Interview with MATTHEW FISHER
As far as recognizable melodies go, an organ tune of "A Whiter Shade Of Pale" is ahead of the curve even though it's taken its writer, Matthew Fisher, some time to claim his authorship. A sparring partner of Gary Brooker's in PROCOL HARUM for their first three albums, the last of which, "A Salty Dog", he also produced - and thus marked another path of his career - Fisher's playing hasn't been heard for years, at least since 1994 when Matthew, a computer specialist now, released "A Salty Dog Returns". Recently out again, that one was the reason for our long conversation so there might be not enough PROCOL substance in the interview, yet the veteran himself doesn't consider this band a major factor in his musical life and is much eager to discuss fellow ivory operators like Vincent Crane ("I liked his playing", he notes), so our focus lay on the master's solo route.
- Matthew, do you still play - or you went into computers and finished with music?
I wouldn't say I finished with it completely. I don't really want to have to rely on music to earn a living. If I've got to do something just for the money, I'd rather do computers; if I'm going to do music I'll just do it for the fun. But right now I feel a bit like I need a break from music, I want to just take a rest.
- What language do you program?
Well, I've done all kind of languages but what I tend to do more than anything else these days is PHP and databases like SQL.
- Back to the music. Recently, you reissued "A Salty Dog Returns". Would you agree it's an odd one out of your albums? I mean, it's not so much a rock album but rather a new age one.
I never thought of it as new age because, to me, new age always sounds a bit sort of wishy-washy, it doesn't seem to have very strong melody lines. The idea with new age is, if you can actually listen to a piece of music and you could remember afterwards how it goes, then it's not new age. (Laughing.) New age is just kind of, you listen to it and you think, "Oh yeah, that's nice", and then when it finishes you think, "I can't remember anything about that". That's new age!
- It's hanging to the moment. And it depends on who's doing it. With Mike Oldfield, it's hard to remember a tune indeed, but if it's Rick Wakeman doing new age, it's closer to what you do.
I must admit I've never really heard much of Rick Wakeman. That's something I don't know, I just seemed to have missed out. I suppose it's not really the kind of music I tend to be interested in. If you're talking about keyboard players, I suppose - it's just an example - I'd be more interested in Keith Emerson than Rick Wakeman because he's more rock 'n' roll, if you know what I mean.
- Well, Wakeman has about one hundred albums, that's something to choose from. As for "A Salty Dog Returns", someone wrote it's a collection of demos but to me it sounds like a complete album.
I would say that if you're talking about the original release. I would agree: that was a collection of demos... not even demos. They were things I just did for fun. I never ever thought about them being released on a record - that was the last thing I ever thought about. And the only reason that ever happened was because I met this guy called Mike Ober, that was about twenty years ago. He was an American working in England, I don't quite know why or how, and he was very interested in British Sixties' rock bands. He'd got to know Jim McCarty of THE YARDBIRDS and a few other people, and through them he got in touch with me. He was doing some recording with the whole bunch of these musicians whom he'd got together and he invited me to come along. He put out this album, "The British Invasion All-Stars", on his own label, Promised Land Records. So I met him a few times and then he said to me, "Have you got any unreleased material?" At the time, I had a little 24-track studio, and I used to do this stuff there, so I said, "Well, I've got all sorts of odds-and-ends, things that I've done just for fun". And he said, "Make me a cassette". So I did them like a set and sent it to him, and he came back to me and said, "I want to put them out". That's how it all started. (Laughs.) But it was never ever meant to be an album at all.
- On the original record was your version of "Green Onions" which is missing from the reissue.
I don't have the rights to that, you see. That one doesn't belong to me.
- And on this release you renamed some of the tracks. Why?
I only renamed one of them, "A Whiter Shadow Of Pale". The title it originally had was a joke: because it sounded like THE SHADOWS, I called it "A Whiter Shadow Of Pale". The trouble is, everybody misread it - it got mixed up with "A Whiter Shade Of Pale". People can't tell the difference between "shadow" and "shade", and this caused all sorts of problems and it ended up with PRS [Performing Right Society] who added [Gary] Brooker and [Keith] Reid as co-writers to it. (Laughs.) But it wasn't that, it was just an instrumental which I wrote entirely on my own. And I got fed up with this, so that's why I retitled it.
- What about "Linda's Theme"?
Oh, originally it was "Linda's Tune". But because we found out that in the PRS database it had gone as "Linda's Theme", Peter Purnell (the head of Angel Air, - DME) said, "This would cause problems so we should call it 'Linda's Theme'". That's the only reason its title was changed. But there always was a mix-up between the two, and I think, hopefully, now we've resolved it.
