23
May 06

PROCOL HARUM – “A Whiter Shade Of Pale”

Popular64 comments • 12,176 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.

5

Comments

  1. 1
    Ian on 23 May 2006 #

    Weirdly enough, I just put this one on a podcast; I like it quite a bit, although I’ve never once thought about what it’s “about” as opposed to how it feels. It’s all gibberish anyways, isn’t it?

    Also, I believe it’s spelled “Procol”.

  2. 2
    Tom on 23 May 2006 #

    Oops! Will change it tomorrow.

    Yeah, I didn’t mean to imply that everybody went straight for the “about”, but certainly when I encountered it in the 80s it was in the context of “strange poetic lyrics with a hidden meaning” &c.

  3. 3
    Anonymous on 24 May 2006 #

    Kids who grew reading the UK music press in the 80s often picked up second-hand punk attitudes: we were taught that before the Pistols, the world had been drowning in a morass of overblown, pretentious music. But just because you hated it didn’t mean that you had heard it ? why would a teenager come across Tales Of Topographic Oceans in 1985? So the few radio hits of grandiose rock ? Whiter Shade Of Pale, Nights In White Satin, Stairway To Heaven, Money ? absorbed a disproportionate amount of hatred as audible symbols of something bigger. That was probably most unfair on Whiter Shade, which lurks between novelty hit and the rock canon ? I’m sure plenty of the people who bought it as a single were also buying Englebert. ? Mark

  4. 4
    p^nk s on 24 May 2006 #

    yes and a lot of actual real heart-of-the-punk-generation punks, having grown up with prog, wewre driven by PROGGY GUILT = they had loved genesis when 13 but now angrily rejected their silly younger selves

    key punk theorist mark perry sez you can actually the love for ELP in the first clash LP

    in henry cow drummer chris cutler’s 1986 FILE UNDER POPULAR, he begins one chapter with a statement of the “embarrassment” that “we” (= he and his buddies I assume) felt at the fact of the existence of WSoP — it is quite an odd passage, abt an unexplored disappointment (he never sezx WHY it wz embarassing) that implicitly sez a lot abt cutler’s hopes and dreams for prog as of 67 (=before it wz even known as prog)

  5. 5
    Anonymous on 24 May 2006 #

    Bah. I don’t have Australian Rising Inflection… those were meant to be long dashes, not question marks. Mark M

  6. 6
    Anonymous on 24 May 2006 #

    “Wikipedia pegs it as a drunk guy trying to pull”

    One that I heard & works for me is a guy that’s bursting for a pee !

  7. 7
    Anonymous on 24 May 2006 #

    Enjoyable examination of what “about” means.

    For me, the “about” of this song is that it exists as two distinct yet related road signs. The first road sign announces that we’ve arrived at the moment when “rock” (as opposed to pop) became an object of fascination for art school kids who had no interest in Elvis, Little Richard, Motown, or pre-“Rubber Soul” Beatles, to name just a few of the basic components of the rock and roll version of pop prior to this moment.

    The second road sign points six years or so down the road to the arrival of glam and disco, each of which strikes me as a reaction against a school of music that had no stylistic flash and that you absolutely couldn’t dance to. I’ve often thought that you could write an interesting and revealing history of America in the 20th century by going to where people danced in public at any given moment and listening to the music and seeing how people dressed and what the racial make-up of the crowd was. I suspect that something similar might be true of England. When the art school crowd took over rock and roll and it became “rock,” the music ceased to be pop, so the populi began, consciously or unconsciously, to seek a new vox. Glam and disco were it, each in its own way – with disco being the more durable vehicle of the two, based on thirty years’ hindsight. Listening to “Whiter Shade of Pale,” I can’t help picturing Tony Visconti or Giorgio Moroder or Harry Casey sitting in clubs somewhere in 1967, hearing this song and feeling the first inklings of a musical rebuttal stirring in the back of their minds.

