MUSIC / In truth they were at sea: Lives of the Great Songs - A Whiter Shade of Pale: Vestal Virgins, light fandangoes: Procol Harum's classic can be baffling. Mike Butler asked its authors to help

Mike Butler
Saturday 17 September 1994 23:02

IT'S A summer song of pervasive dread, a wedding hymn riven with sexual anxiety, an epochal composition which routinely functions as background muzak for the keep-fit class (if you don't believe me, dig out Diana Moran's album Get Fit with the Green Goddess). Contradiction only bolsters the enigma of 'A Whiter Shade of Pale'.

The debut single from Procol Harum was the surprise hit of summer 1967. It captured listeners' imagination from its first toe-testing airing on Radio Caroline. 'Everything about this record is an overwhelming gas,' effused Melody Maker in May. In June, while Sgt Pepper topped the British album chart, 'A Whiter Shade of Pale' was the No 1 single.

'A Whiter Shade of Pale' was among the first batch of songs produced by the songwriting team of composer-singer-pianist Gary Brooker and lyricist Keith Reid. Melody Maker of 3 June 1967 contains a contemporary account of the song's origin:

It was 'sixth member' Keith Reid who had the idea for the song, at a 'gathering'. 'Some guy looked at a chick and said to her, 'You've gone a whiter shade of pale'. That phrase stuck in my mind. It was a beautiful thing for someone to say. I wish I'd said it,' laughed Keith, while Gary put down his cup of coffee and struggled with a nose inhaler.

Reid confirmed the account when I telephoned him in New York in 1994. 'The title came first. It's always like that; like a puzzle. After the title you find the rest of the pieces to make a picture.' The found phrase is felicitous. It has the authority of a line from Shakespeare, and is as catchy as the most persistent advertising jingle - which, inevitably, was to be its fate. The ad, just as inevitably, was for Dulux paint.

Brooker's setting was a motley synthesis, derived from Bach (though Reid dissents: 'It is not 'Air on a G-String' ') and Percy Sledge. 'When a Man Loves a Woman', a hit of the previous year, which also had a hymnal quality, an integral part for organ and a fervent, soulful delivery. Reid's cryptic lyrics inject some of the waywardness of the counter-culture. There's a tension between the placid majesty of the music and the paranoia and messiness of the subject-matter. The disjunction may account for the common perception of 'A Whiter Shade of Pale' as impenetrable and obscure.

'I never understand when people say they don't understand it,' said Reid. ' 'We skipped the light fandango.' That's straightforward. 'Turned cartwheels across the floor.' It seems very clear to me.' Nervously, I hazarded my own reading, the summation of my voluntary immersion in the world of 'A Whiter Shade of Pale', and much pondering on its significance. Is it about getting pissed and fancying the person opposite you? 'It's a story, a journey, seen from the point of view of a man character.'

The song explores what it means to be wrecked, in more than one sense of the word. A nervous seducer sustains his courage with alcohol. As he becomes more drunk, his impressions of his unfamiliar partner become confused by stray thoughts, fragments of childhood reading and his own faint-hearted aspirations. The song's recurring metaphor is of maritime disaster, and a parallel is made between romantic conquest and the allure and peril of the sea. The hero is a callow juvenile, far happier with a book than risking the emotional bruising of relationships. This ambivalence is underscored by frequent allusions to nausea.

As befits a night of excess, there are gaps in the telling. The evasive 'And so it was that later . . .' is given weight by repetition and its positioning just before the hook ('Her face at first just ghostly / Turned a whiter shade of pale'). The listener is invited to fill the gaps with his or her own (prurient) imagination. An entire verse was dropped early in the song's gestation. Another is optional ('She said, 'I'm home on shore leave,' / Though in truth we were at sea') and was excised from the recorded version at the insistence of producer Denny Cordell, to make the record conform to standard single length.

For a pop song, 'A Whiter Shade of Pale' carries an unprecedented amount of literary baggage. Although, Reid reveals, the reference to Chaucer is a red herring. 'One thing people always get wrong is that line about the Miller's Tale,' said Reid. 'I've never read Chaucer in my life. They're right off the track there.' Why did he put it in then? (In mild dismay at the peremptory demolition of this intellectual prop.) 'I can't remember now.'

