The Court of Appeal (UK) has issued an appalling, philistine decision in deciding to award all royalties for Procol Harum's "Whiter Shade of Pale" to the lead singer (in the video, the run-of-the-mill soul singer vamping on the piano) and not part to the organist (the cool guy in the black hooded robe).
I used to play in a band. No, this is not going to be a long war story. It was not a long career, just a couple years of gigs in college town pubs for $60 divided two or three ways. But, for the sake of background: it was a folk-rock duo.
I played a Korg M1 keyboard (which is not much used in folk-rock but was the industry standard for synth-sequencers back in 1991 and, I hear, is still favoured by Latino wedding bands in the LA area).
My bandmate was a guitar player, who was related by a distant cousin to Bob Dylan. He wrote wonderfully articulate, personal songs, but like Dylan, whose G.E. Smith-led band in the 1980s called him the Scanmaster because of the way his hand would zoom up and down the neck of his guitar looking for the chord when the band was just jamming improvisationally, my friend didn't have the eartraining to follow any but his own chord progressions.
Who contributed the little musical riffs and countermelodies that made a chord progression into a full-band vehicle, rather than just a singer-songwriter with a rhythm guitar? I have to say that it was I, the keyboard player.
We both knew our roles. He was front man, I was not. He was a compelling vocalist in his way. I was glad if the band played one or two of my songs, George (Harrison)-like, or, I suppose, Brent-like.
Now I never sued my friend for royalties. But I think if a publisher had picked up one of his songs, in the recognizable form in which we played it at gigs (if anyone had heard it over the noise of the college senior mating rituals), I think we would have shared credit. It was just that way. I also don't think I would have sued him if I found out he was getting 100% of the royalties. But after 30 years, enough might be enough.
The point is, this is common: keyboard players are often unsung, and musicians make significant contributions to each other's songs, which if they're smart and close enough a team, they have the good sense to enshrine in a mutual credit pact, as Lennon and McCartney did.
So, what do you think of when you hear the song? I think of "sixteen vestal virgins" and "last fandango". But the first thing I think of is the organ theme (not to be confused with the piano which the lead singer is playing). Co-authorship indeed -- at least. Forty per cent is too little.
What I really thought was appalling about the ruling was that the keyboard player was found "guilty of asserting his rights too late"...
I don't know who wrote, say, some of the Beatles' more memorable guitar riffs. "Day Tripper", and "And Your Bird Can Sing" are probably Paul and John respectively, for example, but I'll bet George made at least a couple "distinctive and significant contributions" to Lennon-McCartney songs.
So should George have sued John and Paul, with whom he was nominally friendly, or missed the boat on future royalties for ever?
Past royalties is one thing. Future royalties is another. I find it crazy that the lead singer of Procol Harum can go on playing the song at old-timer shows -- the song is unimaginable without the organ solo -- and not have to pay his former keyboardist a dime.