    As far as the actual meaning of the song, I don’t have a clue – or at least, the lyrics don’t tell me anything. The emotion I take from the recording itself – the “pained, bewildered vocals,” to use your wonderful phrase, the carnival atmosphere of the music that conveys confusion, not good times – is what I imagine might have been felt by a musician caught up in that very heated moment in history: a kid who’d joined a pop band in ?59 as a lark with his best friend, who’d scored a few hits in the wake of the Beatles, and who found himself sitting in the latest trendy club in 1967, listening to Procol Harum while the groovy people passed the drugs and deep talk of life and politics swirled around him. Somewhere inside, that kid might have sensed he was in over his head; nearly forty years down the road, that’s the emotion this record conveys to me when I hear it.

    wwolfe

  8. 8
    Anonymous on 25 May 2006 #

    it’s always reminded me very much (even in chestnut omniprescence) of ‘when a man love a woman’ dashed with some other defining element i can’t quite put my finger on (dylan probably though maybe dylan via van morrison or – closer to what i’m thinking – jimi hendrix). never knew for the longest time that it carried any weight with anyone, just knew that it was an oldies standby from a ‘one-hit wonder’ that seemed a particularly common touchstone of boomer cultural dominance when i was a kid in the 80s and loathed oldies radio’s existence and ‘what it meant’ coughcough as much as i lapped it up (obv i mourn its passing very much now), a very ‘big chill’ song though i can’t remember if it’s definitely even in the big chill (jobeth williams playing ‘you can’t always get what you want’ clouds my memory). later talking to actual reallive boomers who were ‘there’, taking music seriously 67/68/69 i realized that yes, believe it or not, procol harum were taken quite seriously by some folx once, somewhere, esp. this song esp. the lyrics – go figure! interesting date for it to top the charts – god if ‘light my fire’ or some other such ROCK were topping the charts in america in early june 67 (instead of the buckinghams or the monkees or whoever) ‘the date ROCK became ART’ would be so written in stone (“like it isn’t already”) rockcrits would be lobbying for a bank holiday. – blount

  9. 9
    Ian on 25 May 2006 #

    I wasn’t trying to knock your exploration of the “about”, Tom (it was very enjoyable, as wwolfe says!), I was just surprised to encounter that approach. See, I first heard this one as a young child via the Big Chill soundtrack and my young mind, used to figuring out what songs “meant”, gave up on this one immediately, because it seemed obvious to me it “meant” nothing. What surprised me was that I was still moved by it, starting me on a line of thought that I guess has wound up as me being a music critic (by some standards)?

    And blount is very right about the “when a man loves a woman” feeling, never noticed that one before; but as I noted in relation to “Standing Outside A Broken Phonebooth With Money In My Hand” versus “Your Woman” (and boy, do I hope both of those wound up topping the UK charts!) elsewhere, I have a perverse love for evocative mumbly whiteboy nonsense.

  10. 10
    Ian on 25 May 2006 #

    …as opposed to the actual explicable/effable sentiment of “When A Man Loves A Woman”, sorry, trailed off there.

  11. 11
    Doctor Mod on 25 May 2006 #

    It’s a song about the wildest party that never happened. It was simply a shared fantasy in which many of my contemporaries and I indulged in those years.

    I’ll grant that it hasn’t aged as well as it might–how could it?–and you had to be there to fully appreciate it. But it remains one of my all-time 60s faves in spite of it all.

    And some days I really wish I could meet up with the sixteen vestal virgins and leave for the coast. Just what coast really doesn’t matter . . . .

  12. 12
    Doctor Mod on 25 May 2006 #

    By the way, Tom, I do appreciate your analysis of “about.” You can no more explain to the rest of us how the Smiths changed your life in 1980s than I can explain how “White Shade of Pale” seemed like a life-changing experience for me and my contemporaries in 1967. But the “bright or nerdy kids” like myself truly got attached to this record and it still means much–however inchoate and ineffable that “much” might be.