The analogy with Canterbury Tales, whether welcomed by Reid or not, holds good. Both are quintessentially English works, the one established in the canon of literature, and the other a pop standard. Both have associations of piety and decorum. (The song has become a regular fixture of the wedding ritual, supplanting Handel's 'Wedding March' as the tune to walk down the aisle to after the ceremony: it was played, indeed, at the wedding of Gary Brooker and Francoise, known as Frankie, with Procol Harum's Matthew Fisher on duty in the organ loft.) Both, beneath their respectable surface, are puerile and sex-obsessed works.

Even discounting the Chaucer reference - The Miller's Tale is the usual medieval bawdiness, involving cuckoldry, bared buttocks, flatulence and a sadistic rear-end attack - the conviction remains that 'A Whiter Shade of Pale' is all about sex, and juvenile sex at that. The following memorable lines are the giveaway: '. . . (I) would not let her be / One of sixteen Vestal Virgins'.

The Vestal Virgins were handmaidens of the Roman half-goddess Vesta (meaning hearth), whose job was to maintain a sacred and perpetual fire. The fact that we get a number is significant, invoking the biblical parable of the seven wise and seven foolish virgins, and, less edifyingly, the barrack-room ballad of '. . . four-and-twenty virgins . . . down from Inverness'. Why Reid's lot should amount to 16 is one of the song's more imponderable details. Maybe it has something to do with 16 being the youngest a girl can be lusted after by a rock'n'roller with impunity ('You're Sixteen', 'Sweet Little Sixteen', etc). The passing allusion to Lewis Carroll in the preceding line - 'I wandered through my playing cards' - suggests that some of the obscurity of 'A Whiter Shade', as in Alice, may be due to the broaching of taboo. The hesitant lover in the song is caught mid-way between the chivalry of 'When a Man Loves a Woman' and the carnality of Jane Birkin in 'Je t'aime' (a smash hit of the following year, blatantly modelled on the Procol Harum song).

The influence of 'A Whiter Shade of Pale' is not confined to torrid French confections. Its success paved the way for pop music's assimilation of classical forms. Its progeny includes Queen's 'Bohemian Rhapsody' and the complete works of Rick Wakeman. Its theme of romance on the edge, as viewed through the dregs of a bottle, struck a responsive chord elsewhere. It sometimes seems that Shane MacGowan's entire subject-matter is contained in 'A Whiter Shade of Pale'.

Certainly the song received a generous endorsement when I canvassed the former Pogue's opinion. We met while rubbing shoulders at adjacent bins in a secondhand record shop in Camden Town, I fruitlessly searching for the Percy Sledge version. ' 'A Whiter Shade of Pale',' MacGowan said, 'yeah man, that's one of my favourite records.' MacGowan's speech is husky, but his judgement is unimpaired. 'People say they nicked it from Bach. But it doesn't matter, because what they did with it was much better than what Bach did with it.'

Percy Sledge is not the only soul singer to respond to 'A Whiter Shade of Pale'. For an example of the Motown studio system at its height, seek out Shorty Long's version on The Prime of (1969) and marvel at the bizarre and stilted trumpet solo (a rare lapse). Sledge's version would be fascinating - closing a circle of inspiration which links the tender balladeer from America's Deep South with London's barrier-smashing rockers - if only I could find it. King Curtis gives the definitive cover version, however, on Live at Fillmore West (Atco, 1971). The tempo is slowed right down, and Curtis's bitter-sweet saxophone induces an insouciant euphoria.

This 'Whiter Shade' plays over the opening credits of Bruce Robinson's cult British film, Withnail & I (1986), a nostalgic hark back to an age of innocent substance-abuse. Thus 'A Whiter Shade of Pale', which originally embodied Sixties excess, becomes a threnody for a generation. King Curtis's own leave-taking was brutally final. He was stabbed to death in New York in 1971.

Willie Nelson on the Always on My Mind album (Columbia, 1982) coaxes the words from his larynx shyly, bringing a new matter-of-factness to Brooker's obtuse words. Waylon Jennings pitches in for a verse with his drier, slyer delivery. The two hell-raisers contrive to ditch every last trace of Eng Lit from the song. So 'the Miller told his tale' becomes 'the mirror told its tale'. An alteration which, in fact, probably enhances its narrative clarity. 'That's quite good,' Keith Reid admitted, when I told him. 'It's better. You can see why he's such a good songwriter, can't you?'

