Procol Harum

the Pale

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Smash! The Story of the British Hit Single

Brooker / Fisher / Reid 2000

19 November 2000, 'Rock Anthems' :

London Weekend Television's Arts Dept started their new six-part prime-time TV series on the history of the British Hit single with 'Rock Anthems', giving lengthy pride-of-place to Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody with Roger Taylor specially interviewed, and numerous other talking heads saying lightweight and / or well-known things about it. AWSoP followed, then Bonnie Tyler with Total Eclipse of the Heart and Oasis with Wonderwall (spot the odd one out?)

Continuity (bright-voiced, enthusiastic woman):
So that's clear, then: don't try to figure it out, 'cos Nothing Really Matters … but Queen weren't the first band to dance a fandango to the top of the charts. In 1967 an unknown group called Procol Harum crashed into the Top 20 with the first-ever smash rock anthem: weird lyrics, classically inspired, overlong and over the top. This one really did set the standard.

Two archive shots of the five-piece band running towards camera across field in 1967

Keith Reid, lyricist (studio shot, red background, KR looking healthy and prosperous in black shirt and black leather jacket)
I was in conversation with a friend of mine; he jumbled his words up, but I converted what he was saying into this line, 'A Whiter Shade of Pale'

Archive b/w footage of original 'Hamlet' cigar TV advert. Small boy plays Air on a G String excruciatingly badly: tutor luxuriously inhales from the mild cigar with beatific smile of indifference and suddenly the music sounds like Rawicz and Landauer.

Gary Brooker, vocalist (not 'composer'!): GB in a red-lit ballroom, wearing Bert Saraco's 'Golden Decade' tee-shirt and a dark jacket.
I was trying to play Air on a G String by JS Bach, but only because it was in the cigar advert. I got it totally wrong. I did get the kind of bassline right, but then it sort of went another way; but I was quite happy with what was coming out of the piano.

Cut to b/w archive footage of PH on Top of the Pops (clean-shaven GB, live vocal, backing tape) … the well-known film with the then-mind-blowing sine-wavy curlicues overlaid.

Paul Gambaccini (interior, day: Dutch sort of colours, upright piano visible in background)
A Whiter Shade of Pale … came out of nowhere

Cut to colour archive footage: mustachioed GB sings to camera, Dave Knights and Matthew Fisher crowd the frame to left-hand side

Sir Bob Geldof (wildly-kempt, blinking, shaking head; interior, magnificent mantelpiece etc)

… and it just struck me as being odd to the extreme, but absolutely wonderful … instantly turned it up, 'what's that?', smash hit …

Jim Steinman, Record Producer (studio, garish lighting, shades, lengthy hair …)

You felt you were entering a world, that the record in four minutes created a kingdom, a heightened kingdom.

Cut to archive footage, young people crowded at Eros's statue, Piccadilly, London … red 'buses pass camera as Procol Harum look about to cross the road towards us in their Carnaby clothes. Sam Cameron points out that this is from one of the two AWSoP videos made in 1967 and not shown on UK TV.

It was a new world all right, with a hip new language that nobody really understood

Mike Read (DJ and author of books about pop charts: interior, console of radio studio)
We felt we all ought to know what it was about, but didn't.

Bonnie Tyler (singer, large hair: interior shot, anonymous location)

Whiter Shade of Pale? (scratches her ear)

Mike Read
People said 'Do you understand that?' 'Yeah, yeah, I understand that …' (Read nods his head ironically) 'Don't you?'

Bonnie Tyler
He must have been on drugs or something (laughs considerably)

Cut to ToTP film again

Sir Bob Geldof
They're wonderful images. I mean, I was embarrassed by them when I was a kid, I thought 'Oh no, this hippie bollocks, you know …'

Bonnie Tyler (sings raspingly)

'We skipped the light fandango …turned cartwheels cross the floor'

Tony Blackburn (fatuous British DJ of yore, leering inanely)

You know, I don't know what a fandango is. But … I'd like one for Christmas, if anybody knows … (snickering laughter)

Cut to location interior : a crimson ballroom lit with saucers overhead, bare bulbs round the perimeter, and a enigmatic large winged emblem at the far end. Close to camera Gary Brooker, smoking. Far end of room, at an organ that looks like a B3 but might also have a radial pedal-board, an organist in a blue tee-shirt, soon to be revealed as Matthew Fisher. Otherwise the place is deserted: no sign of Keith Reid, whose crimson backdrop was presumably intended to make us think he was also present, though his clip was actually filmed in New York. The famous intro of AWSoP starts to play with a bit more vibrato and a bit more glitter to the organ sound than the record features.

On top of the psychedelic lyrics the single had that other curse of the rock anthem, it was well overlength.

Camera zooms in to organist through a haze of (possibly menthol-scented?) Brooker exhalation.

Matthew Fisher, organist (sitting at the organ, arms akimbo, looking good: in fact a school contemporary immediately wrote to BtP remarking that Matthew, five months his junior, now looks ten years younger.)

Originally the song had four verses, and was about seven or eight minutes long.

Gary Brooker
Anybody thinking along straight commercial lines would never have done that.

Matthew Fisher
Even cutting it down to two verses it was still four minutes and ten seconds, which a lot of people thought was too long.

Keith Reid
A friend of ours arranged for it to be played on the radio, said 'You can hear it on the radio and if it sounds OK on the radio we'll go ahead with it.'

Gary Brooker
From that moment, um, it started selling.

Tony Blackburn
Whiter Shade of Pale was a terrific hit with the British public … I could never understand why.

Cut to quick montage of singers who have covered AWSoP

Whatever Tony thought, this smash went on to sell more than six million copies around the world and had been covered by anyone who's anyone.

Archive montage: a portly Joe Cocker in compound time, and a moody Annie Lennox with synths aplenty

But no-one does it quite like Procol Harum.

Gary (close to camera) and Matthew (far background)
'I was feeling kind of seasick …'

Sir Bob Geldof (over)

The key to all this is a voice that can take that and move. Fred (Mercury) had it, and so does Gary – Brooker – in Procol Harum. An astonishing vocal thing.

Cut to MF's big glissando. Gary sings. The organ backing is sparse, not much bassline.

'And so it was …'

The whole chorus is played. It sounds good. On the last phrase GB smiles benignly up at the ceiling, which does not fly away.


Diane Rolph wrote to BtP in the Spring, 'Maf thinks the technical side might be cut (not the impression I got from the producer: after all this is the South Bank Show team, so hopefully they'd keep in intelligent bits!)'

Sadly, this was not the case. We must hope that the full interview and performance eventually comes into circulation. It was a well-meaning piece of film and it told the story for anyone who didn’t know it. What a pity, however, that something like this makes the airwaves, and not Henry Scott-Irvine's AWSoP film which does the subject so much better justice!

Paler Mike Lee writes …
I thought the AWSoP bit on this programme was done beautifully (apart from Tony Blackburn displaying a negative IQ). The setting was lovely, understated and gothic, with simple but very effective camera work even displaying Gary's love of the chorus after all these years. The content was brief yet in Matthew's edited contribution, hinting that the masterpiece was far more than the two verse recording, appetising the public for a full version to be recorded and and released before the boys disappear into a well-earned retirement. In fact was so beautifully done it almost moved me to tears and in the wider context of the Smash programme established AWSoP as a groundbreaking masterpiece, the like of which has been seldom emulated and never surpassed, though many have longed for such success.

More about AWSoP on LWT

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