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the Pale

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Confessions of a Spurious Essayist

Just how blind can one man be?

Roland @ BtP

I confess: I fell for John Tobler's mistaken remark about Matthew Fisher resurfacing as Obie Clayton when I first read the ZigZag article: after all he's normally an authoritative writer … why should one doubt it? And I found the Obie Clayton album in a shop in Bristol (the only vinyl PH bootleg I've ever seen on public sale was in the very same rack) shortly afterwards. It didn't look much like Matthew at first … but neither did the artist-picture, seemingly of a waspish aesthete, look a bit like what the name 'Obie' suggested to me. So obviously something 'fishy' was going on, I thought.

On listening to the album, I thought that Matthew Fisher had also made an incredibly good job of disguising his voice and his guitar-playing, but I swallowed the notion that the earnings from the Trower albums had allowed him to hire an outside producer, and that he'd been doing all he could to make an absolute break from the PH tag in order to win justified stardom in his own right.

Musically it was such an intelligent album that the identity of Clayton and Fisher seemed perfectly probable, and he'd clearly taken his poppy instincts to their logical extreme; but when I first came to talk to Matthew Fisher, and tentatively raised the issue, he answered me with a flat denial that he had even heard of Clayton, and the conversation turned to other matters.

But I didn't feel I could dismiss the lyrical clues: 'say you're sorry and brightly will I shine' was the obvious give-away. I'd always admired Fisher's words enormously, and his verbal facility was clear also in conversation: here he was, after all, convincing me that Going for a Song was written from Gary Brooker's point of view …

On a later occasion (in that famously ovationary queue in the Barbican, 1996) I had the opportunity to mention Obie Clayton to Matthew again. Like so many fans, I wanted to believe that there was more than met the eye: I suppose I wanted to find mystery in 'real life' as well as in the music. I was still pretty convinced that Clayton was Fisher, but that his denial was an entirely consistent part of the business of having a pseudonym in the first place, part of the same artistic act. It seemed to be part of his integrity: otherwise, he might seem to be saying, why would I have put 'Clayton' on the sleeve? 'Ask me no questions, I'll tell you no lies …': it was explicitly stated on the album. But again Matthew said he knew nothing about the album, and I was determined to believe him.

It was a year later, when I saw the Redhill pictures on Jens's early site, that the facial similarity of Clayton and Fisher was borne in on me. Now I was convinced again that they were one and the same man: though holding their heads at different angles, they shared the shape of the nose, the smile-lines, the set of the eyes ... and those to whom I showed the pictures tended to agree (I don't recall anyone pointing out that the similarity, so marked in one shot, was entirely absent from most of the others!)

So, I thought, he's worked pseudonymously, disguising his style: so I shall publish my 'findings' in a similar spirit! And I set about marshalling my 'evidence' in an article (pointlessly entitled Repent Mat Fischer) so crudely-written and -argued that I hoped (!) no-one would ever trace it back to me. It was fun to go overboard, reading as much as I could into every supposed parallel between Clayton and Fisher: but it would be dishonest now to pretend that it was all done in a spirit of self-mockery: at the time I was pretty convinced by quite a lot of it. Just how blind, eh? … it's so easy to believe what you want to believe, whatever the evidence!

I enjoyed trying to write the piece in another 'voice', with hideous punctuation, erratic spelling, non sequiturs, callow attempts at a transAtlantic idiom, and frequent 'fixing myself a drink' (don't tell me you didn't notice any of this!). But it didn't make much sense to use a dumbed-down style to make points that had obviously come out of some very careful, well-informed listening: and in any case my 'job' at that early website was to tidy up all the slips and solecisms in our articles, so the effort of forcing errors in was all going to be wasted anyway.

By the end of an hour's writing I'd given up the idea of sending my spurious essay to the 'Shine on Brightly' website: publishing it, I decided, would be unfair to Fisher, if it was his wish to maintain that he had had nothing to do with the Clayton album; and that not confessing who'd written the piece would be an abuse of my nascent friendship with Jens, which had begun at Redhill. In any case I was already of the opinion (still held to this day) that web-pseudonyms (except on April Fool's Day!) are a more-or-less juvenile, perhaps ultimately destructive phenomenon.

So the spurious story languished a few months on my hard disc, while I played the album to a few more Procoholics. Some accepted it without question; but Will Fraser, who had stayed at Matthew's home in Croydon, didn't recognise the location pictured on the album, and wasn't sure about the music; Joan May heard it and was unconvinced. Matthew had actually given me his home address so I could send him a copy: I never quite got round to it … the part of me that stubbornly believed he was really Clayton was too wary of the potential ramifications of this ingenuous paradox.

Who else could help me judge? In 1997 Ron Smith interviewed Fisher in New York for the website (here and here) and among the hitherto-unpublished parts of that long, revelatory conversation was this rather less fruitful fragment:

Somebody was telling me of an album by someone named Obie Clayton, which has Procol Harum members on it or something. I've never heard it and probably could never find it. Do you know who this Obie Clayton guy is?

No. Someone else has mentioned that name to me. And I can't remember who it was. You say it's Procol? Do you know who's on it? ... I'm sure it has nothing to do with anyone I know.

In an e-mail Ron wisely added, 'I haven't heard the Clayton record, but for now my hunch is that it's just some guy who happened to have written a few lines similar in style to Matthew's.'

For a long while after this my Clayton thoughts were in abeyance. But after writing about the Route 66 album, and striking up a telephone friendship with its prime mover, Procol biographer Claes Johansen, I sent the Clayton album by post for his verdict. Claes was adamant: the location, voice, and guitar had nothing to do with Fisher, whom he knew well; but, armed with formidable determination and an arsenal of tricks of the trade (and with a long list of telephone numbers I'd culled from the web for him!) he set off on the trail of investigation that led to his discovery of the truth.

