In 1967, Procol Harum was still in the process of putting together it’s original line-up when it got the chance to record its first single, “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” Two weeks later, they had the number 1 hit in the UK and shortly after it was dominating the charts through Europe and the US. The song kicked off the summer of love in England with its melancholy, psychedelic sound world and soulful performance.
Procol Harum emerged from an English beat group called The Paramounts whose hit single “Poison Ivy” (a cover of the Leiber and Stoller song) had reached No. 35 on the UK Singles Chart in 1964. In 1966, The Paramount’s pianist and vocalist Gary Brooker was introduced to lyricist Keith Reid by Island Records’ Guy Stevens. Brooker recalled:
“One afternoon I was over at Guy’s place and Keith was there and we were introduced to each other….Guy said to me. Keith writes words – lyrics. ‘Why don’t you put some music to them?’ What made Guy think of that, I don’t know, because I had never written any music….Anyway, I went home with this envelope full of words from Keith. I think I read them but didn’t do anything about them for a while.” After several months, Brooker finally sat down at the piano with Reid’s lyrics and immediately wrote three songs. Amazed at the ease with which he could write to Reid’s words, Brooker reached out to the lyricist and the pair began writing songs together a couple of days a week.
At first, the pair thought they would sell their songs to other artists and groups, but eventually settled on forming their own group. Reid explained: “We didn’t try for very long. It just became obvious that the only thing to do was form a group.” Bassist Dave Knights soon joined the pair, answering an ad Brooker and Reid had placed in the back of Melody Maker. Other founding members included Ray Royer, Matthew Fisher and Bobby Harrison. But while the band was still trying to put together this original lineup, their demo recording caught the attention of producer Danny Cordell who brought them into the studio to create their iconic debut single “A Whiter Shade of Pale”
“A White Shade of Pale” seems to have been one of the songs that Brooker and Reid had written before the formation of Procol Harum. Reid credits the now-famous title line to a chance moment in which he overheard someone say “you’ve gone a whiter shade of pale” and the phrase had intrigued him. Turning it into a song lyric meant exploring and creating a whole world around it. Reid reflected: “The songwriting process is a funny one, like making a pot…you get your initial idea. Here I had that line ‘ A Whiter Shade of Pale’. So you’ve got your bit of clay, and then you just try to make a pot out of it. And you use your imagination, you shape it and play with it, until you’ve got something that looks like a pot or sounds like a song.”
For decades, listeners and fans have argued over the meaning of the lyrics. Some view it as a drunken, one-night stand gone wrong, others have interpreted it as a drug trip. Fans have also pointed out that the Miller’s Tale referenced in the song is an intellectual nod to Chaucer and his 14th century Canterbury tales. However, Reid has stated in interviews that he had never read Chaucer before writing the song and didn’t intentionally reference the Canterbury tales. Instead, Reid simplifies the meaning of his lyrics to an attempt to capture the emotional distress of a classic “girl-leaves-guy” story: “I had the phrase ‘a whiter shade of pale’, that was a start, and I knew it was a song. It’s like a jigsaw where you’ve got one piece, then you make up all the others to fit it. 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.”
For all the disagreement about the lyric’s meaning, it is undeniable that the song expresses a powerful melancholy. And perhaps the exact lyrics are less important than the emotional effect of the song’s sound world, as evidenced by the fact that two of the original four verses got cut out for the final release. Regardless of the exact meaning of the song’s lyrics, there’s a soulful longing in his performance. The bass equally contributes to the deep melancholy with its seemingly-endless descending melodic lines. The drums sit back into the groove and the treble-heavy cymbal and snare pulse adds to that spinning room sensation that Reid wrote into the lyrics.
But perhaps the most powerful element of this melancholy mood is carried by the keyboard part – a double keyboard part, to be precise. The keyboard pairing is a unique element of Procol Harum’s sound, right from the beginning. Brooker explained: “We wanted an organ player. Someone with a Hammond. We specifically wanted that sound of both a piano and an organ, which was a bit of a luxury in those days.”
They found organist Matthew Fisher while placing an ad looking for an Hammond organ player in Melody Maker, Fisher had simultaneously placed an ad for himself, looking for gigs. Reid recalled: “Matthew advertised. We saw his advert…It was magic finding him. He was just a fantastic musician. It was unbelievable that we found him. Definitely a bit of magic that our paths crossed.” In 2009, Fisher was also granted co-writing credits for his part in the song’s creation. The double keyboard part fuses together the rhythmic pulse of the piano underneath the harmonic harmonic color and melodic ornamentation of the Hammond Organ.
The keyboard part has often been compared to Bach’s Air on G string. And there certainly is some resemblance between the two. There is – as musicologist Allan Moore has pointed out – a certain “family resemblance” between the two pieces, but Procol Harum does not actually quote the Bach piece. Instead we are left with the evocation of a 17th century organ part, coming together with the contemporary sound of 60s psychedelia.
