Procol Harum

the Pale

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On his Own at Journey's End

Al Clark in NME, 15 September 1973

This excerpt from New Musical Express, kindly selected for 'Beyond the Pale' by Yan Friis, will in due course of time appear in its proper chart context in our 'Swimming Against the Tide' feature. Meanwhile, here it is in a standalone version, by popular demand (thanks, Joan)

Matthew Fisher talks about life after Procol and his new album
By Al Clark

"I really don’t want to talk about Procol Harum except to set the record straight where necessary."

Matthew Fisher, once the saturnine figure encased in a monk’s habit and hunched over the organ for the group’s contribution to festive television almost six years ago, has been asked an awkward question.

So he points his moustache towards the ceiling, looks into the distance and considers carefully.

A pleasantly succinct conversationalist, Fisher has already spoken of his days as a bassist in semi-professional outfits, of two terms spent at music school, of a spell in the Gamblers who used to accompany Billy Fury on engagements such as Saturday Club.

But the subject of Procol Harum – who have occasionally referred to him in less than glowing terms – obviously induces a measure of caution.

"Procol Harum was conceived as a vehicle for Brooker-Reid material," he begins after a few moments of rumination. "Having written these songs, they wanted total control over how they were to be done, and they decided that the best way to do this would be to form a band.

"When I joined after buying a Hammond organ and placing an advert in one of the music papers, Gary wanted to be Ray Charles, Keith wanted to be Bob Dylan and I wanted to be Jimmy Smith, Booker T and Bach rolled into one.

"After Whiter Shade Of Pale, it was almost as if my style – the dramatic element I’d added to the group which wasn’t there before I came along – was taken and adopted to the extent that it’s now become their style, which means I’ve got to find something else.

"I’ve got to show that I can do other things as well."

The purpose of the encounter is to discuss Fisher’s new album Journey’s End which, to a greater degree than he would have wished, displays the traits he brought to Procol's work.

Officially, he left Procol Harum in mid-1969 after producing their masterful A Salty Dog LP.

In addition to that, he wrote a third of In Held 'Twas In I, the backing track to Quite Rightly So (both on Shine On Brightly), the tunes for Boredom and Pilgrim’s Progress and everything except the lyrics of Wreck Of The Hesperus (all on A Salty Dog).

Why did he leave?

"I wanted to leave the band as early as July 1967, when it became obvious that I wasn’t going to get the credit I should’ve got for Whiter Shade Of Pale, and that it was going to be a one-man-band and a backing group.

"And for the next two years, I was talked out of it each time I decided to go. Eventually, that particular time, no one tried to talk me out of it."

When he left, Fisher wanted to become a producer, but no one appeared interested and the result was a distinct lack of activity.

"I had this vague idea," he says, "Of starting up a little recording studio. Unfortunately, I’ve got no business sense at all and it didn’t get far."

It was approximately two years after his departure that Fisher received an offer from Procol Harum to rejoin them, but after several rehearsals and a number of disagreements, he decided to accept a job as a staff producer at CBS in New York.

He remained there for six months, but only accomplished one project: the completion of a half-finished album by Prairie Madness.

"The reason I came back," he explains, "Was that my wife was having a baby, and I didn’t want any baby of mine born in New York. But having worked in a record company, I was beginning to get an insight into what sort of things they like and look out for, and I began to think, 'Well, I can do it if that’s what they want'.

"I’d be working on some songs but gave up the idea of finding somebody who could write words for me, because they just weren’t the words I wanted to sing."

Were the lyrics on the album the first he’d written? "No, but they’re the first lyrics that I dared let anybody see. Which may make you wonder what the others were like."

Anyway, Fisher took the time to apply his expertise to Robin Trower’s Twice Removed From Yesterday before returning to his own project.

Journey’s End features Fisher playing all the keyboards and guitars, as well as producing and arranging – lavishly. On the title track he employs 12 violins, six 'celli, two trumpets, two trombones and two French horns, and has little difficulty making them sound like an enormous orchestra.

"I think I went a bit overboard on the strings and brass. But I learnt quite a lot.

"I don’t know whether people will like what I do – I don’t like the sound of my voice at all, but I feel I have to write vocals because there’s a limit to the statements you can make with an instrumental, although there are three on the LP."

So what next then?

"I’ve already got some tunes and lyrics for the next album. It’ll be less Procol Harumish… or what people think of as Procol Harumish. No one could listen to Robin Trower’s LP and say it sounds like them, but they could do with mine …"

Personally, I think it sounds rather Matthew Fisherish. Each to his ownish.

The Mammoth Task: Yan's extracts from the first 52 weeks of Procol press in the NME

Swimming Against the Tide: Yan's extracts from the remaining ten years of Procol press in the NME

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