Procol Harum on Top of the Pops in the 1970s
A Whiter Shade of Pale, a number one single in 1967, is at the centre of a legal dispute. But what do the words mean?
Pop lyrics re-appraised by the Magazine
- "Great intro, uh?"
This description of Procol Harum's 1967 hit A Whiter Shade Of Pale is from the film The Commitments, but it might also end up as an exchange in the Royal Courts of Justice, where former members of the band are trying to settle a royalties dispute over the song - if the legal system muddles up its soul legends.
- "They nicked it from Marvin Gaye."
- "He nicked it from Bach!"
Gary Brooker, the band's lead singer, arriving at court
While Judge William Blackburne ponders how to divvy up the millions at stake, others are listening again to the lyrics of this chart-topper and asking: what's going on here? And just how do you skip the light fandango?
Fittingly for a song with disputed authorship, A Whiter Shade Of Pale is rich in quotations from other works, and not just the classical motif that many hear in the arrangement: the JS Bach piece used in the cigar ads.
Even the title comes from an overheard conversation. In 1967, lyricist Keith Reid told the Melody Maker 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."
Pop music is full of such snappy malapropisms: Ringo's back-to-front phrases were known as "Ringoisms" by his fellow Beatles, and resulted in songs including A Hard Day's Night and Eight Days A Week.
The result in Procol Harum's case was a pair of verbose verses which nod to various archaisms unfamiliar to the pop charts, including The Miller (as in Chaucer's vulgar tale told by a drunkard); vestal virgins (handmaidens to a Roman goddess) and the light fandango (John Milton coined "the light fantastick" to describe dancing in 1632; the phrase became common coinage before being mangled, via the Spanish courtship waltz the fandango, into Procol Harum's "the light fandango").
For the record, and bewilderingly, Reid pooh-poohs any link between "the Miller told his tale" and The Miller's Tale; he prefers Willie Nelson's rendition, which is mangled again into "the mirror told its tale".
Miller or mirror, it's a rum brew. The combination of dense allusion and Hammond organ had already been patented by Bob Dylan, but he was no chart-topper. While A Whiter Shade Of Pale was the number one single, Sgt Pepper was the number one album - a psychedelic commercial victory for hearts and minds.
By some accounts, this is the point where pomposity set in to pop, legitimising classical motifs and impenetrable lyrics until the Year Zero of punk. But is the song as incomprehensible as they say?
If you stop decoding the references, a clear if woozy tale emerges: there's dancing, a waiter brings drinks, their effects are felt, and a woman is approached. Could it be that A Whiter Shade Of Pale is about a boozy one night stand?
Matthew Fisher the band's former organist
In the book Lives Of The Great Songs, Mike Butler puts a compelling case,
uncovering the song's missing words, which are performed at gigs but which would have made the single over-long.
They begin "She said 'I'm home on shore leave', though in truth we were at sea" and end "So we crashed dived straight way quickly and attacked the ocean bed". A maritime metaphor climaxes in a bawdy pun, the relationship is consummated, and the song seems... well, a little less mysterious.
It's not the lyric, though, that's in legal dispute. The keyboard player, Matthew Fisher, is claiming royalties for the keyboard breaks which link the verses.
The backing is certainly effective. The song is built around a descending sequence, but so are many, from Pachelbel's Canon to The Farm's footie anthem All Together Now. To stop it descending forever, you need a flourish to get back up to the top, and A Whiter Shade Of Pale has a corker.
Indeed, similar trills were used months later by Serge Gainsbourg in the more explicit Je T'Aime... Moi Non Plus and months earlier in Percy Sledge's When A Man Loves A Woman - which might be what the Commitments were thinking of.
Who came up with that corker might now be a legal matter, but one that may not matter.
Music royalties take many forms (sales, airplay, use in films and games etc), but the names in brackets after a pop song's title are usually whoever wrote the words, and the tune to which they're sung.
REM choose to split the credits
In their guide to How To Have A Number One The Easy Way, situationist chart-toppers The KLF put this down to a Western musical tradition which privileges words and melody, arguing that if the lawyers were "of African descent, at least 80% would have gone to the creators of the groove".
There are exceptions, of course: Pulp, Coldplay, REM and Placebo are among the bands who have split credits among the band members on the recording.
And how a band deals with this has seen many old friends looking daggers at each other across the courtroom, from Spandau Ballet through The Smiths to Bob Marley's Wailers.
