Tuesday, November 14, 2006

A Whiter Shade of Pale

The continuing kerfuffle between Procol Harum’s Gary Brooker and Matthew Fisher over the songwriting credits to A Whiter Shade Of Pale, highlighted in court this week, could be resolved very easily: give the money to Percy Sledge.

A Whiter Shade Of Pale owes more than a little musical debt to When A Man Loves A Woman. Both songs, of course, are based structurally on Bach’s Air On A G String, although neither is a direct copy. The problem here, though, is that Bach’s out of copyright and – I think you’re one step ahead of me – very much dead; the writers of When A Man Loves A Woman are said to be various, although the credit goes to just two men, neither one of them Sledge, so that loses its impact.

The Beatles, as ever, are recognised as an inspiration, with 1966’s For No One providing the chord structure influence (again, though, courtesy of Bach). The solution to this legal battle isn’t simple, although you have to wonder why it’s taken Fisher almost 40 years to bring the legal case. That’s a lot of money he’s missed out on over the years.

I’m sure the lyrics are quite heavily indebted to an old poem by Sidney (or Spenser; I get so confused these days) which I read a long time ago and thought, ‘I’ll remember that, so I can be a smart arse.’ I have, you’ll notice, forgotten (and saved myself from being a smart arse…) but I’m left with the feeling that A Whiter Shade Of Pale is a rip-off in its music, its lyrics and even the idea of taking that piece of classical music and making it into a pop song.


harveyw said...

I do feel you're doing AWSOP a great disservice here. Most music is -ahem- inspired or influenced by *something* to some extent. The only musical element that links all the pieces you mention is the descending bass line (root, 7th, 6th, 5th, 4th) over the root chord. This has become known (at least round these parts) as a "glam descend", due to its overuse in glam rock (most early 70s Bowie uses this trick: All The Young Dudes, Changes, Life On Mars are good examples). No-one "owns" this chord sequence, it's just a chord sequence, like 12-bar is a chord sequence.

As for Matthew Fisher's plight, he certainly has a case. i've seen interviews with his pre-Procol (spelling, Ben!) band prior to the court case, stating that Fisher had been playing around with this Bach-like melody before he even joined Procol. It's certainly Fisher's melody line. So...it's tricky. There's no doubt that the organ motif adds immesurably to the song's atmos, but it's not actually *the song*. If it was, why the hell didn't he claim a co-credit at the time? And -inevitably- why has it taken til now for him to do anything about it? Reaching retirement age, I guess.
Whoever wrote it, you have to admit that it's still an incredible piece of work which in my opinion hasn't been dulled by overexposure; I still get excited when it's played on the radio.

Fire Escape said...

Sorry about my dodgy spelling. I'll fix it. I am aware that any musician would be better qualified to note the similarities/differences; however, I do find the link between AWSOP and When A Man Loves A Woman uncanny in places. Rick Wakeman (now there's a name I didn't think I'd invoke on this blog) mentioned the startling similarity on Radio 4 (I think) a few years ago. He was right, you know (another thing I didn't think would happen, but there you go).
Yes, most music is influenced etc to some extent. The people I feel really sorry for are the ones like the Funk Brothers' Robert White, who came up with the riff to My Girl. I know he was paid a session fee and that's the agreement, but he came up with the song *at least* as much as Smokey Robinson and Ronald White.

Tony Alterman said...

Thanks for your comments. You and your readers might be interested in the discussion on this topic on my blog, parrotslampost, and also on theopinionatedbastard, who has a ton of information on PH including the entire text of the Blackburne decision. Both blogs are on Blogspot.com.