“A Whiter Shade of Pale” is the debut song by the British rock band Procol Harum, released 12 May 1967. The single reached number one in the UK Singles Chart on 8 June 1967 and stayed there for six weeks. Without much promotion, it reached number 5 on the Bilboard pop chart in the United States. One of the anthems of the 1967 Summer of Love, it is one of fewer than 30 singles to have sold over 10 million copies worldwide.
With its haunting Bach-derived instrumental melody, soulful vocals, and unusual lyrics – by the song’s co-authors Gary Brooker, Keith Reid and Matthew Fisher – “A Whiter Shade of Pale” reached No. 1 in several countries when released in 1967. In the years since, it has become an enduring classic. It was the most played song in the last 75 years in public places in the UK (as of 2009), and the United Kingdom performing rights group Phonographic Performance Limited in 2004 recognised it as the most-played record by British broadcasting of the past 70 years. Also in 2004, Rolling Stone placed “A Whiter Shade of Pale” 57th on its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
In 1977, the song was named joint winner (along with Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”) of “The Best British Pop Single 1952–1977” at the Brit Awards. In 1998 the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. More than 1000 recorded cover versions by other artists are known. The song has been included in many music compilations over the decades and has also been used in the soundtracks of numerous films, including The Big Chill, Purple Haze, Breaking the Waves, The Boat That Rocked, Martin Scorsese’s segment of New York Stories, Stonewall[disambiguation needed], and Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s documentary series The Vietnam War. Cover versions of the song have also been featured in many films, for example, by King Curtis in Withnail and I and by Annie Lennox in The Net.
The original writing credits were for Brooker and Reid only. On 30 July 2009, Matthew Fisher won co-writing credit for the music in a unanimous ruling from the Law Lords.
The song was performed and recorded at Olympic Sound Studios in London, England, with Gary Brooker providing the vocals and piano, Matthew Fisher on a Hammond M-102 organ, David Knights on bass and Ray Royer on guitar. Drums were by session drummer Bill Eyden. A few days later, the song was re-recorded with the band’s then newly recruited drummer Bobby Harrison, but that version was discarded, and one of the original mono recordings was chosen for release.
Producer for the record was Denny Cordell, and Keith Grant was the sound engineer. The song was included on the US release of the Procol Harum album, in September 1967, but not on the later UK version.
Reid got the title and starting point for the song at a party. He overheard someone at the party saying to a woman, “You’ve turned a whiter shade of pale”, and the phrase stuck in his mind. The original lyrics had four verses, of which only two are heard on the original recording. The third verse has been heard in live performances by Procol Harum, and more seldom also the fourth. The author of Procol Harum: Beyond the Pale, Claes Johansen, suggests that the song “deals in metaphorical form with a male/female relationship which after some negotiation ends in a sexual act”. This is supported by Tim de Lisle in Lives of the Great Songs, who remarks that the lyrics concern a drunken seduction, which is described through references to sex as a form of travel, usually nautical, using mythical and literary journeys. Other observers have also commented that the lyrics concern a sexual relationship.
Contrary to the above interpretations, Reid was quoted in the February 2008 issue of Uncut magazine as saying:
I was trying to conjure 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 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 was influenced by books, not drugs.
Structurally and thematically, the song is unusual in many respects. While the recorded version is 4:03 long, it is composed of only two verses, each with chorus. The piece is also more instrument-driven than most songs of the period, and with a much looser rhyme scheme. Its unusually allusive and referential lyrics are much more complex than most lyrics of the time (for example, the chorus focuses on Chaucer’s “The Miller’s Tale”). Thus, this piece can be considered an early example of progressive rock.
The phrase a whiter shade of pale has since gained widespread use in the English language, noticed by several dictionaries. As such, the phrase is today often used in contexts independent of any consideration of the song. It has also been heavily paraphrased, in forms like “an Xer shade of Y”, to the extent that it has been recognised as a snowclone – a type of cliché and phrasal template.
The song is in moderate time in C major and is characterised by the bassline moving stepwise downwards in a repeated pattern throughout. In classical music this is known as a ground bass. The harmonic structure is identical for the organ melody, the verse and the chorus, except that the chorus finishes with a cadence. The main organ melody appears at the beginning and after each verse/chorus. But it is also heard throughout, playing variations of its theme and counterpointing the vocal line. As the chorus commences “And so it was, and later …”, the vocal and organ accompaniment begin a short crescendo, with the organist running his finger rapidly down and up the entire keyboard. The final instrumental fades out to silence – a common device in pop music of the time.