    But I do understand about the Smiths, too. They and the Eurythmics represented another life changing experience for me, too. Perhaps it was merely coincidence that they came along at the time I was ditching my respectable bureaucratic job to go back to graduate school in my mid-thirties. But their music seemed to be expressing exactly what I was feeling at that given moment.

    (And for that matter, Ian, “Your Woman” marked one of my turning points in the 1990s–but that’s another story altogether.)

  13. 13
    Tom on 25 May 2006 #

    Sudden Revelation Of This Record’s Real Title, From Reading Dr Mod’s First Post:

    “Party Fears One”

    PS Hopefully I can explain why the Smiths changed my life, but I’ll probably do it when the blog gets nearer that point – in 1967 my parents had just met, in fact I think Summer of 1967 was when they did meet, so any ‘me’ in the narrative is purely hypothetical.

  14. 14
    Anonymous on 25 May 2006 #

    I liked the opening bars of this song so much that I bought a 20 track Best Of Procol Harum.

    Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?

  15. 15
    Jon on 25 May 2006 #

    The organ (and vocal melody) is a J.S.Bach rip-off – and the only reason the song is memorable at all. The words are pure bollocks and do not deserve analysis. I saw the two guys who wrote it being interviewed on one of those nostalgia programs. They were so incredibly pleased with them selves, listing all of the obscure references in the song. This is all the song amounts to a list of unrelated and meaningless pseudo intellectual references to show how ?clever? the band are. 1/10

  16. 16
    Jack Feerick on 25 May 2006 #

    Structurally, it’s an odd beast. Tom’s right that it shoots its wad early on?they play the solo again after the second chorus, leaving no way out but a quick, perfunctory fadeout on the refrain.

    But it’s the nature of the chord progression, I think. It’s so symmetrical, or circular, there’s really no good place to stop, or to insert a bridge. I used to play this in a two-piece band, six-string guitar playing the changes and mandolin playing the melodic lines, and we had a hell of a time coming up with an ending. It just cycles…and cycles…

    Musically, though, the oddest thing?you don’t notice them on first listen, or the hundredth, because that Hammond and that blue-eyed soul voice are so overwhelming?but apparently nobody told the drummer it was a stately ballad. He’s hammering away, all over his kit, crash cymbal all over the place, like Mitch Mitchell after three espressos.

    The jazz cover of this (by King Curtis, I think) used iconically in Withnail& I, and by bleedover I associate the song with that same spent, weary, fag-end of the Sixties vibe.

  17. 17
    Anonymous on 25 May 2006 #

    I’m glad that Jon hit the JS Bach connection as it’s an interesting juxtaposition of a ” classical” piece of music and a stream of consciousness or surrealist lyric.

    If they were smug bastards about it it riles me, too.

    However I saw PH live ( a couple of times ) and I recall very good live shows that called on the classical influences and they were able to build some progressive rock around them. MAybe planting seeds for the likes of Genesis, Emerson Lake & Palmer et al.

    They seemed to rock a bit more with Robin Trower on guitar and his riffs lead the band when the Piano & orgam are only in the background.

    I think Trower left the band and the classical thing all came to a head when PH recorded an album with the Winnipeg Symphony and all the songs got the full blown treatment.

    Brian in Canada

  18. 18
    Anonymous on 25 May 2006 #

    Procol Harum trivia, from All Music Guide:

    – The nucleus of the band started as the Paramounts, an R&B outfit that had a hit with the Coasters’ “Poison Ivy” in 1964. (The Rolling Stones called them their fave British R&B band.)

    – Singer/melody writer Gary Brooker and lyricist Keith Reid were introduced to each other by Guy Stevens.

    I’m not sure which is odder: Mott/Clash producer Stevens as catalyst of an emblematic prog rock band, or the image of Gary Brooker singing, “It’s gonna take an ocean of Calamine lotion.” (I’d pay money to see the Coasters sing “Whiter Shade,” though.)

