Pete Brown (Cream, Procol Harum)

by Carl Wiser

So much for the theory that "White Room" is just an acid trip. Pete Brown is the lyricist behind that song and many other Cream classics: "Sunshine of Your Love," "SWLABR," "I Feel Free" among them.

Brown made a living (not a lucrative one, but still...) writing and performing poetry in the mid-'60s, when he toured with Allen Ginsberg. Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce spotted him at one of his gigs and asked him to supply words for Cream, the transgressive psychedelic blues band they formed with Eric Clapton. Brown worked most closely with Bruce, who was the lead singer and primary songwriter for most of the band's tenure. When Cream split in 1968, Brown worked on Bruce's solo albums and also collaborated with Graham Bond, teaming up for a 1972 album called Two Heads Are Better Than One.

Along the way, Brown has published several books of poetry and has been part of a number of bands as a singer, percussionist and producer. His latest contribution is to another rather noteworthy British group, Procol Harum, whose 2017 album Novum has lyrics by Brown. The lead single is "Sunday Morning," which finds him "exploring all the different shades of living."

Later in this interview, Brown candidly deconstructs down some of those Cream classics, and also has his say on the perception that he wrote them on drugs. We start with a discussion about Novum.
Carl Wiser (SongFacts): Did you write the song "Sunday Morning" on Novum?

Pete Brown: Yes.

Songfacts: That's a terrific song. Can you tell me about writing that song and what the lyrics convey?

Pete: It was inspired by an old Joe Turner song ["Sunday Morning Blues"], Big Joe Turner that is, where he's got this line:

I'm in blue every Saturday
But each Sunday morning I feel alright
I go to church and make peace with my maker
And then go home and make love to my wife

It's got a bit of a spirit there. It's slightly gospel-ly the way that Gary [Brooker] phrased it. It's about a working-class person who does what he does and works hard and plays hard.

Songfacts: And then, the next two songs also touch on God. Was there a theme you were developing there?

Pete: Well, I had met Gary a couple of times but I didn't know him at all. I actually happened to have been present at one of the first-ever gigs of Procol Harum, at the UFO club in London in '67. And I always liked his work and I liked Keith Reid's work. Keith and Gary had split up, and when they were thinking about a new record, they thought about me doing it. So, they put us together and Gary and I had a very brief meeting. I said, "Got any ideas for a theme?" and he said, "Yeah, Ten Commandments." I said, "OK."

We drifted way away from that, but there are elements in there that were inspired by the idea. So it's not about God really, it's more about a rock and roll manager who I happened to have had the misfortune of being managed by. But we took off from some original ideas that were in that direction and then we went somewhere else.

Procol Harum's mainstay is Gary Brooker, who formed the band in 1967, the year their majestic debut single, "A Whiter Shade Of Pale," was released. Novum (Latin for "new") is the group's 14th album, their first since 2003.

The cover was illustrated by Julia Brown using the band's debut from 50 years earlier as a guidepost.

Songfacts: That makes a lot more sense now. So, "Last Chance Motel" would be the "do not covet thy neighbor's wife" commandment?

Pete: Actually it's more adultery, but yes, it's that kind of thing. The "Neighbour" one is coveting, but we tried to make them universal.

I'm not sure about Gary, but I'm absolutely not religious at all. I grew up Jewish but not having any particular regard for religion or gods or anything. So, I'm on the other side of the coin.

Songfacts: I'm guessing that "Image Of The Beast" is the song that's about the manager that did you wrong.

Pete: The "Image Of The Beast," it's a funny thing. The "Image Of The Beast" is about greed, but there's a terrific book by the American science fiction writer, Philip José Farmer. It's like a kind of science fiction, pornographic, great Raymond Chandler kind of a book about LA. It's very, very fantastical and very bizarre and it's called Image Of The Beast. I got some ideas out of that really. I'm a big science fiction fan, especially from '50s and '60s and '70s stuff.

Songfacts: Did you write "Neighbour"?

Pete: Yes.

