Procol Harum

the Pale

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Journey's End

Contemporary album review

From the American rock rag, Circus Raves. An offshoot of the original Circus magazine, it began a slow degeneration by the advent of punk and heavy metal in the mid-late 70s.

Matthew Fisher’s Journey’s End – a Pilgrim’s Progress

If the ballad of Procol Harum were ever written, one figure would continually be alluded to, lurking in the shadows as a combination saving grace and exterminating angel. When the group was teetering on the edge of disaster in 1969, he held their fate in his hands. When Denny Cordell left for the greener production pastures of Joe Cocker, he provided them with the album (A Salty Dog) that won back cold British hearts. He made their finest hours finer and put Bach into Rock. But 1969, when he dropped out of the band, little has been heard from Matthew Fisher. English fans saw him play piano for Bowie at last year’s Rainbow gigs and Americans heard him on Jerry Lee Lewis’s London Sessions LP – but that’s been it. Now after four years, with the release of Journey’s End, (RCA) Matthew Fisher steps up to the microphone and with disarming honesty and inspiring rock’n’roll music, paints a revealing portrait of all his turbulent years with Procol, conjuring his own destiny in the process.

A pop star’s postscript
Although most of the songs on Journey’s End were written in the last fifteen months, the seeds of inspiration were sown several years ago, May 1967, to be exact, then AWSoP fandangoed its way to the top of the charts. Up at Essex Music, Matthew glanced at Pale’s lead sheets and suddenly observed the organ solo he’d worked out, copied down note for note. The baroque hallmark and the stylistic essence of the song. Fisher politely suggested that he be considered for a co-writing credit. Producer Cordell was in favour of it and lyricist Keith Reid was sympathetic but vocalist Gary Brooker categorically dismissed it. ‘I was very naive in those days,’ reflects Fisher, ‘And me being a harmless little soul, sort of gave up.’ Fisher buried his disappointment and bitterness, but the incident was not easily forgotten,.


It’s not that I dislike the words
Though I must admit there are better words around
But every time I hear that tune
It really brings me down                       (Going for a Song)

Matthew Fisher: once the guiding light of Procol Harum, he hid in the shadows for two years after Gary Brooker stomped all over him [sic].

Too pomp under the circumstances
For the next two years, Fisher gave his all. Procol Harum, Shine on Brightly and Salty Dog (which he produced) were filled with his intense, baroque-looped keyboard lines and occasionally his frail, choir boy vocals. But the success of Pale was never repeated. Offering more commercially viable alternatives, Fisher again got the cold shoulder. ‘Everything had to be very classy and very superior. If I suggested harmonies, it was ‘Oh no, we don’t want to do harmonies.’ After the release of A Salty Dog, tensions reached a high watermark and Matthew walked out. Guitarist Rob Trower raced to Matthew’s Croydon flat to talk him back into the band. Matthew returned for one more tour and partially mixed Home then the pressures started up again and he left for good.

Harum trimmed down to a quartet and the once-starring organ took a mere supporting role. Matthew followed his production nose and opened a small demo studio in Kingston. In 1972, Columbia Records took note of his talent and flew him over to New York to work as a staff A&R man. While he guided a folkish duo called Prairie Madness, he began writing again. As the idea for a solo album loomed larger and larger in his head, he returned to England. To get the two-year performing kinks out of his fingers, he accepted an invitation to Jerry Lee Lewis’s London sessions, played piano for David Bowie’s Rainbow stint and produced Rob Trower’s début album. In March of this year, he gathered together bassist Mick Hawksworth (Toe Fat) and drummer Geoff Sweatenham [sic] (late of Badfinger and Grapefruit) and started booking studio time.

Pop vs. post-mortem
The sounds of Journey’s End leaking out into the halls of Olympic Studios didn’t sound much like any ex-Harum. True, there is a thirty-piece orchestra on several cuts, but the effect is more pop than post-mortem. No, if there is one group that Fisher has taken a cue from it is The Beatles. Like the Lennonesque wailing on the echo drenched piano and vocal of Going For A Song and the unmistakable thread of Every Little Thing that runs through Play the Game. Then of course there are the numbers that are pure Fisher, Not This Time – organ and piano duetting fast and furious in a blast of post Blonde on Blonde energy. An alternately jazz-mellow / archetypal rock’n’roll instrumental called Interlude – smoothly melding electric piano and sensuous strings. Not to mention the title opus and the magnificent Hard To Be Sure that closes side one and resurrects the vulnerable voice of Pilgrim’s Progress and Wreck of the Hesperus. In short, everything Matthew has been aching to do for the last five years.

Coming from a group with as stringent a pre-determined image as Procol Harum, it would seem almost impossible to re-define oneself. But Matthew Fisher has risen. In conclusion, he says, ‘It took me three years just to get something together and I’m still not sure exactly who I am yet, musically speaking. One must strike a compromise between who one would like to be and who one is capable of being.’

Fisher albums | Matthew Fisher's page at BtP

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