A whiter shade of pale

Whiter shade

In 1967, just as I was beginning to dip my toes in oriental mysticism,  and just after Jimi Hendrix landed from Outer Space, Procul Harum’s debut single A whiter shade of pale became an iconic track of the Summer of Love, along with Sgt Pepper. It’s another of those pieces that slips too easily into legend, filed away without reliving its originality (click here, under “The ultimate tango cliché”; cf. Reception history).

My fusty musical tastes then being largely conditioned by the violin, I suppose I responded to the song’s classicism, although Bach didn’t mean much more to me then than he did for most fans of the song. Along with the trippy lyrics, the blending of the Hammond organ (cf. Booker T. Jones in Memphis) with the blues/soul/rock vocal style is perfect:

We skipped the light fandango
turned cartwheels ‘cross the floor
I was feeling kinda seasick
but the crowd called out for more
The room was humming harder
as the ceiling flew away
When we called out for another drink
the waiter brought a tray.

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.

She said, There is no reason
and the truth is plain to see
But I wandered through my playing cards
and would not let her be
one of sixteen vestal virgins
who were leaving for the coast
and although my eyes were open
they might have just as well’ve been close.

Here Procul Harum perform it live:

This 1967 film (banned from the BBC) captures the zeitgeist:

A whiter shade of pale is the subject of a programme in the BBC radio Soul music series. With its walking bass, it’s commonly supposed to be inspired by Bach, in particular the Air, but the connection is more generic. Other similarities seem oblique, like the organ prelude O Mensch, bewein’ dein’ Sünde groß, or the opening Sinfonia of Bach’s 1729 Leipzig cantata Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe (sadly not written for the BBC sitcom):

A more recent comparison is When a man loves a woman, sung by the splendidly-named Percy Sledge (1966):

While generally recreations of original versions are to be welcomed, I seem to regard A whiter shade of pale as sacrosanct, like Beatles songs, so I’m not susceptible to Annie Lennox’s cover. There’s a nice cameo in The commitments:

Meanwhile in 1967, great songs were still coming out of Detroit amidst social upheaval. Among other good years for music, try 1707!

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