None of this, however, is likely to cross your mind while you listen to the song, whoever takes the credit. And it may be unhelpfully reductive to read it as a half-remembered sexual liaison; plenty of songs have portrayed these, without ending up as wedding favourites.
The Commitments ends on an imagined exchange where the band's manager explains to Terry Wogan what he has learned and quotes from A Whiter Shade Of Pale:
- That's very profound, Jimmy! What does it mean?
This seems unlikely to feature in Judge William Blackburne's summing-up.
- I'm [expletive deleted] if I know, Terry!
Smashed Hits is compiled by Alan Connor.
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
Does it really matter it was a great song.
nicholas ley, pafos cyprus
Why now? This was a hit when? 1967. 39 years to realise oh hold on I seem to be missing summat 'ere? Please! Any arguements should have been sorted in 67.
Tony Moody, Plymouth
As Procol Harum wrangle over the royalties in court, perhaps they'll spare a thought for the late Bill Eyden. Eyden was brought in by producer Denny Cordell to write the distinctive drum part for AWSoP and played on the record. He was paid a fee of £15 15s for the session.
Rule 1 of music journalism seems to have kicked in again. The rule states that when anyone is writing about the music of the late 60s and early seventies, the journalist has to rubbish the entire era by adding how punk came along and made things so much better, less 'pompous' or 'self indulgent'. This lie has been repeated so often it's now accepted as truth. Of course, the seeds planted in 67 had grown into something that had become stale by about 1975 or 76. That process of emergence and eventual backlash is common to any popular cultural cycle. But what 'rule one' pretends to have never happened is the truly magnificent stuff made from 67 to 73. Remember, there are more people enjoying the 'progressive' era's many highlights today, than are listening to the relative handful of 'classic' punk recordings.
James Van der Graaf, Barnet
What a sad story. We've always known about the dispute (Matthew Fisher has never made a secret of his discontent), but to have to take it to court after all these years shows it has rankled well after he (temporarily) rejoined the band, and we all though he had made it up. Sad
David Weston, Exeter
Was fascinated to read about the lyrics to this song as, even though i've heard it so many times, the lyrics went in one ear and out the other. Was only towards the end that i found out why the courts were involved though - very confused initially!
"Ringoisms" like "A Hard Day's Night" and "Tomorrow Never Knows", yes, but I'm sure Paul McCartney said on the radio not so long back that "Eight Days a Week" was an expression his driver used - Paul related this to John who replied with, "Ooh, I need your love babe..." and the song was born.
Steve Morris, Gloucester
'...The song is built around a descending sequence, but so are many, from Pachelbel's Canon to The Farm's footie anthem All Together Now.' Umm, the chords behind 'Altogether Now' are lifted *directly* from the Canon!
Ross Manning, London, UK
One of the myriad of songs that I grew up hearing - and not understanding "I'm [expletive deleted] if I know, Terry!" Perfect! Yet, still a classic that will live for all time - and they fight over whose fingers danced on a keyboard, oh praise the Lord for the sixties.
What a classic! it's my all-time favourite single.Procol Harum were sadly underated, - several albums/singles followed which were equally brilliant.
Andy O'Donnell, Banstead
It's a beautifull song...lets just leave it at that..?
Stuart Durston, Reading, England
Is this the moment to admit that I plagiarised one of the commas in a university essay from Chaucer, and another from Milton?
Nigel Macarthur, London, England
Great story. Funny how it took Matthew Fisher forty years to realise that he could be due some royalties... With that speed of thinking its a wonder he ever came to write the keyboard breaks. At least he wasn't responsible for the lyrics which spawned progressive rock - imagine having to live with that...
Despite all this analysis the lyrics are still hauntingly beautiful, as is the organ part. Reid can get a bit bogged down in his own world of words though. Check out Cerdes - "Outside the gates of Cerdes, Sits the two-pronged unicorn,
Who plays at relaxation time, A rhinestone flugelhorn". Who else could get that to scan and rhyme eh? Sadly they don't make bands like that anymore.
Adam Green, Ludlow
Oh it certainly brings back memories - I walked down the aisle 23 years ago to an orchestral version of Whiter Shade of Pale. The melody is, as pointed out in the article, nicely classical!