  19. 19
    Anonymous on 25 May 2006 #

    Drat – that was me.

    wwolfe

  20. 20
    Anonymous on 25 May 2006 #

    If ya listen to some of the shite Brooker does sing, it’s not much of a stretch….

    Brian in Canada ( spending way too much time here, today ! )

  21. 21
    Mark Gamon on 26 May 2006 #

    Good post, Tom. Being the age I am, I love this one in the same nostalgic way I love ‘Let’s Go to San Francisco’. Which doesn’t make it great. Just a rather nice piece of music with lyrics written under the influence of drugs that reminds me briefly what it felt like to be 14.

    There goes that old ‘song lyrics and poetry’ debate again. You know, the one that always gets our poet laureate in a tizz every time Dylan comes up in the conversation. Here’s my take on it:

    Songs – pop or otherwise – CAN be great literature. But they’re NEVER poetry, which is a completely different discipline. Which is why it never works when somebody tries to set a recognised piece of poetry to music. It wasn’t written with that in mind.

    That’s not to say the song lyric exists as literature in its own right. Song is a mixed media art form, just like film. It’s not about music, or about words: it’s about both. Good songwriters have always understood this – which in some ways legitimises ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’. Or at least it would if the lyrics weren’t so obviously the first words that came into his head as he took another toke…

  22. 22
    Chris Brown on 26 May 2006 #

    I thought it was the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra they made that record with. Otherwise it totally ruins that anecdote I remember Bob Mills telling about his mate who thought Edmonton in London had an orchestra.

    I’ve been so slow that most of what I wanted to say (especially re the whole poetry question) has already been said better. However, I did coincidentally hear this song yesterday, and I can sort of see the “bursting-for-a-tinkle” subtext in there, although I couldn’t help drifting off by the end of the song.

    Oh, and BTW: this plus Eurythmics = Annie Lennox’s cover version of the song. Good or bad?

  23. 23
    Doctor Mod on 27 May 2006 #

    Some further thoughts:

    Really, Mark, did you think a professor of English (c’est moi) could ignore a statement like this:

    Songs – pop or otherwise – CAN be great literature. But they’re NEVER poetry, which is a completely different discipline.

    Perhaps it’s just that I’ve read too many end of term exams and papers in the past week and my brain is now sodden, but I feel I must scream out that poetry is a genre of the discipline of literature. But it’s alright, I do understand. Ironically (and blasphemously), I don’t particularly like poetry and don’t teach it unless I must. (In which case, I force students to read The Waste Land, probably because it strikes me as being the stuff art rock lyrics are made of, even if T. S. Eliot is rolling in his grave over a statement like that.) Suffice it to say that I take a certain pleasure in rock music lyrics that no “poetry” (in its high culture definition) has ever given me.

    No, the lyrics of “Whiter Shade” don’t make one bit of sense. Hence the plaisir du texte. Im sure I’d love to “wonder through my playing cards” or “trip the light fandango,” even if I’ve never figured out what that would entail. Still, I’d like to think I could if I wanted to. . . .

    The whole clue to its meaning is: “She said there is no reason, and the truth is plain to see.” INDEED!

    What Annie Lennox did with the song is complex and interesting. She brought out what was baroque about it (the harpsichord instead of the organ takes away that “bad religion” feeling), and somehow she manages to make the lyrics feel as if they make sense by imparting some sense of emotion (as if the trip to the edge of insanity at that “far-out” party gave her some sort of insight into the human condition).

    I’m not going to make any good/bad judgement about the Lennox version. I’m not sure that such is the way to approach it. I’ll just say she gave in a new and original twist, and that she probably impressed many who would have hated the original, as she took the “art rock” ambience right out of it. But then I frequently sense that Annie’s performances have a certain sardonic slant that keeps us from pinning them down to any specific “meaning.”