The Everly Brothers got their shot in early for the Nastiest 'Shade of Pale' award with a misconceived attempt to appeal to the flower-children on The Everly Brothers Sing (Warner Bros, 1967). The field subsequently became overcrowded. Bonnie Tyler switched the gender of the piece to no great effect in Night Riding (Night Riding, 1990). Justin Hayward, abetted by Mike Batt and the LPO in Classic Blue (BMG, 1989), is his usual fey and wispy self. A superfluous record, this, seemingly calculated to confuse all those who can't tell their White Shades from White Satin. Joe Cocker, in marked contrast, reveals the self-disgust at the song's heart (Luxury You Can Afford, Asylum, 1978); his rawness is thrown into stark relief by Allen Toussaint's too-slick production.

A disco version by Munich Machine touched the lower reaches of the charts for a few weeks in 1978 (Oasis). The most eccentric version comes from deconstructivist rockers Vibrating Egg, a band from Athens, Georgia. They

restore the spookiness of the original by

appending a tale told by a madman (Come in Here if You Want to, Dog Gone, 1988).

Warlock and the London Symphony Orchestra vie for tastelessness with their respective treatments. Warlock (Force Majeure, Vertigo, 1989) offer overwrought corporate rock. The LSO (Classic Rock, K-Tel, 1977) slum it by pretending to be a light orchestra. Both are lamentably conservative.

It is April 1994 and Gary Brooker is in a recording studio in north London, busy mixing The Symphonic Music of Procol Harum, an album of orchestrated versions of the band's songs. Daryl Way - best remembered as fiddler in Curved Air - picked the plum parts when he elected to arrange 'A Whiter Shade of Pale' and the phantasmal 'A Salty Dog'. These new orchestral versions are so opulent they make the originals seem skeletal, bare bones to be adorned with bangles, frills and finery. Here they pirouette to a different dance.

Brooker takes time out from digitally tweaking a cor anglais, to recreate, for my benefit, the inception of 'A Whiter Shade of Pale'. What does it owe to 'Air on a G-String'? 'Everything,' Brooker says, and demonstrates his first, halting attempt to play the music from the Hamlet cigar ad. He was messing it up. The bass line went on descending interminably, the trill in the right hand reduced to uncertain ornamentation. The stumbling coalesces into a pretty chord sequence. 'Hello, if I get back to where I was, I can go round again.' And so Brooker chases the tail of the sequence, and a familiar melody emerges.

How did you marry the tune to the words? 'I just got them out.' Brooker stoops. 'I've got a pile of Keith's words here.' He spreads some imaginary papers on the piano-stand,

repeats the chord sequence, peers at imaginary words, and begins, 'We skipped the light fandango . . .'. 'A Whiter Shade of Pale' was born fully formed.

More than fully, in fact. I ask about the missing verse. 'I took it out because I was puffed.' Brooker proceeds to sing it:

If music be the food of love

And laughter is its queen

And likewise if behind's in front

Then dirt in truth is clean

My mouth by then like cardboard

Seemed to slip straight through my head

So we crashed dived straight way quickly

And attacked the ocean bed.

No wonder it was dropped. The Shakespearian quote is a clunker, and pity Brooker stumbling over the back-to-back Ds on the awkward penultimate line. The crudity of the denouement would surely have exposed the singer to ridicule. 'A Whiter Shade of Pale', in this version, would have been sunk. And yet the verse is essential to an understanding of the song. We at last learn that the drunken seduction is consummated, and the sea metaphor reaches its apotheosis in the oblivion and forgetfulness of sex. The edited version, which swam into the collective consciousness 27 years ago, still keeps its head above water.

Extracted from 'Lives of the Great Songs', edited by Tim de Lisle. The book, published by Pavilion in hardback, comprises all 21 of the articles that have appeared in the series, plus 15 new ones. It is in the shops now, price pounds 14.99, but readers can get it by post at no extra cost. To place your order, please ring 0235 831700 (9am-5pm Mon-Fri) with a credit card to hand. If you prefer to pay by cheque, write to Bookpoint Ltd (Mail Order Dept), 39 Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4TD, making the cheque out to Bookpoint. Please allow 14 days for delivery.

To hear 'A Whiter Shade of Pale', tune in to Virgin 1215 at 9-9.30am today, when Gary Davies will play one of the versions discussed. Virgin is between 1197 and 1260 kHz MW, depending on where you are, and in stereo on satellite and cable TV.

(Photographs omitted)

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