Still Curious: A Whiter Shade of Pale

All right. I’ve had it. I’ve been wanting to know what the song A Whiter Shade of Pale by the band Procol Harum is about since 1967, when I first heard it. (If you think that’s procrastination, let me tell you about my fiction writing.) I’m going to find out.

procolharumMy wife has taken a shine to the singer Sarah Brightman, and that’s what sparked this. On one of the soprano’s albums, apparently in an effort to appeal to the pop music side of the tracks, Brightman sang A Whiter Shade of Pale. The singing seemed lacklustre, not really stretching her at all of course, but what struck me more was the wonderful orchestral arrangement. It conveyed the wistful solemn majesty of the song so well, and made me realize that the melody and song have become a kind of pop music standard. And I still have no idea what the song means.

(Here’s a video of the song by another singer, Liza Veiger, where again I enjoy the orchestra’s playing probably more than the singer’s interpretation. I haven’t linked to a Brightman video, since I find distracting how much she’s in love with herself. And here is Procol Harum’s performance for contrast.)

The band in various incarnations is still playing occasionally, and only last year celebrated 40 years of AWSoP, as it is known to the cognoscenti.

Even the band’s name is mysterious. Some have said that “Procol Harum” comes from the Latin for “beyond these things.” Unfortunately that turns out to be really bad Latin, and the true story seems to be that their manager took it from a pedigree cat of a friend of his.

(Now my question, in the spirit of investigative reporters everywhere, is where did the cat get it? A fellow named Sam Cameron was of a like mind, and detailed his investigation here. Marcus Gray has also followed the trail of the cat.)

In any case, the band formed in 1966 around the songwriting skills of Keith Reed and pianist Gary Brooker. AWSoP was released in 1967 around the same time as the Moody Blue’s orchestral Nights in White Satin and signalled the emergence of the “progressive rock” sub-genre.

a whiter shade of paleThe mysterious words of the song are more an evocation of a feeling than a description of some melancholy event. Reed says he overheard the phrase that became the song title at a party where a man described a woman friend as being “a whiter shade of pale.” (For the full song lyrics, see this web page.)

“We skipped the light fandango
turned cartwheels ‘cross the floor
I was feeling kinda seasick
but the crowd called out for more

…She said, ‘There is no reason
and the truth is plain to see.’
But I wandered through my playing cards
and would not let her be
one of sixteen vestal virgins
who were leaving for the coast”

This reminds me of the similar line in Don McLean’s American Pie, which has many musical allusions: …the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost/They caught the last train for the coast”. (It’s interesting to think about what “coast” means or evokes: some place better or just other, where another life, or heaven, begins… )

“…She said, ‘I’m home on shore leave,’
though in truth we were at sea
so I took her by the looking glass
and forced her to agree…”

The best I can make out is that there’s a woman involved, a conflict or rejection, and sorrow at some kind of parting. But this superficial, simplistic reading pales in comparison to some other interpretations, ranging from the sinking of the Titanic to penile dysfunction to a description of death by drug overdose. But I agree most with Martin Scorsese’s summation of it as a song of loss.

whiter shadeMany are those who have covered the tune. Take a look at this list of 870 versions. (Down at the bottom you can investigate each album alphabetically. A site for the truly obsessive…) Mantovani is there as is Mungo Jerry, the Blue Mountain Pan Pipe Ensemble, and Johnny Yip Chun Tong.

This page at the “semi-official fan site” also lists song covers, with considerably more detail.

So I have largely satisfied my curiosity. I’m willing to allow the lovely ambiguity of the words and the poignancy of the music evoke nostalgia for that time when I first heard the song, and to let it call forth that sense of magnificent loss barely contained.

[Home]

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Note on sources:

A lot of this information came from the very detailed Procol Harum fan site which they say is updated daily.

The images from the top down are from:

1) http://tjclassic69.blogspot.com/2007_11_01_archive.html

2) http://www.mojo4music.com/blog/2008/04/news_digest_friday_april_4.html

3) http://flickr.com/photos/9080016@N06/2085200848/

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18 Comments on “Still Curious: A Whiter Shade of Pale”


  1. How can you write of Procol Harum without mentioning Edmonton?

  2. fencer Says:

    Ah, Mr. Beer, you are so right. I must hang my head. I bought that Procol Harum album with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra when it first came out… Conquistador!