    Finally, a bit of trivia that was probably lost on everyone except sixteen-year-old girls in 1967. Shortly after the record topped the charts, Mary Quant put out one of her infamous phosphorescent lipsticks called “A Paler Shade of White.”

  24. 24
    Mark Gamon on 27 May 2006 #

    Dr Mod…

    Take your point. It’s a genre of literature. Or rather, it’s a genre of literature combined with a genre of music. Just like film combines theatre, music, and art.

    I’ve been looking for the right adjective to describe these ‘combined’ arts, as oppsoed to pure forms like poetry and painting, and can’t find it. Perhaps you can help. It seems to me that all art forms have a period
    of flowering: opera in the 18th century (I’m no expert), the novel in the 19th, theatre in the 16th, and so on. For film and song, it’s the late 20th century: those are the two great forms of our time (or rather my time. I’m just over the hill). Sure, there was song before Dylan, but it was either a folk form, or an offshoot of showbiz, or something composers of symphonies did to stretch their fingers.

    Yes, I know: Cole Porter’s Strange Fruit. The exception that proves the rule.

    I don’t like poetry much either. Or at least I don’t read it: I have something better to listen to. A good song lyric will never be as verbally colourful as a good poem, for good reasons: you have to consider how it’s sung. But it has one thing poetry will never have: the greatest form of emotional expression at our disposal – melody.

    In the right hands, it’s a dynamite combination. Just ask Procol Harum.

    Sorry, Tom. I’m writing an essay here.

  25. 25
    Doctor Mod on 28 May 2006 #

    Mark,

    Sorry to be pedantic. Your point is well taken as well. Forgive me–I have just come off a week of reading exams written by quasi-literates who call plays novels and novels plays and have no concept of poetry of any sort.

    The term you’re looking for to describe this melding of genres is “interdisciplinary,” although that’s quite an unlovely way to explain it. But so are many academic terms. Intergeneric or cross-generic would work. 17th/18th c. opera is one of the great landmarks in mixing the genres. I find the concept fascinating and a lot of my research is along those lines; unfortunately, I teach at a very conservative private college that is about forty years behind the times–I’m pushing the envelope of what’s allowed when a show a film in one of my classes.

    You see why I can get so grouchy at times.

  26. 26
    Mark Gamon on 30 May 2006 #

    Dr M – keep up the good work. Anyone who can come up with a term like cross-generic deserves to be writing a thesis on the subject…

    Hmmm. Or ‘multi-generic’? For film anyway. Oh I dunno. I’m just glad someone understood what I Was talking about!

  27. 27
    Anonymous on 30 May 2006 #

    Re; PH’s Symphony work.

    It could have been Edmonton not Winnipeg…….

    They are both west of me and really cold in the winter.

    Brian in Canada

  28. 28
    koganbot on 5 Jul 2006 #

    I’m posting way late, but Blount OTM in relating “Whiter Shade of Pale” to Percy Sledge. It sounded like soul to me. Which is to say that if it marked a turning point in music, this historic significance passed me by then, and it passes me by now, too. How does Procul Harum even stand out in relation to Beatles, Stones, Airplane, Doors, Hendrix, Cream, either then or in retrospect? Dr. Mod’s experience – this song was indeed life-changing – is definitive for him, but in my mental world this was just another song, and spring 1967 was just full of songs that didn’t closely resemble anything I’d heard six months earlier, which was full of songs that didn’t resemble anything I’d heard six months before that. And I really don’t remember a lot of cultural attention being paid to Procul Harum.

  29. 29
    jeff w on 14 Nov 2006 #

    Worth a read, Popular-fans:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/6146618.stm

  30. 30
    jeff w on 15 Nov 2006 #

    OMG! Coincidence! I stepped on the tube on my way home from work last night and found myself standing next to Matthew Fisher and his wife/partner. She was scouring London Lite trying to find some reportage on the court case (haha clearly not a Londoner then, if she’s looking there).

    I had a hard copy of both this page and the BBC article in my briefcase. If I’d thought about it sooner, I would have offered them to Fisher.

