Procol Harum

the Pale

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Interview with Matthew Fisher

Part One: Procol Harum

Written for this site by Ronald L. Smith 1997

My interview with Matthew Fisher in June of 1997 was several hours long. In trying to present as much of it on the web as possible, I've divided it into two parts. I've edited together most Procol Harum references for Part One, and most solo information for Part Two. [

RON I was at the WNEW concert [a radio show done at Electric Ladyland studios during the "Prodigal Stranger" tour]. Pat St. John the dj /master of ceremonies said that he was so happy that the album turned out so well; that it was a triumphant return . Aside from its creative success, how did it turn out from a business standpoint? Did it raise or lower Procol Harum's stock in the business world?

MATTHEW Oooh, I'd be the last person to be able to tell you that. It really didn't seem to do very much, I must say. I think one of the things that went against us was that we were signed to Bill Graham. Apparently Bill Graham had this long-standing feud going with Rolling Stone magazine. Therefore Rolling Stone magazine didn't review the album, and that didn't exactly do us any favors. I never understood why they went with Bill Graham anyway. I was never that struck on him, quite frankly. I thought he was a good promoter but I never quite saw him as a wonderful manager. That's a whole different thing.

RON It seems to be just one more thing in the long history of misadventures as far as Procol Harum's management and record labels is concerned. But a couple of years after that, there suddenly appears this odd "is it or isn't it a Procol Harum" album, "The Long Goodbye."

MATTHEW Oh, that. Yeah.

RON Was that a Procol Harum record, in fact?

MATTHEW I wouldn't have thought so. I never regarded it as such.

RON It's strangely titled. It's not Procol Harum, it's "The Symphonic Music of Procol Harum."

MATTHEW Well it was RCA, wasn't it? I think RCA have got a whole series of these records, don't they? It was just one of a series. There was a Pink Floyd one and whatever. I had very little involvement in that record, I must say. And I'm quite thankful for that; it's not the sort of thing I'd want to be involved in .

RON Why did they bring you and Robin Trower in there? Just to have you on one track for old time's sake?

MATTHEW I suppose they thought it would help it appeal to the Procol fans. But I shouldn't be surprised if that album didn't do better than the "Prodigal Stranger." It's a more commercial idea in a way.

RON I guess so. Having Tom Jones on it was interesting. Jerry Hadley I don't know about. But I think Tom Jones was an interesting choice. What exactly is the dynamic with Procol Harum? Is it the record label, a manager, Keith, Gary - who decides what exactly Procol Harum is doing, or whether it's defunct or going to make another record?

MATTHEW Well, I think it's a combination of Keith and Gary together. It always has been. It's basically their band.

RON So if they decided "we want to do something, lets try and get a label deal or something" then it'll happen.

MATTHEW Yeah, yeah, that's about it. The thing about the Symphonic album, you see, if you look at the old Procol albums and you ask the question which one sold best, well the answer is Edmonton. The live album. The idea of Procol Harum with a symphony orchestra seems to appeal to people. So therefore, it wouldn't surprise me if the Symphonic album didn't do quite well, because that seems to be the sort of thing that people want.

RON Many tracks on "Prodigal Stranger" have the three credits, Fisher/Brooker/Reid. How did those work? You and Brooker both contributed parts of the music, or was it more complex than that? Were there some lyric lines that you may have changed from Reid's original?

MATTHEW Well there were only four tracks on "Prodigal Stranger" with that credit. ["Dream in Every Home." "One More Time" "Learn to Fly" and "The Truth Won't Fade Away"]

RON I know when you're doing these things, you're not sitting there logging who did what. Do you recall, were all the lyrics from Keith Reid? Did you or Gary add anything lyrically?

MATTHEW I think some of "Saw the Fire" - I think some of that was written either by me or Gary, I can't remember. Not much. It was mainly finished off by Keith.

RON Did you work on the music with Gary simultaneously, or did you bring in something which was combined with something Gary brought in?

MATTHEW Well, "Dream in Every Home" - a lot of these tracks were like, I had a backing track but that's all. I don't actually have a melody line worked out. So I'll submit a backing track and then maybe Keith will come up with some words, and Gary will work out a melody line to those words. It sort of works that way. "Truth Won't Fade Away" was very much that sort of thing. Well, I actually didn't have the backing track. I came up with it there and then, while we were all there together. I said "Hang on, I've got an idea" and I put it down, and we worked on it from there. But "Dream in Every Home," yeah, that was an idea I already had. I just had a tape of loads and loads of ideas and said well, here we are, listen to this tape of ideas, is there any there you like. And they liked that, and it became "A Dream in Every Home." And they liked the one that became "One More Time."

