Thursday, June 16, 2016

Procol Harum - A Whiter Shade of Pale

Procol Harum were involved in the creation of symphonic rock and roll, which in turn makes them responsible (at least partially) for the creation of progressive rock, to which I am forever grateful. Procol Harum is a typical band for someone like me to really enjoy, highly experimental and artistic, while also finding a way to be jarring and confusing to music critics and fans alike. In 1967 Procol Harum released their single biggest hit “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”

1967 was the year of introduction for Procol Harum, their self titled debut album was released and soon then after they released their hit single “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” This caused me some confusion for a short moment as I searched for the studio recording to purchase for this classic masterpiece, and finding it not present on any studio album, similar to my struggle with T.Rex’s “20th Century Boy.” There are two studio album sources for this track, the U.S. released of Procol Harum self titled debut is very different from the UK’s, similar to many early Beatles albums, and most modern releases of their debut album include “A Whiter Shade of Pale” as a bonus track. Nonetheless the point is this, the success and popularity of “A White Shade of Pale” is so great that it completely overshadows everything else Procol Harum ever did.

The power of Procol Harum’s sudden success would effectively serve as a negative thereafter. The following year Procol Harum released their second album “Shine on Brightly” and the year after that they released “A Salty Dog,” both respectable progressive rock albums yet both received negative reviews from critics at the time; their great sin? No one song was as good as “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”

There are two takeaways from all this. First, this is a tragic turn of events as Procol Harum have many great songs, including “Conquistador” and “Repent Walpurgis” both of which are from their first album, also I am a huge fan of the psychedelic trips that are “Song for a Dreamer” and “Strangers in Space.” Second, the reason why a single song can eclipse an entire powerhouse discography is because that song, “A White Shade of Pale,” is very, very good.

I am very much a lyric guy, probably I can sing reasonably well enough, but my talent elsewhere, namely the guitar, leaves much to be desired, however we are engaged in yet another exception for myself, as I hardly paid too close attention to “A Whiter Shade of Pale’s” lyrics until fairly recently, and that has everything to do the organ and drums. The instrumental side of the song is lead by a steady and calm drum beat and the melody is dominated by the electric organ, which creates something of a rocky and watery feel to the sound, kind of like a river’s stream, at least that is where my mind has always wandered to, a lot of Procol Harum songs are nautical in them. It is a very relaxing song that has a real talent at putting one into the mood of a calm trance; it real easy going, you might even say groovy.

I should like to say that there are very few songs in rock history where the organ plays the role of lead melody, but that would be untrue, there was actually quite a bit of experimentation with the electric organ being used in this fashion in early progressive rock, I am reminded of Emerson Lake and Palmer, all of a sudden.

Another reason the melody is so fantastic likely resides in the fact it takes direct inspiration from Bach's "Air on the G-String."  I had not noticed this for a long time because most version of "Air on the G-String" I listened to included the full orchestra and too lost in the sounds was I to pay closer attention to just the melody on the violin; or I really like guitar and piano versions of the song.  If you listen to just a violin version of Bach's classic you can hear the similarities between it and "A Whiter Shade of Pale" a little more easily, better yet just here is an organ version:

Bach's "Air on the G String" on organ:

The lyrics, now that I pay a little closer attention to them, appear to be little more than a fabulous poetic description of a drunken seduction. The song title appears in the chorus:

“And so it was that later,
As the miller told his tale,
That her face, at first just ghostly,
Turned a whiter shade of pale.”

Apparently Keith Reid overheard at a party once someone saying to a woman “you’ve turned a whiter shade of pale,” which is a fairly eloquently thing to say to a drunk woman at a party, whom presumably was feeling a little worse for wear. This insight does support the idea that this song is primarily about a drunken hookup, but what a beautiful drunken hookup it is.

Many believe that the line “the miller told his tale” is a reference to “The Canterbury Tales” by Geoffrey Chaucer, as one of the stories is titled “The Miller’s Tale,” but I cannot offer any insight into any such theory, as I have not read “The Canterbury Tales” nor am I very familiar with that piece of literature; sorry internet, I have failed you. However I have read that Keith Reid, and possibly the rest of Procol Harum has explained that they have never read “The Canterbury Tales” so it is unlikely they were making any effort to draw a connection to it.

In summary Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” is a fantastic example of early progressive rock, a highly eloquent tale of drunken seduction, and a song so beloved that other great songs by the same band are often over looked.

- King of Braves


The studio version contains only two verses but there was originally two extra verses that go:

"She said, I'm home on shore leave, 
Though in truth we were at sea.
So I took her by the looking glass,
And forced her to agree.
Saying, you must be the mermaid,
Who took Neptune for a ride.
But she smiled at me so sadly,
That my anger straightway died.

If music be the food of love,
Then laughter is its 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."

This live version has all four verses:

There we go, very nautical.

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