- On "A Whiter Shadow" you showed your skills as guitarist which you were in the beginning of your career. Or did you play bass?
I started actually as a rhythm guitarist. I was a big fan of [THE SHADOWS'] Bruce Welch. I didn't think I could play lead guitar so... And then, I switched from rhythm guitar to bass guitar, just for practical reasons. When I was still in school I was in a little school band, and I had to keep writing out the parts for the bass player which made it difficult to learn new numbers. And then we realized it was, well, much easier just to write out chords than the whole bass part, so if I took over bass and we got a rhythm guitarist in then I could just write out the chords, and we could learn numbers much more quickly. Before, we'd be learning one number a week, and now we could be learning three numbers. (Laughs.) But I was never ever professional as a bass player. Once I left school and went professional, I switched to keyboards.
- Because of the bass? I mean many bass players play keyboards well, for example Jack Bruce.
I'm sure he can play all sorts of things because he's a very talented musician!
- No, I mean it's easier in terms of chords, isn't it?
Oh, I don't know whether all bass players understand keyboards but I'd have thought all keyboard players should understand bass.
- Thanks to their left hand.
Exactly! They should know what a bass player should do. But bass playing is an interesting thing. I've met some very good musicians who understand all about the chords and everything but they just don't have the feel to be a bass player while some people just do, some people are just natural bass players. It's instinct, and there's no substitute for this instinct of knowing when to keep it simple and when to stretch out a bit.
- This album, "A Salty Dog Returns", is completely instrumental, and on one of your earlier albums is an instrumental tune that you'd dome some years before for a soundtrack, for a 1968 movie called "Separation". Why did you wait so long to release it?
Well, that was the first solo album I had released (1973's "Journey's End", - DME), so I put it out as soon as I could. I didn't make an album then, in 1968.
- But rumors of your solo albums appeared as early as 1967!
Eh, yes, I did kind of... (Thinks for some seconds.) I think it was 1969 when I started to work on a solo album but I just wasn't ready, and the whole thing just fell through.
- Not ready as a singer, a composer or you weren't ready to strike on your own?
I wasn't ready as an artist. The thing is, if you're going to put out an album you've got to have, like, ten songs at least, with all the lyrics written and everything. But I got halfway through and I realized that I just wasn't going to make it, I just wasn't going to be up to finish the thing. I didn't have ten songs, that's the whole point. (Laughs.) I thought I had enough ideas but no, I didn't work well. I should have had another producer, I think it was a mistake for me to try and do it all on my own.
- But you succeeded as a producer for Robin Trower and other artists!
Ah, but that's just being a producer, not being a producer and the artist. It's a whole different thing to produce yourself: you've got to be very objective about yourself, and some artists just can't do that.
- Not to be self-indulgent?
It's not even a question of that! It works both ways. You could do something that you think is really good, and a good producer might say, "Nah, don't bother with that. That's no good!" (Laughs.) Or you might just do something that you think, "Ugh-ugh, I doubt about this", and a producer would go, "That's great! That's really great. This is exactly what we need!" You see what I mean? It's very difficult to judge your own work.
- What do you think is your best work as a producer?
Ummmmm... Ay! (Long pause.) If we're talking about the best job that I did rather than the best result... The best result is obviously Robin Trower's "Bridge Of Sighs" but I don't know whether much of that was down to me. I think that was just down to Rob doing a really great piece of music. But my best work as a producer was probably the TIR NA NOG album (1973's "Strong In The Sun", - DME).
- Do you like folk rock?
I've got very broad tastes, I like anything if it's good. I even like PUBLIC ENEMY, although I'm not a rap fan! (Laughs.) I think they are the best of that kind of music. I like really good country-and-western music but I wouldn't call myself a country-and-western fan.
- Talking about Robin Trower, you were with him from the very start of his solo career. But were you involved in the band he was supposed to form with Frankie Miller?
