Joe Queenan on Procol Harum's bizarre 1967 hit A Whiter
Shade of Pale,
cited by one source as the single most-played song in UK radio history
Procol Harum's 1967 hit A Whiter Shade of Pale
is shrouded in so much mystery that even by the standards of things that are
shrouded in mystery it still seems remarkably mysterious. For starters, there
has always been intense debate about whether the band's name is
mangled Latin meaning "beyond these things," or
simply the name of somebody's cat.
Then there is the whole issue about Johann Sebastian Bach. Ever since the song rocketed to the top of the charts in June 1967, aficionados have debated the extent of the band's indebtedness to the 18th century titan. Is the tune a direct lift from something Bach actually wrote? No. Well, not exactly. Well, let's just put it this way: if organist Matthew Fisher could win a lawsuit against vocalist Gary Brooker, demanding a co-writing credit for the song, there's literally no telling what a picnic Bach could have in court with these guys. No Whiter Shade of Bach, no Whiter Shade of Pale.
Other mysteries abound. Is the song heavily influenced by the slow movement from Bach's Orchestral Suite in D, usually referred to as Air on a G String? Yes. Is it also influenced by Bach's Sleepers, Awake? Probably. Are there any traces of influence from Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time or from the Adagio in Gustav Mahler's 10th Symphony, particularly in the organ swells that round off each verse? No, I only put that in there to see if somebody reports it as gospel truth on Wikipedia.
Despite all the hoo-ha about Bach, who never achieved anywhere near the level of commercial success Procol Harum did during their heyday, but whose work today sounds less dated than theirs, the greatest mystery surrounding A Whiter Shade of Pale is how such an unusual song became such a massive hit. Immediately vaulting to the No 1 spot in Britain and Ireland – it only made it to number five in the United States – the song has been covered by scores of artists and has been cited by one source as the single most-played song in UK radio history. Yet A Whiter Shade of Pale literally came out of nowhere. After all, the tune sounds like it is 300 years old. The lyrics sound like they are 900 years old, and wouldn't have made much more sense back in the 12th century. The ditty's principal theme, albeit haunting, is not what anyone would call catchy – it sounds like track three from a 1962 Christopher Lee film score, the theme that is heard when Count Dracula first dines with John Harker. More to the point, it is impossible to hum.
Unlike Bohemian Rhapsody, the song is not a joke; unlike Stairway to Heaven, whose meandering opening chords eventually give way to a meatier, more traditional hook, A Whiter Shade of Pale never emerges from its 18th century cocoon, never compromises with contemporary mores, never stops being resolutely anachronistic. Recorded the same year as the Monkees' I'm a Believer, and the Cowsills' The Rain, the Park & Other Things, A Whiter Shade of Pale is as far removed from mainstream rock'n'roll – be it hard-rock, R&B or bubble gum – as any song this side of Winchester Cathedral or Margaritaville.
Though some have cited the similarity between the single and Percy Sledge's When A Man Loves a Woman – a huge hit one year earlier – the similarity resides almost exclusively in the fact that both songs rely on a mournful Hammond organ. That's about it. There is simply no telling what rock music would sound like today if Procol Harum, continuing in the same idiosyncratic direction they started in, had become as famous and influential as the Beatles or Mariah Carey or the Darkness. Well, actually, there is: Procol Harum is the fun-loving sign [sic] of the coin whose hideous reverse side is Yes, Genesis and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. One thing is indisputable: A Whiter Shade of Pale is among the weirdest pop songs ever.
A Whiter Shade of Pale appears [sic] on the band's first album, also named A Whiter Shade of Pale [sic], just as the song A Salty Dog appears on the LP A Salty Dog and the song Shine on Brightly appears on the album Shine on Brightly. Apparently with a name as goofy as Procol Harum, the band didn't want to confuse listeners any further. Keith Reid's lyrics – the miller told his tale, etc – evoke both Chaucer and Ingmar Bergman, whose films made fascination with the medieval fashionable in the mid-1960s. A hodgepodge of historical references – vestal virgins were a fixture of ancient Roman life, but the ancient Romans did not give their cats twee Latin names – this cornucopia of free-association hooey was released one year after Bob Dylan, the master of impenetrable mumbo-jumbo – released Blonde on Blonde and then stopped writing nonsensical lyrics forever.
Why did the song become so popular? The easy answer, the obvious answer, is that everyone was taking drugs in the summer of 1967, which was, after all, the year the Doors and Jimi Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead took off. But in fact everyone was not taking drugs in the summer of Love, certainly not the Cowsills. University students were already taking drugs in 1967, but they were still listening to Odetta and Dave Brubeck. A Whiter Shade of Pale was never an underground classic whose appeal was limited to the cognoscenti; quite to the contrary, it was a Top 40 hit. And the people who were listening to Top 40 radio back in 1967 were still in high school, and had not yet started using drugs.
What made A Whiter Shade of Pale so appealing was that it was the kind of song so bizarre it made your parents think you were taking drugs. My father literally could not sleep for several nights after hearing the song for the first time and one night threatened to break my arm with a tire iron if I put it on the turntable again. Without a doubt, millions of other teenagers on both sides of the Atlantic, and also in Australia, had identical experiences: the song made parents everywhere fear their adolescent children. This brings to an end the 40-year debate over why the song became such a huge hit. And not a moment too soon.
This excellently amusing article is archived here for purposes of scholarship only: please read it in its original context here
More Procol Harum history at BtP