Matthew Fisher, part two:
Your Witness, My Own Hand
Introduction and interview by Daniel Coston
Also featured in the spring 2018 edition of The Big Takeover Magazine
In part one of our interview with legendary Procol Harum keyboardist Matthew Fisher, we covered the band’s formation in late 1966, and their first single, “A Whiter Shade Of Pale”. The song would soon become the anthem of Swinging London during the heavy summer of 1967, and Fisher and Procol Harum became instant stars. Soon after, the band let go guitarist Bobby Harrison and drummer Ray Royer, pick up Robin Trower and B. J. Wilson to take their respective places. With the first “classic” lineup of the band now in place, the band (which also included singer keyboardist Gary Brooker, bassist Dave Knights, and lyricist and erstwhile band member Keith Reid) would quickly record their self-titled debt album, amid a flurry of touring and TV appearances.
We now pick up the story in early 1968, as the band began working on their second album, Shine On Brightly. Along the way, we touch on the band’s third album, A Salty Dog (1969), the reasons why Fisher returned to the band in 1991 after a 22-year absence, what brought him to the Hammond B3 organ during the mid 1960s, and the influences that shaped Fisher’s distinctive
Daniel Coston: You have said that you were disappointed with the overall sound of the first album. Was it that frustration that led you and the band to get more involved with the album’s production, and you eventually coming to produce A Salty Dog?
Matthew Fisher: It started with the second album. We recorded at Olympic Studios with [Denny] Cordell a lot. He liked the number two studio, whereas everyone else seemed to like the number one studio. Often, we’d be working in number two, and some other band, usually a very successful band, in number one. It might be the [Rolling] Stones, it might have been Small Faces. It might have been Traffic. There was always somebody interesting next door. And usually, how recording goes, meaning once you’ve been your bit, which for me was usually the basic track. Then there might be overdubs. Rob’s going to overdub a solo, or maybe B.J. is going to overdub a tambourine, Gary might overdub his vocal. But my job was done. So I would often wander around and see what was going on next door. And I think Rob did, sometimes, as well.
The first thing we noticed was that these other bands were all working in stereo. Whereas we were still recording in mono, because Cordell didn’t care for stereo. I don’t he really quite saw the point of it. If it hadn’t been for me and Rob, I think [Shine On Brightly] would have released in mono, too.
That being said, Denny didn’t do a lot on the second album. He was there for some of it, but a lot of the time, he was off working with Joe Cocker in the States, and things like that. He’d kind of lost interest in Procol, and Joe was his new thing, and he was very enamored of that. Tony [Visconti], who was kind of like Denny’s understudy, if you like. But he kind of took over. I think that he did as much on Denny did on that album.
Daniel Coston: They released "Quite Rightly So” as a single before Shine On Brightly’s release.
Matthew Fisher: Yes, but it wasn’t a hit. Those were the days when the singles would be separate from the albums. Eventually, they stopped doing that, but the Beatles did it all through their career.
I was looking at something on Youtube, where John Lennon was talking about the songs that of Paul’s that he hated, and the songs that he really liked. And also his own songs that he hated (laughs). I knew that he liked “Here There & Everywhere”, but I didn’t know that his favorite song of Paul’s was “Hey Jude”. And I think he was right. I think it is that favorite song. I prefer it to “Yesterday”, and any other McCartney song.
Coston: How were you involved in the writing for "Quite Rightly So”?
Fisher: I had this idea for a chord sequence, and a riff. This was the beginning of doing things in the studio, rather than rehearsals. I get a little confused about the sequence of events, because I was using a different organ for that. I was using an organ called the Lowrey Lincolnwood. Which I had kind of got into because they had one at Lansdowne [Studios], which I used to enjoy messing around on. So I thought, “Let’s get one in for the session.” I can’t remember whether it was specifically with that song in mind, or if it was something I was just doing, anyway. But I did end up using it for “Quite Rightly So”.
We put the backing track down, and Keith [Reid] said, “Oh, I’ve got some words that will go with that.” And he dug them out. He carried around bits of paper with all these lyrics on them. He got them out of this bag, gave them to Gary [Brooker], and Gary went off and did a vocal to it. That’s how that came out.
Coston: Talk about how “In Held Twas In I”, and how you came to sing on “In The Autumn Of My Madness”.
