J.S. Bach should claim the royalties
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. Oh, 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..............