May 06

PROCOL HARUM – “A Whiter Shade Of Pale”

Popular64 comments • 11,286 views

#234, 10th June 1967

I used to hate this song. If you’re a reader who skips to the mark first you’ll have realised that I still don’t like it much, and you might want to check the bit in bold for the rationale. But I used to hate it. I identified it as an enemy. I was never a punk but I could listen to this and knew what punk (approved version) was getting at (approved version). Its classical allusions, its stately pace, its piss-elegant lyricism all disgusted me. Later on I could identify why – history, as presented to me at twenty years remove, had it fingered as a moment when rock grew up, began to carry itself with maturity and weight, peeled away from pop. “If you want to argue that rock lyrics are poetry,” enthuses John Kutner in his 1000 UK Number One Hits, “What better place to start?” Almost anywhere, I would have said, but of course you could see why people might have received it like poetry – by the time it reached me, it had long settled into a role as a comfortable enigma, the sort of song whose key question is “What’s it about?”

There’s nothing wrong with ‘about’. About opens doors, for a bright or nerdy kid it’s part of the basic coin of meeting people, whether you’re talking music or books or anything. I remember at 13 going swimming with a friend and spending an hour treading water and trying to get straight what Ziggy Stardust was ‘about’ – we figured there was a secret track order that unlocked Ziggy’s real story, like a rock Da Vinci Code. What we weren’t discussing was what Bowie meant to us, I couldn’t have articulated that and neither could he. About a year later we had a late-night conversation about music and I said that listening to the Smiths had changed my life. His mocking was tinted with anger: I was overstepping the agreed borders of music chat, the borders of About. I felt stupid, even though I turned out to be right.

There are always links between the content of a song’s lyrics, and their revealed meaning to the music talk initiate, and the inside, hard-to-express significance that the poor fucker who wrote the song has almost no say over. In Procul Harum’s case I never thought much about what the song meant – Wikipedia pegs it as a drunk guy trying to pull, which seems as reasonable as anything – but its inside significance for me was all about what it stood for. The hostility my friend felt for the Smiths was just a narrower, specific version of what I felt for Procul Harum – mockery and hatred for the idea that lives had been changed in ways I couldn’t grasp or relate to; a powerful, sarcastic resentment of rock.

One of the reasons I started Popular – with hindsight – was to confront that resentment, though not necessarily to fight it. I wanted to put pop back into some kind of context, but I also wanted to find out if I actually disliked rock – the kind of mission that would be pretty futile if you thought the answer was going to be “yes”. I could hardly argue for a fair shake for Lord Rockingham’s XI and then dismiss Procul Harum. They didn’t make their lyrics so irritatingly oblique just to piss off the squares or pull a fast one on pop, and even if they did hundreds of thousands of the squares must have bought it. So I listened to “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” again – capsule review: great Hammond, good vocals, draggy pace, blows its wad on verse one and then goes nowhere – and tried to work out what all the enigma was for, what it might be doing in a pop context.

I don’t think pop songs are poetry – or rather, I think it’s a silly, loaded question in general. The critical language of poetry isn’t often much use at telling us why a lyric works. What they have in common is when something – a turn of phrase, mixed with an inflection mixed with a sound or melody maybe – drills suddenly into that interior where the ‘about’ of the song reacts with the ‘about’ of you, in ways which might sometimes remind you of poetry. A pop song is a way of launching these little particles of affect, and “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” chains a bunch of them together for a scattershot combo attack. The pained, bewildered vocals and slow emphatic rhythms are a tip-off that something’s going on, something’s at stake, you need to pay attention even as literal meaning recedes and here comes that riff again – and “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” turns out to be a celebration of the feeling of pop meaning something, an abstract of significance. The people looking for an About missed the point: so did I in sneering at them.



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  1. 51
    swanstep on 18 Nov 2010 #

    Please be upstanding for the Mayor of Sinkerton
    (no chain of office and no hope of getting one)
    Anyhow, just as Apocalypse Now’s s/track and Joy Division were my entry point to the Doors, I learned to appreciate WSOP from its use in Scorsese’s superb ‘Life Lessons’ chapter of the anthology movie New York Stories. It’s really worthwhile tracking that 30 minute piece down if you can, but youtube has a ten minute condensation including the WSOP sequences, which is a lot better than nothing.

  2. 52
    Billy Smart on 18 Nov 2010 #

    My introduction to WSOP was via Dave Lee Travis’ deathless ‘Golden Oldie Picture Show’. I seem to remember a cricket match and some gyrating vestal virgins in white robes…

    A few million British television viewers would have been introduced to The Doors via a special Granada World In Action documentary – “The Doors’ message is uncompromising, confused and extremely loud”, etc. Channel 4 repeated it about 20 years ago and I remember Jim Morrison coming across as a pompous twerp when I saw it then.

  3. 53
    rosie on 19 Nov 2010 #


    And will you welcome, please, Mr and Mrs Wade-Shoes and their adopted Japanese son, Bruce…

  4. 54
    swanstep on 19 Nov 2010 #

    @52. That granada doc. is on youtube. I just watched the first ten mins and the opening schpiel was ‘The Doors are uncompromisingly loud. Do not adjust your set.’ You can’t pay for publicity like that!

  5. 55
    punctum on 19 Nov 2010 #

    It was good advertising TECHNIQUE.

  6. 56
    Mark G on 19 Nov 2010 #

    Bernard Sumner enjoyed it.