Fisher: I don’t quite know why that was. Maybe I just wanted to (laughs). The thing about “In Held Twas In I”, Keith and Gary had started it off, and they had gotten as far as the bit where Gary says, “Well, my son, life is like a beanstalk, isn’t it?” And they didn’t really know where to go from there. So that’s when I was brought in. And I came up with this idea, which we really just used as a link from that bit, to something else that they had already got, as well. (Hums “Look To Your Soul") They’d already gotten that, but they didn’t know how to get to it. So I wrote them that bit, to join the bits up. But the thing is, we hadn’t finished writing it when we started recording it. It was all recorded it bits, but we couldn’t B until we knew we knew how C went. And then we couldn’t record C until we knew how D went. We were always one or two steps behind in the recording, to where we were in the writing. We had to have some idea of, “Where is this going to go? Where is this going to finish up? What’s it going to join on to?” But you never knew how it was actually going to finish. When do we know when we’ve done enough? (laughs) Or getting to the end? I can’t remember how we did decide that.
I had a lot of fun on some of these things. I like “Tea Time At The Circus”, and all of the little bells, and the fairground organ effects (laughs).
Coston: And you played guitar on “Autumn Of My Madness”?
Fisher: Just acoustic. I also played the piano, actually. (laughs). Gary’s wife Frankie was very upset about that. That I’d played the piano, and she thought that they should wipe my piano, and let Gary record a piano track. Because the piano that I put down was actually put down live. It was me on piano, with Dave [Knights] and B.J. [Wilson]. I don’t think that Rob [Trower] is on it, or Gary. The basic track was just me, B.J. and Dave. And then I put the acoustic on, I put the organ on, and then I put the vocal on. So Gary wasn’t on that, at all. Frankie wanted my piano off, and [Denny] Cordell said, “Nope. There’s nothing wrong with that piano track.” (laughs)
CostonL I have to ask about the song, Shine On Brightly. Did you know that it would the title track when you were putting the album together?
Fisher: I don’t think that we knew when we recorded it that it was going to be the title track. I certainly didn’t. As the album progressed, it became more and more obvious that it would make a great title track. It wasn’t planned that way, it was just how it turned out.
Coston: How much did the constant playing during that life inform the sound of Shine On Brightly? To me, it sounds like a tighter band than on the first album.
Fisher: I never thought of that, actually. It never sounded tighter to me, particularly. I’d have to listen to it again to see what I think. The main difference to me between the first album and the second was that the songs were better. Keith and Gary’s approach to songwriting and arrangement was pretty basic. It was verse, chorus, verse, chorus, guitar solo, verse, chorus, end. They all seemed to fall into that pattern, but then things got a little more interesting. A bit more experimental on the second album, and that’s the big difference to me. I don’t know. It might have been, because Rob and B.J. had just joined when we recorded the first album. They were worked in by the time we got to the second album. Maybe that’s what it is about?
Coston: At what point was the decision made to have you handle production for A Salty Dog? Was it a band decision, or was it yours?
Fisher: Something had happened, and Keith and Gary had fallen out with [Denny] Cordell. Back then, every other week, I was threatening to leave the band. And I think I did leave it, a few times. (laughs) And one of the times I did, I had told everyone, “That’s it. I’m leaving now,” including Cordell. And at that point, Cordell tried to persuade B.J. to leave Procol to join Joe Cocker, instead. He sort of offered a gig with Cocker, if you like. And that didn’t go down very well with Keith and Gary. I think it was Rob that came back to me with the peace offering. It was usually that would come and talk to me. (laughs) To talk me back into not leaving the group. But I think that was the offer. They knew that I was interested in production. That was the bargaining chip. “Well, if you come back to the band, we’ll let you produce the next album.” It was avery long time ago, but I seem to remember that it was something along those lines. That was why I came back.
I was really something that I really wanted to do, production. Working in the studio. I really wasn’t keen on playing in the band, in those days. The funny thing is that years later, when I actually rejoined [Procol Harum] in the 1990s, I’d come full circle. It’s like I was getting really bored with studio work, and the idea of just going onstage, and blowing and having fun really appealed to me. But back in 1969, I was in a very different frame of mind.
Coston: Which is interesting, in that you were also more involved in the writing for Salty Dog, and you ended singing three lead vocals. Did that just happen during the writing of the album? Or was that more of a studio decision?
Fisher: At the time, I’d never written anything with the idea that I would sing it. I’d gotten into writing songs with the view to Gary singing. I suppose that “Quite Rightly So” was done that way. I was thinking in terms of me to sing. I suppose that was just what I wanted to do, at the time. But I think that the novelty wore off (laughs), a long time ago. I don’t really see myself as a singer. I don’t know if I ever did.
