used to go and see a lot of French films in the Academy in Oxford Street.
Pierrot le Fou
made a strong impression on me, and
Last Year in
Marienbad. I was also very taken with surrealism, Magritte and Dali. You
can draw a line between the narrative fractures and mood of those French films
and A Whiter Shade of Pale.
I’d been listening to music since I was 10, from ’56 to ’66 – The Beatles, Dylan, Stax, Ray Charles. The period of A Whiter Shade of Pale was the culmination of that 10 years of listening. But my main influence was Dylan. I could see how he did it, how he played with words.
I’d met Pete Townshend through Guy Stevens, and he’d put my name forward when Cream were looking for a lyricist. Then Guy put me and Gary together. I was writing all the time. A Whiter Shade of Pale was just another bunch of lyrics. I had the phrase ‘a whiter shade of pale’, that was a start, and I knew it was a song. It’s like a jigsaw where you’ve got one piece, then you make up all the others to fit it. I was trying to conjure a mood as much as tell a straightforward, girl-leaves-boy story. With the ceiling flying away and room humming harder, I wanted to paint an image of a scene. I wasn’t trying to be mysterious with those images, I was trying to be evocative. I suppose it seems like a decadent scene I’m describing. But I was too young to have experienced any decadence, then. I might have been smoking when I conceived it, but not when I wrote. It was influenced by books, not drugs.
It was twice as long, four verses. The fourth wasn’t any great loss, but you had the whole story in three. When I heard what Gary’d done with them, it just seemed so right. We felt we had something very important. As soon as we played it for anyone, we got an immediate response.
Procol Harum opening for Jimi Hendrix at London's Saville Theatre in June 1967 just as AWSoP climbed to No 1 in the UK charts
In rehearsal, instrumentation was added. We had this concept for the sound of Procol Harum to be Hammond organ, piano and blues guitar. No other band had that; it gave us a bigger sound. It’s a live recording … I think we did three takes. It’s equal parts Dylan and Stax. On our own terms we were always trying to make a soul record. Funnily enough, Otis Redding wanted to do it, but we wanted our record out first, and Stax wanted the exclusive.
A Whiter Shade of Pale hit so instantaneously we were totally unprepared. We went from rehearsing in a Stockwell church hall to doing Top of the Pops. We were constantly trying to catch up with the pace. I don’t think we ever did. The royalties we got then would be considered laughable now. But we were just so happy to make a record. We were just a bunch of kids, really.
The court case has changed my opinion of Matthew Fisher. I see him as a cynical opportunist. But I’m very proud of the record. And nothing that happens can change the record. And the rest of it is all bullshit.
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