I made what many people would think was a strange purchase in a charity shop in Aberdeen at the weekend: the sheet music for ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale,’ the Procol Harum classic. Here it is, suitably styled for photo by the redoubtable Mrs F:
First reason I bought it was it caught my eye. Nowadays, if you want to work out the chords for a song, you either do it by ear or go online, where there are any number of slightly dodgy sites that will give you the lyrics and chords to songs, and a couple of viruses to boot if you’re not careful. This, on the other hand, is quite pretty to look at: the girl with the hair on the cover, and the music inside, all on a parchment-like piece of paper which, far from being whiter than white is, well, a paler shade of beige!
The second reason was the story behind this particular copy. The copyright attribution suggests it dates from 1974, a whole seven years after the song first appeared as a smash hit that the Beatles and the Stones sat up and listened to in their Rolls Royces. On the front cover, hidden by daisies here for data protection purposes, is a name and address: Ken Sturgeon, of Esslemont Avenue (presumably the Aberdonian street of that name).
More intriguingly, on the inside in the same distinctive hand, the name of two hymns: ‘King of love my shepherd is,’ and ‘Now thank we all our god’ (Ken’s capitalisations). ‘Whiter Shade…’ was a popular piece of wedding music; the Redoubtable Mrs F had to remind me that the first of the hymns featured at our own nuptials. Was this, then, the wedding music for Ken and the soon to be Mrs Sturgeon? Or was he a church organist, familiar with the hymns but needing the sheet music for this weird hippy thing the happy couple had asked for? Any number of stories could start here. Why did Ken, after all these years, give it away? A man goes into a charity shop, buys a piece of music, and becomes obsessed with tracking down its original owner…
The third thing that tickled me about buying it was that, in doing so, I was buying a bit of contraband. The 1974 attribution is ‘Words and Music by KEITH REID & GARY BROOKER.’ That, of course, is not now legally correct, because in 2009, the House of Lords ruled that Matthew Fisher, the organ player who came up with the distinctive part, should be given a co-writing credit – and a share of the royalties from then on.
It’s nice to think that, given the passage of time, the judges weren’t the stereotypical old farts who had no idea who this popular beat combo were. In fact, Baroness Hale of Richmond was keen to subvert the stereotype, saying in her judgement: ‘As one of those people who do remember the sixties, I am glad that the author of that memorable organ part has at last achieved the recognition he deserves.’ Of course, if she does remember the sixties, she wasn’t really there, man.
Actually, Her Ladyship might have been a square in the Sixties, going to Richmond Ladies’ College, then Cambridge, and being called to the Bar (as we lawyers call it, for some unexplained reason) in 1969. All the same, as one of the Flower Power generation, she’s not done badly in terms of that old glass ceiling, being Britain’s most senior female judge. She’s spoken out frequently on the lack of gender balance in the upper echelons of the legal profession, earning the nickname ‘Ms Diversity,’ from her (probably male) detractors. She also seems to be charmingly self-deprecating about her fear of ‘being found out,’ as an article in the Torygraph outlines.
So respect is due to this square cat, dig?
I’m less sure how I feel about the final judgements in the case (Brooker et al won the earlier round: the House of Lords was then the final court of appeal). Baroness Hale was the only one of the Law Lords to point out that Matthew Fisher was only 20 years old when, in April 1967, he walked into Olympic Studios in London, sat at the Hammond M-102, and came up with the organ part that defines the song (Brenda Hale would, herself, have been 22 then). Previous to that Gary Brooker had composed the basic melody on piano to lyrics that the band’s manager/songwriter, Keith Reid, had come up with after hearing the title phrase at a party.
Fisher was newly in the band. The song, with its descending bassline, had the basis of the melody already. The lyrics – and I’m not even going to go there in terms of what they might mean, but you can if you want: the possibilities appear to involve sex and death – had been written. You could totally do the song without the organ.
But could you? Here’s one of my favourite versions of the song. It’s from 2006, when the lawsuit was already under way. At a music festival in Denmark, Brooker throws everything but the kitchen sink at the song, starting with the Danish National Concert Orchestra doing minor-key variations on the organ part. It’s almost as if he’s saying, ‘sound familiar? A bit like Bach, maybe?’ (Fisher’s contribution, it’s fair to say, sounds quite a bit like Air on a G String).
Then Brooker comes in on piano with the first verse. The orchestra swells behind him. Still no Hammond organ. First chorus. Still no organ. And then, finally …
I was four and a half when the song first came out, and very probably more interested in Captain Scarlett than any old music. The sheet music did trigger other memories though: my sister had the British single – pretty sure the B side was ‘A Salty Dog,’ and the sleeve was in similar shades of beige and cream as the sheet music. It was one of the first ‘pop’ songs I did come to like. And it was the organ part that really made it for me, starting a life long love of Hammond organ sounds.
Who cares who gets the songwriting credits, really? What matters is that, in April, 1967, some musicians got in a room and magic happened. And you can still hear that magic, captured in a bottle that day. Even in the House of Lords.
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