for the album Something Magic – to 1991 – when the reunited Brooker, Reid, Fisher and Trower produced the all-new Prodigal Stranger album, Procol Harum have been going strong throughout.
The best part of the current five-piece line-up has been together for over a decade, yet the recording of The Well’s on Fire in 2002 was the first time they’d been in the studio together, and their empathy showed. Procol combined state-of-the-art digital production with the ‘live’ feel you’d expect from a band that recorded its landmark first album on four-track tape, the same manner as Sgt Pepper. Producer Rafe McKenna (UB40, Big Country, Ash) helped Procol add a contemporary edge to the time-honoured songwriting combination of Brooker, Reid and occasionally Fisher.
The secret of Procol Harum’s continuing success, Brooker firmly believes, is that “We don’t do pop songs as such. Procol Harum is a soul and blues band which has these other influences because of the people who are there. When we finally do it, it comes out differently. A Whiter Shade of Pale wouldn’t have been such a big hit, nor A Salty Dog or many other songs, unless they’d had soul.”
For Procol Harum the hardest part of playing dates is the choice of material; while Brooker is still happy performing the classic crowd-pleasers from the early albums, there is always a mix of new songs to titillate those who have seen the band more than on the odd occasion. Of the classics Brooker comments “It all still stands up: we enjoy it, they’re good songs to play and they don’t seem to have really dated. Some of them are astonishingly relevant. Take (1974’s) As Strong as Samson, which is to do with the problems of war: the words are just as relevant now. And Holding On from The Prodigal Stranger, that was written during the Gulf War: put it on again today – the world hasn’t changed.”
A new Procol Harum studio album is planned for release next year, but watch out for the latest news, and digital downloads, at “What’ New” at www.procolharum.com,
Back in 1975, ‘musicians’ bible’ Melody Maker launched a scathing attack on Procol, a band who’ve never – ever – been press darlings. “Procol are completely unswinging, locked in their strait-jacketed arrangements,” it ranted before complaining of “pomp, ceremony and fake grandiosity.” Suffice to say that Melody Maker is no longer with, us but Procol Harum rock on in all their splendour, a galleon in full sail. And soul …