No, no, I never heard them. I've met Frankie, obviously, over the years, and I know they had Clive Bunker from JETHRO TULL, Jimmy [Dewar] playing bass but not singing, Frankie Miller on vocals and Rob on guitar. And all I know is, Frankie wrote one of the songs on [Trower's] first album (1973's "Twice Removed From Yesterday", - DME), "I Can't Wait Much Longer". I've never heard Frankie sing it, I've only ever heard Jimmy sing it. My understanding is that Frankie could be a difficult character to work with; he was involved with other bands that fell apart. He was doing something with that guy Andy Fraser from FREE, and I heard the original demo [of one of their songs], "A Fool In Love", I heard this for Jimmy, he had a cassette. Now, the version that got put out on Frankie's album "The Rock", with the band he had at the time, sounded a sort of laidback and a bit sleepy. But the demo that he'd done with Andy Fraser - all right, there was no horns or anything on it, there was no organ, there were just guitars - it was so punchy, I thought it was way better. But unfortunately, as I said, Frankie was always a volatile character, and things ended like falling apart.
- While we're on the subject of bass players... You worked with Jimmy Dewar and also with Jimmy Bain.
Yeah, I did a little bit of work with Jimmy, yeah. There were about four songs that we did. It was around the time he was getting involved with WILD HORSES with Brian Robertson from THIN LIZZY who was involved in the recordings that we did down at the studio, and that was quite amazing. I won't even tell you some of the things that were going on! (Laughs.) For a start, we used this studio all right, and at that time I hadn't got a separate control room, it was just all one room, so we had to record in the same room and everyone had to wear headphones. But when Brian Robertson came down he wanted the headphones louder, louder, louder, and he kept turning the headphones up. In the end, everybody was just sitting there holding their headphones away from their ears because it was so loud! But he was happy playing away. He's a great guitarist.
- There's a certain connection between you and Bain's former employer, in RAINBOW, Ritchie Blackmore. You played together in Lord Sutch's band.
It was a long time ago, wasn't it? I'd run into Ritchie a couple of times actually. I think the first time I met Ritchie was when I still was a bass player, when I'd just left school. That was before bass playing became a bit more interesting in the sort of the Seventies when you got much more funky, slap kind of thing, when people got more serious about bass. But one of the things I was discovering with bass players in mid-Sixties was that they tended to just play very simple parts and nobody would really notice whether they were playing right notes or not, nobody really cared. What they wanted bass players to do was: a) to do harmony vocals, and b) to move around and have a good image. And I couldn't really do all that, I just used to stand there and play. A lot of bass players do that now but in those days you couldn't get work being that kind of a bass player. But they were crying out for organists at that time, and as I thought that thing with bass players was silly I could play keyboards so I switched. But before I did switch I almost got involved in a band with Ritchie and Freddie Starr, yeah. It was all because of this drummer, the guy called Ian Broad. I don't know what he's doing now, but he was with Freddie Starr in THE MIDNITERS. This was before Freddie Starr was really famous, and they were putting a band together to go to Germany. There was this drummer Ian, a guitarist called Roger Mingay who used to be in THE SAVAGES [with Lord Sutch], and also Ritchie, and I was going to play bass. But for whatever reason that all fell through, so it never really happened. But that was the first time I met Ritchie. And then, next time I met him I was an organist with Lord Sutch.
- How did you feel being part of that circus with Sutch?
It really was a lot of fun! I had a really great time in that band. We had a lot of interesting characters and a lot of adventures. Strange things happened. We got stuck: we're in the middle of Germany somewhere - the van that we were traveling in got involved with cinching with some bicycle or something, and that was it. We were told not to leave town, and we were stuck in this town until they sorted out all the legal business. (Laughs.) There was [drummer] Carlo [Little], there was Ritchie and a guy called Tony Dangerfield [on bass]. Sadly, Carlo and Tony are now both dead.
- Was Sutch a sweet character as I heard or was he a real savage?
The funny thing about Dave (Sutch's real name, - DME) is that people always got weird ideas about other people. For example, I did quite a bit of work with a wrestler called Brian Maxine who did some country music. With professional wrestling, they play a role, it's like you've got a good guy and a bad guy, and Brian was always the bad guy that everybody used to do "Boo!" at. So when I mentioned to people that I'd been working with him, they'd say, "Oh dear me, I wouldn't wanna do that". But he was a really nice guy! And it's the same with Dave: everybody that Dave was this weird, monstrous, manic kind of dangerous, freaky, mad person, and people would say, "What's he like?" And I'd say, "Well, he's the most normal person I've ever met". He was very, very normal. I liked the guy, I really did.
- Those roles... Does the name "Obie Clayton" ring a bell with you?
(With a heavy sigh.) Oh yeah. I don't know what the hell that's all about. I don't know why anybody ever thought that was me. I have heard some of his music and the first thing I noticed was that this guy has actually got a good voice which I haven't: that's one big difference. Secondly, he's not a very good writer whereas I think I am, so he doesn't write very good melodies. But to me, the clinch is, on every one of my records nearly all the tracks got acoustic guitar on them - I love acoustic guitar! - but you won't hear one acoustic guitar on any of Obie Clayton's things. (Laughs.) With all these clues, how could anyone think that was me?! It's crazy.
