Procol Harum

the Pale

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Skipping the fandango in Court 56

Duncan Campbell in The Guardian, 14 November 2006

The Yamaha keyboard was set up and there was standing room only when the gig begun. All that was missing were shifty men in sheepskin jackets muttering "Tickets? tickets?" out of the corner of their mouths and the usual chancers saying they were "with the band". Procol Harum had arrived and we were about to hear some of the most famous opening bars in the history of popular music.

But, instead of the beer-soaked floor of the Marquee, this performance was taking place in court 56 of the high court. The haunting organ solo at the start of A Whiter Shade of Pale may instantly conjure up a summer of 60s psychedelia and can still be heard everywhere, from ancient foreign jukebox to irritating ring-tone - but who really wrote the song?

Is Matthew Fisher, the man who played the organ on the original recording by Procol Harum, entitled to a share in the considerable royalties being accumulated? Or do they belong exclusively to band leader Gary Brooker and songwriting colleague Keith Reid?

It may be nearly 40 years since the song was first recorded in the Marquee studio in Soho but the judge, Mr Justice Blackburne - with an 'e', first name not Tony - made it clear that he was perfectly familiar with it. "I'm of an age," he replied when Mr Fisher's counsel, Iain Purvis QC, checked apologetically with him that there would not be "any risk of a 'What are the Beatles?' moment".

It was 1967 when Matthew Fisher, who trained as a classical musician at the Guildhall, advertised his services and his Hammond organ in Melody Maker. Gary Brooker saw the ad, interviewed Fisher at his mum's house and recruited him.

AWSoP, as the court papers refer to it rather prosaically, had already been written in its basic form but Fisher claims he gave it the distinctive organ solo and melody, partly inspired by Bach, that took it to number one "of what was then called the hit parade" for five weeks and 770 cover versions. Brooker, dressed in naval - Salty Dog, anyone? - blazer and with hair and beard now a very, very white shade of pale sat beside his barrister as the case unfolded. Why had it taken so long for the case to come to court?

"Mr Fisher raised the issue in 1967," said his barrister, Mr Purvis. Brooker was "totally unsympathetic" and, as Fisher had just joined the band, "he didn't want to rock the boat ... He felt he had a major gripe, it wasn't at all clear he had a legal claim." He left the band in 1969 but had always felt he was wrongly denied a credit. It was only when similar cases came to court more recently that he had decided to seek what he felt was due.

Barristers for both sides did their best but it's always hard being the opening act. Once The Briefs had finished their set, there was an almost tangible sense of excitement as Fisher was called. "Should I go to the keyboard now, my lord?" he asked - certainly a welcome change from the old "testing, one-two, one-two." Within moments, members of the small and select audience were transported from a November day back to the summer of love. As Fisher's fingers slipped across the keys, some members of the press were clearly biting their tongues to stop themselves from mouthing: "He skipped the light fandango and ..." - ah, but if we were to continue about vestal virgins leaving for the coast or millers telling tales we might find ourselves back in court on a completely different copyright issue.

"I was just a young musician who just thought about music," Fisher, now 60, told the court and the musically knowledgeable judge. "I didn't really think about contracts."

He had unsuccessfully broached the subject with Brooker on a train in 1967 but since then "there has always been a tension between us ... It's like you walk into a room and there's a dead body on the floor and no one mentions it."

When they had met up again three years ago, Fisher said he told Brooker: " 'What you did in 1967 was very hurtful and very wrong.' He knew exactly what I meant."

On the keyboard, Fisher took the court through a musical tour. From Mozart's Symphony No 29 in A to the Teddy Bears' To Know Him Is To Love Him, from Bach's Sleepers Awake to Percy Sledge's When a Man Loves a Woman, the hits just kept coming as the organist from Croydon deconstructed the song that has celebrated weddings, sold paint and acted as background music to hazy misbehaviour around the world.

Brooker, now 61, has described the claim as a "bombshell" that was "totally unexpected".

By the end of the week, we will finally know whether, in the words of AWSoP, "the truth is plain to see ..."

More about the AWSoP lawsuit



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