Matthew Fisher: the man who played Hammond on A Whiter Shade of Pale talks about the re-forming of Procol Harum and what’s been happening since 1967.
Think of an all-time hit single that features Hammond organ and A Whiter Shade of Pale automatically springs to mind. Now Procol Harum has re-formed, complete with original organist Matthew Fisher, who told Malcolm Harrison tales of then and now ...
‘I’m always hearing people say, "I know the guy who’s got the C3 that was used on A Whiter Shade of Pale." I can assure you that he hasn’t because it wasn’t a C3. It was a M100.’ Matthew Fisher should know because he was the organist on that august Procol Harum hit way back in 1967.
Now after a gap of some 20 years the original Procol Harum is back together: vocalist/pianist Gary Brooker, guitarist Robin Trower, lyricist Keith Reid and Matthew Fisher on organ. The Hammond is still a mainstay of the Procol sound but this time usually a C3 or B3, depending on what’s available. You see, Matthew Fisher doesn’t actually own a Hammond. ‘I used to own one but it got stolen. I lent the M100 to Procol Harum and they lost it,’ he says, referring to a certain roadie who seemed to have itchy fingers.
The C3 myth is just one story that surfaces each time A Whiter Shade of Pale is re-released: it’s been in the charts at least twice and has worldwide sales in excess of six million. The combination of Reid’s unfathomable lyrics and the classical organ strains (supposedly adapted by Brooker from Air on a G String) has long remained a fascinating combination that has lifted it out of the pop song genre. Recalls Matthew: ‘I can remember at the time I had this cantankerous old piano-tuner who used to come and tune my piano. He was going on about A Whiter Shade of Pale. "You’re crazy about it now but in six months you’ll have forgotten it." Not true – 25 years later they’re still playing it,’ he says with a smile. In fact, in 1977, to coincide with the Queen’s silver jubilee, it was voted joint best British pop single of the past 25 years, alongside Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.
The re-formed Procol Harum has a new album out, The Prodigal Stranger, and has just completed a world tour taking in the USA and Europe. And, yes, A Whiter Shade of Pale gets played. Says Matthew, ‘I think there’d be riots if we didn’t play it. It’s one of the encores.’ The band performs a mix of old and new material with about 60/40 in favour of well-known past masters. ‘It surprises me how young a lot of the audiences are. Not meaning necessarily that they are 17 or 18 but there’s a lot of people in their 30s. And there are people my age – I’m 45 – and older. It’s a very mixed bunch from what I can see,’ says Matthew.
The new album is typical of the quality rock songs at which Procol Harum always excelled. Not that Matthew could comment on that since he missed the band’s last seven albums. However, he has his views on the new songs.
‘I like to think of the stuff we write now as timeless. There were times in the early days when we were a bit caught up in what was happening. For instance, some of the second album – Life is like a beanstalk and all that sort of thing – is a bit hippie trippie flower power sort of thing. But above and beyond that we’ve always done what we wanted, irrespective of whether it’s in fashion or not. I suppose we’re a cult band in a way. We don’t have a very big following compared to some other bands but the following we do have is quite fanatical. And they’re into the individual members as well. In Europe I had all sorts of people coming up to me with odd records I’d just played on or produced – things I’d forgotten about – asking me to sign them. You get the feeling they’ve just been waiting the last twenty years for us to get back together.’
Matthew Fisher is rather reticent to talk about any formal musical training. ‘It’s rather a delicate area, this. I was exposed to a certain amount of classical background. When I was a kid I went to a Saturday morning music class but to say I had classical training suggests I was a Rick Wakeman or someone similar, and I certainly wasn’t. I picked up a bit of the theory, the things that interested me, and the stuff that didn’t interest me I didn’t pick up. I was certainly never a good sight-reader and I didn’t practise. The highest exam I ever took was Grade IV,’ explains Matthew, who can still read and write music though.
He was playing in bands while at school and wanted to be a professional musician when he left, although he later fancied record production. ‘I did try to see if I could get a job with the BBC or some recording studio and it was very difficult, the same as it is now. There weren’t so many people wanting the jobs but then there were hardly any studios. So the competitiveness was probably worse then than it is now. I thought I could perhaps come up from the engineering side or cross over from the musical side so I decided to go on being a musician but with a view to being able to make the change. That’s the frame of mind I was in when I joined Procol.’
Previously he’d been in several bands including Newcastle-based The Gamblers (who sometimes backed Billy Fury), Screaming Lord Sutch’s backing band (with guitarist Ritchie Blackmore) and on one tour with Peter Jay and the Jaywalkers backing Paul Jones. (He was recruited temporarily because Jones wanted an organist.)