- Well, if people think Paul McCartney is dead and could be replaced by a lookalike who was also left-handed...
As I said, to me, it's just chalk and cheese, you might as well say Jimi Hendrix was me. It's just completely, totally different, virtually nothing in common at all. He did a version of the Bobby Vee song "Take Good Care Of My Baby" and that was horrible! If I'd recorded a version of that I think it wouldn't have been a bit better. I mean I may not have sung it that well but at least the backing would have been better, and I'd have captured the spirit of the song better.
- Talking of the arrangements: some of the pieces on your solo albums are close to PROCOL HARUM sound-wise. Did you try to work in that same vein - or did you do your thing having had contributed so much to PROCOL's sonic picture?
I would have to say that it's the second of the reasons; I never thought I wanted to sound like PROCOL. But the point is, I'm not going to avoid it, I'm not going to stop sounding like me - it's just everyone thinks it sounds like PROCOL. I am me - I have to be me. To be honest, PROCOL HARUM does not figure very high on my list of influences, there are all sorts of people. I don't always know who my strong influences are...
- I guess you are very high on their list of influences!
(Laughing.) Well, maybe. But there's an example of somebody who was a huge influence on me for years and I never realized it until suddenly it came to me: it was Roy Orbison! Roy Orbison was a hu-u-uge influence on me. I just loved his records! But because he was so different to me it never occurred to me that he could have influenced me - but he did, very strongly.
- You mean as a composer, as a master of ballad?
Yes, yes, as a writer. The thing that I really found fascinating about Roy Orbison was: in order to have a hit record you have to have a certain amount of repetition, and this has got worse and worse since the Sixties - now, as we got to the Nineties and the '00s, people have got an attention span of about three second, so you have to get a three-second phrase and keep singing it over and over and over again - but some records that Roy Orbison did haven't got any repetition in them at all. It just begins and it just goes on and on and on and on and on and you get to the end, and he's hardly repeating anything! Well, he did some: "Oh, Pretty Woman", that was repetitive. I'm trying to think of one that doesn't repeat at all... "Falling", right? I don't think there's much repetition in "Falling": it starts and it goes, and it gets higher and higher and higher...
- Not surprising with a voice like this!
Yeah, he got a fantastic range, but it might be the fact that he could produce something that was really kind of commercial and memorable with no repetition in it. His songs were like operatic arias, he totally broke the rules as far as pop music was concerned. People used to feel a little bit embarrassed saying, "I like Roy Orbison", because he was considered a bit "uncool" in the Sixties, but I was quite interested to learn. My wife told me she's been reading something, and Bob Dylan was a big fan of Roy Orbison back in the Sixties. Which is interesting because, of course, they ended up in TRAVELING WILBURYS together.
- Maybe he just envied of Orbison's voice?
I don't think Dylan has to envy anybody's voice. Well, he can envy his own voice like it used to be, Dylan had a motorbike accident in '66 or '67 and his voice was never the same after that.
- In mid-Seventies, during the "Rolling Thunder Tour" he sounded good, though.
I didn't say it wasn't good, I just said it wasn't the same. I wouldn't say I don't like anything he did after that but I certainly consider him as, like, two different artists: there's Bob Dylan up to "Blonde On Blonde" and there's Bob Dylan after that, and I like both but I prefer the first one.
- And what about your voice? You're a good singer. Did you have formal vocal training?
(Laughs.) Nah. No, no, I've never been happy about being a singer, I just wanted to have a go at being a singer-songwriter but more as a writer than a singer. I never thought my voice was any good at all. I've actually got a book I bought as just a matter of interest, a book by a singing coach in Los Angeles called Roger Love who's brought out a book, "Set Your Voice Free". And that sounded interesting to me 'cause it's not just about being a singer, it's also about your speaking voice - maybe if you just want to give better speeches or whatever - it's just about how to get the best out of your voice. And I thought, well, maybe I should try that. I've already discovered something interesting: there's a tendency, they say your larynx shouldn't go up when you sing high notes, it should stay down - and that's quite difficult to get used to. Love says, what you have to do is practice talking like Yogi Bear: ooh, ooh. If you can talk like that, that gives you the feel of what you've got to try and do with your larynx to stop it rising as you sing higher notes. It's locking your throat up, it means that you're losing all your resonants, your voice gets very thin. And my voice is thin to begin with! (Laughs.) So I didn't want it to get any thinner. I actually hate the sound of my voice, and apparently John Lennon didn't like the sound of his voice, too, which is why he always put a little echo on it.