RON When you mean a "backing track" that isn't part of the melody -

MATTHEW I'd sequence something up. I had a sequencer, samplers...

RON So you'd have the rhythm, the feel -

MATTHEW Yeah, I'd program a drum part, a bass part, a couple of keyboards or something. It was just a sketch, you know, just an idea where you could put something on top of it. But I've always been one for coming up with backing tracks. It was the same, oh, way back, when we did "Quite Rightly So." I came up with a backing track, and Keith said "Here are some words that might fit it," and Gary worked out how to sing' em.

RON So that cadenced series of notes that begins the song - that would be the backing track in your definition -

MATTHEW Yeah. The riff.

RON And Gary put in the melody line for singing the lyrics that Keith then came up with.

MATTHEW Yeah. I mean, I can't remember what else may have happened, it was a long time ago.

RON Back in '67 song credits seemed to be less specific. A Beatles song was always credited as Lennon-McCartney whether Lennon wrote it or McCartney wrote it. Did you have any idea that you were going to get a credit on "A Whiter Shade Of Pale "when it was first recorded?

MATTHEW Sorry, I'm not understanding you here. I've never had a credit on it.

RON Yeah. Was it a surprise to you when the album came out and your name was not listed on the credit?

MATTHEW Well, no, I wasn't expecting it. I was a bit slow to catch on to that. It didn't hit me until I was up at Essex Music one day and they had the sheet music. And, um, I looked at the sheet music and there was my organ solo written out, note for note. And I suddenly thought, hang on, I wrote that. (laughs) It really wasn't until then that it occurred to me.

RON It wasn't that Gary had pulled a fast one - it was just that nobody was really too sure what a credit should be or shouldn't be? I mean today, if B.J. Wilson for instance did a drum solo as he did for "Power Failure" on "Broken Barricades," he would automatically get a songwriting credit on it, because it's such a significant part of the song.

MATTHEW Does he not have a credit on that?


MATTHEW (laughs) Oh Really. I didn't even look.

RON Today anybody would say, "You wrote the organ solo, you should get the credit." Obviously. But back then, evidently it was not something people knew -

MATTHEW I don't know whether it's "back then" or what. I think it's more a question of the personalities involved.

RON So it's possible Gary could've been more magnanimous, or Keith, and said "Oh, let's-"

MATTHEW Well they could hardly have been LESS magnanimous! (both laughing).

RON Well I'm glad you're laughing when you say that. But I certainly would've thought, "Gee, Matthew wrote the organ solo, I think we should give him a credit on this one." The other question about that song which people seem to get confused all the time - exactly what was written by Bach. You composed a beautiful organ solo-

MATTHEW Over the years I've heard so much crap spoken about that, and I was quite impressed when I found something on the Internet that tells it like it is. If you do a search with "Bach" and "Whiter Shade of Pale" it should turn up this page. This page is all about Bach, it's like "everything you always wanted to know about Bach but were afraid to ask. " It's a Bach FAQ. And one of the questions is "Which particular piece was "Whiter Shade of Pale" taken from. And the guy there explains it's a little bit of this and a little bit of that, but it wasn't anything really, that it's all been carefully put together but in fact it isn't - it's only little snatches of here and there, it's done in such a way you can't tell. It sounds like it may be a whole piece of Bach but it wasn't. Whoever it is says it very well. I can recommend you looking that up. That page definitely has my full endorsement. He doesn't mention me, or anything (laughs) but he does describe very accurately what I did. [Note: After this interview, Joan May contacted the author of the piece, Bernard Greenberg, who revised and expanded his entry to include comparison charts - and to credit Matthew. The article can be seen at the Bach website, or simply by clicking here]

RON So what you did was that intentional?

MATTHEW Oh yes, definitely, I knew what I was doing. But it wasn't a total facile rip-off! It was - you know what I mean - you can do a picture and you can put the Mona Lisa in one corner, and Michelangelo's David in the other, but the rest of it, you've got to decide what to do yourself.

RON You're very subtle; a lot of Procol Harum fans have gone back to those particular pieces of music and they have a lot of trouble finding a couple of notes in "Sleeper's Awake" or "Air on a G String." So you did an amazing job of putting them together. It sounds completely original.

MATTHEW If I make another album I might include that as a bonus track , and talk you right through the solo (laughs) and show exactly how it was done and why it was done and how I took a bit but I changed it, and why I had to change it (because it wouldn't work with the bass line) and things like that. I might do that - I don't know, it might come off just sounding stupid.