  31. 31
    Mark on 28 Dec 2006 #

    You poor, poor…unenlightend babe of human expression.

    You have been given an opportunity to share in one of the most sought after illuminations that has illuded most of humankind for millineum after millineum.

    Would that you could stop for just a moment, and rise above your self appreciating, self indulgent, self pontificating thought processes, and realize that…inspiration is not all at once inner enlightenment.

    Instead it is, at times, an expression of Godly communication.

    That we at times are not privy to the understanding of our own illuminations…

    …But are only the conduit of its reality.

    Please, do not become consumed with what you may have convinced yourself is a divination of self, a self ego central world view of an ontilogical view that surpasses all reality.

    Mark

    p.s: sorry, sipped a little rum…hee hee haa haa

    mark@curbstonelive.com

  32. 32
    pink champale on 20 Mar 2008 #

    for all its roccoco nonsensicalness, i like this. to me it’s a distant cousin of ‘mr tamborine man’ and is invoking the same kind of bleary up all night and now it’s dawn feeling (which i suppose extends to the end of the decade withnail vibe someone mentions above). i always kinda picture dylan with his guitar round a campfire though, whereas this has a much more opulent feel – like the singer is emerging from one of those (possibly mythical)pop stars + aristocrats country house parties and he’s a bit off his face and is gazing with wonder at the early morning mist rising off the huge lawn going down to the lake and going over the nights events – which are quite possibly that he was drunk and trying unsuccessfully to pull a dollybird.

  33. 33
    lonepilgrim on 30 Jul 2009 #

    I fear I am becoming the popular court reporter – but authorship appears to have been decided:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/8176352.stm

    dunno what Bach makes of it…

  34. 34
    dch on 11 Nov 2009 #

    Looking back on 1967, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the quality of the music was outstanding throughout, but as the previous 4 No 1s indicate, the first half of the year was one of the worst during the whole decade. Thankfully, things turned around dramatically for the rest of the year, particularly during the period May-September and whether it was coincidence or not, Procul Harum seemed to be some kind of trigger point.

  35. 35
    inakamono on 13 Nov 2009 #

    Over the past few months I’ve been sampling the reviews and comments here, pretty much at random, feeling my way around with no particular purpose or direction, just enjoying the entire concept of the Popular project. But although this exploration has just begun, I would say this was the best review I’ve read yet. Magnificent! Thanks.

    However, I don’t understand why there’s discussion about what the song is “about” –for me, that’s never been an issue ever since I first paid it any attention.

    A boy loses his virginity, egged on by drink or (given the times the song was recorded) narcotics, and, afterwards, wants desperately to feel it had been significant, somehow equivalent to the great romantic works of literature or music he’s been taught about at school. He doesn’t want to accept that it was just “sex” — it should mean more than that!!!

    So “we danced together at a party” becomes “we tripped the light fandango” etc. etc.

    I always assumed, listening to this while I was growing up, that everyone understood that.

    Admittedly, it’s not a place many songs explore — I prefer the Who and the simple “Was I alright?” (did a shadow of emotion cross your face, or was it just a trick of the light?) — because, somehow, it’s just accepted that girls should be virgin and boys shouldn’t be.

    That “A Whiter Shade of Pale” is so commonly used in weddings is the deep irony — the supposedly virginal bride being led down the aisle, while the groom is reminded of what it felt like his first time.

  36. 36
    Waldo on 14 Nov 2009 #

    I broadly touch base with inakamono (#35) on this. To look for a meaning amongst all the poppycock coming out of Brooker’s mouth is clearly pointless. Edward Lear could have written it. So why can’t we take it easy and simply enjoy it for what it always was, a magnificently original pop record, a song about nothing, a song about a drunken virginity loss, a song about everything or a song about anything. “Weird and wonderful” has always covered it for me.