- By the way, you have a tune called "Going For A Song". Was it about "A Whiter Shade Of Pale"?
This is one thing I've always found really strange: nobody understood that song. It is about "A Whiter Shade Of Pale" but I'm not singing it as me, I'm being Gary [Brooker] because he says, "Don't make me sing", and I've never sung the song - I played it. And I love playing it, I play it anytime anybody wants me to play it. I'm happy to play that song! But I was feeling mischievous one day and I said, I bet Gary gets fed up with having to sing "A Whiter Shade Of Pale" all the time, and, of course, I was right. I didn't know it but I found out afterwards that I was absolutely right because he stopped singing it for a while: there was a stage in PROCOL, after I left the band, when they stopped doing "A Whiter Shade Of Pale". And the audience got really pissed off because probably that was the only song that they wanted to hear, and then the band didn't do it, and they were really upset about that. But obviously, Gary did have a hang-up about not wanting to do it. He and Keith used to have this attitude: they thought it was most unfair that that was the only song that people liked. They took it personally. They thought, "Uh, all our other songs are just as good. Why don't they like them?" But the answer is, all the other songs weren't just as good. (Laughs.) I mean when that first album came out I remember reading a review with the reviewer saying how disappointed he was - and this was not a pop magazine, more like a hi-fi record magazine, with a bit of different kind of angle - the guy said, the record was rather good, wasn't it, but he didn't like other songs at all. And I thought they wouldn't have liked "A Whiter Shade Of Pale" either if I hadn't done my piece of a tune because it was just like the other songs before I came along.
- How would you describe your contribution to PROCOL HARUM in terms of sound, of composition?
Uh, I'd say I gave it a tune. I don't think it had a tune before that. The vocal melody is not very memorable. The tune that people remember... They used to have this thing in England - maybe, they don't have it in other countries - they talk about a tune that milkman whistling: the man who brings the milk and puts it on a doorstep - if he can whistle the tune then maybe you've got a hit. I don't think the milkman was whistling, "We skipped the light fandango" - if he was whistling anything it was my tune. That's the most obvious thing that I contributed; I think I contributed a lot more than that. I think I completely changed the whole sound of the record.
- And that's only "A Whiter Shade" but I meant your contribution to the band.
If, in retrospect, I think about myself I would say I was the equivalent for PROCOL of what Brian Jones was for THE [ROLLING] STONES. At the beginning, on the early STONES records - before Mick [Jagger] and Keith [Richards] started writing all their songs and took the whole thing over - it was actually Brian' band. And if you listen to all the early STONES records when they weren't writing their all songs - they did a Chuck Berry song, they did a Buddy Holly song, they did [Bobby Womack's] "It's All Over Now", "I Wanna Be Your Man", a BEATLES song: they were covers - and who was doing the most interesting thing there? Brian Jones! He played slide guitar, he played harmonicas...
- ...the sitar! It was all his grooves!
When Mick and Keith started writing their songs, they didn't really need Brian anymore, and he was kind of falling apart anyway - too many drugs or whatever. It was very sad. But, as I said, I always thought of myself as being the equivalent: I did for PROCOL what Brian Jones did for them. THE STONES would never have become an established band long enough for Mick and Keith to get their writing act together without Brian Jones; and PROCOL would never have become established without me.
- Yet unlike Jones who didn't contribute to their compositions, you wrote songs such as "Pilgrim's Process" that are an integral part of the band's legacy.
It's difficult for me to judge that. To be honest, if I think of PROCOL there's only one song. (Laughs.) It gets funny, the idea of PROCOL putting out an album called "Procol Harum's Greatest Hits": they should just put out a single and call it "Procol Harum's Greatest Hit". They're a one-song band, that's all they ever will be. I suppose I enjoyed a lot of the times I spent playing with them from the musical point of view. I have to distinguish between what is commercial and what I actually enjoy. What I said about the first album of other people not liking the other material - I liked it! I always did like the songs that Keith and Gary wrote. But if we're being brutally honest and saying, "Well, yeah, but were they commercial?", no, they weren't. They weren't commercial - they were just interesting... to somebody like me. There's a few people, they've got a cult following. There are certain people that like what they do but they're not commercial. Never were.
- Was it interesting to you to be working in a two-keyboard situation? Was that a challenge? Was that a game?
