Story of the Song: A Whiter Shade of Pale, Procol Harum (1967)

Robert Webb
Friday 17 April 2009 00:00
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Rarely has a song proven so troublesome. "A Whiter Shade of Pale", surprisingly declared by the BBC to be the most played song in public places in the past 75 years, has also famously been the subject of a bitter feud between founding members of Procol Harum.

The problems began in 1973 and a mention of the song in Melody Maker. The paper referred to "Gary Brooker's Bach licks". Brooker was credited as a co-writer, along with the lyricist Keith Reid. Matthew Fisher, then a recently departed keyboardist from the band, took issue with the comment, launching into a correspondence with the paper during which he claimed it was he, and not Brooker, who was responsible for the baroque hook: "The organ part, including the solo and the infamous 'Bach licks', was entirely my doing," he wrote.

It took Fisher 37 years to do something about it. In 2000, songwriting royalties were frozen amid claims from Fisher for a backlog of payments due. The case came to a head in 2006 when Fisher appeared at the Royal Courts of Justice, sat at an organ, playing his solo bar by bar to explain the "process of his composition". His performance won him 40 per cent of the copyright to the song, although his claim for up to £1m of back royalties was rejected. Two years later, on the basis that there was an "excessive delay" in the claim being made, the ruling was overturned and though Fisher was not granted back royalties it was accepted that he was a 40% co-writer of the recorded song.

But, rather than who wrote it, what most have wanted to know is, what's it all about? An early explanation from Reid was that he was at a "gathering" where "some guy looked at a chick and said to her, 'you've gone a whiter shade of pale'. That phrase stuck in my mind." Reid sent his surreal song, drawing on various classical and literary sources, to Brooker. "I remember the day it arrived: four very long stanzas," said Brooker. Within a couple of hours, the melody was written. Originally longer than the final recording – the "lost" lyrics only ever featured in live renditions – the song intrigued listeners from the off. "I suppose everyone will have forgotten about it in two weeks," posited one interviewer, interrogating Brooker on the meaning, as the record hit No 1 in 1967. "Sure, man," replied Brooker. And did it worry him? "No."

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