Gary Brooker: Shine On
Interview and introduction by Daniel Coston
Originally published in the spring 2013 issue of The Big Takeover Magazine
Gary Brooker is very glad to be here, and on tour again. In May of last year, Brooker nearly died from a skull fracture, suffered in a hotel room in South Africa. His band, Procol Harum, were performing there for the first time ever. Due to circumstances that still have yet to be explained (the band’s website has suggested that Brooker had been drugged, in a robbery attempt), Brooker fell, and ended up spending over two weeks in the hospital, before finally being allowed to fly home to England.
Many of us know the music of Procol Harum. Formed in early 1967, the band’s first single became a song for the ages, “A Whiter Shade Of Pale.” Through the majority of the following 45 years, Procol Harum has evolved and changed, touching on pop, rock, classical, symphonic and the fringes of progressive rock. Sometimes, all in the same song. Brooker’s voice and songwriting has led the band through it all, and continues to lead the band through a healthy touring schedule. The band may have missed out on a Rock Hall nomination this year, but a fantastic new biography of the band, "The Ghosts Of A Whiter Shade Of Pale", is already reminding fans of just how much the band has accomplished over their history.
Just five weeks after the incident in South Africa, Brooker returned to the stage for a US tour opening for Yes. The recovery from the accident has been gradual, and is ongoing. Despite that, Brooker remains a remarkable person to talk to. He talks to you with a knowing sparkle in his eye. Down to earth, yet able to laugh about it all. It was really good to see him. Onstage, or backstage in Alpharetta, GA, where this interview was done. The world around us too often takes our heroes from us too soon, but it is always good when someone can continue, and indeed, shine on, brightly.
Daniel Coston: Let me ask first what a lot of people want to know. How are you doing, and how are you feeling after the incident in South Africa?
Gary Brooker: I’m feeling pretty good. One of the problems that came from that events there was that I got deaf in one ear, and I can’t hear how loud I’m talking, and occasionally I got a little topply and dizzy. But apart from that, I’m fine. I was a bit worried about coming out here, but its all worked out fine. No problems.
Coston: Was it good to jump back into a tour?
Brooker: Well, it was a target. I’ve got to get myself back in shape here for a certain date, so that’s what I did. It involved staying at home, and being pretty quiet for a few weeks.
Coston: Was that hard to do?
Brooker: No. (Laughs) I didn’t feel like doing much.
Coston: Has that incident made you think about what you what you want to do next? Has that incident affected you?
Brooker: It’s made me think that I could’ve laid there in a pool of blood and died. But some of the lads found me, if you like, and figured out what was going on. But therefore, I survived, and I didn’t have any permanent injury, hopefully. It’s made me think that every moment is quite important. There’s a lot of people that come to that in some stage of their life. But as we were saying earlier, the one thing was to make sure that I was able to even get up on stage and hear what I was singing. So that’s got a little bit [to go], so I haven’t gotten through the next stage, yet. Plenty of time to think about this while driving through the United States, though. (laughs)
Coston: This is your first time back in the United States after I saw you on the Jethro Tull tour, in 2010.
Brooker: We also did some some other dates on our own that year, as well. There wasn’t a lot of them, and a lot of it was based around going up to Canada to play with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. We also came back about a week after we went home, and did a date with the Wilmington [Delaware] Symphony, at their Opera House. Stayed at the Dupont, all very nice. Very fair. (laughs)
Coston: Do you enjoy coming back to the US, after all this time?
Brooker: Yeah, yeah. In the old days, we used to come over for about six months of the year. It’s good to come over, but I think once every two years is all right.
Coston: Would you like to come over here often with your own show, as opposed to opening for another band?
Brooker: Actually, that’s worked out for me [on this tour], because I was in a bed for quite a few weeks. Therefore, I lost a bit of strength. And I’m very glad that we’re only playing for an hour, and not two. (Laughs)
Coston: There has been a number of different lineups during the history of Procol Harum. You’ve had this lineup together now for a few years.
Brooker: Geoff [Whitthorn, guitarist] and Matt [Pegg, bassist] date from ‘92, ‘93. Twenty years. And it seems that Josh [Phillips, on organ] and Geoff [Dunn] on the drums have been with us for, it could be, five years. Some bands don’t last five years (laughs), so we don’t have a constant lineup change. It’s not like every time we go anywhere as Procol Harum, that there’s a different team. We try to stay together, we get on well. It’s a social event, as well. It’s fun, touring. It should be fun. But it’s fun going around with Yes. They’re similar ilk to us. They’re a little older than us, but they’re good lads.
Coston: You have a new live album out [MMX].
Brooker: Yes, as a download.
Coston: Is that something that you think you’d do more of? Putting live albums out via download, or would you like to go back to the more physical album?
Brooker: Do you mean a studio album?
Coston: Yes. That, too.
Brooker: Well, I think that we’ll get back in there, at some point. The great difference nowadays is that you can’t try out a new song on stage, and then go in and sharpen it up a bit in the studio. Because as soon as you’ve played it onstage once, it’s out there. So all that side of it is gone. Once you play it, and if you haven’t honed it, or sharpened it up in that time, you’ve spoiled it. So really, you can’t play anything on stage unless you want it to be out there on download.
We have a method now where we record ourselves every night now, anyway. It’s just, whoever gets the terrible job after this tour of 27 dates, picking out what was a good performance, and what wasn’t.
Coston: This is much a Keith Reid question, as it is for you, but one of the things I like about Procol Harum is that the lyrics are very descriptive, yet not overly so. I don’t know what you guys wrote the song “Shine On Brightly” about, but I know what it means to me. You can take your meanings from the song.
