A Whiter Shade …

A Whiter Shade of Pale - peacock

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.

A Whiter Shade of Pale - band

Procol Harum

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.

A Whiter Shade of Pale - snake

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.

Postscript

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.

Toccata and Fugue

Toccata and Fugue - igor

We all lost an hour when the clocks went forward last night. And, today, Crotchety Man slipped a few centuries back in time. It’s a big leap from Jimi Hendrix to J. S. Bach but it’s not so hard, really. These days, all it takes is a few clicks of a mouse.

The Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (BWV 565) has become Bach’s best known organ piece, although there is some doubt about its authenticity. It was probably composed around 1730 and may have existed only as a single manuscript until its first publication in 1833. It has some characteristics that are atypical of Bach but statistical analysis has not found a more likely composer.

The pipe organ was the synthesiser of the 18th century. One man, sat at an organ, could make more noise than a whole orchestra, more than enough to fill a cathedral. Sat there he could generate the rumble of thunder or the chirruping of song birds. He could imitate brass, woodwind and string sections, switching between different timbres at the push of an organ stop. Pipe organs were big, powerful and awesomely beautiful instruments.

The popularity of BWV 565 comes, I think, from its exploitation of the particular qualities of the organ.

It opens with a short trumpet fanfare followed by an arpeggio that builds like five male voices preparing to sing an opera: bass, baritone, tenor, counter-tenor, contralto. As each voice joins in the volume swells and the chord becomes increasingly dissonant, a sequence of diminished intervals sending a chill up the spine. The opera singers perform a few voice exercises, give us that dissonant chord again and swing smoothly into a dainty aria. The piece is only a dozen bars in and already we have three contrasting styles.

The opera singers converse with each other for a while and then, as the toccata ends, they leave the stage.

When the organ pipes breathe again it is with the interwoven lines of a fugue. The organ has become a choir of dragons with lusty voices that dance about in the great halls of our ancestors. Simple peasants that we are, we can only stand, watch and marvel at what we see and hear. The dragons dance a while for our entertainment – there is no threat in their movements and no fear in our hearts. When they are done the dragons disappear in soft puffs of smoke and we are alone again.

The imagery, of course, is mine. This is what Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor sounds like to me. It takes me back to the days when I sang in the church choir a few decades ago, further back to the eighteenth century when it was composed and way, way back to the days of legend when dragons walked the earth. You see, the pipe organ is not just a versatile musical instrument, it is a time machine for the imagination. And that reminds me… It’s time to wind the clocks on an hour and welcome Summer Time.

Air On The G String

When I launched this blog I said it would cover a wide range of genres, including a “smattering of classical”. I was using ‘classical’ to mean anything in the styles prevalent in the 300 years or so from about 1600 – mainly orchestral and in one of a number of recognised forms (symphonies, concertos, etc.). Music historians divide those centuries into three periods, each with its own style: Baroque (1600 to 1750), Classical (1750 to 1830) and Romantic (1810 to 1900).
Cello_strung_gut

For my first venture back in time I’m going to choose a piece from the Baroque period that is now known as Air on the G String. It is the second section of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Suite No. 3 in D major. Originally written around 1720 for an ensemble of about a dozen instruments, it was arranged for violin and piano by August Wilhelmj in the late 19th century. It is the later arrangement that can be played entirely on the G string of a violin, which gives the piece its popular name.

J. S. Bach is easily my favourite classical (small ‘c’) composer and his Air on the G String is a particular favourite of mine. It has a lovely tune, all the parts have something interesting to say and the chords wander through the musical landscape like a stroll in the countryside. I invite you to put on your headphones and come for a walk with me…

More Info:

  • The air is familiar to modern audiences as the theme from the Hamlet TV advertisements. The tune is also incorporated into Procol Harum’s 1967 single A Whiter Shade of Pale and (according to Wikipedia) the Beatles Sea of Monsters track on their Yellow Submarine album.
  • The link given above is a performance by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra that feels a bit slow to me. There’s a much better rendition available as an ‘ogg’ file under a creative commons licence, but it stops abruptly after 2 minutes 50 seconds. You may need to download a player that understands the ogg file format to play it.