  37. 37
    Billy on 18 Nov 2010 #

    Summer 2009. I’m twenty years old and halfway through the greatest year of my life.

    On the longest day of the year, I visit a friend’s house for an all-night barbeque. As day turns to night, we sit outside in her garden, at first singing our hearts out to power ballads (Total Eclipse of the Heart/I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing/etc), and then, well past midnight, a never-ending playlist of 60s songs.

    As the sun rose and a new day dawns, we play this, while sipping on the last of the punch and blissfully swaying along. I knew of it, but hadn’t ever properly listened to it before, maybe only hearing a few seconds every now and again on TV. And it captured me so effortlessly that since then, every time I hear the song, I’m transported back to that night, the sheer happiness I felt, and the optimism of life to come.

    I don’t care what the lyrics mean. I just know that whenever it plays, I’m in that garden again. That to me is the power of music.

  38. 38
    punctum on 18 Nov 2010 #

    While it’s probable that nearly all of the couples cheek-to-cheek at 10:25 pm in the dancehall of early 1967 (in Glasgow terms, that would have been the Barrowlands Ballroom, or the Locarno, at the wrong, windy end of Sauciehall Street) would have been happily smooching away to “Release Me” or “There Goes My Everything” without bothering about listening to the lyrics, there is something sobering, yet reassuring, about the fact that something like “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” would have enjoyed equal smooch status with Engelbert, even though it was supposedly far more “way out.” Supply a steady pulse, a stately hymn-like melody and a suitably plaintive vocal performance, and they’ll love you regardless.

    But “Whiter Shade” was the last and perhaps the greatest (at least, in terms of impact) manifestation of the shortly-to-be-snatched power of pirate radio; John Peel played the white label on Radio London incessantly, demand for the record went through the roof and the song went to number one in its third week of release. Not bad for a hastily-reconstituted Mod band formerly called The Paramounts. Fanciful interpretations of the lyrics abounded and continue to do so. Noble heads bowed duly at the Bach quotations (now we can Take Pop Seriously). Perhaps it was a late act of penitence by the public for underlooking “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Even Spike Milligan applauded the “surreal” lyric.

    None of this should detract from the fact that, by the authors’ own admission, “Whiter Shade” was essentially a hybrid (or even a proto-bootleg?) of “Air On A G String” and “When A Man Loves A Woman” with some cod-Dylan non-sequiturs pasted atop. Even though the “16 vestal virgins who were leaving for the coast” motif was subsequently half-inched by Don McLean for “American Pie” and the “although my eyes were open/they might just have well have been closed” couplet could stand as a direct response to “Silence Is Golden,” the important thing was that “Whiter Shade” sounded immense, like a discovered monument whose original purpose had long since been mislaid – and the immensity was all down to the astonishing performance, on organ and lead vocal, by, respectively, Matthew Fisher and Gary Brooker. The latter might have been singing nonsense (“Tutti Frutti,” anyone?) but you could not deny that he meant it.

    Furthermore, “Whiter Shade” inaugurated a distinguished and still exceptionally undervalued body of work; of Procol’s later work, the albums Conquistador, A Salty Dog, Procol’s Ninth and, their masterpiece, 1974’s Exotic Birds And Fruit, are especially worth rediscovering – wondrous yet sober meditations on the limitations and expansions of life, unapologetically pretentious and quite, quite splendid. And they also act as a direct leyline to the indispensable role Brooker plays in Aerial – his organ and harmony vocals are a wonder of warmth throughout, the carpeted foundation for Kate’s timeless flights. Isn’t the truth that plain to see?

  39. 39
    swanstep on 18 Nov 2010 #

    In the US around this time The Doors’ Light My Fire – even more extravagantly Bach-inflected than Whiter Shade – was a humungous #1 hit. The songs seem similarly odd-ball, indefinitely extendible and mesmerizing to me (I’d give them both 8s or 9s). But while Whiter Shade got to #5 in the US, Light My Fire did almost nothing in the UK (one week at #49 while WSOP was on its way down at #23 apparently). Anyone got any ideas about why the UK should have been so immune to one oddity but so receptive to another?