Matthew was only actually in Procol Harum for some three years although he says that was long by his standards. He left in 1969 for a variety of reasons. ‘Actually I didn’t enjoy touring at the time. I was very set in my ways. I used to like watching all my favourite TV programmes and I found touring interrupted my little cosy conservative lifestyle. It seemed an intrusion. Partly that and partly I was itching to get to work in the studio. It’s a strange thing, the studio bug. I’ve got a studio now and I get letters from people who are just crazy to work in studios. "Why do they want to do that?". But I did at the time, the same as them. The point is that touring can be very boring if you don’t have something to occupy your spare time.’
Now, however, he has his mathematics to fill the boring bits. He’s working on a maths course, hoping to be accepted into Cambridge University. He says of the recent tour of the USA and Europe: ‘I did hours and hours of maths – probably more than if I’d have stayed at home.’
On leaving Procol Harum he had his wish and went into record production. He explains: ‘My career as a record producer has been very strange. I haven’t actually produced that many records although a very high percentage of what I have produced has done very well. But I just don’t get the work. I did the first three Robin Trower albums, for instance, and the second one was a platinum album. You’d think that would have got me work but it didn’t. Or if it did people just sent me very boring heavy metal bands. Before Robin Trower all I got sent were over-the-top Emerson, Lake and Palmer boring flash keyboard-orientated bands because they thought I was into that. They never sent me the stuff I really wanted to do which was probably just mainstream pop. In spite of everything my tastes in pop music are quite mundane. I like quite a lot of low-brow music. I used to like the Bee Gees.
However no one of the calibre of the Bee Gees turned up on his studio doorstep. ‘I began to realize that, in fact, most of the people I would really have enjoyed working with didn’t actually need any help. I decided that record production is not perhaps what I thought it was, Looking back at my life it all looks a bit of a mess but I enjoyed things at the time. I’m still looking out for new things to do so it’s not over yet. But I can’t honestly look you in the eye and tell you I’ve had a very successful career because I haven’t. It doesn’t seem to make any sense to me at all. But it’s had its moments, I can tell you that,’ he says with a wry smile and no hint of self pity.
As it turns out the offer to re-form Procol Harum came just at the right time. ‘It came totally out of the blue just about the time I’d assumed it was never going to happen. For years and years people kept talking about getting Procol back together. Then suddenly I got a phone call from Gary saying, "How about it?". It just came at a time in my life when I was thinking about changes and new directions. So I said "Yes".’
The Hammond organ was always a mainstay of the Procol Harum sound, and on The Prodigal Stranger it’s there in all its glory, whether it’s adding filigree fills to You Can’t Turn Back the Page, giving solid backing (A Dream in Ev’ry Home and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, for example) or driving the song as on the loping R’n’B of One More Time and the gentle but melodic Perpetual Motion. The whole album, in fact, has an inherent power that’s omnipresent in both the ballads and hard-edged rock numbers; this can be traced back to a solid rhythm section and the in-depth arrangements of organ, piano and guitar.
Departures from Procol’s rock/ballad speciality – such as the atmospheric The King of Hearts and the African-tinged Holding On with its singalong chorus – give the album a sense of light and shade, although overall it’s a very get-up-and-go album with memorable tunes and a musical quality that is all too rare these days. This is epitomised in the stomping Man with A Mission which combines atmosphere with power – not to mention a sublimely simple piano solo. Those who feel the organ has no feeling should listen to the contrasting melancholy of The Pursuit of Happiness and the wordless background scream of All Our Dreams Are Sold.
Even though the members of the band hadn’t played together for many years, Matthew found it very easy to slip back into old ways. ‘I’d probably find it very difficult to play with any other band now. But it’s very easy for me to slot into Procol because basically all I have to do is be myself. I don’t have to say, "Is this what you want?" because if there was anyone else with the job they’d probably be trying to work out what I’d be doing. It’s very easy and for that I’m very grateful,’ says Matthew, who hadn’t really lost touch since he’d worked with Gary Brooker on his album Echoes in the Night in the mid 80s.
Matthew was only involved in the writing of four songs: Truth Won’t Fade Away, A Dream in Ev’ry Home, Learn to Fly and One More Time. Quite a few of the other songs were written in America using computers to help work out the arrangements. Then the same happened over here when Keith Reid, Gary Brooker and Matthew gathered around his computer. ‘Some of the tracks were re-recorded from scratch and I was there while that was going on but on others it was virtually done and I came along and added my little bit on top. It doesn’t sound like that, though. To me the album sounds integrated.’