    Regards


  3. That 1967 album by Procul Harum was really an iconic one for the young generation of that period. Now when I play back the original version (your YouTube reference) I marvel at how tame these singers looked, how almost business-like they were dressed (in comparison to today’s singers) and how sweet and nostalgic the song sounds.

    As for the meaning, I always figured it for one of the nonsensical “feeling” or “sensation” poems that derived from the smoking or ingestion of hallucinatory substances.
    Things do not follow a logical order, the imagery is disconnected; but the sound is warm and helps the cohesion of the song.
    K

  4. qazse Says:

    “Unfortunately that turns out to be really bad Latin…” I am of the opinion that there is no such thing as “good” Latin.

    Thank you for putting AWSoP in context with NiWS. The more I think of it, the more I believe they are basically the same song.

    Fun post. Best.

  5. fencer Says:

    Hi lookingforbeauty,

    I think the song may make wonderful sense in certain artificially induced states of mind which I’ve only read about…

    Regards

  6. fencer Says:

    Hi qazse,

    You almost lost me for a moment with “NiWS,” but then I realized the reference to the Moody Blues song… there is a strong similarity of tempo and theme there.

    Regards

  7. forestrat Says:

    Dude,

    I always figured the “leaving for the coast” thing in many “sixties” lyrics referred to the migration of hippies to California. Like another song says “I’d be safe and warm. if I lived in LA”.

    I don’t know about in Canada, but around here the boundary between the ocean and the land on the east side is called the “shore” and the boundary on the west side is called the “coast”. So if someone says to me that they are going to the Coast on vacation, I think California. If they say they are going to the Shore, I think Jersey or Myrtle Beach.

    MDW

  8. fencer Says:

    Hi forestrat,

    I wonder if there is an east-west difference in usage… Your point about California does make sense. There is, though, the song “East Coast Blues” by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, which has the line: “Well I woke up on the east coast, with the west coast on my mind.”

    We do tend to say “coast” here rather than “shore,” although we might use “shore” for a more localized area it seems like…

    Regards

  9. woodman Says:

    Several months ago I ran across a website that had the “lost lyrics” (verses 3 & 4) to A Whiter Shade of Pale. Fascinating to say the least, yet I was saddened to learn that there is no recording of the song in it’s entirety.

    After many beers one night with a friend, I came to this conclusion about the song: The Maritime references lead me to believe it’s actually about a Shipwreck! And it’s told in the first person.

    Verse 1:
    We skipped the light fandango
    turned cartwheels ‘cross the floor
    I was feeling kinda seasick
    but 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 imagine the crew down below one night, drinking heartily, as they weather a raging storm above deck. When suddenly the ship is crashed by a wave and takes on water. (This explains why “the room was humming harder” and “the ceiling flew away”). In fact, another name for a body of water is the Drink…and the waiter bringing a tray may be akin to being overwhelmed by water.

    Verse 2:
    She said, ‘There is no reason
    and the truth is plain to see.’
    But I wandered through my playing cards
    and would not let her be
    one of sixteen vestal virgins
    who were leaving for the coast
    and although my eyes were open
    they might just as well’ve been closed

    As the song progresses, it seems obvious the man is drowning. His vision of a mermaid and the line “She said, ‘There is no reason and the truth is plain to see.’ is the first inclination something has happened…but he hasn’t yet come to terms with it. The reference to her being a Vestal Virgin seems to imply a deity, coming to take him home to God? The line “and although my eyes were open, they might just as well’ve been closed” seem to indicate his first realization of impending death.

    Verse 3:
    She said, ‘I’m home on shore leave,’
    though in truth we were at sea
    so I took her by the looking glass
    and forced her to agree
    saying, ‘You must be the mermaid
    who took Neptune for a ride.’
    But she smiled at me so sadly
    that my anger straightway died

    In this third verse I imagine his last thoughts taking him back o where he began. (They say you see your life pass before you.) It sums up his struggle to understand his predicament, his anger with the consequences, and ultimate acceptance of his own mortality quite beautifully. In fact I believe he’s not necessarily convincing HER he’s at sea and not on Shore leave…but rather himself. The line “But she smiled at me so sadly, that my anger straightway died.” is his last thought.