Coston: This was also a period when Robin was also starting to write and sing, as he did on “Crucifixion Lane”. From this distance, it feels like a more democratic version of the band, having everyone doing different things, rather than having Gary sing all of the songs.
Fisher: There were lots of things going on within the band, at the time. Getting back to the Orson Welles analogy, I felt that A Salty Dog was Procol’s Citizen Kane. It’s when they finally got into a studio to do whatever THEY wanted to do. And of course, recording at EMI [Abbey Road Studios] was really great, in those days. They had this huge cupboard. They had all of these interesting musical instruments lying around in the studio, anyway. They had a mellotron. I mean, a big mellotron, with two keyboards. Not the usual kind of little mellotron that the Moody Blues used to have. They had a harmonium. The one that they used on “We Can Work It Out”. Some sort of tinkly piano. I’m not sure if it’s the one that Russ Conway used, but it this sort of tack piano sound. But they had this big cupboard that was just full of the most incredible percussion. Wooden blocks, marimbas, xylophones, bells, tambourines, you name it. It was full of all of these sort of things, which was there, just to use. And we made use of it.
A few years later, I came back to Abbey Road with Rob, and all of that stuff had gone. I don’t what happened. If musicians had just walked off with them, or if the studio had sold them off. It was very upsetting to find suddenly that this cornucopia of percussion goodies was just now there anymore. It was like, “Oh, it’s a different era, now.”
Coston: When you were working the song, “A Salty Dog”, did you have an idea of what you wanted the song to sound like?
Fisher: Any song that Gary had written, he would run them down with the band. I remember listening to him play that song, and me, listening as the producer, thinking, “Well, I just record it with just bass and drums, and then stick an orchestra on it.” (laughs) “I think that’s all it needs, really.” I couldn’t see an organ part for it. I couldn’t see any guitars. It just wasn’t part of the song.
Coston: It also opened up the door for where Procol went a couple of years later, when they recorded with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra.
Fisher: We did our own orchestral arrangements for that album. Gary did “Salty Dog,” and I think that he did the trombones on “All This And More”. And I did the score for “Wreck Of The Hesperus”. Generally, Gary did get other arrangers in, or [Nicholas] Dodd. But by the time you get to the later recordings, Gary had other arrangers do that.
Coston: Two of my favorite songs on that album are on the first side, apart from “A Salty Dog.” The first one is “Too Much Between Us”. It’s a very different feel for Procol, but it gets to something.
Fisher: I like that one. I had a big row with our manager at the time [over that song]. We were trying it out, as an idea, and Gary was playing this little guitar thing. We were a bit experimental at first, the way we were putting it down [to tape], and our manager was getting very impatient. Saying, “This isn’t getting anywhere.” And I basically told him to f—k off. Because he was rather being a complete pain, and as you say, it was a rather nice track, the way it turned out. (laughs)
Coston: The one that comes after song is “The Devil Came From Kansas”.
Fisher: Oh, yes. I remember that I don’t play organ on it. I play rhythm guitar. Rob put down a rhythm guitar, too. We had two guitars on the basic track, but he overdubbed a solo. And if you listen to it, you can hear that the sound is changing. I think that we had more than one mic on the guitar amp, and perhaps the engineer was experimenting, switching mics in and out. We liked that take, even though the sound was changing, we kept it. It’s a bit like “Green Onions”, actually. There’s a solo in that, and if you listen to it, you can hear the engineer messing with that, turning the echo up and down. No one would mix a track like that, of course, but that was a long time ago. It might not have even been mixed. It might have gone straight into mono.
I remember hearing that song at a dance, at a youth club, and there was a guy there who was Scottish, and he was talking about “Green Onions”. He said, “That’s Ray Charles, that is. That’s not his real name, Booker T. That’s really Ray Charles.” Well, turned out he was wrong! (laughs)
Coston: Have you ever meet Booker T. Jones?
Fisher: I have, just the once. It was around the time that we were finishing off The Prodigal Stranger (1991). We were in New York, and looking for places to mix it, and other things, and somebody was friendly with Paul Shaffer. Paul was friendly with the MGs, because they shared a drummer, and we got invited to this Stax gig at a club to celebrate the release of this multi-CD set, The Stax Story. Booker T. & the MGs were there, and Eddie Floyd. Sam Moore, or Sam & Dave. We met Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn. Of course, I was pretty shaken to meet them. (laughs) But they put me at ease, they were very nice people, and I got used to being in their presence. We didn’t see too much of Booker T. that night, but he came on and played, and I thought, “Oh, he does sound a bit like me,” and then I realized it’s really the other way ‘round. (laughs) I sound like him!