RON Some fans have heard a rumor concerning the rights to "Whiter Shade of Pale." Would you know whether Brooker & Reid still get royalties, or did they sell the song like Lionel Bart sold "Oliver?"

MATTHEW Oooooh, I don't think so! I don't think they're that stupid (laughing).

RON I didn't think so. But maybe when they were 20 they accidentally let it go somehow?

MATTHEW Oh no. No. I think the problem there is they had a bad deal with Essex Music. Basically there was a scam that Essex worked at that time. You see, it was Essex Music in England and Europe and all that, and it was the Richmond organization in America. How they worked you see, they had these companies all over the world, and what they would say is "You're in England," and they'd make a deal with Essex Music in England, 'We'll split the royalties 50-50. 50 percent for us, 50 percent for you. How's that?' Then it turns out that's for every album in England. Say it sells in Italy. So what happens is that Essex Music in Italy take 50 percent and they send the other 50 percent to Essex Music in England. Who then take 50 percent of that. So Keith and Gary only end up with 25 percent instead of 50 percent. You see how it works? This has been made illegal now. They can't do that anymore. But anything that was set up while it was still legal, is still in force. And I think Keith and Gary did try at one time to get around that, and have that overturned, but I don't think it worked out.

RON When you did the first couple of albums, did any band members ever come up and say, "Well, what is 'Homburg' about?" Did they mind playing on a song that they may not fully comprehend or figure out?

MATTHEW Well, I don't know, I was always very interested in the words. I wouldn't say I always necessarily understood them, but I always got a feeling from them, you know what I mean? And I thought that was good enough.

RON Yeah, that's how I felt. But I heard a concert tape where Gary introduced "Homburg" as a song about anti-Semitism. And I thought, really? I had no idea. And I looked at the lyrics and I still can't figure out how the song has to do with anti-Semitism. It's nice if it's true. That's very laudable. But I don't know how that worked.

MATTHEW Laudable? Well, Keith is Jewish. (laughs)

RON But how that song comes to be about anti-Semitism I don't know. I don't mind not understanding a song, but to be told that it means something, and I can't get it - that's a bit frustrating! But you're right, most of the songs, like "Christmas Camel," exist as they are. Sometimes annotation does help for British references and things. Back then I didn't realize "clotted cream" was actually something to eat. I thought Keith was being poetic and contrasting ripe peaches stuck in something that had spoiled.

MATTHEW A delicacy. My friend Carol told me that when they had "Upstairs Downstairs" on Channel 13 in New York they had Diana Rigg or Alistair Cooke spending a half an hour explaining these things (laughs).

RON We still have that. Diana Rigg will explain to us what's going on in "Sherlock Holmes" or "Rumpole of the Bailey." Because your laws and customs are different, so she has to say: "This is how British law is, consequently Rumpole..." so we can understand what it's about. Although we do get C-Span and we see all those politicians arguing with John Major and screaming at each other.

MATTHEW Oh, the House of Commons.

RON We have nothing like that.

MATTHEW Nothing like that?

RON We don't have people getting up and insulting each other and being clever.

MATTHEW What do they actually do in Congress then?

RON Very little. They'll stand around making speeches but they don't get to make ripostes and rejoinders like they do in the House.

MATTHEW You can say anything you want in the House of Commons but the one thing you're not allowed to do is to call anyone a liar. You can accuse people of murder, or anything you want, but not of lying! You can get in terrible trouble for accusing someone of that. Which is why Winston Churchill accused someone of being "economical with the truth." I mean, that's because you can't just come out and say "You lying bastard, I don't believe that ." You have to phrase it very delicately. Frankly I think the House of Commons thing is a bit silly, it's like a bunch of schoolboys showing off.

RON In working on the "Prodigal Stranger" album, was there a vibe of "Gee, it hasn't been 25 or more years, this is a lot of fun, I hope we can continue," or just "let's get this out?" What was the spirit in which it was intended?

MATTHEW It was artificial. Keith and Gary had already started writing songs with Matt Noble. I think they'd done four or five songs, maybe more. They decided that they'd maybe like to try writing songs with me as well, so they rang me up, and we got together, and we spent a week or so down at Gary's , and we came up with the four tracks that are credited to the three of us. Often months went by without me hearing anything. I'd practically forgotten about it and then I'd get a call saying, "We want you to come to America next week, we want you to put organ on all the other tracks that we already recorded." It was all artificial. They got Rob in for a couple of days to put some guitar in. We did a lot of tracks in England. They got tracks already recorded but they wanted to get Mark in on real drums. They'd had sequence drums. But it was all done in a strange kind of order; it was all done in bits. It certainly wasn't a band and I don't think it sounds like one; that's why. I suppose that's just the way things are done nowadays.