Songfacts: That's a fun little song.

Pete: Oh, yes. I always try to bring a lot of humor to these things, where it's appropriate. And funnily enough "I Told On You," originally I sketched out a lot of these things quite a long time ago and then time passed by and then we eventually got down to it but, "I Told On You" seems now to be about Brexit and some of the stuff that's happened because of that, but that was completely unintentional at the time. One of my prophetic songs, you know.

The three members of Cream - Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker - could shake the heavens with their furious riffs, but none were particularly adept at writing lyrics (Clapton got pretty good at it, but even late in his career he often sought help in this area, notably on "Tears In Heaven"). This was no small shortcoming: there was a very high bar for lyrics in this rubric of British rock, putting poets - especially those who could assimilate their words into songs - in high demand. Some of these lyricists, like Pete Sinfield of King Crimson and Keith Reid of Procol Harum, were fully fledged band members.

Cream's most memorable songs used dedicated lyricists, including Gail Collins on "Strange Brew" and Martin Sharp on "Tales of Brave Ulysses," but Brown was their mainstay, contributing to all four of their albums. "White Room" is his most intriguing Cream composition, taking place in the dark corners of the mind where the "shadows run from themselves." The opening lines are:

In the white room with black curtains near the station
Black-roof country, no gold pavements, tired starlings
Songfacts: What are the "goodbye windows" in "White Room"?

Pete: Just people waving goodbye from train windows.

Songfacts: And then "black-roof country," what is that?

Pete: That was the kind of area that I lived in. There were still steam trains at one point around that area, so the roofs were black. It was black and sooty. It's got that kind of a feel to it.

Songfacts: That song, I guess you started with eight pages' worth of poetry and condensed it into a lyric.

Pete: I did. That was because Cream were on the road all the time, so there was hardly any time to write. So, we looked at every kind of idea that was possible and it so happened that I had been trained at one point, very unsuccessfully, as a journalist, because I was thrown out of school and because it was free to go to journalism college in those days, so I went for a few months. And one of the things I did learn was how to precis things, so I had eight pages of this poem and I suddenly thought, "Well, we need something."

Jack had already written some of the music and we tried a different kind of lyric with it, and then I suddenly thought, "What about this idea, this 'white room' idea?" It was an eight-page poem and I cut it down to a page and it worked.

Songfacts: What was the original eight-page poem about?

Pete: It was a meandering thing about a relationship that I was in and how I was at the time. It was a kind of watershed period really. It was a time before I stopped being a relative barman and became a songwriter, because I was a professional poet, you know. I was doing poetry readings and making a living from that. It wasn't a very good living, and then I got asked to work by Ginger and Jack with them and then started to make a kind of living.

And there was this kind of transitional period where I lived in this actual white room and was trying to come to terms with various things that were going on. It's a place where I stopped, I gave up all drugs and alcohol at that time in 1967 as a result of being in the white room, so it was a kind of watershed period. That song's like a kind of weird little movie: it changes perspectives all the time. That's why it's probably lasted - it's got a kind of mystery to it.

Songfacts: It certainly does. You describe the white room as the place where you had this almost epiphany.

Pete: Yes. That's right, very much so.

Songfacts: Was it in an apartment, or are we talking about a mental hospital here?

Pete: No, it was a room in an apartment. I shared the apartment with people, but this was my room, the actual white room.

Songfacts: Were the "tired starlings" literal?

Pete: Yeah, the starlings in London. Of course, they are now completely gone, but in those days they were already getting tired from the pollution and everything.

Songfacts: We're so used to seeing birds being lively, so the tired starlings are a striking image, but that makes total sense.

Pete: Yeah, the "tired starlings" is also a little bit of a metaphor for the feminine in a way, as well. It was women having to put up with rather a lot - too much pressure on them at the time.

Songfacts: Did you hear the riff for "Sunshine of Your Love" when you wrote the words to it?

