Procol Harum – A Whiter Shade of Pale

I don’t remember the sixties, but this song makes me feel like I do. In my humble opinion, it’s one of the best songs of the sixties. It perfectly captured its time. John Lennon was a huge fan of the song and would play it repeatedly in his psychedelic Rolls Royce.

It is one of those songs like Itchycoo Park that automatically transports me to the sixties… I never get tired of listening to this. A Whiter Shade of Pale was released in 1967. It peaked at #1 in Canada, The UK, New Zealand, and #5 in the Billboard 100. It sold over 10 million copies. It was re-released in 1972 and went to #13 in the UK charts.

Gary Brooker and Keith Reid were credited with writing the song but Matthew Fisher the former keyboard player in the band sued for partial writing credit and won on July 24, 2008. Now the song’s writing credit is Reid-Brooker-Fisher. Gary Brooker and Fisher wrote the music and Reid wrote the lyrics. This was the first song Procol Harum recorded. After it became a hit, they fired their original drummer and guitarist, replacing them with Barry Wilson and Robin Trower… more experienced musicians who could handle touring.

The Illinois Crime Commission included the song in a list of ‘drug-oriented records’ along with “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane and The Beatle’s “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.” When any ban would happen, the records would fly off the shelves.

In 2004, the UK performing rights group Phonographic Performance Limited named this the most-played record on British TV and radio of the past 70 years. In 2009 it was announced that this song is still Britain’s most played record.

Gary Brooker: “I’d been listening to a lot of classical music, and jazz. Having played rock and R&B for years, my vistas had opened up. When I met Keith, seeing his words, I thought, ‘I’d like to write something to that.’ They weren’t obvious, but that doesn’t matter. You don’t have to know what he means, as long as you communicate an atmosphere. ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ seemed to be about two people, a relationship even. It’s a memory. There was a leaving, and a sadness about it. To get the soul of those lyrics across vocally, to make people feel that, was quite an accomplishment.

I remember the day it arrived: four very long stanzas, I thought, ‘Here’s something.’ I happened to be at the piano when I read them, already playing a musical idea. It fitted the lyrics within a couple of hours. Things can be gifted. If you trace the chordal element, it does a bar or two of Bach’s ‘Air on a G String’ before it veers off. That spark was all it took. I wasn’t consciously combining rock with classical, it’s just that Bach’s music was in me.”

Keith Reid: “I was trying to conjure a mood as much as tell a straightforward, girl-leaves-boy story. With the ceiling flying away and room humming harder, I wanted to paint an image of a scene. I wasn’t trying to be mysterious with those images, I was trying to be evocative. I suppose it seems like a decadent scene I’m describing. But I was too young to have experienced any decadence, then. I might have been smoking when I conceived it, but not when I wrote. It was influenced by books, not drugs.”

A Whiter Shade of Pale

We skipped the light fandango
Turned cartwheels ‘cross the floor
I was feeling kinda seasick
But the crowd called out for more
The room was humming harder
As the ceiling flew away
When we called out for another drink
And the waiter brought a tray

And so it was that later
As the miller told his tale
That her face, at first just ghostly,
Turned a whiter shade of pale

She said, “There is no reason
And the truth is plain to see. “
But I wandered through my playing cards
And they would not let her be
One of sixteen vestal virgins
Who were leaving for the coast
And although my eyes were open wide
They might have just as well been closed

And so it was that later
As the miller told his tale
That her face, at first just ghostly,
Turned a whiter shade of pale

She said, “I’m here on a shore leave,”
Though we were miles at sea.
I pointed out this detail
And forced her to agree,
Saying, “You must be the mermaid
Who took King Neptune for a ride. “
And she smiled at me so sweetly
That my anger straightway died.

And so it was that later
As the miller told his tale
That her face, at first just ghostly,
Turned a whiter shade of pale

If music be the food of love
Then laughter is it’s queen
And likewise if behind is in front
Then dirt in truth is clean
My mouth by then like cardboard
Seemed to slip straight through my head
So we crash-dived straightway quickly
And attacked the ocean bed

And so it was that later
As the miller told his tale
That her face, at first just ghostly,
Turned a whiter shade of pale

Author: Badfinger (Max)

Power Pop fan, Baseball fan, old movie and tv show fan... and a songwriter, bass and guitar player.

23 thoughts on “Procol Harum – A Whiter Shade of Pale”

  1. Great pick, Max! I couldn’t agree with you more. It’s also one of my all-time favorite ’60s tunes I don’t get tired of. That organ sound is pure magic, and how they weaved in the Bach theme is really beautiful. Now the tune will be stuck in my head but, hey, that’s a good to get lodged in your brain!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I agree… excellent song and recording. I was stunned when I read , a few years back, that it was THAT popular in Britain, but I’d rather hear it repeatedly than most of the other huge radio hits that never go away. Tough act to follow for them, being their first one!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am surprised Dave that it didn’t go to #1 here. It was so different than any of their other songs also. I guess it was the era.

      Like

  3. I was real late-comer to this song. Perhaps because my younger sister bought a copy (the 1972 re-release) I rebelled against it – she was more of a Donny Osmond / David Cassidy fan … I guess I questioned the validity of Procul Harem because of that!
    However, I did get over that petty bias, and absolutely love the track these days. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

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