Matthew Fisher: Of Cartwheels And Kaleidoscopes
by Daniel Coston
Also available in the winter 2017 issue of The Big Tskeover Magazine
That sound. Those sounds. Anything that has heard “A Whiter Shade Of Pale”, and the early Procol Harum albums knows what I’m talking about. As a founding member and organist in Procol Harum, Matthew Fisher was a key part of the band’s three albums. Procol Harum, released in 1967, Shine On Brightly, in 1968, and 1969’s A Salty Dog, which Fisher also produced. During this time, Procol Harum stood at the crossroads of pop, psychedelia and progressive music. And for as much influence that Procol had on all genres, they still stand on their own. Ahead of time, yet out of time, searching for the next territory to explore.
All discussions about writing credits, past or present, for “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” can be read elsewhere. This conversation highlights the three albums that Fisher and Procol Harum recorded during the 1960s, which still hold up as among the finest during that amazing cultural and musical time. This first covers the band’s debut, while a future edition will cover Shine On Brightly and A Salty Dog.
Born in Addiscombe, Croyden, Fisher initially joined Billy Fury’s backing band, the Gamblers. While playing with Peter Jay and the Jaywalkers, Fisher was introduced to the Hammond organ by Small Faces keyboardist Ian “Mac” McLagan. Fisher then played with Screaming Lord Sutch and the Savages before answering an ad to play with a new group in London during the final days of 1966.
Coston: You had recorded a few recording sessions and radio sessions with other bands, but “Whiter Shade Of Pale” was the first time that your playing was on a record.
Matthew Fisher: I’ve always compared myself to Orson Welles. He once said, “I started at the top, and worked my way down.” I’ve thought of myself as the Orson Welles of rock, definitely.
Coston: When you recorded the version of “Whiter Shade,” were you thinking that it was going to be released as a single? Or were you thinking that far ahead?
Fisher: We’d already recorded the demo. Both times, it was recorded at Marquee Studios, which at the time was just a little demo studio. We did the first demo of Whiter Shade straight down to mono. And then we did it again, with no overdubs, but this time we did a certain way that [producer and early manager] Guy Stevens had this idea that it would sound better laid out a certain way over four tracks. In the end, it didn’t sound as good as the original demo, and I think at that point Guy lost some credibility with [lyricist] Keith [Reid] and [keyboardist and vocalist] Gary [Brooker].
When [Keith and Gary] brought the original demo to Essex Music, they said, “Oh, we like this.” Most people don’t know that at that point, Gary was not signed to Essex Music in those days. Keith was, but Gary was someone was that Keith was writing with. And there was no interest from Essex in recording Procol, although they had a record label. Keith and Gary had come to the conclusion that while they would’ve liked to have written for other people, no one else seemed interested in their songs. So it was down to them to get some kinds of vehicle for the songs, and that’s where Procol came in. Essex Music did give Keith and Gary advance to go off and form a band, but it wasn’t very much. It may have only been a few hundred pounds. But they had only been interested in releasing it on their label, but when they head the demo for “A Whiter Shade Of Pale”, suddenly they changed their minds. And Denny Cordell was brought in to produce, and Guy Stevens got the elbow.
I don’t know if anyone has a copy of the original demo, and I was I did. Denny Cordell said, “Oh, I don’t like your drummer on that demo. I’m going to bring in a session drummer.” I can’t remember what his real name was, everyone just knew him as Tubs. My memory is that when we got in the studio, Bill Eyden was drumming, and he was doing pretty well the same thing that Tubs had been doing. He had been given the demo, and pretty much copied what Tubs was doing. To me, at the time, the only difference to [those versions] was that it sounded better. At the time, producers tended to be pretty superstitious. Like when the Who recorded their first records, the producer insisted on getting Jimmy Page in to play guitar. That was his lucky guitarist. Denny really wasn’t very musical. He wouldn’t give us direction about the music. All he ever talked about was sounds. And I think maybe he thought, “How can I justify getting two percent? Oh, I’ll get a better drummer. That was my contribution.” That’s just a suspicion of mine.
