Matthew Fisher was interviewed by BBC Radio 2 about Claes Johansen's recently-published biography of Procol Harum (show recorded on 21 March 2000.) You can hear some excerpts from this page, or read the following transcript kindly supplied to BtP by Matt Walsh.
Hello, Miles Kington here with Reading Music, Radio Two's programme about new books on music. We're turning to the group Procol Harum, whose roots lay in a Southend R&B group called the Paramounts, and whose colossal hit Whiter Shade of Pale became the sound of the Summer of Love back in 1967. I haven't forgotten when Procol Harum burst on the scene, or my amazement at realising this was the very first pop group in history with a name taken from Latin, although Status Quo did come along later. It wasn't so much Gary Brooker's vocals that struck me then as that opening Hammond organ phrase, and in a few moments Ken Bruce will be talking to the man who played it, Procol Harum's keyboard player, Matthew Fisher.
[Beginning of AWSoP plays in background]
Matthew and Ken have been reading a new account of the group's life and, as you can probably gather from the title, Beyond the Pale, the book sets out to show that there was much more to them than this mystical megahit.
One of the most famous sounds of the Sixties, Whiter Shade of Pale, and the man on keyboards there is with me now, Matthew Fisher.
Matthew, the famous opening to Whiter Shade of Pale some people have said there's more than a hint of Air on a G String there there's a bit of Sleepers Awake there what's your own take on that?
The song used to be a lot longer, I mean it used to have four verses and what used to happen was that Gary and I would take turns in between verses. I'd play a bit and then he'd play a bit, and it was all improvised. When it got to the point where we decided we wanted to make a demo of this, and we had to cut it down because it was about ten, twelve minutes long, you know, decisions were made that perhaps it would be better just to have the organ doing the solos; and then I made the decision that well, if it was just gonna be me, then I would actually construct a definitive organ solo that would be the same every time, you know, that could be sort of a hook; and I did this by remembering all of my favourite bits that I'd played and stringing them together, during the course of which I did actually come up with this idea of actually changing the bass line, and so the whole thing got a little bit changed at that point.
That Air on a G String bit was pretty well down to Gary; I mean, he came up with that chord sequence and it was very strongly evocative of Air on a G String, and for me to try and play any other note than the one I start off on would have been deliberately going against that, which would have been stupid. So I went along with it, and then I drifted into this other thing, this Sleepers Awake thing, but all the little bits apart from that actually I did. If I say so myself you can't really see the join. A lot of people think that there is actually a Bach tune that is like that, but it isn't. It's just a couple of bits of Bach and the rest is me. [Soundclip]
It didn't last long as a group, Procol Harum. Why was that?
It lasted ten years!
But the really height of its success was really just the late 60s to '69, I suppose.
Since we never really were a success over here, I think we were all successful on the Continent and certainly in the United States, where we actually built up a reputation as a live band. I mean, the book documents quite well the sequence of catastrophes that combined to spoil all that. Let's face it, it's a pretty difficult record to follow anyway. I think even the Beatles would've had trouble following that one up if that had been their first-ever record, you know; it might've been a very different story.
A follow-up is not always the easiest thing to come up with, as you say, but even the first release of Whiter Shade of Pale wasn't easily come about, was it? There was a great deal of difficulty. Some people didn't want it released at all.
Oh yes, now this is one thing that I'm a bit surprised Claes didn't put in the book. The story that I heard was this: when Decca were presented with the record, they said, "No, this is too gloomy, it's too slow, it's too long, it's too boring, it's not a summer record, we don't want to release it." Now, at the time, Essex Music, who were basically the production company, had working for them a guy called Tony Hall: Tony's done everything, I mean he's been a DJ, a producer, a publisher, manager you name it, Tony's done it. And Tony really believed in the record; he was really hot to sort of go out and start pushing this record.
So, because of his experiences as a DJ and everything he had a lot of friends in commercial radio, which of course was illegal at that time. So he pulled a few strings and he got that record played on Radio London, and when it was played they announced that this was an unreleased record and they'd be interested in people calling up and letting them know what their opinions were; and the result was that their switchboard was jammed for about the next four hours with people saying, "It's great, where can I buy it, I want to buy it, I've got to have it," you know, and when that news got back to Decca they relented and decided they would release the record after all.
Of such things are historic pieces of recording made. It wasn't the happiest of groups, so most people say.
