May 06

PROCOL HARUM – “A Whiter Shade Of Pale”

Popular66 comments • 12,558 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. 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.


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


  2. 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.

  3. 33
    lonepilgrim on 30 Jul 2009 #

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


    dunno what Bach makes of it…

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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?

  9. 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?

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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!

  14. 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

  15. 45
    punctum on 18 Nov 2010 #

    I thought “better than” was verboten in Sinkerland!

  16. 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.

  17. 47
    punctum on 18 Nov 2010 #

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

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

    I am the Lord of the Dance said he

  19. 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).

  20. 50
    lonepilgrim on 18 Nov 2010 #

    strike a pose, there’s nothing to it

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

  23. 53
    rosie on 19 Nov 2010 #


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

  24. 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!

  25. 55
    punctum on 19 Nov 2010 #

    It was good advertising TECHNIQUE.

  26. 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)

  27. 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).

  28. 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!

  29. 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.

  30. 60
    lonepilgrim on 17 Apr 2012 #

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


  31. 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….

  32. 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.

  33. 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)

  34. 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.

  35. 65
    Gareth Parker on 1 Jun 2021 #

    Another 7/10 from me for a 1967 #1.

  36. 66
    DJ Punctum on 9 Jun 2021 #

    Years later, it strikes me. Oblique lyric about someone getting drunk and failing to pull (Guy Stevens, apparently, the man who gave Procol Harum their name and later produced The Clash) in a song with an instrumental keyboard hook, not really like anything else happening at the time.

    Basically this is the precursor to Party Fears Two, no?

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