Coston: What was it like to have that single become THE single, and everyone is responding to it the way that they did?
Fisher: I was 21, at the time. That’s pretty young, and I was a young 21. I wasn’t streetwise, or anything like that. I hadn’t done much. And then suddenly, the Procol thing happened. To be honest, I was more than a little naive, at the time. A cross of naive and arrogant. I had a lot of confidence in myself as a musician, at the time. Much more than I have now. I had played on these records that had never gotten released, and I was thinking, “Stupid idiots. Any record with me is bound to be a hit.” Finally, a record I play on gets released, and it goes to number one. And I’m like, “See? I said so, didn’t I?” I didn’t realize that it wasn’t that simple. It doesn’t alter that the fact that it was a mind-blowing experience, but perhaps not as much as it should have been.
Coston: Did you know after “Whiter Shade” was recorded that you had something special?
Fisher: I did, but I didn’t. We were told that it was going to be released, and we were told that it was going to be played on Radio Caroline. And I was listening and listening for it to be played, and I can remember hearing the Move’s “I Can Hear The Grass Grow,” which was going a lot of plays. And I was thinking, “Wait till our record comes on,” and then they said, “Here’s the new record by the Kinks, and it was they played “Waterloo Sunset.” And I was so brought down because it sounded so f—king good. I thought, “Wow, what a fantastic f—king record! That’s a hit. Our record’s not a hit, it’s nothing like that.” And the funny thing was, “Whiter Shade” stopped “Waterloo Sunset” from being number one. I’ve always felt a bit guilty about that. (laughs) I always thought that it was the Kinks’ finest moment, and I f—ked it up for them. I’ve always meant to apologize to Ray Davies for that, but I never got ‘round to it.
Coston: How much had you recorded with guitarist Ray Harrison and drummer Bobby Royer before they left the band?
Fisher: We had pretty much recorded most of what became the first album with them, and then we just recorded it again with [guitarist] Rob[in Trower] and [drummer] B. J. [Wilson]. I think that it went a bit quicker with Rob and B.J., than it did with Bobby and Ray. The funny thing was the whole business with “Homburg”. This was Denny Cordell’s thing about drummers. He always had to complain about drummers, and had to complain about Bobby. He wasn’t a virtuoso, but he was okay. He was really slagging Bobby at the session when we recording “Homburg”. We were in Lansdowne Studios, and we went into the studios to give it another try, and I can remember watching Bobby. He was just glowering. If looks could kill, Denny would’ve been dead. He just played the track all the way through without a single fill. Just a steady, relentless beat. And then politics reared its ugly head, and Bobby and Ray had to go. We tried recording it with Rob and B. J., but it just didn’t turn out as well. Something about that take with Bobby glowering as he knocked a steady beat. Of course, “Homburg” wasn’t anything like, or as good as “Whiter Shade”, anyway. And in the end, they just B. J. to overdub a few fills on top of it. They kept Bobby’s take, but embellished it. So I guess that you got the best of both worlds, there. This whole thing about hit records, it’s not an exact science. At the end of the day, all you can say is, “That’s the way that happened.”
We did re-record the songs with Rob and B. J., and it went a lot quicker, and a lot better. Procol was changing. The band that recorded “Whiter Shade Of Pale” would’ve been more like a San Francisco hippy band. It wasn’t what Procol became when Rob joined. They became more of a blues band. I think so. Rob was always more of a blues guitarist, which steered the band more into a classical and blues combination. You take songs like “Outside The Gates Of Cerdes”, and “Repent Walpurgis”, the songs that Rob plays on, there’s just no way that Ray could’ve turned out that sort of a performance. He wasn’t that kind of a guitarist.
