Bach to the future: why A Whiter Shade of Pale has endured
What’s it about? Sex? Drugs? Death? Procol Harum’s mysterious, classically influenced song, released exactly 50 years ago, was an unlikely hit but went on to sell 10m copies
I was just fourteen when I first heard it, walking through the Hertfordshire countryside in the middle of the night. Ostensibly, I was doing a 27-mile sponsored school walk. But really, like a lot of us, I was clutching a transistor radio and trying to tune into those daring pirate DJs afloat on Radio Caroline.
That’s when I first came across the mournful, beautiful sound of A Whiter Shade of Pale. Who was behind such music? Procal what? Surely the definite article was missing? (Even Pink Floyd were called The Pink Floyd back then.)
The music was even harder to pin down. The voice sounded black; the tune recalled that posh classical stuff that we thought we didn’t much like; the words … well, what on earth did they mean? What was a “light fandango” when it was skipped? I knew what a schoolboy virgin was, but what was a “vestal virgin” when he, she or it was at home? With every swell of that celestial Hammond organ, the mystery became deeper and more delicious.
A Whiter Shade of Pale was released in the UK on Friday 12 May 1967 – exactly fifty years ago. Despite its ambiguities and distinctly funereal tone, it became the UK’s anthem for the summer of love, hugely preferable to Scott McKenzie’s hideously legible San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair) which was released the next day. Since then, it has joined an elite group of singles to have sold more than 10m copies worldwide. It’s still the most played song in public places in the UK – according to the copyright organisation MCPS – and is the most played record ever on British radio.
As with any good illusion, it wasn’t obvious how the trick worked. Only years later did I realise that it was a late-60s mashup of sorts, although – like mixing sulphuric acid with nitric acid and a dash of glycerine – it was the combination that was so innovative and explosive. Bach was in the mix – Sleepers Wake and the arrangement Air on the G String. We loved the latter from those humorous and hugely popular Hamlet cigar ads on TV. From 1966, they had famously featured the Jacques Loussier Trio’s jazzed-up version. So already Johann was cool and catchy to a young mind that could only imagine the pleasures of smoking. And if you listened to R&B and soul, Procol Harum’s singer Gary Brooker sounded very similar to Percy Sledge, whose 1966 single Warm and Tender Love (the B side of When a Man Loves a Woman) was played on Radio Caroline regularly by Johnnie Walker. It was the theme music to his lovesick listeners’ letters to boyfriends and girlfriends everywhere, delivered on his 9 pm to midnight show – an essential late-night date under the blankets.
And what about lyricist Keith Reid’s words? Well, perhaps they weren’t so wacky after all. Look no further than the discontinuity, confusion, emptiness and resignation expressed in Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde. Yet they do contain unresolved mysteries, which helps explain why the song has endured so well. Is it about a drug experience, a drug death, or a half-remembered, girl-leaves-boy relationship? Or is it simply about a drunken seduction, the sex having been drowned in metaphors about travelling the seas? Two additional unrecorded verses support the latter theory, and Procol Harum were the proto prog-rock band – a genre that quickly became famous for favouring literature over lechery.
The song’s longevity has been helped by its frequent appearance in movies over the years and some sickly animated ads for paint in 1982: “White? Not quite. Rose white. Lily white. Apple white. The whiter shades of pale. Fresh from Dulux.” Here, that beautiful melody was massacred on panpipes.
But what really keeps A Whiter Shade of Pale alive fifty years after it was released is mood. It continues to offer us space to imagine all sorts of encounters, while cocooned in a sound stranded between musical epochs. What could have been a Frankenstein monster, blundering around the pop charts with all its incongruous sutures showing, is in fact proof that people don’t know what they want to hear until they hear it.
More Procol Harum history at BtP | The same newspaper, ten years back