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.

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Comments

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  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.

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