Procol Harum

the Pale

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A song that paled into significance

David Robson in The Daily Express • 15 April 2009

Jeff Vinter wrote to BtP in April 2009 as follows:
'There was a great article about the band on page 14 of today's (Wed 15 April 2009) Daily Express.  Sorry that I cannot yet send you a copy, but no doubt others in the 'Procol Radar Fraternity' will do so.  The copy that I read belonged to the landlord of my local, so I couldn't exactly pinch it!  If I'm down there tomorrow, I'll see if I can liberate it - the old papers usually end up a great big wicker basket which provides 'fodder' to get the fire going. Best wishes, and thanks for all your hard work, which is appreciated.  I have a very demanding and time-consuming job, so it's always a pleasure to spend a few moments each day looking at the PH website to see what's new.  It helps to keep me sane (well, relatively).'  The following day he added, 'Have rescued newspaper from firebucket and will send scanned copy of article within next hour ... The band received an entire half page and a follow-up letter today (Thu. 16 April 2009) to which I will reply. I am sorry that I have not done the copy-typing for you, but I am very busy at the moment. As if teaching didn't keep me busy enough, I also write books and do some work for TV (mainly behind the scenes stuff to do with planning, research and negotiating). I have four books coming out between now and June, and am also assisting with an attempt on a rather unusual world record. I cannot say more about this at the moment, but keep an eye on James May's programmes on the BBC at the end of the year!' Later his non-namesake Pia Vinther wrote from Denmark (thanks!) alerting us to an online version of the text here; Charlie Allison also sent valued scans, including the masthead seen on this page. Thanks, all!

Skip the light fandango ... the truth is plain to see ... go tell the vestal virgins ... A Whiter Shade of Pale is officially the most played song of the last 75 years. It charmed and transfixed the hippie summer of 1967, charms and transfixes still. The tune that wafted soulfully and seductively from the doorways of Sixties boutiques is a favourite 40 years on. It remains the sound of romance – a regular for when the bride goes up the aisle – and it has become the sound of farewell, the song most often chosen as funeral music for those called away in middle age.

But we are not talking exclusively of solemnity, nostalgia and romance, its popularity stretches to jukeboxes, sports stadiums, lifts and supermarkets. It’s the record that has been most played in public places in our lifetime, the era when music became ubiquitous. Now it will still be listened to by millions perhaps less in public than in the privacy of their iPod.

A Whiter Shade of Pale inspires a love that passeth all understanding. Most people love it but nobody really understands what it means – although our eyes are open they might just as well be closed. But there is magic in the tapestry: it combines the ancient and the modern, the classical and the trippy in a most addictive way.

It clasps you right at the start and keeps you captive till the end: the opening organ line is JS Bach, subtly adapted and beautifully played. So you are already taken somewhere pop music doesn’t usually go, the first words are striking and memorable (I don’t need to repeat them I’m sure) and they are sung by one of the best singers of the whole rock era. Gary Brooker is very blessed – not only is his voice strong and beautiful but you also feel its power from the very first note and it has an unforced soulfulness the British very rarely have. Organ, piano and Brooker's singing – the combination is utterly beguiling.

There are many songs that we have all heard a thousand times and still love, but how many can make the hair stand up on the back of your neck, even when you know them like the back of your hand

How did these kids in their very early 20s come up with something so absolutely magical? After six weeks at the pinnacle in June and July 1967 it was replaced as No1 in the charts by The Beatles’ All You Need Is Love, which is a joyous anthem but how thin, simple and banal compared with the Procol Harum song.

Brooker’s voice is not just good, it is absolutely recognisable and the way he handles Keith Reid’s strange lyrics gives them strange power. What are they about, these words that millions have treated like a sort of spiritual poetry ever since? Possibly nothing more sublime than a drunken or stoned one-night stand.

But there’s a kind of alchemy at play – take a bit of Bach, give a gloss to John Milton’s phrase “light fantastic”, introduce vestal virgins (rare in pop songs), a touch of Chaucer “the miller told his tale”, a little Lewis Carroll nonsense “if behind is in front then dirt in truth is clean.” [NB these last words are not heard in the famous single!]

All these things strike chords in our subconscious. And the slow churchiness of the music gives it a feeling of transcendence. This sort of thing became commonplace in hippy music and the progressive rock of the Seventies. Pretentious lyrics were virtually the order of the day, rock music became dissatisfied by its roots in the blues of the Mississippi Delta, electric guitars were not grand enough, let’s bolt on a symphony orchestra and make something posh.

Mostly it was a recipe for disaster. But listen to Procol Harum’s Grand Hotel. In their hands it could be something wonderful.

Recently Whiter Shade of Pale has been the subject of a lawsuit: in November 2006, Matthew Fisher, the organist who wrote and played the famous intro, claimed credit and royalties from Gary Brooker who wrote the song.

He was awarded some royalties, lost them on appeal but is now credited as co-composer. During the case the song was played in another public place: the High Court.

The judge asked Brooker, white-haired now and smart in a blue blazer and a Queen’s Award for Industry tie, to go to the keyboard that had been brought in and “play the song as you would have done on your mother’s piano in her living room in Southend in 1967.” It was a smallish room and I was sitting next to the keyboard. I expected he would just play a snatch of it but he did the whole song at the right pace.

It was electrifying and awe-inspiring. When he finished there was silence in court – a silenter shade of silence.

More Procol history at BtP

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