That's an interesting point. Some keyboard players I would probably find it difficult to work with because they'd be doing too much, I wouldn't be able to find any space. Other keyboard players, I can tell what they're doing and I know what I can do that will go with what they're doing. But there was always this kind of musical chemistry between me and Gary, I could always - well, not always but 99 times out of 100 - find something good to go with what he was playing, to complement it, to sort of give it another little dimension. It worked well between us from the two-keyboard point of view.
- Didn't you want for a while, maybe just once, to switch the tables, for you to play piano and for Gary to take to the organ?
I think the only time we did that was... There were certain songs. I don't think I did that on "Pilgrim's Progress" but on "In The Autumn Of My Madness" (a part of "In Held 'Twas In I" suite on "Shine On Brightly", - DME) I just didn't feel I could play the organ and sing at the same time. The organ is playing a very dramatic part there, it comes in suddenly, half-way through the verse, playing really loud and then fades down again: to do that and sing at the same time was just too much, it was splitting my mind up in two different pieces. So we used to swap around: I would go to piano, there was a microphone set up already, and Gary would play organ just for that reason. But no, there was no other... OK, I did do that fast piano bit on "Wreck Of The Hesperus" but we never did record the "Hesperus" live anyway.
- You mean you recorded "In The Autumn Of My Madness" live in the studio?
In the studio Gary didn't play on it at all. (Laughs.) Not everyone who was around was very happy about that. But it was that I just put the track down and I was using a piano as a guide and then I overdubbed the organ. And then somebody said I should put Gary on the piano but [producer] Denny Cordell said, "No, we got a good piano there. Why mess with it?"
- Is it true you didn't join the band before "A Whiter Shade Of Pale" took chart action?
No! That's not true at all! I don't know where you got that from.
- From newspaper clippings.
Oh well, I've read all sorts of things. There's some guy who did a Ph.D. thesis about the whole business of "A Whiter Shade Of Pale" and he seems to think that one time I got sacked. But I was never, ever sacked from PROCOL. I left PROCOL and I rejoined them quite a few times, and I can tell you every time I left that was my idea, and every time I came back that was their idea. I never went and said, "Please, can I rejoin the band?" and they never ever told me to go.
- You mentioned Denny Cordell: was it through him that you did a session with Joe Cocker?
Yeah. It was just an album track, they did a version of [Bob Dylan's] "Just Like A Woman" which was pretty well a copy of Richie Havens' version - they just stole the entire arrangement, it's just that Joe's one's got an organ which I played that Richie Havens' version doesn't have (Fisher's organ completely sculpts the new sound, - DME). That was interesting, there was Jimmy Page playing acoustic guitar on that. It was at the same session that they did "With A Little Help From My Friends": I was there but I didn't play on that.
- And did you meet a lot of other players while working with Jerry Lee Lewis?
I don't think I met too many people I hadn't already met before.
- Rory Gallagher, Alvin Lee?
Oh, I didn't meet them. I met Rory Gallagher when we did the [Gary Brooker 1985] "Echoes In The Night" album years later but I don't think I've ever met Alvin Lee. But the people like Tony Ashton and Chas Hodges, I'd met them already.
- Also you worked with - OK, let's keep out WISHBONE ASH as it was just another session - but, of all people, Captain Sensible!
Captain! I don't think I've ever played anything on his stuff, I don't remember playing anything. He just used my studio, that's all it was. I was just the engineer and the studio manager if you like. It's because he lived in Croydon, same as me, and I suppose he'd found me in "The Melody Maker", and it could be perhaps that he'd been banned from the other local Croydon studios or maybe it was just because I had twenty-four track [console] and the others only sixteen-track. But anyway, he turned up and I never had heard of him, I didn't know who he was. He rang me up on the telephone and said he wanted to come and look at the studio, and he was very evasive. He said, "My name is Mister Burns" (Raymond Burns is Captain's real name, - DME) and I'm like, "Uh, all right, OK, well come along, you can come tonight, seven o'clock we'll be here". So Captain turned up and walked in, and straight away there were some people working in the studio who, as soon as they saw him, said, "Oh, 'ello Captain!" And I thought, "Why they're calling this guy Captain? Where did that come from?" (Laughs.) It wasn't until afterwards that I found out that his stage name was Captain Sensible and that he was a member of THE DAMNED. I'd heard of THE DAMNED but I didn't really know much about them at all. But that was an interesting collaboration. I have to say that Captain is a lot more talented than people realize, he's a very very musical guy actually but he hides it well.
