It seems that Matthew Fisher has been, these past 39 years, the dog that didn’t
Bach. Or perhaps did; one of the two. Mr Fisher is the former organist of the
once popular group Procol Harum and is now, somewhat late in the day, suing a
former bandmate for the royalties to the group’s biggest (nay, only) hit single,
A Whiter Shade of Pale. They’ve all been in court this last week, grey,
grizzled and embittered.
Now, come on; even the most reclusive, diffident, fogeyish Spectator reader will have heard this lachrymose dirge at some point in the last few decades, even if it was just on the mobile 'phone ringtone possessed by that rather vulgar young man who somehow joined your party when you were out murdering God’s creatures with shotguns last August. Even the most desiccated high court judge must have heard the bloody song by now, unless he is stone deaf. It has ubiquity. It is, in fact, one of the most popular songs ever, ever, ever in the history of the world.
The song has always been credited to the acknowledged leader of Procol Harum, pianist and singer Gary Brooker, and the lyrics — described in my 1974 edition of the NME Book of Rock as ‘scholarly’, although you may prefer the term ‘stupid’ — by Keith Reid. Mr Fisher is not claiming rights over the words, but over the very thing which truly sold the single, the descending pattern of notes played on the organ which comprises the introduction to the song and which are referred to in all the documents before you, m’lud, as a ‘riff’.
And this is where the irony crops up, because in all honesty neither Mr Fisher nor Mr Brooker wrote this ‘riff’; it was ripped, bodily, from Bach’s Orchestral Suite No 3 in D, known more popularly as ‘Air On a G String’. Mr Brooker had heard the music accompanying an advert for Hamlet cigars and, frankly, nicked it. So it is J.S. Bach who really should be sitting in the high court looking embittered and grizzled and surrounded by a phalanx of carnivorous lawyers.
Annoying though the song might be, it does have some historical importance. The newspaper coverage this week, and the counsel for Matthew Fisher, has suggested that the song ‘defined’ that famous Summer of Love of 1967. Well, I suppose it may have done for lawyers and the like, but even at the time it was considered a little naff by normal people; the cognoscenti were listening to Buffalo Springfield and the Byrds. This, though, isn’t the point. It marked the beginning of rock music’s yearning for self-importance and high seriousness, a development which — by its apogee in the mid-1970s and the advent of perfectly horrible groups such as Yes and Genesis and Emerson, Lake and Palmer — brought to mind the vision of a five-year-old child attempting to read Molière or Proust. Procol Harum — and yep, the cod Latin name is a giveaway — made a career from purloining classical music riffs and appending to them words which sounded meaningful but were, rather, pretentious drivel of the most risible kind. Harum was one of the first bands to be allowed to indulge their craving for high seriousness by performing in concert with a classical orchestra, which they did for A Salty Dog, their concept album about boats and stuff. They had a couple of minor hits with the similarly Bach-inspired Homburg, Pandora’s Box and the rather likeable and catchy Conquistador, the latter a piece of cute rhythm and blues reminiscent of the Zombies which showed how good Harum might have been had they stuck to the basics. A later single, Souvenir of London, had no Bach influences at all and took as its subject matter venereal disease; after that there was pretty much nothing, just blissful decades of utter silence. Think of them as their John Cage years.
The baton, however, had been taken up, particularly by British pop groups. The unspeakably awful Moody Blues bestowed upon a puzzled nation the portentous, quasi-orchestral (i.e., they used a Mellotron) Nights in White Satin; those lumpen Brummie journeymen Deep Purple teamed up with another famous orchestra to record an album of great significance which nobody in their right mind will ever listen to. The classics were ripped off right, left and centre. Dave Edmunds stole from Khachaturian for Sabre Dance. The Beach Boys, a band which once made beautiful pop records of blinding simplicity and delicacy, nicked Bach’s His Sheep May Safely Graze for the turgid 1970s sludge of Lady Lynda. And then there was Eric Carmen, who did what many must have reckoned impossible, and made Rachmaninov even more syrupy and saccharine than he was already with the enormous hit record All By Myself.
It’s no wonder you’re by yourself, you curly-permed ass, I remember musing, when the song came out. Carmen had done what pretty much all the bands craving high seriousness had done: mistaken whining self-pity for insight and revelation and attempted to justify the whole thing by nailing it to a classical motif. And there was always, lest we forget, Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s take on Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition, arguably the most fatuous and boring record ever made, anywhere, by anyone, ever. Look — don’t get me started. In a perfect world both Mr Fisher and Mr Brooker would be in the dock charged with the premeditated perversion of a hitherto exciting and entertaining art form: rock music. It took the upheaval of punk rock to blow this epic self-indulgence out of the water.
But you wonder, too, about the concept of intellectual copyright. The thing which made people buy A Whiter Shade of Pale was the melodic construct conceived by Bach. Whether it was Matthew Fisher or Gary Brooker who ever so slightly altered it should not really matter; it is, beyond doubt, Bach’s song. Procol Harum should get the performance fee and maybe a few pennies for the silly lyrics — but to haggle over who slightly changed bits of Air On a G String seems to miss the point. Plagiarism cases come before our courts a lot these days and, strikingly, precedent has established that it is the first seven notes of a song which, in the case of pop music, will prove ownership. Think of it: seven notes, maybe a bar and a half at most. That fact by itself sums up the sophistication and value of our popular music.
Intellectual copyright extends well beyond pop music, of course — and into other, much revered, examples of our popular culture. The Ethiopians recently ran a programme where useless amateurs sang songs in front of an audience and a panel of professionals, who would then be intentionally rude to them and vote them off the following week’s programme. However, the stunningly imaginative format for this show had been patented by a Western media company. Can you imagine, claiming ‘intellectual copyright’ over such a thing? It is, I would suggest, an oxymoron.
Anyway, pop-pickers, let me leave you with another story about A Whiter Shade of Pale. The song was covered in the United States by a band called the Box Tops, fronted by a mop-headed 16-year-old kid from Memphis, Alex Chilton. Later, Chilton was to become one of the most deranged and interesting figures in the pop music industry, an immensely talented and agreeably self-destructive maverick who contributed two of my favourite lines in a pop song: ‘Here’s a little thing that’s gonna please ya / It’s just a little town down in Indonesia — Bangkok!’ Someone give that man an atlas, please. I saw Alex in London a decade or so back and someone had given him an atlas — he changed the first words to: ‘Here’s a little thing that’s gonna phase ya/ It’s just a little town down in south-east Asia — Bangkok!’ Maverick even at a very early age, the Box Tops decided that A Whiter Shade of Pale would work best without that organ riff nicked from Bach, so they left it out altogether. A bit like missing out the piano part from the Moonlight Sonata, or the guitar part from Neil Young’s Down By the River. Still, it sold well enough, despite the lyrics, which they left intact. We skipped the light fandango, indeed.
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