This Matthew Fisher interview was transcribed from a taped conversation conducted just before the Redhill Party in 1997 by Paul Carter, then of the UK's Daily Express, who was preparing an article on the forthcoming concert. Paul also conducted interviews with Keith Reid and with Gary Brooker, which were published in Shine On and later archived at BtP. It was never published in Shine On; it appears at 'Beyond the Pale' for the first time thanks to the author, who sent it to us at the end of March 2008.
What feelings does the thirtieth anniversary stir up for you?
To be honest, not an awful lot. It's been with me all the time and it's not as if it's taken me by surprise. It's all part of this growing older business, which tends to happen rather gradually. You don't suddenly wake up one morning to discover that you're old.
Could you tell me something about your personal background and education?
MF: I've never been able to put my finger on whether my family was upper working class or lower middle class. I went to grammar school and I suppose what should have happened if I hadn't got smitten by the rock and roll business was that I would have gone off to university and become an engineer or something like that. But just around the time I was starting my sixth form, I got very heavily into guitar groups and that rather diverted me.
Musically, I had piano lessons as a kid. It got quite serious at one point with music school on Saturday mornings. They had a scheme at Guildhall School of Music called 'junior exhibitioners' and I was one of them. I did that for a couple of years, but I never really practised, that was my problem. I had the aptitude but not the application. But it gave me a good grounding in musical theory when I did want to start playing rock and roll. It was all very simple compared to what I'd been studying.
When I left school I did go back to the Guildhall for a while as a full-time student. It didn't last, mainly because I hadn't realised what sort of course it was, or rather what the other students would be like. All the others were quite set on becoming music teachers in schools, except they weren't really academic enough to go to university. They were in fact a pretty pretentious crowd and I didn't get on with them at all. They all seemed to be wearing their musical hearts on their sleeves: 'I'm a musician, isn't it wonderful?' I felt very lonely and made virtually no friends. I stuck it for a couple of terms, a little bit too long really.
It was after I left that I went back to being a pro musician. If I remember rightly, my ambition at that time had always just been to get into record production and I thought I might be able to do it by virtue of getting some sort of musical qualification, then maybe getting a job in a studio. And it occurred to me that maybe another route might be by being a member of some very successful band. So I was on the look-out for something that I could use as a stepping stone towards that.
Apart from that, I'd always been interested in getting into a band that used its own material rather than doing covers. I'd done all sorts of things by that time. When I was at school I'd played around in semi-pro bands and when I left I decided I wanted to go professional. I ended up joining a band that was based up in Newcastle called The Gamblers, whose main claim to fame was that they were regularly used by Billy Fury as his backing group. They were friends of The Animals: in fact the guitarist, Jim Crawford, I think that was his name, actually joined The Animals when Alan Price left to form his own band. Anyway, I was with them for three or four months and then I left to go to music school but that didn't work out.
It's such a long time ago that I'm forgetting the chronology, but there were various other bands. I did a tour with Peter Jay and The Jaywalkers, who were co-opted to act as a backing group for Paul Jones, the ex-Manfred-Mann singer. They had this young kid called Terry Reid, the singer, who should have been absolutely gigantic but it never quite happened. The thing is that Paul Jones wanted an organ, because he was used to one in Manfred Mann, so they had to get one in, which was me. It was one of these tours that they don't have any more, you'd just go all over Britain playing at the local ABC cinema. I did one of those tours with The Gamblers, and I did another with Peter Jay and The Jaywalkers, backing Paul Jones.
You met all kinds of other bands doing that. I think with The Gamblers we ran into The Pretty Things and Dave Berry, Brian Poole and The Tremeloes, people like that. On the Paul Jones tour it was The Hollies and The Small Faces. Now the organist with The Small Faces had a Hammond organ, and I'd been crazy about Hammond organs for years. As soon as they started doing a sound check, I'd be saying, Ooh, can I have a go? He could hardly get me off it, I just kept on and on, but he was very nice about it.
Up until then I'd been playing a Vox Continental, a little cheapo job, but I'd always wanted a Hammond. It was Ian MacLagan of The Faces who persuaded me that I should go out on a limb and get myself one. He said everyone was crying out for Hammond organists now, there's people going out and buying them who can't even play them and still getting work just because they've got a Hammond. If you get one there'll be no stopping you, he said. I took all this very seriously: a man in that sort of position ought to know what he's talking about, I thought.
My grandmother lent me the money, which was a fortune in those days. To buy a Hammond organ and the appropriate speakers and everything, in 1966 you wouldn't get much change from £1,000. You could buy a pretty nice house for about £4,000 in those days. We're probably talking about the equivalent now of about £15,000 to £20,000. Maybe £25,000. It was a huge investment and I'd probably be too scared to do that now, but my grandmother had the money and seemed quite content to lend it to me. The funny thing is that I did manage to pay it back out of Procol earnings.
Having stuck my neck out to that extent, you see, I then thought I'd better do something to earn some money. It was like the guy had said. I put an advert in Melody Maker saying 'Hammond organist, blah, blah, blah' and the phone didn't stop ringing. The funny thing is that I wasn't even there for the weekend, I had to go away and do a gig somewhere, and my mother was answering the phone and taking down all the numbers. And when I came back there was this huge list of people to call back. I started working my way through the list and two of the people on it were Keith and Gary.
They came to see me and were quite impressed by the way I lived in this big old house – I'm still here, actually – with various bits of guitars and pianos and organs lying all over the place, a Hammond right in the middle of the room, old bits of broken record players . . . you know what I mean? To them it seemed all perfectly what they'd expect a good musician to live like. They were going on about how we're going to be big, we're going to be huge, as big as The Beatles and the Stones, and I was thinking: 'Oh yeah? Heard that one before?'