In the mid-sixties, the idea of bringing Baroque sounds into pop music, was actually in vogue. The past became a fungible toolbox of interesting sounds and ideas which transversed the classical and popular music worlds. For example, Joshua Rifkin’s 1965 album “The Baroque Beatles Book” takes musical themes and ideas for Beatles songs and reworks them in the style of 17th to mid-18th century Baroque music. Simultaneously, the Beatles were releasing songs like “Yesterday” in which they incorporated a string quartet. There is no one reason that 20th century musicians started showing an interest in the Baroque. For instance, Musicologist Elizabeth Randell Upton has identified at least 5 recurring categories of meaning for the use of the harpsichord in sixties popular music: 1) humor, 2) novelty, 3) representation of a specific eighteenth century past or the historical past in general, 4) representation of aristocracy or an elite upper class, and 4) personal nostalgia.
Procol Harum’s participation in this Baroque renaissance of the sixties is interesting, because it appears to be quoting a specific Bach piece (even though it isn’t actually the same musically). Since Bach is one of the most well known composers of the Baroque period, and Air on G string is one of his most popular pieces in the public consciousness, it seems as though that the band is trying to evoke a very specific past.
And for audiences, perhaps it does somewhat operate in this way. It connects Procol Harum’s music to the artistic lineage of Bach. It is music that is both emotionally evocative, but also intellectually engaging – listeners love when they recognize something of the past in a piece of music, and it’s even more exciting when you can name the reference.
This is also essentially what happens with the Miller’s Tale reference in the lyrics. Reid has claimed that he did not intend to reference Chaucer, but of all of Chaucer’s stories in the Canterbury Tales, this is the one perhaps most known to the general public. His audience would have heard it as a Chaucer reference, regardless of what Reid actually intended.
Interestingly, though, the lyrics and the music seem to reference two very different time periods. The Canterbury tales were written in the late 14th century and Bach lived in the early 18th century. These periods are certainly very different, culturally, artistically, and stylistically, but to 20th century listeners, they share the common trait of being old.
Procol Harum’s Baroque reference is thus not really about being Baroque. Bach, like Chaucer, is really about being a gateway to the past – a way of accessing artistic meaning and connecting this progressive, psychedelic sound to its larger place in history.
“A Whiter Shade of Pale” was recorded at Olympic Sound Studios in London with producer Denny Cordell. Cordell, who was still in his early twenties, had already produced hit singles like Georgie Fame’s “Yeah Yeah” and The Moody Blues “Go Now.” Mike Lease (who would later play in the band Freedom, with some of the original Procol Harum musicians) described Cordell’s process in the late sixties: “Primarily Cordell was always looking for a sound. He could create a great atmosphere in the studio and though he never intervened with the musicians’ way of playing he nevertheless managed to always end up getting things the way he wanted them.”
Cordell booked a three hour session to record the song, and it only took two takes with no overdubs. Perhaps this was due to the fact that the band members already knew the song well; they had recorded a demo version previously, which had gotten them the attention of Cordell in the first place. So when they entered Olympic studios there really was only one missing piece…. A drummer.
The demo had been recorded with a musician nicknamed “Tubs Drubs” but Cordell wasn’t convinced by his playing. The band held auditions for a new drummer, and only found Bobby Harrison, a day before the recording was scheduled. Reid explained:
“Gary had worked with [former Rockerfella drummer] Bobby Harrison in the past, and we were trying him out. Denny Cordell had already booked Olympic Studios to record ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ and some other songs. He had told us he was going to get Mitch Mitchell of the Jimi Hendrix Experience to record with us, which we were excited about, but on the day he said he couldn’t get either Mitch or Bobby, so he booked Georgie Fame & The Blue Flames drummer Bill Eyden instead.”
Harrison was in the studio that day and a few days later would play on the re-recorded versions of the song that the band did at Advision Studios in New Bond Street. These sessions were discarded, but Harrison only found out later that his playing never made the released track. He recalled: “As far as I knew they were going to release the version of ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ with me playing. So when the record came out I was actually convinced it was me playing on it. I thought I was number one in the charts! Then of course I was told it was Bill Eyden, and it felt, well, pretty strange!”
“A Whiter Shade of Pale” was released on May 12, 1967. Two weeks later it had reached number one in the UK, remaining there for almost six weeks. It also hit number one in several other countries including Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa and Spain. In the US, the song hit number 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart and number 22 on the Soul Charts.
Its legacy has been lasting and its influence has been continually reaffirmed with historians citing it as one of the key songs that kicked off the summer of love in the UK and that really defined the psychedelic sound of late sixties England. In 1977, it was recognized as “The Best British Pop Single” since 1952 at the inaugural BRIT awards in honor of Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee. In 1998, it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and in 2018, it was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s new singles category.
Written By: Caitlin Vaughn Carlos
Watch the video below to learn more about Whiter Shade Of Pale!