It depends what you're comparing it to, I mean if you're comparing it to the sort of the fun I had when I was a semi-pro and it was all my mates from school and that sort of thing, no, it wasn't as happy as that. But no, we had some good times as well as, you know, there was a certain undercurrent of discontent and that kind of thing but this is, I mean compared to the books I've read for instance about the Beach Boys, where they were travelling in separate planes and they hated each other and they were getting involved in stand-up fights no. [Homburg starts to play in background] I mean, compared to that Procol Harum was bliss. I think this has all been a bit overplayed. [Soundclip]
Let's listen to a bit of your blissful playing together, in Homburg.
The famous Homburg, not quite as famous as Whiter Shade of Pale but certainly, for those who know the work of Procol Harum, an important song. What's the Procol Harum story doing today? I mean, how are the members of the band doing, are you in touch a lot, are there plans for you to get together every so often?
I mean, every now and then we will get together and we'll do things, and then maybe we won't do anything for a year, I mean I think the last gig I did with them was the Redhill 30th Anniversary. That would be 1997, wouldn't it? Gary apparently has promised the fans that we are going to do something this year, but we're not really sure yet what that is going to be. [Soundclip]
I'm fairly adaptable on this, you see. I mean, I'm no longer in the music business: I work as a computer programmer. I could just go and do a one-off gig, it would be quite okay for me. Most of the other people that would be called on are professional musicians who have to, you know, they've got commitments, they've got mortgages, they've got all the rest of it, you know, and they can't just suddenly drop everything to do one gig. You have to offer them some deal that makes sense, like we're gonna do a tour or we're gonna do five gigs, and the logistics of it all are a little bit complicated; and in the mean time of course Gary's off doing all sorts of things: he's off with Bill Wyman and Ringo Starr and rock classics or something I don't know, but he's always busy.
And I think you're quoted at one point in the book as saying that Procol Harum really was the brainchild of Keith Reid, and I suppose without his lyrics in the first place, the songs wouldn't have had the force that they did. Was it really his prime influence that made the band what they were?
Yeah, I would say that he was the driving force. Gary, bless him, is not really a sort of a prime mover. He was up for things, you know, if someone else gave him an idea and said. 'Shall we do this?' he would go along with it, but he's not the sort of person to actually initiate something like that. Keith Reid was the real driving force behind it all. Most Procol fans, I think, would agree that what gave Procol Harum their identity was Keith's lyrics, Gary's voice, my organ, maybe Robin Trower's guitar but certainly Keith's lyrics were a very, very important element in that. [Soundclip]
And the arguments still rage about what exactly A Whiter Shade of Pale means. I suppose it's pointless to try and chase that, is it?.
I think so. I don't know what they mean. It's never bothered me that I don't know what they mean. This is what I find rather hard, that, especially in America, people are terribly hung up about lyrics and they've got to know what they mean, and they say, "I know, I've figured out what these lyrics mean." I don't give a damn what they mean. You know, they sound great that's all they have to do. [Soundclip]
That's all it needs. About the book, Procol Harum: Beyond the Pale, did it recount the story as you remember it? Did you enjoy reading it?
Ah, well, I mean a lot of it came out of my mouth. I mean, Claes has interviewed everybody, and this has been going on for, ooh, twenty years or so, I mean as long as he's known of the band he kind of befriended us, together and individually, and he's been storing up material for this book for well over twenty years.
There's a lot of detail there, isn't there?
Maybe too much?
No, I wouldn't say there's too much. I think one criticism that I've heard is that it's a bit unbalanced, in that there's an awful lot of detail for the early years, maybe even a couple of chapters about Whiter Shade of Pale, and then it just starts tailing off slowly until you get the last couple of albums, maybe there's only half a page on each one, or something [laughs]. It could be said that perhaps he ran out of steam here. But on the other side, for most people, if you talk about Procol Harum they're just gonna say, "Oh yeah, Whiter Shade of Pale," so maybe that reflects the interest of the average reader.
Well, we won't ignore the later years. [The Truth Won't Fade Away begins to play in background] We'll have a track now from one of the the last album, I think it was? "The Prodigal Stranger."
Yeah, this was our reunion album.
This is The Truth Won't Fade Away. Matthew, thanks a lot.
Thanks a lot.
The Truth Won't Fade Away, from Procol Harum's reunion album. Thanks to Ken Bruce and Matthew Fisher for those thoughts on Procol Harum: Beyond the Pale by Claes Johansen. That's published by a new company called SAF, but any further details can more safely be discovered by phoning the Radio Two information line, on 08700 100200. I'll give you that number again before the end of the show.
Thanks, Matt W