The ongoing Procol Harum trial in London is one of the odder music stories of
late. Organist Matthew Fisher is
suing keyboardist/singer Gary Brooker and
lyricist Keith Reid because Fisher didn’t receive a songwriting credit on the
band’s landmark 1967 hit A Whiter Shade of Pale, and the other two did.
Fisher contends that he composed the haunting organ line that drives the song and thus should be credited — and receive royalties, of course. Brooker and Reid’s lawyers say, no, Brooker already had written the song before Fisher even joined the band — basing it in part on two Bach compositions — and, um, it’s 2006. He’s suing now?
The Guardian reports that Fisher testified Tuesday that Brooker was an expert in American R&B, not classical composers:
"I'd been listening to Bach for eight years, I was an expert when it came to Bach ... He would have been playing something that he thought sounded like Bach, but I honestly don't remember him playing anything that impressed me in the least."
Well, sniff sniff.
The organist also reportedly said he wished he’d joined a different band back then because he was such a talented, in-demand organist, and “the world was my oyster.”
Fisher was a key Procol Harum member for the band’s first three albums, Procol Harum, Shine on Brightly, and A Salty Dog, and he produced the last of those — a classic, along with the début. He also wrote or co-wrote several songs for the group, mostly strong ones, including the instrumental Repent Walpurgis on the first album.
Interestingly, the Procol Harum Web site 'Beyond the Pale' features Fisher discussing Repent Walpurgis, and he credits Brooker with coming up with what he calls the song’s “Bach prelude” (Brooker mentions adding the lifted-from-Bach piano interlude as well). So apparently Fisher, who took the song’s sole songwriting credit, didn’t always consider Brooker to be a classical music know-nothing.
Although he left in 1969, Fisher rejoined the band for the 1991 reunion album The Prodigal Stranger and toured with the group through 2001. (I reviewed the 1991 show at the Vic, where the Clash’s Joe Strummer sat two rows in front of me and flashed me a big thumbs-up sign afterward. “What a voice!” he exclaimed, referring to Brooker’s still-powerful soul pipes.)
A Whiter Shade of Pale already had experienced a renaissance thanks to its prominent appearance in The Big Chill (1983), yet Fisher somehow had no problem sitting across the stage from the man credited with writing the music for all those years.
The Guardian story says, “Mr. Fisher said that he had initially taken legal advice in the 1980s but had not been able to get legal aid to continue.”
All that touring couldn’t pay for a lawyer? No attorney thought the case was worth taking solely based on the royalties at stake?
But beyond the who-did-what-when squabbling lie some thorny questions about band dynamics. A songwriter (or songwriters) brings a song in to the bandmates, and they work out their parts.
At what point is the organ lick or bass line or guitar solo worthy of a songwriting credit? Elvis Costello has taken sole credit for his songs no matter how inventive and memorable keyboardist Steve Nieve’s parts have been. Drummers Keith Moon and Charlie Watts in many ways defined the sound of Who and the Rolling Stones, respectively, without receiving songwriting props.
In contrast, the members of REM always have shared all credits no matter who actually brought in the song. The bandmates often cited this policy as a main factor in their stability (although they lost drummer and, apparently, vital songwriter Bill Berry three albums back).
It’s hard for me to imagine Fisher winning, but what do I know? If he does, though, the courtrooms of the future may be humming with the sound of disputed classic-rock hooks.
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