- Still, what about WISHBONE ASH?
Oh, I don't remember that. I maybe did a sess... Well, this has all to do with [producer] Derek Lawrence I think. There were various people that Derek Lawrence used to get together to play. You know he was the original producer for DEEP PURPLE and he used to do these sessions, more often than not, with Ian Paice on drums and other people. They were strange records, and one of these was put out under the name of "Green Bullfrog". But I wasn't at all the sessions, there were some sessions that were done there where apparently he had three guitarists all playing at once: he had Ritchie [Blackmore], Big Jim Sullivan and Albert Lee.
- Yes, the greatest British country rock player.
Albert is fantastic, yeah. He's great. He's quite unbelievable. He was at the Jerry Lee Lewis sessions too. He was in a band with Chas Hodges for a while called, I think, HEADS HANDS & FEET.
- Then, David Bowie: did you tour with him?
No. People keep saying that but I just did two gigs at the "Rainbow Theatre" in London, in Finsbury Park, back in 1972, just around the time of "Ziggy Stardust" when "Starman" was a hit and everything.
- Wasn't it the same concert that Jeff Beck joined Bowie on stage?
No, no, that was at "The Hammersmith Odeon". I was there but only in the audience, I wasn't playing there. But it was a fascinating experience; the support band was, by the way, an up-and-coming little known band called ROXY MUSIC.
- I always wanted to ask you something: did you hear the early version of John Lennon's "Imagine"?
I think I might have done. I know there's some sort of outtakes.
- Yes, it was out on Lennon's "Anthology" box set, and he was some much influenced by PROCOL HARUM that that version was organ-driven, not piano-led.
Oh, I don't think I heard that. I think that was another take.
- So I guess you should know that you influenced even John Lennon.
I know he liked the record ("A Whiter Shade Of Pale" - DME) but I don't know exactly what it was about the record that he liked. You could never be sure. He might have liked something about the record that I don't even consider important.
- It was the organ.
But are you talking about the sound or the melody line?
- About the sound, about the arrangement.
I'd like to try and find that because I've never heard the version of "Imagine" with organ. I could probably find it on Spotify or something like that.
- Famous as you are for that organ line, how could it happen you're not in demand as a session player now? Why doesn't everybody want you play on their record?
Well, a few people do. Recently, I actually did some organ for a guy from THE FLAMIN' GROOVIES called Chris Wilson. He has an album out called "Love Over Money", and I played on one track there. But the band are getting back together and they're doing another album now, as a whole band, and I've been sent a track that they'd like me to play on. And I have to say it's a great song! I'm really looking forward to doing that, I think it could create a lot of interest, that track. But, to be honest, it's a bit difficult with me because I'm not really a session man, not in the way that Rick Wakeman used to be. I can't be guaranteed always to come up with a great part, it has to touch me in some way, the music. It has to hit the old button, and I'll go, "Yeah! Yeah, I can do this". But if it doesn't I wouldn't do anything good at all, if it doesn't spark me, if it doesn't touch something in me, I say, "Sorry, I'm afraid I just can't think of anything to play".
- What about you having a spark to do another solo album?
Eh, I would say, "Not in the next year or so". (Laughs.) I think it's going to take me a little longer. There's a few issues I have to deal with, and I'm not in the right place right now to do that. But I do want to, one day. I do want to write some more songs, I do want to make another album. It's a little bit difficult these days because you know it's not like it was in the Seventies. In the Seventies, if you'd ever been in any kind of well-known band you could pretty well get a record deal somewhere, it was never that hard. Now it's really hard! People say, "What have you done in the last six months. Never mind what you did forty years ago, we're not interested in that". When it comes to sort of people like me, I mean people that go back to the Sixties, I don't know whether people are interested in new stuff - they like the old stuff. That's where Angel Air are really doing well with reissues because that's what people want: they've worn out their old vinyl albums, they've maybe even worn out their CDs, they want a new CD, and Angel Air are providing with that. They've got an incredible catalogue.
- Did you ever play a solo gig?
I've done about two, both in Greece, and neither was with a band - it was just me with backing tapes. In Greece you can get away with that.
- "Play The Game" sounds like your personal motto. So are lyrics, the words important to you?