I can remember when we auditioned Rob and B.J.. B. J. was the drummer, and we all liked him straight away. There were two guitarists that auditioned. Rob, and some guitarist that Denny [Cordell] had gotten on with. As soon as we heard Rob, we knew he was the one.
Coston: You mentioned “Warpurgis”. Where did that song come from?
Fisher: The crowd sequence was basically taken from a Four Seasons record called “Begging”. That was being played on the radio at the time, and I was just fascinated by the chords. Just the four chords that they used. Very unusual. And then, when [Procol] was looking for ideas, maybe an instrumental, I said, “There’s this Four Seasons record with a great chord sequence. We could slow that down a bit, and then see what happens. And that’s how the song got going. Obviously, with a different melody line. Fortunately, you can’t copyright a chord sequence. You can only copyright melodies, words and things like that. This is not a secret.
Coston: The album opens with “Conquistador”. Most people know the version that the band played on the live album with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra.
Fisher: When I played with the band [from 1991 to 2004], we tended to play more like the Edmonton version. With the trumpet, which I never particularly liked (laughs). If I had never joined the band, that would’ve been their first single. When I joined, “Whiter Shade Of Pale” wasn’t even considered a B-side. It was considered a white elephant. But after I joined, it all changed.
How Keith and Gary wrote songs in the early days was Keith would type out some words, and send them to Gary, typed out on the strange typewriter he had with an italic font. He’d send you these lyrics, and it was never “Dear Matthew, Dear Gary, here’s something.” No. there would just be this envelope, you’d open it, and there would be this sheet with these lyrics on them. And you knew who they were from, because you’d recognize the typeface. And the content, of course. (laughs) “Conquistador” was apparently an exception to that rule. That was apparently a musical idea that Gary had, and he got Keith to write some words for it. And Keith said that he hated that. He found it very difficult to work that way around.
Coston: The next song on the album is “She Wandered Through The Garden Fence”, which the current band still performs in concert.
Fisher: I liked it, but it always reminded me of the McCartney song, “For No One”. It was a bit light, as opposed to what Procol later became, where they tended to get rather heavier (laughs). Tony Visconti reckoned that this song should have been follow-up to “Whiter Shade”, instead of “Homburg”.
Coston: I’ve always loved “Kaleidoscope”.
Fisher: That song really changed. If you had heard how we used to do it with Bobby and Ray, and then compared it with how it turned out, it was a bit of a contrast. It was just plod, plod, plod, really. Very polite, really. But when they came in, suddenly it was like an animal. Really much more exciting. I think that song benefited the most from the change in lineup.
Coston: “Cerdes” has one of my favorite basslines that Dave Knights played during his time with the band.
Fisher: Dave was really very under-rated. I can remember when I first came down to jam with Keith and Gary, they turned up with a acetate of just a piano and vocal demo of Gary singing “Salad Days”. I thought it was very interesting. I was into [Bob] Dylan, and thought that it was a bit Dylan-esque. I asked to record the acetate, and I did, and went home and listened to it. They weren’t offering any money. Just blood, toil, tears and sweat, but we think that we can make it, if you want to throw your lot in with us. And that’s really all that was offered. I had always wanted to play with a band that played their own material.
When I came down to jam with the band, Dave was one of the aspects of the band that I really liked. He did all sorts of things that I could write stuff to go with. He was definitely a plus, as far as I was considered.
Coston: What did you think of “Salad Days”?
Fisher: It was okay. I was a bit disappointed with the sound on the first album. We had this lineup that was similar to what Dylan had on Highway 61 and Blonde On Blonde, and our record sounded nothing like that.
First albums have a certain charm, which is usually seen more by the people not involved, than the people that are involved (laughs). I loved the first Beatles album, though I’m not sure that the Beatles did. I know that Lennon thought that he sounded terrible on “Twist & Shout”, whereas the rest of us loved it.
Coming soon, more with Matthew Fisher about the band’s second and third albums, Shine On Brightly, and A Salty Dog.