It has been investigated and recorded at 'Beyond the Pale' how A Whiter Shade of Pale has been covered by numerous artists, has appeared in movie soundtracks, accompanied commercials and even been parodied. But many fans might still be unaware that even a science-fiction story has made use of the extraordinary power of its title phrase.
In 1974, the well-known Norwegian science-fiction writer Jon Bing published the short story En Blekere Skygge af Hvitt, which literally translates into A Paler Shade of White. The story has also been translated to English - se note 1 below).
Since the original title has such striking qualities - 'the authority of a line from Shakespeare, and [...] as catchy as the most persistent jingle', according to Mike Butler in Lives of the Great Songs - it is not surprising that it has been borrowed and used in so many ways.
Having been twenty years in the business, I know just how ruthlessly editors or copywriters exploit poetry (as well as film titles, proverbs, recipes or graffiti) for a good or witty headline (2).
What, then, is Bing's reason for using the title? (One can expect a little more from an author than simply pinching from another writer for cheap effect.)
There is no obvious connection between his story and Keith's. It is not a story about dancing, drinking and romancing aboard a future spaceship, cruising between some heavenly space-ports. (That might make a very interesting story, but unfortunately it still remains unwritten.)
Bing's story indeed seem several light-years from the plot and setting of Keith's poem. Bing tells us the story of a small group of space travellers, shipwrecked on a distant and unknown planet after their interstellar spaceship has crashed. This planet, we learn, is frozen and completely covered in snow and ice. Black and white - and shades of gray - are the only colours of the landscape. 'A sea of congealed toothpaste, over it a black sky with a pale sun, a sun of moonlight'.
The marooned crew try to keep themselves alive, although rescue-missions are unlikely to arrive in many years. Despite their struggles, some of the crew are dying within weeks. But then they discover that the planet in fact is inhabited. At a distance, they see great ice-yachts sailing across the frozen landscape. And the sailors are humans - probably descendants from a much earlier, long-forgotten colonisation.
The crew try to get the locals' attention. But to their dismay, the ships ignore their signals and red distress-flares, even when a ship slides past just a few meters from the wrecked spaceship.
Desperate and bewildered, three of the crew - Weiss, Blancheur and Gwyn (names actually meaning 'white' in German, French [eg blanche] and Welsh, and the only crew names we learn!) - set out to make contact with the inhabitants. They follow the route of the ice-yachts and eventually find their 'home port', a city of caverns.
But even at close range, face to face, the locals ignore their pleas for help. In fact, they act as if the spacemen were invisible. When spoken to, the inhabitants seem confused and worried. If touched, they become horrified, even violent. Yet they are not blind; it is clear that they can see each other.
Only at the end does the reason become clear to the surviving crew members (and to us). Since black and white are the only 'colours' the inhabitants of this remote planet has ever seen, they have no notion of what a real colour is. Their clothes are white, their complexions pale. The sight of the crew-members' bright yellow rescue suits, their blue spaceship, or their red distress-flares is so alien that the locals cannot understand it; it is filtered out on a subconscious level. They can hear the spacemen talking, but not see them; consequently, they act as if they were hearing ghosts.
Like most of the best science-fiction, Jon Bing's story addresses some interesting philosophical questions, in the guise of simple entertainment. Is there a reality 'outside' our perception of it? Does the mind govern our perceptions - or does perception govern our minds? To what extent is our view of the world limited by our previous experiences?
Such 'what-if'-questions, such 'flights of ideas', are sometimes referred to as 'sense-of-wonder' in science-fiction. This involves a feeling of uncertainty; a conviction that nothing really is what it seems to be.
And though I have never thought of Keith Reid as a science-fiction writer (nor as a fantasy writer, despite the excursions into imaginary mythological landscapes that are common in his early works), this uncertainty is exactly the quality that I admire in Keith's best works, and which has continued to fascinate me for so many years now.
And likewise, in the best Procol music, I experience exactly the same 'sense-of-wonder', the same 'flight of ideas' - mostly so in the early songs.
It was mainly in those first songs that rock met baroque music in a way that challenged every listener's previous experience; no matter which one of the genres he or she up to that point had been confined within (3).
Like many others, I can vividly recall the time and place when I heard AWSoP for the first time - and also my reaction. It was startling: my sense of direction was lost as the sound filled the room. Although standing next to the gramophone, I could not understand that the music was coming from that record, or even from those speakers. The small hairs on my arms and the back of my head stood on end. Should someone have asked me at that moment, I might just as well have told them that I heard a ghost.
And this is, of course, exactly the reaction Bing has dreamed up for the poor inhabitants of his pale, white ice-planet. Did Jon Bing, too, share that feeling? I don't know, but I'm willing to bet on it.
