The visionaries of Procol Harum were in court today, A Whiter Shade of
Pale, their defining hit from 1967 and the summer of love, reduced to an
electric Yamaha keyboard and a dispute over the authorship of its
distinctive eight-bar organ solo.
Matthew Fisher, the organist who first played the song, is suing Gary Brooker, Procol Harum's long-serving singer and the man who wrote AWSoP, as it is known its fans and hundreds of imitators, claiming that he reworked the melody, originally arranged by Brooker and based on the work of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Proceedings began with a playing of the song — we've been unable to find it playing for free on the web today, but try this — in court 56 of London's High Court. Fisher's lawyer, Iain Purvis, laid down the importance of the work: “We are dealing with one of the most successful pop songs ever written by British artists. In the minds of many it defines the summer of love of 1967," he said.
And at the heart of the song, the solo — "a brilliant piece of work", according to Purvis — which has helped make sell 10 million copies of the record over the last four decades, since it was released in May 1967 to this enthusiastic review from the NME: "A gripping blues-tingled ballad, warbled in heartfelt style by the soloist. Outstanding backing highlights some delicious organ work. Hummable, thoroughly impressive."
Hummable, yes. Worth £1 million in unpaid royalties for Fisher? We wait to see.
The case is likely to hinge on the accounts that Fisher and Brooker give of the writing of the solo. The keyboard stands by to be played. Fisher is expected to claim that he "wrote the entirety of the organ tune", while Brooker's lawyers have said that Fisher's claim is exaggerated and so delayed that it should be thrown out immediately. Fisher left the band in 1969 and is now a computer programmer.
We don't know what Brooker will say. We hope we get a recounting of the writing of the song like this one he gave to Swedish television a few years ago:
"One morning when I was drinking tea at 10:30, I always have tea at 10:30 and 4 in the afternoon and I always write songs at the 10:30 session of tea; and I was there, a bit stumped, as they say, for inspiration, when I heard a knock on the door. And I opened it and there was nothing there. Absolutely nothing."
Brooker talked about Bach's influence on the song in a Radio 4 interview with Tony [sic!] Robinson in 2004. The key sources, he said, were Air on a G string — the Hamlet's tune — and Sleepers Awake. Bach's work, he said "just rang in my ear very nicely."
The judge, at least, is well prepared. Mr Justice Blackburne, who studied music and law at Cambridge University, assured the court today that he knew the song: “I am of a certain age, yes.”
The web is full of AWSoP enthusiasts. We found around 200 versions of the song here, hum away at these versions from Annie Lennox, Dik Dik, Willie Nelson and the 101 Strings Orchestra. This fan site, meanwhile, is frankly daunting. Trivia entries include: "Fascinating Norwegian literary references; American literary reference, French literary reference, Swedish novel-references, Dutch novel reference here." There is also a picture of A Whiter Shade of Pale birthday cake.
So you have them, the lyrics are here, completely opaque: "You [sic] said there is no reason / And the truth is plain to see / But I wander [sic] through my playing cards / And would not let it be[sic] ." At least we can tell you what Procol Harum means [sic]: it's Latin for far from these things. 1967 feels a long way away.
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