Procol Harum

Beyond
the Pale

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They skipped the light fandango and
are turning cartwheels in the courts

Lucy Bannerman in The Times, 14 November 2006


A musical judge will rule on who wrote Procul [sic] Harum’s greatest hit

THE tune is unmistakeable and its lyrics have baffled listeners for 40 years, but yesterday A Whiter Shade of Pale came under legal scrutiny for the first time from the Chancery Division’s most musical judge.

It was not the words of Procul [sic] Harum’s 1967 hit that Mr Justice Blackburne was attempting to unravel, but the melody — or more accurately who wrote the variation on themes by J.S. Bach.

A computer programmer from Croydon claims that he was instrumental in the creation of one of the most successful songs in British musical history — and wants a share of the royalties — a claim denied by Gary Brooker, leader of the band.

Matthew Fisher, 60, a former member of the band, took to the electric keyboard in a corner of Court 56 under the attentive ears of Mr Justice Blackburne, who studied music and law at Cambridge, to prove his claims that the Bach-inspired organ embellishment that made the song a worldwide hit was, in fact, his own idea.

The proceedings began when Mr Fisher’s barrister, Iain Purvis, QC, keen to avoid what was tactfully referred to as a “ ‘What is the Beatles?’ moment”, asked Mr Blackburne if he was familiar with the band whose hit became synomous with sixties hedonism.

“I am of that age, yes,” the judge replied. He added that his familiarity with one of the defining sounds of the Sixties would be growing, as an organ had been installed in his private quarters. “It may be that at some stage, after hours, I may want to work through the sheet-music evidence,” he said. “The natural thing to do is to play it to myself.”

If the court upholds Mr Fisher’s claims that he deserves a co-writing credit, he could be entitled to more than 1 million in royalties for the song, which has sold 10 million copies worldwide. Mr Brooker — the band’s singer and keyboard player, who is credited with writing the music, (a fellow band-member, Keith Reid, was responsible for the lyrics) — strongly contests the claim, saying that Mr Fisher’s contribution was limited to that of an accompanist.

Sitting just feet away from both men, Mr Fisher demonstrated, bar by bar, how he said he had developed the signature Hammond organ solo and melodies. A classically trained musician, Mr Fisher left the band two years after the song was released. He decided that life on the road supporting Jimi Hendrix was not for him.

Yesterday Mr Fisher told the court how he used his enthusiasm for Bach and compositions known as Air on a G-string and Sleepers Awake! to embellish the melody.

Anticipating the distinctive lyrics of “skipping light fandangos” and “sixteen vestal virgins”, Mr Fisher gave the court a brief lesson in classical music theory as he described how he developed his own solo and modified the melody to add to the original music written by Mr Brooker.

He said: “How did they get there if it wasn’t for me? I finished that organ solo at home, partly from ideas floating around in my head, and partly from rehearsals, whereas the organ melody arose purely from rehearsals.

“This was a song not for people who are used to listening to Schubert and Benjamin Britten, but intended for the man in the street. We didn’t want it too adventurous or avant-garde.”

Referring to one particular sequence as he tapped his feet in time on the green courtroom carpet, he said: “I was really very pleased I thought of that. It worked really nicely.”

His claim is based mainly on the contribution of the organ solo, which forms the introduction of the song and is repeated between verses. He also claims that he made chord changes to the original Brooker sequence, and developed a counterpoint to the melody.

Mr Brooker and Mr Reid met Mr Fisher in 1967, when they responded to his advertisement in Melody Maker, offering his skills as a Hammond organ player. After successfully auditioning at his mother’s house, they rehearsed material that the two men had written. It is the extent to which Mr Fisher was solely responsible for the organ elements that appeared on the recording released as a single in May, 1967, which is contentious.

Mr Fisher said: “There’s always been tension between me and Gary. The whole question of A Whiter Shade of Pale has always been there. It’s like walking into the room and seeing a dead person. He knew it was there, I knew it was there but nobody mentioned it. There was a lot of subconscious anger.”

Mr Purvis said that the 38-year delay in making a formal legal claim was because Mr Fisher was unaware of his legal entitlement.

Mr Purvis said: “We are dealing with one of the most successful pop songs ever written by British artists.”

The hearing continues.

Man in the Middle

• Now 61, Mr Justice Blackburne is young enough to have enjoyed the Procol Harum hit in 1967
• He studied music and law at Magdalene College, Cambridge
• He handled the battle between Simon Fuller, former Spice Girls manager and Pop Idol creator, and Simon Cowell, creator of The X Factor
• He joined the High Court bench in 1993 and sits in the Chancery Division
• He was the judge in a claim by the Prince of Wales against the Mail on Sunday over its publication of extracts from his journal about the British handover of Hong Kong in 1997
 


More about the AWSoP lawsuit

 

 

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