Later, I was talking to Steve Cropper, and Booker T. walked through the room. Steve said, “Oh, have you met Booker T.?” And I shook hands with him. I was in a daze, and he walked off, and I was like, “I’ve just shaken hands with Booker T.” I was just absolutely knocked out.
In my early days, I had two idols as Hammond organists. One with Booker T., and one was Jimmy Smith. The ting about Jimmy Smith was that he was so incredibly beyond anything I could think of doing. I could listen to him, and stand there open-mouthed, and say, “How the hell does he do that?” But Booker T. was different. I sort of felt that I could be in the same sort of bracket. I could at least play as good as him. That was within my reach. Closer to what I could do. So in that retrospect, he was a greater influence on me than Jimmy Smith.
People have asked me, and they say, “Who have you met that you liked?” And I say, “Booker T,” And they go, “Oh.” It’s like they don’t get it. I have to explain that the thing about Booker T. is that his playing is distilled. There’s a million notes he could play, and he’s like, “I’m not going to play this one, or this one. I’m going to play THIS one.” (laughs) He chooses his notes very carefully, and I really admire that about him. He’s the total opposite of these young guitar players that play 20 million notes, as opposed to B.B. King. They’re playing a million times faster, but B.B. King plays one note, and you’re like, “Wow!” (laughs)
Ian McLagan was the one that really talked me into buying a Hammond. I was scared, and he said, “Oh no, don’t worry. You’ll at least be paid for it. There’s people that can’t even play Hammonds, and they’re making money. And you can play, so go for it.” So I did, with a little help from my mother and my grandmother. But I did pay them back.
Coston: How did you meet Ian?
Fisher: I did a tour with him. It was when I was doing a tour with Peter Jay and the Jaywalkers, backing Paul Jones from Manfred Mann. What happened was they had been offered the gig of backing him on this tour, and they had Terry Reid with them, at the time. And Paul Jones said, “I want an organ.” So they said, “Oh, we’ll get an organ,” so they advertised in the Melody Maker for an organist, and I answered and got the job.
Back then, we used to have a lot of jams, with various different people. I’ve seen a photo of myself and Terry Reid, and it says, “Small Faces”, underneath. They thought Terry was Steve Marriott. It’s quite funny.
Coston: Looking back, it seems that the circles that all the musicians ran in were much closer. Mist musicians seem to know everyone else, within a person or two.
Fisher: I remember recording at Olympic Studio, and we used to visit the band that was recording next door. One time, we need a capo, and we didn’t have one. And the engineer said, “Oh, the Stones are next door. Go ask them if they can lend you one.” So I went in, as people used to do in those days at Olympic, and I asked if anyone had a capo. And someone said, “Brian [Jones] has one, go ask Brian.” So I went in the studio and found Brian Jones. And my God, he looked so fragile. They is fairly towards the end of his stay in the Stones. I thought, if I went up to him and just gone (blows out air), he’d have just fallen over. He looked that fragile. And I asked, and he said, “Here you are.” and he got this capo out of his case, and gave it to me. I said, “Thank you, I’ll bring it back.” Which I did, of course. That was the only time I ever met Brian, and it was a memorable experience.
Coston: Looking back, what are your feelings about those first three Procol albums, and what they mean to you now?
Fisher: These records were made a long time ago. They have to stand or fall by how they stand today, but you can’t judge them by today’s standards. You have to accept them for what they are, or what they were. I do take a rather detached view of them, I have to say. It’s always interesting when you hear these old records, especially when you haven’t heard them for a long time. “Oh, I’d forgotten that it sounded like that.” It’s a bit like finding an old photograph. People that you know now, and what they looked like then. “Oh yeah, I remember. He used to have more hair back then, blah blah blah.” (laughs) That’s how I look at them. Pictures of old friends.
Coston: One of the things that I’ve always liked about Procol Harum during that period was that they might have been influenced by what was happening in music around them, but they were not beholden to it. I hear a group of people saying, “This is the stand we want to make." There’s a really good band there, making music that they wanted to make.
Fisher: Yeah, I guess so. That was the only way that I ever looked at it. But that’s just me. And that’s not only when I was in Procol. It’s always been my downfall, really. My whole life, I’ve only followed what interests me, rather than what would be a smart move. (laughs)
Coston: Ultimately, that’s one of those things that makes you, you. Sooner or later, you make the decision that hopefully allows you to be yourself. And maybe you made that decision.
Fisher: Yeah. Maybe. (laughs)