The debut single of the British group Procol Harum became, by far, their most famous composition and one of the main anthems of the “summer of love” in 1967.
Keith Reid, lyricist of A Whiter Shade of Pale, and others involved in its creation have spoken extensively about how it was written. Therefore, the basis of this article will be excerpts from their interviews.
History of A Whiter Shade of Pale
Let’s start with what Reid told Uncut magazine about the song’s history:
I used to go and watch a lot of French films at the Academy in Oxford Street. Pierrot Le Fou made a strong impression on me [“Безумный Пьеро”] and Last Year in Marienbad [“Последний год в Мариенбаде”]. Surrealism also attracted me: Magritte and Dali. You can draw parallels in the plot twists and moods of these French films and A Whiter Shade of Pale.
I’ve been listening to music since I was ten, from 56 to 66: The Beatles, Dylan, Stax, Ray Charles. The A Whiter Shade of Pale period was the culmination of those ten years of listening. But Dylan has been the biggest influence on me. I could understand how he did it, how he played with words.
I had previously met Pete Townsend through Guy Stevens, and he suggested me when Cream was looking for a songwriter. Guy then brought Gary and me together. I wrote all the time. A Whiter Shade of Pale was just one of a bunch of lyrics. I had the phrase “a whiter shade of pale” [услышанная на вечеринке]that started it all and I knew it would become a song. It’s like a puzzle, when you have one piece, and then you put all the others together, fitting them one by one.
Meaning of A Whiter Shade of Pale
In an attempt to unravel the meaning of the song, music lovers parsed its lyrics bit by bit. Most versions of the interpretation of the main idea of A Whiter Shade of Pale came down to the relationship between a man and a woman or drugs, and in the most original version, parallels were drawn with the death of the Titanic.
The author later explained what the song A Whiter Shade of Pale by Procol Harum is about:
I was trying to set the mood and also tell a candid story about a girl leaving a guy. With a flying ceiling and an increasingly humming room, I wanted to convey a certain scene. I didn’t try to be mysterious with these images, I didn’t try to invoke memories. I guess what I’m describing seems decadent. But I was too young to have any experience in decadence. When I conceived it, I may have smoked, but not when I wrote it. She was inspired by books, not drugs.
It was twice as long – four verses. The fourth was a small loss, but three represented the whole story. When I heard what Gary had done to them, I thought it was the right thing to do…
Instrumentation was added at rehearsals. We had this concept for the sound of Procol Harum: Hammond organ, piano and blues guitar. It’s a direct recording… It’s equally divided between Dylan and Stax.
And here is how Gary Brooker, who composed the music for the song, described his impressions of A Whiter Shade of Pale:
When I met Keith and saw his words, I thought: “I would like to write something about this.” They weren’t obvious, but that doesn’t matter. You don’t have to understand what he means as long as you feel the atmosphere. A Whiter Shade of Pale seemed to be about two people, even a relationship. This is a memory. There was a parting and sadness because of him. To convey the soul of these lines in singing, to make people feel it – this has become a significant success.
I remember the day she appeared: four very long verses. I thought, “There’s something in her.” It so happened that I was reading them while sitting at the piano and already playing a musical fantasy. For a couple of hours, I adjusted it to the words.
Release and achievements
A Whiter Shade of Pale was released as the first single from the band’s debut album in May 1967. Three weeks later, the song was at the top of the UK Singles Chart.
With little or no promotion, she captivated the American public, reaching number five on the Billboard Hot 100, and topped the charts in several other countries.
But is it really that important! Matthew Fisher, for example, stated:
I don’t care what they are [слова] mean. The song sounds great, and that’s all that matters.
It seems that this is what both Procol Harum fans and music critics think. This is confirmed by the almost cult status of the song and the incredible sales of the single, which has long gone multi-platinum.
We also add that A Whiter Shade of Pale was included in numerous ratings of the best tracks, including the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” according to Rolling Stone.
Video clip of A Whiter Shade of Pale
Now you can watch the online music video for the most famous song Procol Harum.
- Music critics found in the composition borrowings from the works of Bach and the song When a Man Loves a Woman, which was first performed by Percy Sledge.
- Fandango is a Spanish dance performed with guitar and castanets.
- The phrase about the miller in the chorus led many to believe that the author was referring listeners to a famous story from the Canterbury Tales, but Reid denied this version, saying that he did not read this passage from the work of Geoffrey Chaucer.
The text mentions Vestal Virgins – Roman virgin priestesses in the temple of the goddess Vesta.
- The song was loved by John Lennon. They say he did not get out of the car without listening to it to the end.
- Almost forty years after the release of the single, pianist Matthew Fisher, who participated in the recording of A Whiter Shade of Pale, was recognized by a court decision as a co-author of the music for the song and received the rights to forty percent of the royalties.
- Eduard Artemiev took A Whiter Shade of Pale as a basis, working on the main composition of the film “At Home Among Strangers, Stranger Amongst Our Own”.
- Procol Harum occasionally plays the full version of the song in concert (although the fourth verse is extremely rare).
A Whiter Shade of Pale Lyrics Procol Harum
We skipped the light fandango
Turned cartwheels ‘cross the floor
I was feeling kinda seasick
But the crowd called out for more
The room was humming harder
As the ceiling flew away
When we called out for another drink
And the waiter brought a tray
And so it was that later
As the miller told his story
That her face, at first just ghostly,
Turned a whiter shade of pale
She said, “There is no reason
And the truth is plain to see.”
But I wandered through my playing cards
And they wouldn’t let her be
One of sixteen vestal virgins
Who were leaving for the coast
And although my eyes were open wide
They might have just as well been closed
She said, “I’m here on a shore leave,”
Though we were miles at sea
I pointed out this detail
and forced her to agree,
Saying, “You must be the mermaid
Who took King Neptune for a ride”
And she smiled at me so sweetly
That my anger straightway died
If music be the food of love
Then laughter is it’s queen
And likewise if behind is in front
Then dirt in truth is clean
My mouth by then like cardboard
Seemed to slip straight through my head
So we crash-dived straightway quickly
And attacked the ocean bed
A Whiter Shade of Pale Lyrics
We gracefully danced the fandango,
Tumbling wheel on the floor
I got a little sick,
But the crowd demanded more
The room was getting louder and louder.
And the ceiling floated away
When we asked for another drink
And the waiter came with a tray
So it happened later
When the miller told his story
That her face, at first just ghostly,
Became whiter than pale
She said there’s no reason
And the truth is clear as day
But I’m tangled up in my playing cards
And they didn’t let her be
One of the sixteen vestals
Who went to the coast
And though my eyes were wide open
They might just as well have been closed.
She said, “I came to the coast on vacation”
Although we were far from the sea
I pointed to this detail
And forced her to agree by saying:
“You must be a mermaid,
Who fooled King Neptune.”
And she smiled at me so sweetly
That there is no trace of my anger
If music is the food of love,
Then laughter is her king
And if the back is in front,
So the dirt is pure in truth
By then my lips were like cardboard
They seemed to slip right through your head
And we desperately rushed into the water,
Hitting the bottom of the ocean
…it’s like a movie trying to create a mood and tell a story. It’s about relationships. There are characters, there is a place, and there is a journey. You hear the sounds in the room, you touch the room, and you smell the room. But there is definitely a journey going on. This is not a collection of lines stuck together.
Keith Reid, SongFacts