On May 12, 1967, the British record label DERAM released the first song by a completely unknown band called Procol Harum, as its single number 126. The band did not yet exist as a permanent ensemble, and a studio musician (Bill Eyden) was hired to play the drums. The line-up consisted of Gary Brooker (vocals and piano), Matthew Fisher (Hammond organ M-102), Ray Royer (guitar), David Knights (bass) and Bill Eyden (drums), Keith Grant was the sound engineer and Denny Cordell produced the piece.
In the – officially still unpublished – original the song was around nine minutes long – we can’t really say, for the original 4-track master tape was unfortunately lost at some point. For the release of the single, the song was cut to just over four minutes in length, leaving only two of the original four stanzas intact. The lyrics were, and remain, on the strange side:
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 closed
She said, ‘I’m home on shore leave,’
Though in truth we were at sea
So I took her by the looking glass
And forced her to agree
Saying, ‘You must be the mermaid
Who took Neptune for a ride.’
But she smiled at me so sadly
That my anger straight way died
If music be the food of love ** The lyrics sheet has “LIFE” – HTTPS://WWW.YOUTUBE.COM/WATCH?V=VIWCSRG1D-Y
Then laughter is its queen
And likewise if behind is in front
Then dirt in truth is clean
My mouth by then like cardboard
Seemed to slip straight through my head
So we crash-dived straight way quickly
And attacked the ocean bed
This was the psychedelic phase of pop music, and no one expected a text to necessarily make sense, but unlike much textual humbug of the time, the song remains in popular consciousness – due to its obscene sales figures, and many – which the author hereby joins – have found themselves triggered to prolonged speculation and interpretations.
Two unofficial but complete versions may be found, for example, on YouTube:
Link (in the case of embedding malfunction): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vIWCSrG1d-Y
A second video may be found on this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PYBqv3NIqho
The first video was posted by Luana Wolf, who explains:
It seems that many have their own interpretations to the meaning of this song. Anywhere from drugs, death, lost love and some just plain comical But according to Keith Reid who wrote the lyrics He explained… “It’s sort of a film, really, trying to conjure up mood and tell a story. It’s about a relationship. There’s characters and there’s a location, and there’s a journey. You get the sound of the room and the feel of the room and the smell of the room.” Together with the music written by Gary Brooker this song turned out to be one of the greatest of that era..,. So… while putting this video together I followed the journey, and made my own story. Setting the stage as a fantasy love story. Maybe you can smell the ocean air? …..I claim no rights to the music nor the photos. All belong to their respective owners…
What all interpretations more or less agree on is that it is a story about love, or at least sex, rather of the unfortunate kind, and that the sea has special connotations to it. The German wiki page contributes some basic interpretations, which we like to quote here:
In September 1994, Tim de Lisle received the following explanation from Keith Reid [the lyricist]: A nervous wannabe seducer drinks to his courage at a party. The increasing amount of alcohol affects his perception through wandering thoughts: fragments from childhood experiences and his faint-hearted goals. The recurring metaphor in the song is about a ship disaster that draws a parallel between a romantic conquest and the dangers of the sea. …
The confusion about the meaning is also due to the fact that half of the text was removed before the recording session. Originally it consisted of four stanzas, the second and third were deleted when the music was recorded. The meaning becomes more obvious if one adds the missing stanzas. Then it becomes obvious that the narrator is on a ship at sea. There are also surrealistic word games and bizarre word cascades, which can also be found in later works by the group. The – also in English-speaking countries – mysterious, mystical, if not impenetrable text also takes on sound functions, which is underlined by Brooker’s expressive voice.
At the beginning is the riddle of the title, which lost the originally intended subtitle “(The Miller’s Tale)” * and whose wording Keith Reid accidentally claims to have picked up during a conversation: “My God, you’ve just turned a whiter shade of pale. “Procol Harum biographer Johansen compares the wordplay of the song with that of the earlier rhythm and blues, which metaphorically treats the relationship between men and women (especially sexuality). In A Whiter Shade of Pale, the couple’s eroticism begins with the flamenco-like fandango, which is considered particularly seductive and is accompanied here by exuberant dance wheels (“cartwheels”) and an encouraging audience (“the crowd called out for more”). The beginning of the chorus also indirectly and repeatedly emphasizes the topic of sexual seduction with the reference “as the miller told his tale” by alluding to Boccaccio’s cycle of novels “Decameron” or Chaucer’s rather saucy “The Miller’s Tale”.HTTPS://DE.WIKIPEDIA.ORG/WIKI/A_WHITER_SHADE_OF_PALE
There is more or less agreement that the story takes place on a ship, with dance and alcohol involved, and love falling as it does, comparing its violence and dangers to that of the sea. Ms Wolf’s video shows this very imaginatively.
The most instructive article on the song known to the author is by Mike Butler from the book “Lives of the Great Songs” and may be found here. One section:
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 drawn 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. 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 Françoise, known as Frankie, with Procol Harum’s Matthew Fisher in the organ loft.) Both, beneath their respectable surface, are puerile and sex-obsessed works.HTTPS://WWW.PROCOLHARUM.COM/AWSOP_LOTGS.HTM
Those, however, wanting to immerse themselves as deeply as possible in the speculations of humanity in general about the lyrics, you will find all this and more in a second article – on “Beyond The Pale” (the big Procol Harum fan site) – under this link… Would you like, perhaps, an explanation from Luz Laulo?
Well, quite simply I think this is a tale of a man who met a mermaid (or some sort of Siren) who took “shore leave” in a pub or perhaps a dance hall … they danced and he ended up falling in love with her and making love to her that night … I think they ended up in on the ocean in a boat and it seems her secret was revealed then … they both plunged into the sea together. Her face turning a whiter shade of pale may have been another way of saying she had died along with the fellow. I don’t quite understand the allusion to the miller; that may have been a reference to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and may have just been poetic license. This is one of the most beautiful rock songs I have ever heard.HTTPS://PROCOLHARUM.COM/AWSOPLYRICS.HTM
On the etymology of the band name: It was or is claimed that the band name is of Latin origin and means something like “Behind the things”, which the author – unfortunately – (after eight years of Latin in high school) has to denude as fake news. The second theory is that the name is based on the name of a cat in the former extended band family. Who knows? Who knows anything?
(© John Vincent Palatine 2020)