Clare, Nottingham, UK
Procol Harum were far from a one-hit wonder. Other great early songs included Homburg, Salty Dog and Whaling Stories. The band produced several fine recordings in the years that followed Whiter Shade of Pale, e.g. Exotic Birds and Fruit, Procul's Ninth and Grand Hotel. Early guitarist Robin Trower (hear him on the song Conquistador, for example) is sometimes referred to as the British Jimi Hendrix, although he was no copycat despite his ferocious technique and bluesy voice. Time for a re-evaluation of Procul Harum and Mr T, I'd suggest. As for the outcome of the current legal case, we need look no further than the band's own repertoire which includes the titles "A Rum Tale", "Bringing Home the Bacon", "Fools Gold" and, of course "Nothing But The Truth". One final thought, Procul Harum means 'beyond these things'. If only the courts were!
Bruce Meredeen, Wadhurst, UK
Is 'Smashed Hits' a new series or is there an archive?
Pix6, Vienna, Austria
I never realy got the Wedding thing,I always thought that it made a much better epitaph.
Wow, you learn summat new every day huh! Groovy man. (now where did i put that pot?)
Whee-oo, this is some teapot.
Jeff, Washington, DC
Has the guy suing for royalties only just realized that he hasn't been paid for the last forty years?
John Smith, Paisley, Scotland
Well, what does 'Procol Harum', the name of the group, mean? My favourite record, though.
Helen Ayers, Canterbury
Pop music is just that, it goes 'pop' and should be forgotton and replaced by the current music. It is not classical, which is nurtured over hundreds of years, and to argue over the royalties of it is only providing a lucrative income for lawyers, who no doubt encourage such actions.
Oh, come on! EVERYBODY KNOWS it's a song about taking LSD. The room was humming harder. Perleeze! They just chucked a bunch of rhymes into a bucket and pulled them out ad hoc - it's a well known idiom, viz David Bowie, Talking Heads.
Chris Dare, Crawley England
Who gives a (expletive deleted)!! The song is overlong and boring wrote by a bunch of spaced out hippies who have carved out a whole career on this one damn song. What else have they contributed to music ? Thank god punk came along when it did to give a stale music scene dominated by AOR bands like Procul Harem etc. a kick up the arse. "It's better to burn out than fade away, the king is gone but he's not forgotten"
paul quinn, South Shields
For those with long memories, this case is not exactly surprising. Matthew Fisher has been complaining about the authorship of Whiter Shade of Pale since at least the 1970s. I can remember correspondence from him in Melody Maker about it. Given the size of his chip, the only surprise is that it's taken so long to come to court.
Paul Kelly, Plymouth
The "Bach" pastiche is just that, it's meant to sound like Bach but it's not a straight copy from JS's work.
Elizabeth, Bristol UK
If I'd had anything to do with that insolent and pretentious trash I'd be ashamed to show my face.
Bach for King,
Well Raphael Ravenscroft only got a session fee for the most famous sax solo of all- the hook from "Baker Street". Who could argue that Rafferty's song would have ever been a hit without the sax break?
I actually worked on Gary Brooker's music in the mid 1980's when I was at Polygram Records. He was still very popular in continental Europe and put out two very good solo albums if I recall. 40 years is an awful long time to wait to claim you should have had royalties on a composition, so I'm rooting for Brooker on this one. Would love to be in court when they both play the organ to try and prove their cases, proceedings should be televised just this once! The song still sounds great by the way.
What's the big deal? Does anyone know what Nik Kershaw's "The Riddle" is on about? Or pretty much any song by Yes? Who can follow the words in opera? There's no reason lyricists should regard clarity as the highest virtue - there's room for all forms of expression.
Jason Mills, Accrington, UK
What a cracking article: informed (and informative)but not pretentious. Thank You.
Nicholas Cullum, England
After commenting about this article to one of my workmates, we got into a discussion about the number of songs with obscure or unclear lyrics. I mentioned songs such as Jefferson Airplanes 'White Rabit' and various Pink Floyd and Radiohead songs. To know that a song is good doesn't mean the lyrics have to be clear, the tune and the way the lyric is sung can make the meaning apparent. For example, the song 'Beetlebum' by Blur is fairly obscure, But the meaning is clear. However, I still have no idea what Blur's 'Song Two' is about, even though it is a great song...
It seems that the more you've got, the less willing you are to share it. As say the seagulls in Finding Nemo: "Mine mine mine". A song is more than the sum of its parts, but without out its parts there is no song.
Its a classic! Why worry what it means. It will probably mean a thousand different things to a thousand different people. Just enjoy it!
Why did it take Matthew Fisher 40 years to decide he had helped to write A Whiter Shade of Pale?
Peter Prowse, Telford, England
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