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.