RON Is there a live tape from the concert tour that you feel might be better?

MATTHEW Well I think the band got on its best after Geoff joined. That was when it was really good.

RON I saw the band at Town Hall, when Tim Renwick was with the band.

MATTHEW Well Tim's a fine guitarist and all that, but Geoff is the perfect guitarist for us. And when we still had Dave and Mark, the rhythm section, and we had Geoff on guitar, that was absolutely the best, I thought. We did some live recordings in Holland, or Belgium, or somewhere like that. In fact I mixed them. I don't know whether any of them have been released.

RON There was a promotional CD that I think had a couple of live tracks on it.

MATTHEW That would've been the tracks that I mixed.

RON The last time you, and Robin and Gary and B.J. worked together was "Echoes in the Night." Why wasn't that a Procol Harum album when everybody from Procol Harum was on it?

MATTHEW I don't know. They hadn't decided to put the band back together at the time, and there was a lot of stuff that didn't have lyrics all written by Keith. I think that's one of the things that makes it Procol Harum.

RON Makes perfect sense. Just because you're on it, and B.J. Wilson is on it and all those other people are on it, that does not mean it's Procol Harum unless it's Keith Reid lyrics too. I can see that. When you were touring with "Prodigal Stranger" was it a fun tour, were you enjoying visiting the various cities? Did you enjoy Dave Letterman?

MATTHEW Oh yes. The "Prodigal Stranger" tour was great for a number of reasons. First is because I hadn't been on tour for ages, and it was just so amazing how everything had changed since the last time I'd been on the road. It was a whole different thing. And it was nice to get back to playing on stage. It was also very positive because we had the record happening and TV appearances and all that. So yes, it was an exciting tour. I thoroughly enjoyed that one. It got a bit same-y after that, more tours and things. But then the record didn't do anything. So it was all a bit like: "here we are again in New York..."

RON When I talked with you briefly at WNEW, I said the only thing that kind of disappointed me was that you didn't get a chance to sing one song from "Salty Dog" or something. In concert Gary handled all the vocals. But you seemed not be too disheartened by that.

MATTHEW You see - at the time I wrote those sort of songs, yes I wanted to sing and all the rest of it. But since then, I've made four albums of my own. an extent I got it out of my system. And to another extent, I've got more fussy about what I sing - what I can sing and think I sing quite well and what I sing and I don't sing very well. And I don't think I sang "Pilgrim's Progress" very well. And I still can't sing it very well; it's a very difficult song to sing. So that's why I don't particularly mind not doing it. We did rehearse it a couple of times for a tour a couple of years back, but I never really enjoyed doing it on stage. It didn't feel at all comfortable. Funnily enough, at this Procol bash we're having on the 19th it looks like we're gonna have a go at doing "In Held 'Twas In I" - which means I've got to sing "In the Autumn of My Madness." I don't mind that so much. I think I prefer singing that to "Pilgrim's Progress." It's more my kind of thing, really. [Indeed, Matthew did sing "In the Autumn of My Madness" at the event, and to the resounding approval of the crowd.]

RON Is there something you can think of that distinguishes a Procol Harum fan and a Matthew Fisher fan from an average rock fan? Is there something about "us" that you've noticed?

MATTHEW (musing) Ummm, nothing that I can put my finger on. I 've not been in any other bands that had fans. So I don't know how to compare them. Umm, we certainly never had many groupies, I know that! I don't think Rob [Trower] does either. Actually I think Rob has even less women come to his shows than we have come to ours! Yes, it's quite sad really (laughs). Ummm, I suppose they tend to be...Procol fans generally tend to be nice people, I think. They tend to be harmless looking people.

RON Sensitive people, or more sensitive than the average? More gloomy? Or more death obsessed? Or more prone to take LSD? Are they more serious or reverential? Some fans talk about Procol Harum in an almost religious way.

MATTHEW I suppose our fans are not terribly...sophisticated.

RON In the ways of the world?

MATTHEW What I mean is, you don't get people wearing like, expensive clothes, with big fast cars, and they're living a jet-set "sophisticated" lifestyle, you know what I mean? People who are looking for danger and excitement aren't saying: "Hey I found this amazing band called Procol Harum. Man, it's like free-basing and going on the Big Dipper at the same time!" It's not that kind of thing. They tend to be very down to earth, ordinary people. They think: "Yes, they write nice tunes, interesting words, it's a nice sound." In a way they're very ordinary people. You see what I mean? They're kind of...sensitive. But down to earth and ordinary. They don't look to music to sort of be some weird adrenalin experience, or anything like that. You know what I mean?