But what started to get me was that they had this acetate of one of their songs, just a demo of Gary singing and playing piano, done on something like a Grundig with one microphone, very primitive. They played it and I thought, ah, that is quite interesting. It was Salad Days. I taped it and over the next couple of days I played this song and thought: 'I rather like this, actually. Like the words, interesting music.' I had no idea what Gary's voice was like, because you couldn't tell that from the demo. I never really knew what his voice was like until we got into the studio months later and suddenly heard a playback and thought: 'Phew! Does he sound like THAT?' I'd never suspected.
I'd decided that although I was after the quick money, this could suit my plan to get somewhere and use that a stepping stone into production. I decided to give them a couple of months, and if two months down the line it looked like nothing was happening, well, sorry, but I've got an organ to pay for. But in fact within a couple of months something had happened, so that never arose. In fact within the first year I earned enough to pay my grandmother back.
Can you tell me something about the genesis of A Whiter Shade of Pale? Gary told me that the organ lines were all your work.
I suppose everybody has a few really brilliant ideas in their life. I've had a couple – in fact I once invented the drum machine. This is years later, but quite interesting. They had these horrid little drum machines that used to make these funny electronic noises, and I vaguely knew that you could record real drum sounds onto chips. I thought: 'Why can't they use sequencing technology to make all these soppy pop-pop noises into real drum sounds?' I spoke to one or two technical types and they all said Naah, naah, cost far too much, too complicated, no one would ever want that, so I got talked out of it. And then about a year later Roger Lynn brings out the Lynn drum, and everybody says, 'Wow, what a fantastic idea.' I'm not saying I had it before he did, because it must have taken him a few years to develop, but it's indicative that occasionally I get good ideas.
Another example is what I was getting into before I got into Procol. I'd always been passionately fond of Bach's music. It was a big thing with me. I was interested on the one hand with trying to combine Bach organ lines with my other idols like Booker T and Jimmy Smith. The other idea I had was that I really liked the way, in some of the arias and the B Minor Mass, Bach would have a vocal line and you've got a featured instrument. In the B Minor Mass there's one with the flute that's got a very catchy kind of line, another where it's a viola, I think, another with a cor Anglais. It's a kind of duet between the instrument and the voice: the voice does its thing, the instrument does its thing, and sometimes they're together. I thought surely you could do something like that with a pop record.
It was when we got to the rehearsal period and started running down A Whiter Shade of Pale, I thought, hmmm, this is really moody, and yeah!, maybe this could be the vehicle for my idea of a pop choral prelude. It was a very happy accident of everything being in the right place at the right time.
It's extraordinary that Gary had been working on that theme derived from Bach and that this happened to be your great interest.
Well, if you take A Whiter Shade of Pale as it was before I joined, I don't know how close that was to being like Bach. It was a little bit like Air on the G String, in that it had the descending bass line, but so did a lot of things, as Gary points out. Although he tends to omit the one I really think it was similar to, and I may be wrong here but the chronology kind of suits it, [which] is the Paul McCartney song on Revolver with the harpsichord and the French horn, For No One.
So the working outline of A Whiter Shade of Pale didn't sound that much like the finished product?
Well, it does if you can imagine it without the organ there. It has the same speed, the same vocal line and the same words, but I think what I did kind of underlined the Bach connection, which I think you could have missed if it hadn't been there. It was like putting a bloody great sign post on it, saying: 'This is like Bach, isn't it?' The potential was there but I think I really underlined it and drew a diagram so you couldn't miss it.
What are your memories after A Whiter Shade of Pale was released?
Bloody vague. It was a long time ago. It was all very unreal, I think. Very strange. Part of the problem was that I was very arrogant at the time, and had this great belief in myself. I was convinced that if anyone had the sense to release a record with me playing organ on it, it was bound to be a hit. So when they did, and it was, I thought: 'Well, I said it would, didn't I?' Because of that I probably didn't appreciate [it] as much as I should have done.
If we'd had a few flops first and then had a hit, I think I'd have appreciated it a lot more. But finding out how people's attitudes change towards you, that's something I never got used to. I absolutely hate record company people because if they think you've got something that will sell then you're their best buddy and it's like 'Do ring me up, any time, any time, how wonderful to see you Matthew, great, how are you doing?' and then when they've suddenly decided that maybe you're not going to make them a millionaire you ring them up and it's 'Oh, I'm sorry, he's in a meeting'. I would never let myself get that close to record company people now. I would always keep them at arm's length,
Did you find it difficult working in the shadow of that initial huge success?
I don't know about 'difficult'. Annoying, perhaps. Whatever we did, before they even heard it, you knew what people were going to say. 'Oh, it's not as good as A Whiter Shade of Pale.' And you could say, well, there are loads of fucking records in the charts that aren't as good as A Whiter Shade of Pale, you don't say that about them, do you? Give us a break, for God's sake. Why should everything we do have to be as good as that? And who's to say that if we'd come along on a different day, in a different studio, or whatever, it might not have turned out like that and had quite the magic that recording has. I've heard millions of versions of it that we've done, and I know we couldn't go into the studio and do that now, whoever we got. It wouldn't have that magic thing that just happened – something quite inexplicable that you don't get any more on records because they're all so controlled and premeditated and sequenced. You don't get accidental records any more, except among the indie bands and things like that. Not amongst mainstream music any more. Forget it, that's dead. It's got too regimented.
Read Part Two of this interview here