Brooker: Well, that is what it’s all about. That’s a good example, because it’s much harder to think, “What the hell’s that about?” “Whiter Shade Of Pale” is easy, or “Homburg” or something, compared to “Shine On Brightly.” But I think that each person can get something out of it. If it’s a fantasy, it could be glowing pictures, or whatever. Hopefully, the music goes with it, as well, and vice versa.
It was funny. The other night, we were in Clearwater, Florida, and they had a young lady on the side of the stage with a light on her, and she does sign language for all the lyrics. How they’re able to do it is a miracle, to me. How they learn to do that. And of course, I thought, if they are deaf, and if anybody’s watching this performance, what are they listening to? But I’ve been told that it’s the vibration [that they can feel]. There’s a very good percussionist with the classical orchestras in England that’s totally deaf.
But I did give the girl a bit of lip, as they call it in English, because I said, “What’s the worst job you ever had? That’s becoming a signer, and you go for your first job, and you say, ‘What is it?’ and they, “Translating the Procol Harum lyrics at their concert!” (Laughs loudly) How’s she going to do, “Your multilingual business friend”? Her hands were flying everywhere. Luckily for her, we didn’t do, “Shine On Brightly.” She’d have had to do, “My prussian blue electric clock alarm bell rings, it will not stop.” Anyway, she seemed to enjoy it.
Coston: What songs are you really enjoying, playing on this tour? It’s a slightly different set than when I saw you open for Jethro Tull.
Brooker: I’m really enjoying every moment, because I’m really glad I’m here. You know what I mean? Whether it’s somebody signing for the deaf, or just somebody on the road, or anything. It’s great fun, it’s great to be here. With our sets, we worked one out, when we got here. We lost a lot of time in England, with me not being there, and it kind of worked out. We worked out so that we can try something different, and if works, or if maybe it’s not quite right. Unusually for us, we’re pretty much sticking to the plan. (laughs) I’ve been sticking to the plan, but I can call it and change it in the middle of the set. “No, we’ll do that one.” But no, we’ve stuck to [the set list] so far, but we can still make it interesting. We haven’t played it enough, we’re only on about our tenth or eleventh concert [of this tour]. We’re not tired of it. In fact, on the contrary. We’re sharpening them. Trying to find different ways of going with them that are better each time. When it comes to the stage where it’s peaked, then we’ll drop it out, and try something else.
Coston: What is it like to have that kind of a catalog, through your history with this band?
Brooker: It is a big catalog, but sometimes it doesn’t seem so large. We have a certain amount, because at some point, we’ve played most of them, but I seem to have played a couple at soundcheck that no one’s ever played. Unless they’ve forgotten them. (Laughs) But we rehearse before we went to South Africa, and most of that set was meant to be for use here. So we’ve quite got a good stockpile of stuff.
Coston: I want to ask you a question about “Whiter Shade Of Pale,” without going into [the recent court case with former organist Matthew Fisher]. How was your perspective on that song itself changed over the years? Do you view that song differently now, than when you wrote it?
Brooker: It hasn’t changed a lot, except the way that people play it. That is always interesting to me. I can always create lot of interest on the piano, and the way I sing it, and it always remains fresh. If I hear it on the radio, I think, “Blimey, that’s good. Who’s that?” And it’s our record. To me, it didn’t sound like it came from a certain era, but I think it always sounded like it didn’t fit. People have called it lots of things. Ghostly, eerie, haunting. And it was always that. It’s one of its unique properties, I think. But when people refer to it as galvanizing the Summer Of Love, I don’t see that at all. That might have been the era that it was popular in, but since then, people have gotten married to it, and they’re only 25. People get buried to it. Mind you, they were probably around when it first came out. (laughs)
Coston: I’m 39, and I’ve known that song all of my life. And again, it means different things to me.
Brooker: See, you weren’t even born when that song came out.
Coston: You guys were always a little out of your time. I listen to your songs, and I can’t go, “Oh, that’s so 1967, 1968.” You guys were always a little left of what was going on.
Brooker: We were always, slightly not of the time. Not quite getting in with the current, because we didn’t change ourselves to go with might be the fashion, or the way to do things, or all that. In fact, if we were heard anything that was the fashion, or the way to do things, we would go the complete opposite. When “Whiter Shade Of Pale” came out, our first LP came out a little bit later that year. Let’s say September, October. And we didn’t put “Whiter Shade” on it, because we thought, “Everybody’s already bought that. We don’t want to cheat them, make them buy something they’ve already got.” [Editor’s note: Procol Harum’s then label, Regal Zonophone, did go ahead and release “Whiter Shade” on the band’s debut album. However, the album was released in Germany without “Whiter Shade,” and both the US and UK versions did not include the band’s most recent hit by that time, “Homburg.”] Now, you wouldn’t think that a band wouldn’t release an album without “Whiter Shade Of Pale.” That wasn’t their biggest hit that year, but we always worked against the plan. (Smiles and laughs.)
Coston: I wanted to ask you about Douglas Adams, who was a friend of yours, and whom I got to interview in 1996.
Brooker: He was a great friend. He was such a huge fan, and such a creative person, he felt like more than just one fan, but more a whole tribe of them.
Coston: Is the band ever changing, ever shifting for you? As we stated, you have had this current lineup together for several years. Have you been surprised by the number of twists and turns that this group has taken over the years that you’ve led this band?
Brooker: I think the musicians know that in this band, they can take any song we play, be it a old one, or a new one, and any direction that they feel like taking. Add. Their. Bit. They can add their character, or musical notes, or anything. Now and again, there’s bits that have to be in there. Something, a song feels wrong if it doesn’t hear THAT. It’s not written in stone, but you say, “You’ve got to have that bit in.” For the most part, the rhythms have to be somewhere near the originals. We have tried jazzing stuff up now and again, totally change the arrangements and the feels. But people are always happy when we come back to the old version. (laughs)