  40. 40
    Mark G on 18 Nov 2010 #

    Tom † on 23 May 2006 Oops! Will change it tomorrow.

    And, he never did!

    Any road. After punctum’s long description, mine seems churlish. But, I never ever liked this one. Seemed ponderous and too impressed with itself. A foretaste of prog, indeed.

  41. 41
    punctum on 18 Nov 2010 #

    #39: It’s a good question and the probable reason for the Doors’ underperformance in our charts is that they only visited Britain once, in ’68; significantly this coincided with/promoted their only UK Top 20 hit (within Morrison’s lifetime), “Hello I Love You.” In ’67 Britain they were still largely an underground secret (i.e. principally an albums act). Jose Feliciano’s cover (still sounding terrific on an absolutely blinding POTP last Saturday – ’68 and ’81) did considerably better and it wasn’t until Oliver Stone’s movie that the original finally made it into our top ten.

    But there’s also a cultural basis; the opening sequence of the TV adaptation of The History Man is set at a student disco; hip young Howard Kirk demands that the DJ play the Doors and Jefferson Airplane but the DJ ignores him completely and spins “Silence Is Golden” instead.

  42. 42
    Erithian on 18 Nov 2010 #

    But isn’t it glorious that it can still move someone who was born a generation after it was released? Billy #37, that’s a beautiful evocation of its effect, positively life-enhancing.

  43. 43
    Erithian on 18 Nov 2010 #

    In my 80s Doors-discovery phase, when I was the DJ at the local community centre’s kiddies’disco, I’d stick “Light My Fire” on if I needed to go to the loo early in the session – by the time I got back the keyboard solo would have just started, and several bored-looking kids would be waiting for me to replace it with “Ghostbusters” or “Don’t Mess With My Toot Toot” or something. I’d like to think I educated them just a little!

  44. 44
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 18 Nov 2010 #

    You did educate them! Ghostbusters is better than Light My Fire, proven by science…

    I think Marcello’s correct — the US underground pretty much fell off the radar of widecast transational pop for a while, for a variety of reasons, some deliberate, and needed several significant media revamps (second half of British invasion, arrival of FM radio, bedding in of Radio One) before it re-established global broadcast potential

  45. 45
    punctum on 18 Nov 2010 #

    I thought “better than” was verboten in Sinkerland!

  46. 46
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 18 Nov 2010 #

    I am the emperor of Sinkerland so its iron laws do not apply to me.

  47. 47
    punctum on 18 Nov 2010 #

    That’s what Stanley Dance used to say and much good did it do him.

  48. 48
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 18 Nov 2010 #

    I am the Lord of the Dance said he

  49. 49
    punctum on 18 Nov 2010 #

    I Can’t Dance said Genesis.

    (N.B.: for younger readers, Stanley Dance was a sort of jazz Geir).

  50. 50
    lonepilgrim on 18 Nov 2010 #

    strike a pose, there’s nothing to it

  51. 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.

  52. 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.

  53. 53
    rosie on 19 Nov 2010 #

    @51

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

  54. 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!

  55. 55
    punctum on 19 Nov 2010 #

    It was good advertising TECHNIQUE.

  56. 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)

  57. 57
    crag on 14 Apr 2011 #

    DESERT ISLAND DISCS WATCH:

    Gemma Jones, actress, singer(1976)

    Patrick Lichfield, photographer(1981)

    Lady Mosley, Mitford sister(1989)

    David Blunkett, politician (1990)

    Micheal Howard, politician(2004).

  58. 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!

  59. 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.

  60. 60
    lonepilgrim on 17 Apr 2012 #

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

    http://everygreatsongever.tumblr.com/post/21210416330/uk-prog-volume-one-notes

  61. 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….

  62. 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.

  63. 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)

  64. 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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