"A Whiter Shade of Pale"
A Rock Processional for the Ages
Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac once told an interviewer he considers this processional-tempo megahit a "classical soul song." John Lennon said it made great listening for an acid trip. Brian Wilson thought he was hearing the music to his own funeral when it was playing. Even its lyricist, Keith Reid, has fessed up to not knowing what it's about—his lyrics are a series of abstract images and sailing metaphors, with appearances by the "vestal virgins" and revelers who "trip the light fandango."
The first song that British band Procol Harum ever recorded, "A Whiter Shade of Pale" is four minutes and three seconds of utterly breathtaking beauty—part affirmation of life and part appeal to an otherworldly presence. Framed by creeping church-organ counterpoint, it carries traces of well-known works by Johann Sebastian Bach—the chord sequence written by keyboardist and singer Gary Booker emulates Air on a G String, and in a few places the melody echoes Bach's Cantata 140, also known as "Wachet auf" (Sleepers Awake). But Booker goes in another direction with his singing—he's spent and weary, almost overcome with resignation.
A massive hit upon its release in 1967 (some consider it the single of the Summer of Love), "Whiter Shade" has sold millions, been covered by countless artists (including Willie Nelson) and used in movies and advertising. And still the original has the power to stop time.
Released: 1967, Deram
Appears On: Procol Harum; Greatest Hits.
Next Stop: Moody Blues: Seventh Sojourn
After That: Electric Light Orchestra: Eldorado.
Book Pages: 615–616