    Yeah, that doc, where they promoted “Hello I love you won’t you tell me your name” (the title on my copy) by having Ray sing it on the doc.

    (If it’s that one)

  7. 57
    crag on 14 Apr 2011 #


    Gemma Jones, actress, singer(1976)

    Patrick Lichfield, photographer(1981)

    Lady Mosley, Mitford sister(1989)

    David Blunkett, politician (1990)

    Micheal Howard, politician(2004).

  8. 58
    Lena on 1 Nov 2011 #

    Leicester Idol: http://musicsoundsbetterwithtwo.blogspot.com/2011/11/this-is-end-englebert-humperdinck.html

    Thanks for reading, tout le monde!

  9. 59
    Billy Smart on 5 Dec 2011 #

    TOTPWatch: Procol Harum performed A Whiter Shade Of Pale on Top Of The Pops on five occasions;

    25 May 1967. Also in the studio that week were; Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Titch, Dusty Springfield and The Tremeloes. Alan Freeman was the host.

    8 June 1967. Also in the studio that week were; Cilla Black, Englebert Humperdink, PP Arnold, The Turtles and The Young Idea. Jimmy Savile was the host.

    15 June 1967. Also in the studio that week were; Cream, Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Titch and Judith Durham. Alan Freeman was the host.

    26 December 1967. Also in the studio that Boxing Day were; The Bee Gees, Long John Baldry, Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Titch, Lulu, Cliff Richard and Englebert Humperdinck, plus The Go Jo’s interpretation of ‘Reflections Of My Life’. Jimmy Savile, Alan Freeman and Pete Murray were the hosts.

    18 May 1972. Also in the studio that week were; Hurricane Smith, New World and Val Doonican.

    Only the Christmas edition survives, the earliest complete show to do so.

  10. 60
    lonepilgrim on 17 Apr 2012 #

    the everygreatsongever tumblr has just begun a series looking at UK prog – Volume 1 features Procul Harum:


  11. 61
    mapman132 on 15 Feb 2014 #

    I’ve been wondering whether I was going to give a 10 to a song Tom hated. Apparently the answer isn’t quite Yes (yet), but the review here comes closest so far. For me this song is all about the sound and mood and the enigmatic lyrics are more a tone setter rather something I listen to closely and try to interpret literally. I admit a part of me always wonders about people who take a song’s lyrics overly seriously. But to each their own I guess, and even I occasionally will like (or hate) a song more due to its apparent message than the music itself. In fact, it’s interesting you mention the Smiths since “How Soon Is Now?” is one of those rare exceptions for me. But WSOP is not. 10/10 regardless.

    Side note: I always believed Procol Harum was a one-hit wonder in the strongest and literal sense of the term to point that when seeing Wikipedia said otherwise, I had to dig out my old copy of the Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits to confirm they did in fact have two other US Top 40 hits. Both were apparently UK hits too along with a couple of others. Shows what I know….

  12. 62
    enitharmon on 16 Feb 2014 #

    @61 Homburg – basically a rehash of AWSOP but not a bad little ditty. In their previous incarnation as The Paramounts they had a minor hit with Poison Ivy.

  13. 63
    hectorthebat on 4 May 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010)
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Dave Marsh & Kevin Stein (USA) – The 40 Best of the Top 40 Singles by Year (1981) 31
    Greil Marcus (USA) – STRANDED: “Treasure Island” Singles (1979)
    Pause & Play (USA) – Songs Inducted into a Time Capsule, One Track at Each Week
    Pitchfork (USA) – Top 200 Songs of the 60s (2006) 142
    Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (USA) – 500 Songs That Shaped Rock (1994?)
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 100 Best Singles of the Last 25 Years (1988) 85
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (2004) 57
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (Updated 2010) 57
    The Recording Academy Grammy Hall of Fame Albums and Songs (USA)
    Mojo (UK) – The 100 Greatest Singles of All Time (1997) 22
    New Musical Express (UK) – The Top 100 Singles of All Time (1976) 47
    Paul Roland (UK) – CD Guide to Pop & Rock, 100 Essential Singles (2001)
    Zig Zag (UK) – Gillett & Frith’s Hot 100 Singles (1975)
    Nerikes Allehanda (Sweden) – The 50 Best Rock Songs of All Time (1992) 12
    Pophandboek (Netherlands) – Errit Petersma’s Top 20 Singles from the 60s (1970)
    Pophandboek (Netherlands) – Henk Bergsma’s Top 20 Singles from the 60s (1970)
    Berlin Media (Germany) – The 100 Best Singles of All Time (1998) 51
    Gilles Verlant and Thomas Caussé (France) – 3000 Rock Classics (2009)
    Rolling Stone (France) – The 100 Best Singles of the Last 25 Years (1988) 31
    Toby Creswell (Australia) – 1001 Songs (2005)
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)

  14. 64
    lonepilgrim on 18 Apr 2016 #

    another song that I vaguely remember from my childhood – I DO remember hearing pop music on a radio on holiday that year and being told it was from a Pirate radio station which in my mind I interpreted quite literally.
    I’ve always liked it. Combining Classical/Sacred sounding organ music with bluesy, (very) vaguely erotic lyrics sounds like a simultaneous act of blasphemy AND faith.
    I’m always surprised by how many ’60s bands were centred around the organ/keyboard player and wonder to what extent that reflected the (smaller?) club circuit that many of them played before the growth of venues geared towards guitar groups.

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