Southend-on-Sea lies on the north side of the Thames estuary to the east of London. It’s a seaside resort with all the usual tourist trappings: a beach, gift shops, an amusement park, a few hotels and lots of guest houses. But Southend is most famous for its pier, the longest pleasure pier in the world at a little over 2km. In the world of popular music, though, Southend is known as the town where Gary Brooker and Robin Trower grew up.
Brooker and Trower had formed a group called The Paramounts around 1962 (Wikipedia has conflicting information on the date) and that band had a hit in 1964 with a cover of Poison Ivy by The Coasters. Further chart success eluded them and in 1966 The Paramounts split up. The following year Gary Brooker formed a new band called Procol Harum. The original line-up was Brooker (vocals, piano), Matthew Fisher (Hammond organ), Ray Royer (guitar), David Knights (bass) and Keith Reid (lyrics). With two keyboard players, a specialist lyricist and no drummer that was an unusual combination.
Procol Harum‘s first release was the single, A Whiter Shade of Pale. It sounds a lot like one of Bach’s organ works – moderately slow and with a Baroque style. If there is any guitar work on the recording my ears can’t hear it. The pure electronic tones of the organ give the song a dreamy feel but the steady descending bass part keeps it moving. Gary Brooker delivers the melody with a sweetly soulful voice and Matthew Fisher adds unobtrusive embellishments on the Hammond. But what makes the track for me is the way the parts fit together, seamlessly, like pieces of a jigsaw, nothing out of place. It’s not quite Air on a G String, but it could almost be a long lost snippet of Bach.
When A Whiter Shade of Pale was released in 1967 Crotchety Man struggled to hear the words. In those days even professionally recorded music lacked the detail we expect in the 21st century and our radios and record players added their own mushiness to the sound. The room was humming “hodder”? Was that “as the miller told his tale” or “… mirror …”? And, surely, he can’t be singing “vessel virgins”? It seemed the meaning of the lyrics would be lost to me unless I could find them in print. Nowadays, of course, lyrics are usually somewhere on the Internet and those for aWSoP are no exception.
The Procol Harum website provides the definitive lyrics for A Whiter Shade of Pale. To those only familiar with the original single (and most cover versions) it comes as quite a surprise to see that there are four verses, not just two. The last two verses were unceremoniously dropped to reduce the single to the radio-friendly length of 4 minutes.
Most people find the words bafflingly mysterious. In fact, pretty much everyone but their author seems to struggle with them. The consensus is that the song describes an uncertain, but ultimately successful, attempt at seduction fuelled by copious amounts of alcohol. Does that knowledge add to the enjoyment of the song? No, not really. The evocative phrases scattered throughout the song, like fragments of gold glinting in the prospector’s pan, are quite enough to create a sense of nervous anticipation. That there may be a story behind them, too, doesn’t add all that much.
According to Wikipedia, A Whiter Shade of Pale is “one of fewer than 30 singles to have sold over 10 million copies worldwide”. That same website also provides a list of the best selling singles in a physical form with aWSoP at 28= along with 13 other songs putting it somewhere between the 28th and 41st best selling vinyl/CD single. Then there are another 42 digital download tracks that have sold 10 million or more copies. Make of that what you will.
Perhaps a more telling statistic is that in 2009 the organisation responsible for collecting royalties for public performances of recorded music in the UK (Phonographic Performance Ltd.) listed A Whiter Shade of Pale as the most played song in public places since the company was formed in 1934. Not one of the top 100, not one of the top 10, the most played song of all since records began. I don’t know how the data was collected and I’m sure it can be challenged on all sorts of technical grounds but there can be absolutely no doubt that A Whiter Shade of Pale is one of the most popular songs there has ever been. And deservedly so.
After A Whiter Shade of Pale was recorded Robin Trower rejoined his old bandmate Gary Brooker, replacing Ray Royer as the guitarist with Procol Harum. He remained with them until 1971 and features on their first five albums.