The court battle over A Whiter Shade of Pale royalties delivers painful
lessons for musicians
Why did the 16 vestal virgins leave for the coast? Exactly what did the waiter bring on a tray when we called out for another drink? And, crucially, just how plain is the truth to see?
None of these questions will mean anything to anybody who is not familiar with the words of the 1967 No1 hit A Whiter Shade of Pale, by the band Procol Harum. Yesterday saw the final speeches made in a high court action that has been intriguing everyone who has ever consciously or subconsciously or semi-consciously listened to that legendary/haunting/evocative/iconic/ magical – take your pick – song.
Matthew Fisher, the organist who played the familiar opening notes on one of the most played and most covered recordings of all time, believes that he should have been credited with its joint authorship, alongside Gary Brooker, the band's singer, and Keith Reid, the lyricist. Messrs Brooker and Reid disagreed. Hence the action, which, with a hearing lasting almost two weeks, must have run up legal costs far in excess of the total royalties most bands ever collect. (And here it might be worth sparing a thought, as a reader has suggested, for the late Bill Eyden, who played drums on the record and was paid a Musicians' Union rate of £15 15s.)
Mr Justice Blackburne, who has presided over the proceedings like an avuncular producer – George Martin in a wig and gown, perhaps – must now retire to his chambers, put on his headphones, light his sandalwood joss stick and come up with a judgment that will have ramifications for every group of musicians jamming away tonight and planning to record the results.
The action, which finally reached court nearly four decades after those haunting/evocative bars on the Hammond organ first floated out of a window on Tin Pan Alley, has been educational for all musicians and fans. It also painted a touching picture of those far-off, innocent days: Mr Brooker disclosed that he first played the song on his mum's piano in Southend, and Mr Fisher told how he was auditioned for the band at his mum's house in Croydon. But what, as people used to ask of the song's lyrics, does it all mean? Well, there do seem to be some painful lessons for musicians.
First, if you think that your delicate guitar solo that comes between the second and third verses is what lifts the song above the mundane, and you are thus entitled to a joint credit – speak now, even if this may create a certain froideur in the studio. Second, assume that the four bars you suggested as an intro may well become a ring tone in a couple of decades and, as such, could rack up substantial royalties. Third, keep a diary and a cuttings book so that if the matter ever comes before a court, you can quote from a contemporaneous note because the music papers of record can, alas, fade and die; Melody Maker, which catalogued much of the debate over the Procol Harum song, is no longer with us or – as Ronnie Scott would say – no longer with anyone. Fourth, find out who the Lovin' Spoonful are, so that you can answer that very question when, as happened in court last week, it is asked by a barrister.
It is very sad that a song that was deconstructed – although that would definitely not have been the word used – in the bedrooms and pubs and parks of the nation that summer should end up being dissected in court. But whatever the eventual judgment, we should be grateful to all the protagonists for that haunting/magical/evocative music and the enigmatic words, and we should extend our sympathy and understanding to the judge who now has the very difficult task of taking a sad song and making it better.
More about the AWSoP lawsuit