RON I guess there's a diversity in Procol fans. Paul Shaffer seems to be one, and Richard Lewis...and our governor here in New York, George Pataki, is evidently a big Procol Harum fan -

MATTHEW A Procol fan who wants to bring back the death penalty. A strange combination.

RON Well, he's not gonna just piss on somebody's door, I guess. Much more serious fellow! Are there any famous Procol fans I've left out?

MATTHEW Douglas Adams, did you mention him? He's a Procol fan. He'll be at Redhill [the 30th Anniversary. ]

RON Do you suppose this 30th Anniversary is going to kick-start some interest in getting the band back to do another album? Or is hard to figure?

MATTHEW Well I'm always the last to know. I mean kick-start who? Kick-start Keith and Gary into doing something, or a record company into making an offer? I mean, Procol were always a bit of an oddball band; they never were that big. Most people, let's face it, if you talk about Procol all they know is "A Whiter Shade Of Pale. They don't know anything else. So I don't think there's the same impetus there as there would be for another band. I mean, they already re-formed Deep Purple. I think Deep Purple at their biggest were a lot bigger than Procol ever were. Rob at his biggest was bigger than Procol ever were. The people that are really Procol fans - as far as they're concerned they're the biggest band ever. But if you try and look at it from the point of view of business, and people putting money into things and trying to get the money back, um, I just don't there the sales potential? Is it there? It doesn't bother me. I'm not bothered by sales this day. It's just "would this be fun to do or wouldn't it."

RON There are people who have written sensitive lyrics or recorded thoughtful things, everybody from Andy Bown to Lene Lovich to Ian Dury - I mean, in very different styles - and yet, when they don't get a record label deal again, you kind of wonder, what are they doing with themselves? Are they upset with this? How are they able to cope without an outlet for their creativity? Or have they gone on to something that is far more satisfying? This is what a fan wonders: gee, they're not making a record, how can they be happy?

MATTHEW Well, at least we're still alive, you know. Which is more than can be said for ummm. well..

RON For quite a few people.

MATTHEW Well yeah, exactly. I was thinking of one of the real tragedies, that guy from Badfinger, Pete Ham. You know about him?

RON Didn't he leave a suicide note blaming his manager?

MATTHEW Yeah, I gather. He found out that his manager had been ripping him off and he just couldn't take that. That's the story I heard.

RON That's what I heard. That he left a note that was specifically directed at that person.

MATTHEW It just seems a little naive. What do you expect managers to do? They all do it. You find me a manager who doesn't rip his artists off, and he's probably a pretty incompetent manager (laughs). That's what they do.

RON Talking about the sad things...with B.J., I guess there was nothing people could have done with him, from what I understand. That basically he was going to go a certain way...

MATTHEW Uh, he just was a very self-destructive person who didn't seem able to say no to anything much.

RON I think a lot of people know somebody who is an alcoholic, or somebody who just was on too many drugs or something -

MATTHEW B.J. was on everything (laughs). You name it and he was doing too much of it. No, it was a great shame, B.J. Maybe he didn't really change. It might simply have been an age thing. When you're young you can live that way and roll with the punches, but after so many years of doing that it starts to take its toll. So I don't know whether he was getting any worse. It's just that it was having more of an adverse affect on him than it did originally. I mean he was always that way. He was always...he was a very loveable character, you know.

RON Some band members seem to have changed, and matured. Not just in terms of age, but in outlook. I think fans can clearly see a difference between Procol '67 and '97, in terms of attitude. When you look at Gary performing, you don't get the idea that as much as he composed or sings these songs of torment and misery and tombstones following him everywhere, you don't get the idea that he takes it too seriously -

MATTHEW I'm sure he doesn't!

RON Gary's highly visible outside Procol as well [the Ringo "All Star" tours, etc.] so most fans see a guy who seems to be prosperous and content. Fans don't see you or Keith as often. It seems Procol Harum fans tend to worry more about you and Keith than they do about Gary. I think some fans still think of Keith as being the Keith Reid of '67 and '68 and all those lyrics that seem so gloomy. When I interviewed Robin a few years ago he assured me, "Oh, he's very happy."

MATTHEW I've said that too. I think he's cheered up a bit since then. (laughs). No, I think we're all pretty happy these days, in our own way.

Go to Part Two of Ron's Matthew Fisher interview: The Solo Years  

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