Procol Harum

Beyond
the Pale

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A Whiter Shade of Pale

A Procoholic Review


This page presents the last part of a unique Procoholics' double-act: a detailed and personal look at tracks from the Westside Pandora's Box album

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The Secrets of the Hive
by Larry Pennisi / Cerdes

Extracting the Honey
by Clyde ĎAJí Johnson

A Whiter Shade of Pale

A Whiter Shade of Pale: what can be said about this barrier-breaking piece of music that has not been said before? I recall the first time that I heard it. I distinctly remember the image of three black men dressed in white suits. As the music played, they were swabbing the deck of an old wooden ship that was awkwardly tilted as if truly at sea, in time to the music. I was only 14. For some reason, I assimilated the music visually instead of aurally. It was determined later, that my vision was not far off the mark as the song had been heralded as having been done by people from Detroit, USA. To define the cultural impact of the song would be redundant, as would any further attempt at an added in-depth analysis of what the words meant. This has all been done before and with far greater finesse than I could manage.

So, it is with this in mind that I will begin this analysis of A Whiter Shade of Pale from the perspective of what many consider to be its finest attribute, the organ. It doesn't matter where the melody came from. It doesn't matter who borrowed what from whom. And, contrary to popular opinion the organ line, while essentially simple, is far from easy to execute. Anyone can play the notes. Anyone can follow the sequence laid down by the record. It is however, in the exact execution of the notes linked with the percussive nature of the Hammond organ that defines whether or not it is a successful execution. Without a Hammond, the most fastidious player will fall short. The percussion is absolutely essential to render a proper reading of this ghostly ode. The Hammond organ has several percussion settings: soft, fast etc. Unlike more modern or other old electrical keyboards of a similar nature, the Hammond can only produce percussion on one note at a time. This leaves it entirely up to the player to decide which note is to be the recipient of percussion at any given time. It is with this particular quirk of the machine that Matthew defined himself. True, the percussion setting has a general affect on the manual which it is used on and on a Hammond only the upper manual is affected.. It is only when the player decides to accent a particular note that the true "pop" nature of the percussion setting becomes obvious. Matthew used this eloquently. So, the next time you hear anyone playing that song, remember that unless it is being played upon a Hammond organ it's highly unlikely that it will have the same general effect as the original.

This version, in stereo, begins with some studio clatter and what appears to be Keith Reid's voice introducing that take. It is indeed, pure unadulterated stereo. Bobby Harrison's drumming is atrocious. Barely keeping time, his lack of intuition, poorly-planned drum fills, sloppily-executed rolls and other details too numerable to mention are the real villains of this track. The piano is further up in the mix. The organ, smoother and closer to the front, and apparently less processed by studio wizardry, makes it interesting from a technical perspective, but the entire track loses the magic of the original single. Its scratchy, electronically-reprocessed-for-stereo cousin may not have been designed to do what it did, but it achieved its goal far better than this technically superior stereo mix. A cheerful dialectic then needs to be reached within each listener as they compare the two different versions. The guitar in the song is non-essential. The vocal phrasing is somewhat different while the bass remains methodically similar to the original. It seems to go on endlessly and perhaps it does. But for the true aficionado, this is heaven.

I know, I've left out about 25 other important areas of this track. But then again, by now most of you have probably listened to it endless numbers of times as you walk once again, down various technical blind alleys, past decaying churches and eroding streets and through local graveyards. It is only another stepping stone, one that leads us hopefully, to that place at the far edge of the known world where cicadas sing and mermaids dance and rhinestoned flugelhorns spoon and swim ...

March 2002: this is the space where our friend Clyde 'AJ' Johnson would have contributed his thoughts on the final track of this album, had he lived to do so.

Palers will gather in Croydon in May 2002 to drink a toast to the 35th anniversary of this very track. Shine On, Clyde: you will be in our thoughts at that time.

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