By Adam Waldman
Throughout the course of rock and roll history, there have been numerous debut albums that have left their mark on the world. It’s hard to think of a debut song that has done the same. However, there is one that comes to mind. On May 12, 1967 (50 years ago today), Procol Harum was introduced to the world with their first single, “A Whiter Shade Of Pale.”
To say that an artist peaked before even releasing their first full album is a bit unfair, but this song is inarguably the most memorable moment of Procol Harum’s career. Still, five decades later, the band has endured, having just released their 12th studio album, Novum.
It didn’t take long for “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” to gain traction. Less than a month after its release, the song reached #1 on the UK chart and remained there for six weeks. What makes this even more impressive is the fact that the song received very little promotion. It went on to reach #1 in many other countries as well. To this day, it is one of less than 30 singles to have sold over 10 million copies worldwide.
In the UK in 2004, “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” was recognized as the song most played by British broadcasters for the 70 years prior. In addition to receiving numerous other awards, the song has been covered over 1000 times, and has appeared on the soundtrack of some major films (including The Big Chill).
Written by Gary Brooker, Keith Reid and Matthew Fisher, the song was recorded at Olympic Studios in London, England. Originally recorded using a session drummer, it was re-recorded a few days later when a permanent drummer was in place. However, the version that was released ended up being one of the original mono recordings. Interestingly, the song is not featured on the UK version of the band’s self-titled album.
“A Whiter Shade Of Pale” is as emotionally stirring as any other song that I can recall. From the melancholic organ, to the lyrics (which have always seemed despondently nostalgic), the vibe of the song is like no other. You don’t need to know the meaning of the lyrics to feel the emotion (even if you’re not sure why you do).
The origin of the song dates back to a party attended by Reid, who heard someone tell a woman that she turned “a whiter shade of pale.” As iconic as the song is, the full version (which contains four verses) is not widely known because only two verses appear on the released version of the recording. In concert, the band has been known to play only three of the four verses.
Few songs have the mystique of “A Whiter Shade Of Pale.” However, the lyrics (while poetic) are thought to be about a drunken seduction. In Procol Harum: Beyond the Pale, author Claes Johansen suggests that “the song deals in metaphorical form with a male/female relationship which (after some negotiation) ends in a sexual act.”
In an interview with Uncut Magazine in 2008, Reid shed some light on the actual meaning of the song…
“I was trying to conjure up a mood, as much as tell a straightforward, girl-leaves-boy story. With the ceiling flying away and room humming harder, I wanted to paint an image of a scene. I wasn’t trying to be mysterious with those images. I was trying to be evocative. I suppose it seems like a decadent scene that I’m describing, but I was too young to have experienced any decadence then. I might have been smoking when I conceived it, but not when I wrote it. It was influenced by books, not drugs.”
“A White Of Shade Of Pale” doesn’t really fit into one genre. The influence is from classical music; the structure is progressive; and the vibe is psychedelic. Regardless of genre or meaning behind the song, one thing is undebatable…“A Whiter Shade Of Pale” is one of the greatest songs in the history of rock and roll.
In celebration of the 50th anniversary of “A Whiter Shade Of Pale,” I’ve decided to share three videos (below). The first is a fascinating journey about the origin and history of the song. The second is the full version of the song with all four verses. And the last, but certainly not least, is the version that millions have come to know and love over the past 50 years…