Like many other fine musicians, Matthew Fisher doesn't exactly stand out in the great rock 'n' roll hall of fame. You may find him hiding in a corner or behind a curtain (in fact you just have), yet chances are that you will already be well acquainted with him, or at least with his immaculate handling of the mighty Hammond organ, Fisher played a major role in creating the mesmerising sound of Procol Harum during the group's formative years, from 1967 to 1969. And yes, that does include playing on all time monster hit A Whiter Shade Of Pale.
When asked why he isn't more famous, or rich, or in demand by the music industry, Fisher will tell you that he 'lacks image – always have' . Well, perhaps being an immensely talented musician, singer, composer, producer, and engineer – and on top of that a nice, helpful, straight-forward kind of person doesn't make for much of an image in today's popular music. But it has at least provided us with a handful of superb albums over the years.
Born 1946 in Croydon, South London, Matthew Charles Fisher had classical piano lessons throughout most of his childhood, but around 1960 he got into bands like the Shadows and formed his own instrumental group whilst still at school. He started attending a three-year course at Guildhall Music School but quit after only one year, depressed with the prospects of becoming a teacher, Instead he bought himself a small Vox organ and began playing professionally. ''I was in Peter Jay And The Jaywalkers, and we were backing Paul Jones. It was when we toured with the Small Faces that I started to get involved with Hammonds, Ian McLagan had this Hammond and I'd be pestering him to let me have a go at it all the time. At the end he got fed up with me and suggested I buy one for myself.'
And so young Matthew did. He bought himself a Hammond M-100 and stuck an advert in Melody Maker. 'Hammond organ player seeks work'. The 'phone never stopped ringing. 'These two guys came down to see me, I kind of knew one of them, because he'd been in the Paramounts. It was Gary Brooker of course, along with Keith Reid.'' The story of Procol Harum has been told elsewhere, we'll just note that Fisher left the group in the autumn of 1969. He didn't see too much of Gary Brooker again until the early eighties, where they collaborated on Gary Brooker's third solo album. 1n 1991, when Procol Harum returned from the grave to record an album and do some touring, Fisher was back at the Hammond. He's been there most of the time since then.
Back in 1969, on leaving the group first time around, Fisher had plans for a solo career. For a long time he was fully occupied producing for other artists (he produced Robin Trower's first three albums, of which the second went platinum in the US), then his first solo album, Journey's End, appeared on RCA in 1973. Compared with Procol Harum it was a straight pop record, displaying some impressive songwriting and musicianship, I'll Be There, which followed in 1974, was a more sparse production, perhaps deliberately a bit like John Lennon's first solo LPs.
Up through most of the seventies Fisher was busy running his own studio in Croydon, where he played an important part in servicing the local music scene. Then, in 1980, he recorded for Mercury Records a come-back album simply titled Matthew Fisher. In some respects – but only some – it carried along in the same vein as his first two albums, but it was also Fisher's grandest production to date, featuring some of the best musicians in the UK at the time and, again, a selection of beautiful songs and arrangements.
Things changed drastically with Strange Days, released the following year. Gone are the big arrangements, the orchestra, even the Hammond. Instead we get synths, drum tapes etc, Fisher had fallen for Gary Numan's approach to the New Wave. It would take some time for the die-hard fans to come to terms with this album, but the songs and the singing are perhaps Fisher's best ever, and the collaboration with Chris White (ex-Zombies) had obviously been fruitful. In fact, one learns to appreciate the way Fisher had chosen to change his course for this record, rather than playing it safe and just make a fourth album sounding more or less like the previous three.
If any hopes had risen in connection with the Matthew Fisher LP (a single taken from it came close to being a hit on the Continent), they were all shattered by the way Strange Days was handled by management and record company. In fact, the album was never even released in the UK, and only a few German copies found their way into Britain as special imports.
Matthew Fisher for a while returned to running his studio, which is now defunct. A collection of demos was released on a CD, A Salty Dog Returns, in 1990. Since then his musical contributions have all been involved with the reunited Procol Harum. Though not an uplifting thought, there is a fair chance he may never record or release anything again under his own name. In view of this, these recordings become even more important. But first and foremost, they just make for some very pleasant listening.