Dutch author, and Bach aficionado, Maarten ‘t Hart calls “A Whiter Shade of Pale” an “original adaptation” of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe, BWV 156. Besides, the Hammond organ line of the song came from Bach’s “Sleepers, Wake!” and “Air on the G String”, both of which use a similar stepwise bass motion. The similarity is referred to in the 1982 play The Real Thing by Tom Stoppard and 1991 film The Commitments. A yet closer melodic influence that is seldom cited can arguably[weasel words] be found in the organ choral prelude “O Mensch bewein dein’ Sünde groß” (O Man, Lament Your Sin So Great), BWV 622, from Bach’s Orgelbüchlein (Little Organ Book). The music also borrows ideas from “When a Man Loves a Woman” by Percy Sledge.
The single was released on 12 May 1967 in the United Kingdom by Deram Records and entered Record Retailer’s chart (later the UK Singles Chart) on 25 May. In two weeks it reached number 1, where it stayed for six weeks. Writing in 2005, Jim Irvin of Mojo said that its arrival at number 1 on 8 June 1967, on the same day that the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band topped the national albums chart, marked the start of the Summer of Love in Britain.
According to music journalist and author Harvey Kubernik, in the context of the Summer of Love, “A Whiter Shade of Pale” was the “one song [that] stood above all others, its Everest-like status conferred by no less than John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who were enthralled by the Chaucerian wordplay and heavenly Baroque accompaniment”. Kubernik also writes that, amid the search for higher consciousness during the flower power era, the song “galvanised a congregation of disaffected youth dismissive of traditional religion but anxious to achieve spiritual salvation”.
In the United States, the single reached number 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and sold over 1 million copies. It also peaked at number 22 on the soul charts there. In the Netherlands, the song entered the chart at number 1 in June 1967 and again reached number 1 in July 1972. A May 1972 re-release on Fly Records stayed in the UK charts for a total of 12 weeks and peaked at number 13.
“A Whiter Shade of Pale” has continued to receive critical acclaim. Along with Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “A Whiter Shade of Pale” was jointly recognised as “The Best British Pop Single 1952–1977” at the BRIT Awards, part of Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee. In 1998 the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. In 2004, it appeared at number 57 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”. British TV station Channel 4 placed the song at number 19 in its chart of “The 100 Greatest No. 1 Singles”.
The first promotional clip for “A Whiter Shade of Pale” was shot in the ruins of Witley Court in Worcestershire, England. It features four of the five musicians who played on the hit single: Gary Brooker, Matthew Fisher, David Knights and Ray Royer, in performance and walking through the ruins. Only the drummer in the video isn’t on the record: early band member Bobby Harrison is seen miming to session man Bill Eyden’s drumming. The film was directed by Peter Clifton, whose insertion of Vietnam War newsreel footage caused it to be banned from airplay on the BBC’s Top of the Pops TV show.
Procol Harum subsequently made a second promotional clip, using “Scopitone” technology. By this time, Robin Trower and B.J. Wilson had replaced Royer and Harrison in the band, so only three of the five musicians on the recording are represented. No performance footage appears in this film – only scenes of the five musicians cavorting around London and running across fields. The same lineup, with Fisher wearing a monk’s cowl, mimed to the song on Top of the Pops, although Brooker sang live. Black-and-white footage of the performance has been shown online. The song represents 1967 in the 2004 release Top of the Pops 40th Anniversary 1964–2004 DVD.
There was also a film shot as part of Joel Gallen’s Deja-View music video series. Originally airing on various networks in late 1985 through 1986, this video starred Harry Dean Stanton and Bernie Taupin, but featured no member of the band. It has also aired on VH1 Classic, and has recently surfaced online.
In 2005, former Procol Harum organist Matthew Fisher filed suit in the High Court against Gary Brooker and his publisher, claiming that he co-wrote the music for the song. Fisher won the case on 20 December 2006 but was awarded 40% of the composers’ share of the music copyright, rather than the 50% he was seeking and was not granted royalties for the period before 2005.
Brooker and publisher Onward Music were granted leave to appeal, and a hearing on the matter was held before a panel of three judges during the week of 1 October 2007. The decision, on 4 April 2008, by Lord Justice Mummery, in the Court of Appeal upheld Fisher’s co-authorship but ruled that he should receive no royalties as he had taken too long (38 years) to bring his claim to litigation. Full royalty rights were returned to Brooker.
On 5 November 2008, Fisher was granted permission to appeal this decision to the House of Lords. Lawyers say it is the first time the Law Lords have been asked to rule on a copyright dispute involving a song. The appeal was heard in the House of Lords on 22–23 April 2009.
On 30 July 2009 the Law Lords unanimously ruled in Fisher’s favour. They noted that the delay in bringing the case had not caused any harm to the other party; on the contrary he had benefited financially from it. They also pointed out that there were no time limits to copyright claims under English law. The right to future royalties was therefore returned to Fisher. The musicological basis of the judgment, and its effect on the rights of musicians who contribute composition to future works, has drawn some attention in the music world.