Procol Harum

the Pale

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The Part-timer

Rob Chapman in 'Mojo' 22, September 1995

Matthew Fisher played the distinctive Hammond organ on A Whiter Shade Of Pale. He was the phantom keyboard-player in the monk's habit on Top Of The Pops. 'That was my sarcastic comment on the lack of attention I was getting,' he says now. 'Considering that my organ is the principal instrument on that record, I reckon that if you were to assemble all the footage that exists of Procol Harum, there's about three seconds of me.'

Previous to joining Procol, Fisher had brief stints with Billy Fury's Gamblers, and Peter Jay And The Jaywalkers (with Terry Reid on guitar) backing post-Manfreds Paul Jones. On one such tour, tinkering about on The Small Faces’ equipment, Ian McLagan offered some useful advice: ‘Look, there's people out there making a fucking fortune 'cos they've got a Hammond, and they can't even play the thing. You can. Get one.' Fisher's grandmother loaned him the money and he soon found McLagan's words prophetic. 'Having a Hammond at that time was like having a licence to print money,' he recalls.

An ad in Melody Maker in 1966 announcing his services attracted a reply from Brooker and Reid. 'They were saying, "We're going to be bigger than The Beatles and the Stones", and I'm going, "Oh yeah, I've heard all this before". I needed to pay off the loan on my Hammond so I wasn't interested in "there's no money but trust us, we're going to be big". But I liked the songs they played me. I thought, "I'll give it a couple of months."' A couple of months became three albums and several co-writer credits. Fisher quit after producing the Salty Dog LP, deciding that he preferred the studio to touring.

Fisher took his leave of the music biz a while back, and has just completed a degree in Computer Science at Wolfson College. The man who greets me on Cambridge station looks every inch the mature student. Old parka, lived-in jeans, battered trainers. Does the man who played the Bach fugues on A Whiter Shade Of Pale get recognised at college? Do people know about his past? 'There's a woman in admin who cuts out little things,' he admits. 'Articles from the papers and the like, and shows them to me, but it gets a bit tiresome being remembered for something you did 28 years ago'. This much becomes obvious as we delve deeper.

Out of touch with current music (‘some Cher LP was the last thing I listened to’) but keen to know what his old colleagues are up to, I mention that it hadn't been possible to interview Robin Trower as he's currently in pre-production work with Bryan Ferry. 'It's ironic Robin ending up working with Ferry. He used to hate Roxy Music. Poxy Music he used to call them.'

Fisher produced Trower's solo LPs in the 70s, the income from Bridge Of Sighs (a Top 10 album in America) enabling him to set up his own studio. It didn't bring creative fulfilment. He dismisses much of his post-Procol solo and production work with devastating honesty. 'I couldn't see the wood for the trees. I was more interested in the weird sounds than whether the music was actually any good, and I lost my way completely. The 70s was like a street I shouldn't have gone down. I cringe at all the records I ever made. When NME are giving your albums 0 out of 10, y'know ... That's part of the reason I did this degree. Three years at Cambridge has restored some of the self-confidence that 25 years in the rock business managed to destroy. But the one thing I've always felt totally qualified at doing is playing organ for Procol Harum. I defined that role.'

His perspective on Procol Harum now? 'We had all these strange influences. But you scratch away under the surface and what you have is a rock'n'roll band. I hate it when I meet people who like the band, and then they start telling you haw much they also like the Pink Floyd and The Moody Blues and Barclay James Harvest, and all these other wishy-washy bands.'

In Fisher's room in the Wolfson Halls of Residence, Procol's tour schedule is pinned to the wall. 'I just turn up where I'm supposed to turn up. I don't feel like I'm on integral part of it, but it's the only chance I get these days to play with people of that calibre. It's funny – I always thought I wanted to be a professional musician, but I now realize I just want to be an amateur. Rimsky-Korsakov was an officer in the Russian Navy. Linda McCartney is a professional.'

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