The one-time Procol pace-setter
has seen musical trends come and
go, but he's back to playing among
us because he has a vision of the
guitar that's untouched by fad or
By Steven Rosen
think technique has always been a dangerous thing in rock 'n roll," says
Robin Trower, former guitarist with Procol Harum, and a player whose style
relies more on the emotional than the digital. In his four-album
career with Procol, Trower exhibited a bluesiness in his playing, while
other contemporary English strummers like Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page
were whizzing about the fretboards.
"Page is a player who is technically quite good and musically knowledgeable, but there's no soul in his playing. He's just running up and down the neck and that's the antithesis of what I do," says Trower, who just returned after a five year hiatus from music.
What Trower does best was chronicled in his work with Procol Harum, an English quintet which combined classical and rock elements under the leadership of volcalist/organist Gary Brooker. This mix first surfaced in 1967 when the band released "A Whiter Shade Of Pale," and for four albums - A SALTY DOG; SHINE ON BRIGHTLY; HOME and BROKEN BARRICADES - provided them with blues-based guitar. On this last album, he switched from Gibson Les Pauls (1956 Deluxe Sunburst with white humbucking pickups) to Fender Stratocasters and the Trower style - blues lines sandwiches between Jimi Hendrix-like dreamy and flowing rhythm shapes - was truly initiated. "Song For A Dreamer," a tribute to Hendrix, signalled Robin's departure, both physically and stylistically, from the band.
"I sat down and listened a lot to Hendrix because I wanted to get it right. We (Procol Harum) had done a show with him in Germany a week before he died, but I couldn't say I saw him perform because it wasn't very good. I never tried to sit down and figure out what he was doing. I just haven't got the ear for it. So it was the atmosphere, really. I don't think I assimilated a huge part of what he was, only a small part that appealed to me. But I think '1983 (A Merman I Should Turn To Be)' turned out to be the most influential thing for me. That was the thing that impressed me most."
One can easily hear the link between "1983" and "Dreamer." Trower had been playing a Stratocaster for some time prior to writing the ode, but admits, "Once you take up a Strat and try and play it in a blues style, which I do, you're gonna get unavoidable comparisons to Hendrix..
Growing increasingly aware of his own strengths as a player and writer (he wrote three of BROKEN BARRICADES' eight tracks and his guitar dominated the entire album), he left the band after its release to form Jude with ex-Jethro Tull drummer Clive Bunker. This proved to be short-lived. He then formed the first Robin Trower band, featuring former Jude bassist/vocalist Jimmy Dewar and session drummer Reg Isadore. What materialized from the marriage was Trower's first album as a solo artist, the breathtaking and unique TWICE REMOVED FROM YESTERDAY (1973). It captured the essence of his fluid Stratocaster fingerings and in fact, was so perfect in its rendering that the album which followed would be hard put to recapture the brilliance.
"It really came together by accident," recalls Trower. The first Stratocaster he ever played belonged to Jethro Tull guitarist Martin Barre. After fiddling about with it during a Tull/Procol Harum tour, he never went back to Gibson. It was a gift from God - the creativity and everything that went down there. It just worked great and I think it worked because I didn't know what I was doing. After BRIDGE OF SIGHS (his record album released in 1974), I thought I'd like to do something different rather than just sticking to the same old group (he replaced drummer Isadore with ex-Sly Stone member Bill Lordan). Of course, I went wandering off on many varied paths which wasn't as successful artistically. But those first two albums just came together. Me and Jimmy working together was great, it was happening. We didn't know what we were doing. That's what rock 'n roll should be, really."
FOR EARTH BELOW, his third album and the first with the new trio line-up, was an attempt to "get into something different." Though the puzzle had new pieces, the picture proved incomplete.
"We changed drummers and perhaps that is where it started to break down. As good a drummer as Bill was, it didn't work as well. It's impossible to see that when you're in the middle of doing it."
Trower looks around his L.A. hotel room, hoping to find the missing piece floating somewhere nearby. Clothes and cassettes are scattered over the twin beds and the lamp situated on a small, round table casts a too-bright glow, creating an antiseptic feel. The hotel is minutes away from the Country Club, a small hall where Trower will be performing later this night. It is a far cry from his headlining dates both with Procol Harum and early on in his solo career when Trower was filling 15,000-seat arenas. But for the guitarist it is a return to a life of touring and recording.
"I took five years off between 1980 and 1985," says the guitarist of his hibernation. "I'd been on the road constantly and I just wanted to spend time with my family. I made an album here and there, but nothing I was interested in taking on the road."
Until now in the last few months, Trower has been on tour virtually non-stop in support of his newest album. Titled PASSION (Crescendo Records), it is the strongest album the Englishman has recorded in years and recalls his early releases in style and tone. "I'm more proud of this than anything I've done in years. It's more Robin Trower than what I've been doing recently," says Trower. The album (and touring band) features a new line-up. Of course, Trower plays guitar, and now on drums there is Pete Thompson; on bass Dave Bronz; and on vocals Davey Pattison.
Since his switch to Fenders, among other reasons because the thin necks feel more comfortable to his relatively short fingers, Trower is no longer a Gibson man. The Fender Squire he now plays, is a stock instrument, and he frowns on the modification of guitars.
"I didn't have one Strat with a lot of Schecter parts on it, but I didn't get on with that. I think you either like the sound of a Fender or you don't. If you start messing about with it, then it's not the guitar for you, really."
