ATLANTA – In all the realm of rockdom, no other band and their most chart-topping single has been the subject of so much debate about the meaning of their appellations than Procol Harum and "A Whiter Shade of Pale."
According to Wikipedia, their name was taken from a member's cat's registered name, and according to lyricist Keith Reid, "A Whiter Shade of Pale" has no meaning whatsoever, and wonders why Americans have to try to put meaning to everything. Theories run the gamut from the sinking of the Titanic to Marilyn Monroe.
But most controversial of all was the fact that the royalties of the song that is the most frequently publicly performed and played on the radio in the UK, and has been recorded by at least 1,000 other artists, had been split 50/50 with Reid as the author of the lyrics and Gary Brooker taking full credit for the music.
Another legendary rock group, another lawsuit. Organist Matthew Fisher had to fight almost 40 years for a cut of those royalties, as he maintained that it was his creation of the iconic Baroque hook that is the overarching aspect of the song's blockbuster popularity. His 2006 performance in court netted him co-composer status and a 40 percent cut, presumably from Brooker's 50.
In 1977, it was awarded the shared honor of Best British Pop Single with Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody." (And both make mention of "fandango," one of the least-used words in the dictionary. Curiouser and curiouser.)
In 1998, the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. In 2004 Rolling Stone Magazine rated it no. 57 out of their 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Far from being a one-hit wonder, they were never able to scale the heights that their accidental hit attained.
"Accidental" in that it had only been intended to be a studio recording, but Radio London, one of the pirate radio stations that broadcasted from ships offshore to circumvent the BBC's monopoly on the airwaves, was overwhelmed with requests for it, so much so that Deram Records pushed it to the head of the production line.
So there they were with a hit song, and no personnel in place to perform it. So, Brooker assembled a band, and much like Toad the Wet Sprocket, they just named themselves the first thing that came to mind -- a Burmese cat. Hey, it was the ‘60's!
No stranger to hubris, Gary Brooker had previously formed a group of schoolmates called The Paramounts before he was even able to drive. They were the darlings of the teen dance set playing American R&R and R&B, and even did very well with a cover of The Coasters' "Poison Ivy." So well, in fact, that they earned the admiration of the Rolling Stones when they appeared on the same British TV show.
Things didn't continue on the up and up, so they scattered, some leaving music altogether, but Brooker decided to take up composition and hooked up with Keith Reid. They hit the sweet spot with their very first song.
The song borrows from "When A Man Loves a Woman," which had just been released the year before, and also from Bach's "Air on the G String," which dropped in 1717.
After opening with "Bringing Home the Bacon" (a common theme with these classic rock acts), he said, "Hope to play some songs you like, and maybe throw in a few surprises." He tickled a few bars of "Smoke on the Water" and "The Nutcracker" out of the ivories, to appreciative chuckles.
The natty Brooker who looks more like the Member of the British Empire that he is than member of a rock group. Attendance was surprisingly sparse, which granted an enhanced intimacy. Brooker nattered back and forth with audience members several times, filling the interstices with his veddy droll British wit.
He welcomed the small, but enthusiastic crowd, owning that it was an honor to be with us in Atlanta, which had really changed. "You've really moved into the 21st century. You've grown very nicely, unlike some of the places we've seen. They're still stuck in 1991. If that far!
"Last time we were here, it was a real dump. It all went wrong since you left the Queen, or was it the King? All you had then was tobacco and fast food. But you've finally gotten a good beer, so we Brits have something to drink when we get here."
Funnily enough, Atlanta Symphony Hall is the most conservative venue of all the myriad concert spaces throughout the metro area, and this is the only show where the performers resorted frequently to quenching draughts from their brown long-neck bottles. (Most acts suck down bottled water).
Even more surprising was a young Suzy Creamcheese apparently tripping out in the front row, exhorting the rest of us to get up and join her in interpretive dance. These days, their acid rock plays more to the antacid crowd.
It was a keyboard-heavy program with the synthesizer inveigling out the sounds of a celesta, marimba, and even trumpets. At one point he copped to being a Gemini, which made him a "split soul" enabling him to slip from century to century, decade to decade, and from voice to voice. They jumped into a few bars of Marley's great "No Woman, No Cry."
He introduced the band, stating they'd been together as such for 10 years. "That's more than most boy bands. . . We used to be a boy band." A great line for a guy whose locks are definitely a paler shade of white. No surprise when he's running up on becoming a septuagenarian next year.
Josh Phillips, the Young Turk on the iconic Hammond Xk3-c (a more tour-friendly version of the venerable B-3) was only 5 when it was written. He was quite the phenom, bursting onto the rock scene at 16 in The Who's "Quadrophenia." who joined the group when Fisher left.
But he's not the youngest member. That would be Matt Pegg, son of Jethro Tull's bassist Dave Pegg. Matt has even stood in for his dad on some Jethro Tull tours.
Brooker spoke of how first we lose our parents, then we're up next for that sandy shore. "And we're all headed there, you know." They favored us with a passionate execution of "A Salty Dog," with Geoff Whitehorn coaxing seagull cries out of his guitar with his tremolo bar. Brooker wiped his eyes as we applauded -- perhaps it was the song's imagery of the certainty of life's finity.
"Grand Hotel" was a remembrance of things past. "They used to pick us up in limousines. A&M used to give us everything we wanted. One day they gave me 33 Bill Cosby records! Now we tour on a bus!"
The online setlist showed "Nothing But the Truth" as the last song. And indeed, he did tease us with, "Well, I guess that covers it. We played everything, didn't we?"
The crowd called out for more. "Noooooooooooooo!" we moaned. There was no way we were leaving without their greatest hit! And their live version did not disappoint. A passionate Brit behind us said he'd been following the group for 47 years.
I had only previously heard the studio recording of it, but found an incredible recording of them at a Danish castle. It left me wishing we could hear them perform with our own ASO and Chorus. Treat yourself and visit this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aZWaUzZkdys
He told us that he would love to play with our orchestra and asked us to let them know! To thunderous applause, they bowed and left the stage.
Cries for "Kaleidoscope" and "Conquistador" rang out, and they predictably returned, concluding with their song which is a commentary on the "bravado and barbarity of the Spanish marauders," as Gary put it.
And then it was, "God bless you all! Buenos noches!"