Pete: Yes. We had been working all night and had gotten some stuff done. We had very little time to write for Cream, but we happened to have some spare time and Jack came up with the riff. He was playing a stand-up - he still had his stand-up bass, because he'd been a jazz musician. He was playing stand-up bass, and he said, "What about this then?" and played the famous riff. I looked out the window and wrote down, "It's getting near dawn." That's how it happened. It's actually all true, really, all real stuff.

When Cream fractured, Jack Bruce released a solo album, Songs For A Tailor, that included "Theme From An Imaginary Western," a track with Brown's lyric that was popularized by Mountain, whose singer/bassist Felix Pappalardi produced Bruce's album. The song is about The Graham Bond Organisation, a pre-Cream band with Bruce, Ginger Baker and John McLaughlin.
Songfacts: I thought I heard you at one point explain that "Theme From An Imaginary Western" was about Graham Bond. Is that true?

Pete: Yes it was. Funnily enough, I've just been writing a sleeve note for some re-issues of Graham Bond because I produced these two boxed sets in recent years. They're the definitive Graham Bond boxed sets and they're just re-releasing some of it on vinyl, in mono, and I've just been finishing off the sleeve notes, actually almost as we speak, this afternoon, for those particular records.

And yes, the Graham Bond Organisation were like a mixture between pioneers and outlaws, and when Jack played me the music for "Theme For An Imaginary Western" it reminded me of a Western movie. I'm a big Western fan, you know. I collect them, and it reminded me of some of the great Western scores by Dimitri Tiomkin and people like that, which I love. So, it reminded me of that.

So, I got the Western thing but then, I thought, "No, this is not about cowboys, it's about Graham Bond and the Graham Bond Organisation." That's the way it ended up. I still sing it quite a lot. When I'm doing gigs, I always include it.

Songfacts: Are the "bearded rainbows" in fact flowers?

Pete: No, "SWLABR (She Was Like A Bearded Rainbow)," the rainbow was this kind of very radiant sexuality. It was a psychedelic time, not that I ever did big psychedelics - I did some small ones - and I was using color images a lot at that point. But unfortunately, because we were in the blues tradition, it's a bit misogynistic, that song I'm afraid.

I don't do those anymore, but it was a bit misogynistic. It's about someone whose girlfriend has given him the elbow and he's going around defacing pictures of her. It's not very nice really.

But, the blues, as you know, is the war between men and women to some extent, and we were certainly part of it.

Songfacts: So you did not do acid when you were writing these songs?

Pete: No, not at all. Absolutely not. I did a lot of speed and alcohol and some dope, but in fact, my writing when I was in that particular state was not very good, so one of the best things I did was give it up pronto. I did have a bad experience, which might have been that I was spiked with something, or it might have just been that my body was telling me to stop what I was doing. So, yes, as you say, there was an epiphany and then there was a skidding to a halt and taking reappraisal of who I was and what I was doing with myself.

I never knowingly took acid. I used to watch people doing it and think, "I don't want to be like that."

Songfacts: It seems there's a misconception that you could just drop some acid and come up with these lyrics and fit them in a song.

Pete: Oh, absolutely. Listen, even when I was on speed and stuff like that, because I used to stay up for long periods of time, a lot of what I wrote was crap. I didn't write very good stuff until I stopped doing all that. I wrote some poetry, which was alright, but to be a songwriter you're dealing with deadlines and all sorts of things, so you have to be relatively efficient. It took me a little while to do that but I eventually did and have been ever since.

Songfacts: Yeah, and I guess some of the association comes with the times and that some of the musicians you were working with certainly did a lot of drugs.

Pete: Oh, absolutely. The fact is, a lot of my imagination comes from movies. I'm a film buff - I watch millions of movies. So, a lot of the imagery comes from serious movies, old movies, westerns, war films. Science fiction, in particular.

April 13, 2017
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Comments: 2

  • Robert from PennsylvaniaIs the opening line of "Tales of Brave Ulysses" making reference to Tom Dowd and his work with nuclear weapons?
  • Carol from PaFinally: the answers! Great interview.
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