And hey, what do the words of AWSoP really say?
'and although my eyes were open
they might just as well've been closed'
... which exactly describes the predicament of the ice-planet people.
So the author did not, apart from the colouring of the landscape and the little weiss-blanche-gwyn pun, just borrow a smart-sounding title. I think it's a conscious choice, interconnecting the story and the song on several deeper levels. (4)
Bing's story ends there. We don't get to know what happened to the crew, but the concluding words are somewhat optimistic: 'When the travellers knew what caused the fear, they might be able to remove it - and get the help they needed.'
Neither do we know what will happen to the locals. If - or when - the space travellers get through to the inhabitants, how will their minds change?
The patterns that form our thinking are sometimes called 'schemes'. What will happen when the old patterns collapse? What new schemes of thought will arise from such a breakthrough?
Once these extra-terrestrial Eskimos have learned that there are colours other than black or white, will they be able to discriminate among them? Or will they perhaps just call all colours 'colour'?
We don't know. But when AWSoP entered people's minds in 1967 (or even later), it made such a powerful impression that it itself formed a 'scheme' for the way we perceive the world (or at least music).
Although there are countless recordings of Hammond organ music before 1967, many people regard AWSoP as being the piece that defines 'the Hammond sound'.
On 1 October 1998 The New York Times ran a story about something called 'The Audities Collection'; this collection is
'... dedicated to the preservation of a wide variety of electronic instruments ... The collection consists of nearly 150 vintage synthesisers, organs, replay instruments and electronic effects units. There are crude drum machines from the 50s that have never been recorded on an album (at least not one anyone can remember) and one-of-a-kind synthesisers ...
The collection also houses the kind of Hammond organ familiar from Procol Harum's Whiter Shade of Pale, the analogue workstation used to make sound effects for the British television program Dr Who, the kind of synthesiser that added sound effects to Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon and the rare electric piano heard on the Beatles' I Am the Walrus.' (An Archive Of Oddities by Neil Strauss, The New York Times, 1 October 1998)
Maybe unfortunately for Procol Harum, AWSoP also coloured everyone's view of everything Procol Harum ever did after.
But if you attempt to make a strict, musical analysis of Procol Harum music, you sooner or later start to realize how un-common AWSoP is alongside almost all other Procol Harum songs. It lacks many of the features that are present in most Procol Harum tunes, and has several other unique or un-common features.
Yet the impact of AWSoP has prevented many people - myself included - from hearing what Procol Harum really did sound like, after 1968 or so. I've checked what several encyclopaedias and textbooks on rock say about Procol Harum. A typical entry is this Swedish encyclopaedia, which calls Procol Harum's music:
'... soft and melodious, with a symphonic character' (Bonniers Musiklexikon, 1975)
Come on - (Outside the gates of) Cerdes, Whisky Train, The Devil Came from Kansas, Drunk Again, Piggy Pig Pig, Still There'll Be More, Poor Mohammed, etc - soft and melodious?
In Rockens Roll ('The rôle of rock'), a Swedish textbook on pop and rock, the critics Rander and Sandblad write,
'PH struck lucky with the combination of Bach harmonies and the mighty sound of organ and piano together - and they have continued to travel that road ... no other group have surpassed them in combining the best things from rock with the beauty of classical music to create a style-conscious whole.'
Although the authors write very appreciatively about PH, they are clearly partly wrong. The Bach-harmonies were abandoned after SOB, and the organ after SOB is clearly subordinate to the piano. They did not continue to travel the same road, but went here and there in different directions. From A Salty Dog to Home to Broken Barricades to Grand Hotel.
This particular book goes on to say,
'It has been said - with some malice - that 'they had one bright idea - AWSoP - and then kept on doing clones for ever and ever'. This is an unfair statement. PH music can just as well be called consistent ...'
The authors boldly defend PH; but the quoted statement is not unfair; it is simply untrue. PH moved on from the AWSoP 'recipe' quite early. But these examples clearly show exactly how AWSoP has formed a scheme, a template, a filter for listening to Procol Harum music. Although their ears were open, they might just as well've been closed.
Just as I remember hearing AWSoP for the first time, I remember my own reaction when I put on the B-side of the A Salty Dog album for the first time and heard Juicy John Pink. The reaction was similar, but reversed: What on earth was this? What was this song doing on a Procol Harum record?
For years I completely avoided it, always lowering the needle on to track two and listening to Matthew's magnificent 'sea opera' instead. It was only recently that I, in perspective, realized that Juicy John Pink is not really deviant among PH tunes; it might even be said to have more siblings, among them, than AWSoP. But I didn't hear. Couldn't hear.