Before I heard back from Claes, I mentioned this Clayton investigation to Frans Steensma at the Barbican. 'Oh yes, that's Matthew Ellis,' said Frans mildly, with his characteristic omniscience, going on to mention the dealer, Van Dike, who regularly advertises Matthew Ellis in his Procol department each month Record Collector.

When Frans got back to the Netherlands he mailed me to say that, 'The Obie Clayton album was reviewed in Melody Maker 6 / 12 / 1975, which stated that he was helped out by Alan Eden (drums) and John Atkinson (bass). Then it states: 'This isn't the first incarnation of the three together - as the Matthew Ellis Band they made a small dent on the scene some years ago'. So it was no surprise to me Clayton and Ellis proved to be the same. But there are several reference works (price guides etc.) which list Matthew Ellis as part of Procol, and this has been going on for years …'

Now the name 'Matthew Ellis' was ringing a strong bell with me: he had been much-discussed at Cambridge University when I first got there: the recent undergraduate who had written some music for a student production and been signed up by Regal Zonophone on the strength of it (I went on to do the same … or at least, to do the first part: somehow the Zonophone talent scouts must have been looking somewhere else whenever I sat down at the piano!)

But these Ellis revelations didn't lessen my surprise and delight when I recently (January 2000) received a disc with Claes's Clayton article in it: here was a tissue of typically Procoholic coincidences. The drum-shop of Alan Eden, Obie Clayton's drummer, was no more than five minutes' walk from where I work; and Obie himself … I picked up the telephone and dialed him at his publishing house, without needing to look up the number. 'Hello Obie Clayton … I guess you know my brother?' … 'Martin Clare? Of course! We've worked together for fifteen years'!

Michael was quietly-spoken, charming, and amazed to be in thoughts of music fans once again. Though he has lots of unreleased material (and another finished Obie Clayton album that has never seen the light of day) he imagined his rock career was long over. No, he had never realised that he'd been mistaken for Matthew Fisher. Yes, he admired Procol Harum enormously: part of the thrill of getting a recording contract had been the coincidence of labels. No he'd never met Procol … and the lyrical 'clues' in which I, for one, had invested so much importance were '… pure coincidence: that Shine on Brightly quote must have gone in at a deep psychological level.' And of course the many references to disguise … 'familiar though you don't know my name' … were true: he was once familiar as Matthew Ellis, and now he was someone else, having derived 'Obie' from one of the Four Tops, and 'Clayton' from his mother's maiden name.

The fact that Matthew Fisher had later also graduated from Cambridge was another element of this web of coincidence, which would have been perfected, for me, if I'd then been told that the John Atkinson who plays bass and clarinet on the Clayton record was the very same John Atkinson who'd played clarinet alongside me in our school orchestra long ago: but that was not to be. I didn't find out what had become of JA until the very day I was preparing this page, when an e-mail from Joan May dropped in: Atkinson had been e-talking with recording enthusiasts, and Joan had found his reference to Matthew Fisher in a déjà news item (you can view related discussion by following this link).

From:, 13 January 2000

> John ... what was the name of your band?

… We recorded an album at Abbey Road for Warner Bros. under the name the Matthew Ellis Trio (a very young Alan Parsons was our tape op.). Matthew Ellis (not to be confused with Matthew Fisher of Procol Harum) was a singer / songwriter who had previously had two LPs released on Regal-Zonophone.

The WB album was never released, but we then signed to DJM as the "Obie Clayton Band" and had an album released to critical acclaim but zero sales in 1974 [sic]. We kept together, working on sessions and touring with British "pop sensation" Helen Shapiro. In 1977, we backed up a singer called "Bunk Dogger" (aka rock music writer Tim Phillips) on a 1977 RCA album called First Offense, which sold quite well. (I recently picked up a copy in a yard sale here in Santa Fe!)

I had already joined Hi-Fi News & Record Review by the time that album came out, and the band disbanded. Our keyboard player now manages the Barron Knights; Matthew Ellis went into publishing; and our drummer, Alan Eden, played for a while with Mr Fox and a number of bands in the English folk-rock scene before working for many years with Leo Sayer. He is currently busy with two bands, the Mechanics and the Fabulous Doughboys …

I'm still playing in a small way (coping with a new fretless bass) and my jazz group will be doing a gig at Home Entertainment 2000 in New York in May.

Sorry to have rambled on.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

So we see that Bunk Dogger is not another pseudonym again of the protean Mr Cox! Nice to see that John Atkinson signs off with a no-doubt inadvertent Procolism! And nice, too, to see his warning not to conflate Clayton and Fisher: it's quite certain that there was never any deliberate intention on the part of the Obie players to trade on any supposed similarity to Matthew or to his work.

So let's hope that this trio of Obie Clayton articles (the spurious essay, Claes's revelations, and the present page) will clear up a genuine misunderstanding that I hope I'm not the only gullible person to have fallen for. If it lessens the sales of misleading record-traders, all to the good. If it encourages people to listen to Michael Cox's intelligent and melodic pop-rock, so much the better. And the spurious essay [one Paler wrote in calling it 'a brilliant piece of performance art', while another had evidently deduced, from the style, that it was written by somebody quite different] does attempt make some serious points about Fisher's recorded works, if anyone can face reading it again.

But all in all I wish I'd been more open to Matthew Fisher's first, honest disavowal of this Clayton album … it's just that I so wanted there to be more of his stuff on record … I should have trusted my musical ears, rather than my blind eyes, when I first heard the Obie Clayton album.

Matthew Fisher's page at BtP

The truth about Obie Clayton

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