July 4, 1967
“A Whiter Shade of Pale” by Procol Harum
#1 on the Record Retailer Singles Chart (UK), June 8 – July 18, 1967
Rock ‘n’ roll had been adopted by adolescents in the late ’50s and early ’60s where it was very teenage-friendly music about dancing and having fun, falling in love, and discovering sex.
As the kids who listened to it began maturing, however, so did rock. It borrowed influence from the folk revival taking over college campuses. It took poetry classes, fixating on the iconoclastic French Symbolists and Beat Generation. It dabbled in the avant-garde, experimenting with backwards guitars and treated vocals but was a bit hesitant to commit just yet.
Of course, the ultimate act of self-asserted maturity is to develop a taste for classical music — specifically baroque, the oldest and most ornate of the classical styles. As with seemingly every pop music innovation in the ’60s, The Beatles Did It First, adding a pseudo-harpsichord solo to their 1965 single “In My Life.” American group the Left Banke delved further into “Bach rock” with their delicate, flowery hits “Walk Away Renée” and “Pretty Ballerina” in late 1966 and early 1967, but made little impact overseas. Ultimately, it was the debut single by an unknown UK band that took baroque rock international and made it one of the defining sounds of the late ‘60s.
Procol Harum was formed only about a month before “A Whiter Shade of Pale” was released in May 1967. Before that, lead singer Gary Brooker (as well as future Procol Harum guitarist Robin Trower, bassist/organist Chris Copping, and drummer B.J. Wilson) had been part of the beat group the Paramounts, which had scored a minor UK hit in 1964 with a cover of the Coasters’ “Poison Ivy.” While Brooker was the only former Paramount to appear on “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” Trower and Wilson joined the band shortly afterward with Copping following in 1969.
Although many of the non-Brooker band members who played on “A Whiter Shade of Pale” were with Procol Harum only briefly, one exception was behind the scenes. Keith Reid didn’t play an instrument, but he did write the lyrics for virtually every Procol Harum song, starting with “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” Yet, Reid was not billed as “songwriter” or “lyricist,” but “poet.”
Bob Dylan and Paul Simon may have been celebrated as/accused of being pop poets (though they wouldn’t have called themselves that) but for all their evocative imagery or inspired turns of phrase, there was still a grounding in folk, the music of the people. Reid had no such disposition, instead stuffing “A Whiter Shade of Pale” with purple prose for prose’s sake and tossing in hollow references to Chaucer and Milton.
Half a century on, listeners still debate the meaning of the cryptic, overblown lyrics to “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” They don’t actually mean anything, of course, but they do sound profound with the fills from the Hammond organ churning beneath them.
It’s that organ that’s truly responsible for the song’s success, especially in the many non-Anglophone countries where it became a hit. Played by Matthew Fisher (who was belatedly awarded writing credit in 2009 for his contributions to the song), it alludes to Bach’s “Air on the G String” and “Sleepers, Wake!” without actually quoting from either. (In fact, it resembles Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” as much as those 18th-Century compositions.) The faux-baroque electric organ is especially effective as a foil for Brooker’s British R&B vocals, contrasting the classical with the contemporary, the European with the African-American.
Despite Procol Harum being an unestablished act, “A Whiter Shade of Pale” quickly became a blockbuster hit, spending six weeks atop the UK Singles Chart and going to #1 in nearly a dozen other countries. (It peaked at #5 in the US.) While Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Release Me” was named as the year’s biggest single in the UK, over the decades, “A Whiter Shade of Pale” has outsold “Release Me” two-to-one, making it one of the rare singles to sell 10 million copies. (Even the Beatles only had one song achieve that milestone: “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”)
As big a hit as “A Whiter Shade of Pale” was, however, Procol Harum were never able to match it. Follow-up single “Homburg” made the UK Top 10 and US Top 40, but apart from 1972’s “Conquistador” (#16 in the US) and 1975’s “Pandora’s Box” (#16 in the UK), the group never had another major hit. Their albums were more successful, routinely charting on both sides of the Atlantic until the band’s breakup in 1977.
Procol Harum’s biggest contribution, however — apart from their monster hit — was their influence on the creation of progressive rock. Along with the Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, and (as always) the Beatles, Procol Harum’s classical allusions and self-consciously poetic lyrics inspired countless prog bands, marking the moment when rock ‘n’ roll went to college and got cultured — or at least pretentious.
It Was 50 Years Ago Today examines a song, album, movie, or book that was #1 on the charts exactly half a century ago.