Trower has always been pretty much of a purist in his approach. With Procol is was usually guitar straight into amp. It wasn't until later in his solo career that he added simple effects like chorus and Leslie. Which is why his feelings about more contemporary players and the way they have altered the basic sound of Strat-type guitars are not too positive.
"it obviously suits them," states Robin whose only effects at the moment are a Jennings wah-wah and an old blue Boss Chorus (CE-2). "It wouldn't suit me. The sound they get is not as musically; for instance, Van Halen's sound isn't as musical. And the way they approach the vibrato bar is completely different; it's a tricky way of playing. It's tricks.
"Most of it is barren ground for me. A desert. There's some incredible music being made today. Prince is really good, his stuff is really soulful. I quite like some of the Police stuff. But I don't think Van Halen should be lumped in with the Ratts and the Motley Crues and the WASPs. That guy is a gifted player, very inventive. I don't think he's done his best work yet. Jimmy Vaughan is a good guitar player. Billy Gibbons is good, but I don't like his modern stuff. Of all the guitar players around, he is the most soulful. It's one thing to imitate blues players and another thing to play it. You have to have soul yourself, to me, he's got it. He says it his way."
We mentally trade Gibbsons' licks and smile. Robin is still thinking about the creative players making modern music when I softly slip two words into the silence: guitar hero. For an entire generation during the sixties, this impish-faced fellow was a hero. But it was not in the fashion of Beck or Page or Hendrix or any of the other English golden greats whose primary function was as a guitar soloist. As a member of Procol Harum - one of the most delightful and musically poignant groups to emerge from the fertile soil of mid-sixties England - Robin Trower was more a parts player than a soloist. The manner in which he wove his Les Paul lines around the haunting strains of Brooker's Hammond B-3 organ is a classic example of how the guitar can function in orchestrated fashion.
"I must have had a desire to be a guitar hero. You must have ambition to achieve anything. You want what you do to be liked. If they didn't dig it, I'd be at home sweeping the roads. I'm only able to carry on because people like it."
"In Procol Harum I was a parts player, but there's nothing wrong with being a part of a whole thing that works really well. I wish more musicians would think in terms of that. Too many musicians think they should be the end all/be all of what they're doing. They want to be a front man."
Obviously, his heart lies in the past and really, that's not a bad place for a heart to lie. "As far as rock goes, the sixties was definitely it," claims Trower, citing the Who, Cream, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles as yardsticks of modern music. He sees the music of that decade as part of a natural progression from the fifties, and performers like Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Chuck Berry. Bo Diddley, Bobby Blue Bland and James Brown.
"You had to come up with something," says Trower of the sixties. "I thinks that's why it became so creative. There's NEVER gonna be rock 'n roll like Little Richard - he was the epitome of rock 'n roll - so you come up with something different. Blues and white music make for a funny conglomeration, but it really DID work. What you've got today is people taking blues and keeping it there and trying to do exactly like they did back then. Eighties people are kind of wishing to be back there. In the sixties, it was "let's move forward." Today it's "let's be a star and make some money." The inspiration is completely different."
The main inspiration behind Procol Harum was a song titled "Hole In The Wall" (group unknown). It was a gospel-like piece and combined piano and organ. When Gary Brooker heard it, he fell instantly in love with the mix. Procol based its sound on this combination of organ and piano. When Trower claims, "It had never been put into rock," there is no denying the statement. But too many influences were showing up in the music and after Robin's fourth album with the band, he left.
"They were better off when I left because they could pursue a more narrow path. I was pulling them into a kind of blues thing. The way they went was better for them because they were more successful. They had there biggest hit album (LIVE IN CONCERT) after I left."
The band did experience its greatest success following Trower's departure, but for the Procol patriots the four albums featuring Robin was the essence of the band. BROKEN BARRICADES was his true showcase - and swan song - and on tracks like "Power Failure' and "Simple Sister" the guitar replaced keyboards as the driving instrument. "Song For A Dreamer" his anthemic tribute to Hendrix, was a Trower no one had ever heard before, full of pulsating Uni-Vibe and sinewy chord playing.
Trower used "Dreamer" as a model upon which his first two solo albums : TWICE REMOVED FROM YESTERDAY and BRIDGE OF SIGHS. By the time he went into record FOR EARTH BELOW, the line-up had changed and the magic was fading. LONG MISTY DAYS was an attempt at recapturing the energy of the first two releases and by the time IN CITY DREAMS came out just four years after Trower went solo, the music had taken a drastic right turn.
"That was a real attempt to get away from what I'd been doing. It was a rebellion against being a rock artist. At that time I used to switch on FM rock stations in America, listen for an hour and not like one thing they played. Then one of my tracks would come on and I'd think to myself, 'Now wait a minute! If I sound like that to them, I'm doing something wrong somewhere.' Because to me it was just junk - awful, soulless, mindless kind of bashing. I didn't want to be lumped in with Led Zepplin. I liked the stuff on IN CITY DREAMS."
Trower went on to record several more records, including CARAVAN TO MIDNIGHT; VICTIMS OF THE FURY; and TIME IS SHORT (BACK IT UP). These held little of the uniqueness of the early records. And even a promising venture like TRUCE, which teamed the guitarist with veteran bassist Jack Bruce was, in Robin's words, "Doomed from the beginning."
But Trower is out there once again, working on new music in an attempt to "make records that people like."
"My plans at the moment are to try and improve as a guitar player. We've got some new material and I'm very pleased with the way things are going. What I've been working on is to try and get a great sound and a performance that makes it real - it's what I've been working on for several months. To deliver the sound the way we want it and to be able to actually try to create something of a lasting value. Without true performance, you'll get nothing that lasts."