Procol Harum’s hallmark of piano and organ was deliberately kept – and with very little resorting to hi-tech equipment. ‘I do a lot of MIDI-ing and sequencing on my own in the studio but within the context of Procol it doesn’t really seem appropriate. It’s a question of what works with Gary’s voice and what works with that sort of material. The organ just seems to fit naturally. But on Truth Won’t Fade Away, for instance, I played a composite sound. It was a mixture of an analogue synth sound – a Roland JX-8P – with a sample of a guitar. In fact, the sample is my son’s Squier Bullet guitar. A lot of people think it’s the guitarist playing that line but that riff is actually from the keyboard. So I played that and overdubbed the organ later. Live I have to play them both at once – it’s horrible. I have a very nasty job to do towards the end, playing raving Hammond with one hand and that riff with the other. I always hit a few wrong notes. The unfortunate thing is that it’s that kind of sound – there’s no velocity sensitivity on it and the envelope’s a mile long – so if you accidentally hit a B instead of B flat that’s it, it comes out crystal clear. It’s a very dangerous sound to play,’ he says with a laugh. ‘I hate velocity sensitivity at the best of times – being an organist I’m not used to it.’
Unlike ‘modern’ keyboard players who have an armoury of synths and a rack of expanders, Matthew kept things relatively simple on tour. ‘All I was using was the Hammond, the JX-8P, which is mine, and an Akai S1000 sampler. All the sounds I’m using are S900 samples because that’s what I had but we needed the S1000 for the extra memory.’
As it happens pianist Gary Brooker is the one who has MIDI madness on stage. Using a Rhodes MK80 as a master keyboard, he has a rack of modules all allocated different patches depending on the song.
‘Most of the time I’m using twin sounds, a JX sound with a sample. I’ve got a church organ sound that I actually sampled in a local church. I played various notes on the organ, recorded them and then took them back and put them into the S900. I mix that with a churchy sound on the JX-8P – they mix quite nicely together. But sometimes it’s just one or the other. It’s all switchable from the JX. So there may be a sound coming out of the JX and there’s no program corresponding to it in the S1000 and, vice versa, sometimes there’ll be a program in the S1000 and I’ve just got a dummy program in the JX which is total silence. But I only use 10 or 12 programs compared to Gary’s 40 or 50. He’s got very carried away with MIDI,’ he says.
Whereas Matthew as the studio man hasn’t, I ask?
‘Well, I feel that if Gary’s going to go into it to that extent I decided to minimise whatever I’m doing both from the point of view of saving trouble and because it’s ridiculous having everyone trying to play everything. Anyway it’s a bit of a busman’s holiday playing MIDI stuff on the road. It’s great to be able to forget it all and just groove on organ. It’s so much more spontaneous and less hassle.
‘We were using C3s in Europe, and in America mainly B3s. There’s more B3s in America and there’s more C3s in England. The B3 is much easier to carry. A lot of people make the mistake of chopping the legs off the B3 and it makes it much harder to move about. With the legs on you’ve got something to grab hold of. They’re surprisingly easy to move around.’
With the Hammond he used two Leslies which were miked up. ‘It’s fortunate we’re not a very loud band – I’d probably have had more problems. But we’re actually very quiet on stage.’
The future of Procol Harum is somewhat uncertain. At the moment there are unfortunately no plans for any gigs in the UK. However, other long-range plans include a return to Edmonton in Canada where 20 years ago Procol Harum recorded a live album with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra – which turned out to be the band’s most successful album.
‘There was some talk of us going back there and repeating the exact concert that was done last time but we’re not too keen on that. We’d like to try something a bit different – exactly what we haven’t decided yet.’
Whether the re-formed Procol Harum continues for more than one album and a tour remains to be seen. Says Matthew: ‘It’s really a question of sitting back and reviewing the situation. There’s a lot of "wait and see" about it. We are concerned with what’s worthwhile and what’s not, but I don’t think anyone is seriously expecting to make a killing out of it. Basically we’re doing it because it seems a fun thing to do. Unless it’s actually banging our heads against a brick wall we’ll probably carry on doing it. But I wouldn’t really describe it as a full-time occupation which is just as well because I’m not looking for one. I’ve got the studio and my academic interests which is very handy for touring because it gives me something to do during the hours you have to spend otherwise twiddling your thumbs. I can get stuck into my maths.’