Lyrics are obviously important but I've never thought I was very good at writing lyrics. "Play The Game", yes, but you can only do that a certain number of times. (Laughs.) If you've written this song you can't just keep writing it over and over again. It's difficult and I have a different kind of view on lyrics to, say, PROCOL HARUM. I don't particularly want lyrics to be poetic or clever, they just have to sound good. But even so, although I like a lot of songs that have got really meaningless lyrics that just go, "Yeah, baby, feel all right". I can't write words like that (laughing) because I feel stupid coming up with these cliches. It's always been a sticking point with me, I've never felt very comfortable about writing lyrics.
- Did you connect with Keith Reid's poetry?
I like Keith's words. I like them more in the early days than I do now, and that's not because my feelings towards Keith have changed - which maybe they have but that's not the reason.
- They're much simpler now.
I think he, like old people, goes through phases. Keith did go through some very negative phases... This is what I never understood about Keith, or Gary for that matter: after "A Whiter Shade Of Pale" they had all this success, they had all this money, all this fame, all this glory, all this credit, and that didn't seem to make them very happy. Keith, I remember, changed overnight, he suddenly became this very negative, depressed kind of person. Maybe there were other things going on in his life, I don't know, but this certainly didn't make him happy. And I think Gary always had issues as well: he didn't like being stamped with "one-hit record". It's funny but, as I get older, I've got less and less ideas of what I really want to say lyrically, too. But I know exactly what I want to say musically, that's not a problem.
- To me, as a lyricist, the words have to have meaning but they also should be sung, the phonetic aspect is very important. To come up with something like Ian Anderson's "Gory glory seekers": it's a million dollar line.
Ah, if you want million dollar lines, early Dylan is full of them. There's one I just have picked up on, after years of listening I'd never noticed it but in song called "Visions Of Johanna" is a line where he talks about jewels and binoculars ["Jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule"] - it's just wonderful sound: those words, I don't know what they mean but it's just a great sound.
- May I ask what's you relationship with Brooker and Reid now that you won this lawsuit?
I don't have a relationship. I'm sure Gary would... No, he would not want to speak to me, he would not want to see me, the only communication we have is that he has to send me checks every now and then because of various royalties for songs that he publishes with his publishing company, a production royalties for the "A Salty Dog" album which I produced. Not, I hasten to add, royalties for playing on "A Whiter Shade Of Pale", I get not a penny for that; I'm now getting money for the songwriting but I've never had money for playing on that record. Every now and then I get a little communication from him but, whereas before the lawsuit it would say, "Dear Matthew", now it says nothing.
- So a new invitation for any kind of reunion is out of question now?
From Gary's point of view, yes. And me, I'm an old softie: I forgive, forget, I always bury the hatchet, shake hands, whatever - but it's not so with Gary. And Keith has similar feelings as well but there's more to this than I can tell you right now.
- Yet you can tell what the highest point of your solo career was? What's your favorite thing of your own?
Again, it's very difficult for me to judge my own stuff. I know for a fact there's an awful lot of people that really like "Journey's End" - I don't! It's got some good ideas in it but I generally find that album rather embarrassing.
- I'll vote for "I'll Be There".
Oh really? That's interesting because everybody hates that one. I've got mixed feelings about "I'll Be There", I think it was done too soon after "Journey's End" and I should have had a bit more of a rest. There were all sorts of things that went wrong with that: for a start, I had this manager who was convinced that I was going to make a fortune out of my solo albums. He thought "Journey's End" was going to be a huge hit and he decided that what we should do was record the next album outside of the U.K., so we went off to Italy in the studio that I didn't know, where I didn't speak the language, and with a couple of musicians that I hadn't really got to know. It was all pretty uncomfortable, and it turned out to be a complete waste of time because "Journey's End" didn't sell a million [copies] and it was not going to be huge, what with income tax. The whole thing was pointless. There are things I like about "I'll Be There" but the one [album] I really like is the last one, "Strange Days" (which preceded "A Salty Dog Returns" that Matthew obviously doesn't count, - DME). That, to me, is the one that I feel most comfortable with. But that's probably the one that did the worse - maybe because it wasn't promoted, the record company just didn't get behind it at all. If any record company has ever got behind any of my records I don't know; Peter Purnell has got behind "A Salty Dog Returns", I'll say that, but my experiences with major record labels are not very happy. These people, when they think you're going to sell some records everybody's your best friend, and when it doesn't work out you ring them up and, "Oh, he's in a meeting", and you can never speak to that guy. And that's the same guy who was pestering you all the time a couple of weeks ago.
- Are you happy now living the live you live with not so much music in it?
I'm looking forward to a time when all my affairs are settled and everything is the way I want it and I can spend my time doing exactly what I want to do, but I haven't got there yet. There's a few hurdles to get over yet.
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