01 June 2016

The Truth Is Plain To See

by Robert Lopresti

A couple of warnings: I am not a English copyright attorney.  (I'm sure that astonishes you.)  And I am discussing a court case that could easily fill a book.  So take this for what it is worth.  You can read more about it here and here.

Do you remember "A Whiter Shade of Pale?"   It was a huge hit for Procol Harum in 1967, and is one of the most played and recorded songs of all time (almost 1,000 covers).  Can you call up the tune to memory?  If not, try this:

Most people I have talked to, if they remember it at all, remember that ethereal organ part.  And that is what we are here to discuss (don't worry; it will connect to the subject of this blog eventually.)

According to 40 years of labels and liner notes, Pale was written by two members of the band: Gary Brooker (piano and vocals)  and Keith Reid (lyricist).

But neither one of them was responsible for  that famous organ part. That was Matthew Fisher who played Hammond organ in the band.  He stayed with the group for three albums and then split.  His first solo record included a number with the refrain "Please don't make me play that song again."  What could he have been referring to, I wonder?

He rejoined the band when it reformed in the 1990s, but quit in 2004 and filed  a lawsuit, asking to be recognized of co-creator and co-owner of Pale.  (It turns out that this was not the first time someone threatened to sue over this ditty, by the way: "Where there's a hit, there's a writ.")   After Fisher's case bounced from venue to venue the highest court in England, namely the Law Lords (sounds like a rock band, doesn't it?) got to make their first ever ruling on a copyright case involving a song.  (It turned out to be that court's last decision as well, being then replaced by a Supreme Court.)

So what does it mean if Fisher were to win?  According to his opponent, Gary Brooker: "Any musician who has ever played on any recording in the last 40 years may now have a potential claim to joint authorship.  It is effectively open season on the songwriter."

A strong argument.  But I felt there had to be some reasonable middle ground between "Joe went twang on the chorus so he's entitled to ten percent" on  the one hand, and on the other "the composer of the most famous organ solo in pop music contributed nothing to the  song."  And sure enough, the Law Lords, clever folks that they are,  agreed with me.

They ruled that Fisher should have a credit and 40% of the music royalties, starting with the day he filed the suit.  He gets nothing for the years before he went to court, which seems reasonable.

So what does that have to  with the subject of this blog?  Glad you asked.  Before I send a story to an editor I first send it to R.T. Lawton.  He does the same with me.  We read the stories, make suggestions and corrections and generally help each other's literature inch ever closer to perfection.

But we don't get paid for that.  At what point does a helpful first reader become a co-author?

When I sent my story "Street of the Dead House" to the anthology nEvermore! the editors, Nancy Kilpatrick and Caro Sole, made significant suggestions that improved the tale.  Without them would my tale have been selected for two Best of the Year collections? 

I don't know.

Did they get a share of the reprint money?

That I know.  They didn't.

But I think editors are a special case, somewhat like record producers.  They get their appropriate fee but don't expect a writing credit.

Speaking of books, I revised this piece after discovering Procol Harum: The Ghosts of A Whiter Shade of Pale by Henry Scott-Irvine.  He makes it clear that the story is even more complicated than I thought.  Any fan of the band should read the whole book.  Anyone interested in copyright issues should at least read the last two chapters.

I want to give the last word to Chris Copping. Copping replaced Fisher in the band in the 1970s which means he probably played that organ part more than anyone else alive.  He perhaps has a less romantic view of that melody than most of us.

In this essay he discusses joining Procol Harum and then analyzes the song virtually note for note, explaining what he thinks Fisher created and what he borrowed from Bach.

His conclusion on what Fisher is owed? "Let him have the ring tones."


  1. Call the tune to memory? As soon as I read the title, the melody popped into my head, one of my favorite progressive rock songs.

    I don’t recall the specific number, but another progressive band, Pink Floyd, brought in a vocalist for a particular piece. She made a suggestion, which the band accepted and used in the final cut. Then she sued. And won. Millions. Upon millions.

    Mostly listeners want to hear the music, not the background noise.

    But consider George Harrison. Mostly known for adding texture, he didn’t contribute many songs to the Beatles repertoire, but he proved his songwriting ability was top echelon with the best song on the White Album, While My Guitar Gently Weeps. It was so technically complicated, the Beatles brought in an uncredited musician to play lead guitar. You might know his name– Eric Clapton.

    Clapton didn’t sue. He simply appeared with Harrison on stage from time to time. After Harrison’s death, Clapton (and damn near everyone of note, McCartney, Ringo, Tom Petty, even Prince) played it in tribute.

  2. I think if one is really a fan of a band or musical artist, writer, etc., I think we sometimes do want to hear what went into the making of the songs. I can't tell you how many books I've read on the Beatles' recording sessions, what George Martin or Geoff Emerick and others contributed to various songs and albums. Ditto for looking up other artists on the web.

    But as you suggest, Rob, we have beta readers and friends and editors who offer major and minor suggestions and they're no entitled to a cut. I think it should be the same with the organ riff. Because in a sense everyone in a band is an arranger, adding a touch here and a touch there. But that doesn't mean they wrote the song. I understand where he's coming from, he wants money and credit. And the world should know that he came up with that riff, but that's all. Just like Clapton on While My Guitar Gently Weeps. Were it to be any other way all of us, musicians, writers, etc., would be in a world of hurt with trying to figure out who did what and how much of this or that is owed them.

    And perfect timing, as Gary Brooker's birthday was just a couple of days ago. So, all I have to say in closing is, skip the light fandango...

  3. Clapton, by the way, is good friends with Gary Brooker, and often played with Brooker's other band No Stiletto Shoes, which only performed for charity. (When Brooker became Sir Gary it was for services to philanthropy, not music. Go figure.)

  4. Hey, Paul:


  5. In retrospect, I concede Paul is right, else Casey Kasem would have remained an unknown DJ. I guess I dislike the SOS (soap opera shite) behind a lovely song. Hard to stamp out idealism sometimes.

  6. Thanks, Rob. Very cool -- I need one of those shirts :)

  7. My gosh! I almost thought the organ part was a re-do of Bach's "Air on a G String."


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