“A Whiter Shade of Pale” — Procul Harum

There have been two monster-selling pop records which mention the word “fandango”.

One is Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” (“Scaramouche, Scaramouche will you do the Fandango?”).

The other is Procul Harum’s 1967 hit, “A Whiter Shade of Pale” (“We skipped a light fandango/Turned cartwheels ‘cross the floor”).

And it’s interesting just how intertwined two such classic records have been over the years.

The Brit Awards made a special award for the nation’s most popular song between 1952 and 1977 for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee that year. Tied in first place were “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “A Whiter Shade of Pale”.

In 2009, Phonographic Performance Ltd, the UK firm which manages artist royalty payments for use on radio and in public places such as coffee shops, announced that “A Whiter Shade of Pale” was the most played record of the last 75 years. In second place — “Bohemian Rhapsody”.

Interesting that two such different records, both with the very unusual word “fandango” in their lyrics, should be so much a part of the British psyche. (If you know any British people, that might explain a lot…)

As it happens, this year is the 50th anniversary of 1967’s “summer of love”. And no other record says “1967” quite like “A Whiter Shade of Pale”.

The moment you hear that slightly eerie Hammond organ intro, you know something very special is coming.

Writing credits went initially to Gary Brooker and Keith Reid. However several years later their band-mate Matthew Fisher successfully got his name added to the writing credits after a court case which went all the way to the House of Lords.

It was Matthew Fisher’s flourishes on the organ which, in so many ways, made the song we all love to this day.

Based loosely on fragments of Bach, there’s no doubt that “A Whiter Shade of Pale” is musically quite an interesting song. The descending bass line is a classic example of that technique (as, to be fair, is Bach’s original “Air on a G String” from which “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” took its inspiration).

Although “A Whiter Shade of Pale” is rightly famous for its organ part, I’m a big fan of the drums on the record too. They matter more than you might think.

Jazz drummer Bill Eyden provided the drum part as Procul Harum were between drummers at the time the song was recorded.

And there’s definitely something from the subtlety and musicianship of jazz drumming in his work on “A Whiter Shade of Pale”. It’s not flashy or trying to grab anyone’s attention. It’s just a beautifully crafted piece of drumming that helps the song along a lot more than it gets the credit for.

But enough about the music…what were the lyrics all about?

I’m too young to remember 1967 although, along with other Brits, I’ve clearly heard the song on the radio hundreds or thousands of times over the years, so I’m pretty familiar with it.

I’ve read that it was intended as a love song…probably no great surprise as that’s what 95% of popular music is about…but it must be one of the most indirectly-expressed love songs to make it into the charts.

I spent most of my younger years pretty sure it was a song about drugs (that’s the subject of most of the other 5% of popular songs which aren’t about love, as near as I can figure). And, of course, at the time explicit drugs references in a song would guarantee no radio airplay, so I thought I understood the need to be obscure in the references.

“A Whiter Shade Of Pale” is not quite up there with “American Pie” in terms of obscure lyrical mysteries, but when I was growing up, it wasn’t far off.

If lines like these aren’t about drugs, I’m not sure what they are about…

We skipped a light fandango
Turned cartwheels ‘cross the floor
I was feeling kinda seasick
The crowd called out for more
The room was humming harder
As the ceiling flew away
When we called out for another drink
The waiter brought a tray

I suppose they could be about “falling head over heels in love”. But that seemed unlikely to me, even back in the hippy era.

Discovering that these lines weren’t about drugs at all was one of the biggest disappointments of my adult years…I was so sure I’d picked up a raft of hidden meanings in the song as a kid. Just goes to show how wrong you can be…

Co-writer Keith Reid said he was trying to be evocative when he wrote the song, rather than just doing a straight boy-meets-girl story. He definitely succeeded in that endeavour…even if I thought he was trying to be evocative about an entirely different subject.

But the end result is definitely evocative of hippies, flower power and the summer of love to anyone hearing it today. Even people too young to remember the record first time round have a close association with the late-60s when they hear it.

This is probably why “A Whiter Shade of Pale” has become such a popular song for TV commercials, films and TV programmes. If a director is trying to catapult people back to the 1960s, there’s no better tune to use…the audience is right there in an instant.

And if that’s a time in history you’d like to experience…whether as a fond memory or vicariously as if you were there at the time…that’s really easy to do.

Just click play on the video below and you’ll be there in an instant.

Here’s Procul Harem with “A Whiter Shade of Pale”…

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Without words, it’s just a nice tune. Add words — now you’ve got a song. And songs can change your world. I write about some that changed mine.

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