By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Few songs of the 1960s, outside of The Beatles’ later output, has perhaps inspired more head-scratching than Procol Harum’s 1967 hit ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’. Even the band’s name is likely to invite puzzled looks from people who first encounter it. Who, or what, is a ‘procol harum’? And what does describing something as ‘a whiter shade of pale’ actually mean?
Because the meaning of this song is so elusive, we thought we’d turn some literaru-critical hermeneutics onto its baffling lyrics. Here, then, is an analysis of the curious meaning of ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ … as far as we can determine it.
‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’: song meaning
People have disagreed over which interpretation of the song’s lyrics is the ‘correct’ one, but a starting-point must surely be the person who wrote the lyrics: Keith Reid. In the February 2008 issue of Uncut magazine, Reid explained that he was trying to conjure a mood, and was attempting to be evocative, rather than deliberately mysterious. He added that the song was influenced by books, not drugs.
Nevertheless, a mood is not enough by itself: most songs have a ‘story’, even if the story is elliptically told and half-buried beneath mood-making.
The first verse of the song certainly suggests some kind of dance, with skipping the light fandango sounding like a portmanteau of ‘tripping the light fantastic’, a well-known idiom relating to dancing (derived from a poem by John Milton), and the Spanish (and Portuguese) dance, the fandango.
The references to ordering another drink from the waiter reinforces this idea that the singer is with someone (a lover?) at a dancehall or club. Certainly the mood is one of someone having an ecstatic, dizzying experience (how many drinks had been consumed before they called out for another one, we wonder?), perhaps because they are being swept away by the experience of dancing, but perhaps also because of the company they are with.
The song has several suggestive allusions to sex. Those vestal virgins denote purity, of course, but the singer doesn’t want the subject of the song to be among their number (which is given, with enigmatic specificity, as sixteen). The Vestal Virgins in ancient Rome actually numbered six, and were priestesses of Vesta, goddess of the hearth – yes, she was the one after whom the brand of matches was named.
Similarly, the reference to the miller who tells his tale has puzzled many people trying to illuminate the meaning of the song, and one cannot help calling to mind the Miller from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales who tells a story which is all about sex (and farting, though that bit is perhaps less relevant to the Procol Harum song).
Even those who opt for Henry Miller over Chaucer’s bawdy millowner have to impute a sexual meaning to the reference: Miller’s 1934 novel Tropic of Cancer has been banned on numerous occasions for its sexually explicit content.
So in short, what we have is a tantalisingly glimpsed ‘story’ involving a man at a dance, losing himself among the music, the drinks, and the women, and a possible sexual encounter later on, potentially involving the woman losing her virginity (hence those vestal virgins, but also the symbolism of that colour white, in the song’s title).
‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’: analysis
It is difficult to overestimate just how popular ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ was when it was released by the new band Procol Harum in 1967. The hit belongs to a select club of songs which have sold over 10 million copies (other sixties tracks to manage that feat include The Monkees’ ‘I’m a Believer’ and, perhaps more surprisingly, Kyu Sakamoto’s ‘Sukiyaki’).
Keith Reid was responsible for the enigmatic lyrics to the record, while frontman Gary Brooker provided the music (a later lawsuit ruled that Matthew Fisher had co-written the music with Brooker). The distinctive organ on the single was played by Fisher, who just a few weeks prior to recording the song had been performing with Screaming Lord Sutch, later to become leader of the Official Monster Raving Loony Party, who was then playing with his band, the Savages.
However, J. S. Bach’s classic ‘Air on a G String’ has also been noted as an influence on the song’s melody.
But where did the title originate? That was supposedly provided by Reid overhearing someone at a party saying to a woman that she’d turned ‘a whiter shade of pale’. Of course, semantically the title makes little sense: it should be ‘a paler shade of white’, not ‘a whiter shade of pale’. We have shades of colours, and those shades include pale shades.
But somehow the unusual semantics of the title helped to make it more mysterious, perhaps even more poetic, and such things certainly didn’t do any harm when the Summer of Love was at its peak (the single went to number 1 in the UK on 8 June 1967).
The poet and critic A. E. Housman, in his 1933 lecture ‘The Name and Nature of Poetry’, considered one of Shakespeare’s songs:
Even Shakespeare, who had so much to say, would sometimes pour out his loveliest poetry in saying nothing.
Take O take those lips away
That so sweetly were forsworn,
And those eyes, the break of day,
Lights that do mislead the morn;
But my kisses bring again,
Seals of love, but seal’d in vain,
seal’d in vain.
That is nonsense; but it is ravishing poetry.
We might apply such a statement to ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’, perhaps with the caveat that the word ‘poetry’ should be altered to ‘great songwriting’.
If Reid intended to conjure a mood with his lyrics, the song succeeds in doing so, but the organ music is an integral part of the song’s evocative power (as important as the mellotron is to The Moody Blues’ ‘Nights in White Satin’, another 1967 song); it’s one reason why the cover versions of the song – and there have been over 1,000 of them to date – usually fail where the original succeeds.
We began by commenting on the strangeness of the band’s name. They took their distinctive and memorable name from a male blue Burmese cat, which belonged to a friend named Liz Coombes. Curiously, the spelling ‘Procol Harum’ was a result of a bad telephone line: the cat’s pedigree name was actually Procul Harun, but the name was taken down over the telephone, and was misspelled.