Certainly, there are Procol songs that point you in the direction of 'symphonic' or 'soft and melodious'. And yes, they did record with a symphony orchestra once - but so did Deep Purple, The Who and lots of other bands. And they did use a full orchestral backing on some songs - and occasions like these of course reinforced the 'scheme' - but if you count them, I bet The Rolling Stones used a full orchestra more frequently.
When I joined the Procol mailing list, Roland Clare suggested that since I had a background in musicology I could maybe write something about the music. I had to reply that unfortunately I had studied mainly eastern-European folk music, a genre that is very rarely heard in PH's music (there are two instances, however, which should be obvious to most Procoholics).
Nevertheless, I started making some systematic notes on the music. It was during this musical analysis of PH songs that I realized how many things I really hadn't heard in the music I loved. What this made me understand was that the music of PH wasn't half as interesting as people's notion of it.
Is PH a symphonic band? In Mojo (September 1995), Matthew said 'scratch away under the surface, and what you have is a rock'n'roll band'. True. But was is that surface made of? And who made it?
We - the listeners? The media? Or the musicians? I guess there might come a time when you say 'All right, we've really tried for so many years and the symphonic label won't wear off, let's make an album called 'The Symphonic Music of Procol Harum'.'
And that takes us back to the same philosophical question: where does Procol Harum music exist? On CDs and LPs, or in our heads? Is the true music what is written down on lead-sheets? Does a sound exist if no-one is listening? Does a colour exist if no-one can see it?
To me, music is something more than sound waves hitting the tympanic membrane. If you're lucky, it hits your mind. If you're even luckier, it hits your heart.
Despite its colourless title, A Whiter Shade of Pale was actually an astonishing firework-display, exploding over a land of paler shades. It was something that gave us all a vision of a new colour, previously unknown - something for which we all should be very, very grateful.
1) En blekere skygge af hvitt appeared in the Swedish SF magazine Jules Verne-magasinet nr 378, December 1979.
Even before that, it was translated to English and published in the anthology "The Best from the Rest of the World", edited by Donald A. Wollheim, DAW books 1976. It was translated by Steven T. Murray. Strangely enough, my available bibliography list the title as "A Whiter Shade of Pale" - missing the wordplay altogether! I don't know if the story really had that title or if it is a typo in the bibliography. If that's the case, it's just another sign of how completely the phrase has taken root in people's mind.
Besides, A Paler Shade of White is how Gary jokingly introduced AWSoP on the Swedish television show Booster in January 1999.
Jon Bing is also, nowadays, Professor Dr Juris, Chairman of the Norwegian Research Center for Computers and Law, Faculty of Law, University of Oslo, and quite active on the net. For those who read the language, the Norwegian newspaper Verdens Gang has published an interview with him and some answers to readers' questions. Another article is this one - with an interesting series of portraits!
2) There can be other reasons to, of course. There was a former editor at PC Magazine about whom it was said that every headline he ever wrote contained an allusion to a song title by Talking Heads. Unfortunately, no similarly zealous Procoholic editors are known. (The list of online PH friends at BtP lists a very respected former editor-in-chief of one of Sweden's bigger dailies, though his possible achievements in this field are unknown to me ... )
Speaking about the kinds of people who write headlines: the Swedish humorist Tage Danielsson once wrote, 'If all headline-writers were killed such a thing would probably be printed in appropriately small letters in the newspapers.'
(Besides, the editor at PC Magazine was fired anyway.)
3) Incidentally, the original meaning of the baroque music term 'fugue' is 'flight'. The best Procol tunes are fugues, not in a strict musicological sense, but in a broader sense - 'flight of ideas'. It didn't surprise me, for example, to learn that Douglas Adams got the idea for The Restaurant at the End of the Universe from the middle section of Grand Hotel.
4) Interestingly enough, seeing and visibility might be an important theme to Jon Bing. I'm not familiar with all his work, but in the Norwegian daily Dagbladet I found this review of one of his latest books:
"How visible are we to each other? This is the theme of Jon Bing's youth novel Piken som ble borte ('The girl who disappeared'), where the main character, the girl Sari, becomes invisible to the people around her. 'But of course we're not invisible in a scientific sense,' says the boy Mure, who has also learned the trick to make himself invisible to others. 'We are not transparent or anything. It's just that people won't look at us. They turn their heads, look in another direction.' Sari gets an eye-disease and knows that she'll be blind in a short time ... [before that] she learns to see with the deepest awareness / consciousness ... (Harriet Eide in Dagbladet, 10 December 1995)
Many thanks indeed to Jonas Söderström for this richly rewarding article
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