    Verse 4:
    If music be the food of love
    then laughter is its queen
    and likewise if behind is in front
    then dirt in truth is clean
    My mouth by then like cardboard
    seemed to slip straight through my head
    So we crash-dived straightway quickly
    and attacked the ocean bed

    This final verse appears more reflective of the circle of life than anything (“If music be the food of love then laughter is its queen. And likewise if behind is in front, then dirt in truth is clean”.) At this point he’s passed away and the ship sinks away to the bottom. It is with this Final line (“So we crash-dived straightway quickly, and attacked the ocean bed”) of the original song that I believe the crescendo would be most powerful!!

    So what about the CHORUS???
    And so it was that later
    as the miller told his tale
    that her face, at first just ghostly,
    turned a whiter shade of pale

    Well, I imagine the chorus is simply the wife of this poor sailor, hearing of the shipwreck for the first time. Understand that a Miller was a mainstay in old towns and often ran a type of General Store – so it makes sense that she might hear it from him. Horrified in disbelief that her husband’s ship has gone down (“that her face, at first just ghostly”) comes to the realization he is lost forever (“turned a whiter shade of pale.”).

    A truly beautiful, and tragic, song that would make an excellent video or movie.

    JMHO,
    Dave

  10. fencer Says:

    Hi Woodman,

    Now that makes sense, more than many of the other interpretations I’ve read. Thanks for taking the time to spell that out…

    Regards

  11. alerek Says:

    Ok, I can’t let this one go by.

    This song is obviously about death from an overdose of drugs. The drug referred to in the song is coke, but it could be any drug overdose. The miller is obvious. A miller is any type of moth that has white, powdery wings. Look it up. The first verse of the song obviously describes the trip the author is on. Ever been on one? This is exactly it. Could have written this verse if I’d known the words. And who said there was not readily-available coke in the late 60s? You apparently didn’t live in the 60s. [Who? The webmasters of this site didn’t miss much of the 50s]

    Think about it. When is something a whiter shade of pale? Ever seen a corpse in a coffin? Death is when you are a whiter shade of pale. Nothing on earth is the ghostly color of a corpse.

    “And so it was that later as the miller told his tale that her face, at first just ghostly, turned a whiter shade of pale. She said, ‘There is no reason and the truth is plain to see.’ But I wandered through my playing cards and would not let her be one of sixteen vestal virgins who were leaving for the coast and although my eyes were open they might have just as well’ve been closed.”

    The “she” here is death. There is no reason for the author’s death. The author here is being mocked by the very drug (death) that enticed him. The author’s fate was out of his hands (… I would not let her be) when he became addicted to the drug. His eyes were wide open, but they might have well been closed. Eyes wide open but might have been closed? That’s addiction, people.

    What I can’t believe here, is that folks are even discussing this. The meaning of this song has been well-known for years. Don’t make the song so complicated..! Having trouble with the imagery and symbolism? Think Hotel California..!..!

  12. fencer Says:

    Hi alerek,

    With all due respect, I find your interpretation labored and unconvincing, not to mention argumentative. However, that’s the thing with vague song lyrics: there’s more than one angle that might work.

    But as a matter of fact, at least in the neck of the woods where I was, coke didn’t appear until the early ’70s. I doubt that it figured in this song…

    Regards


  13. […] by brand-new baroque rock band Procol Harum. (*)   It shortly climbs to UK#1, US#5. (*) (*) Written by Gary Brooker and Keith Reid (before the band formed, after the breakup of The […]

  14. Robert Says:

    I was doing the Vietnam thing as an Infantryman in the late 1960s. I didn’t do to much reading into what the meaning of “X” song was. If it was a good tune, it got played. I don’t think the current crop of Rap, Techno and screaming hate songs will ever make a Oldies but Goodies memory. In any case, this song IS a classic. Now please….Carry On Smartly

  15. fencer Says:

    Hi Robert,

    Thanks for your comment, and for coming by….

    Regards

  16. Cap Says:

    How about this. It’s a drunken encounter and pick up attempt between a man and an.. older? Married? Both? Woman. It’s his attempt to bed said woman. Song packed full of metaphors. Feeling sea sick, drunk or nervous. She said, “There is no reason, and the truth is plain to see.” She has no reason to be interested in him, he’s to young, she’s married.. whatever. As he wonders through his playing cards… working on his pick up moves. She said, “I’m home on shore leave.” Ehhh, maybe another metaphor, a getaway possibly with some girlfriends (the other 15 vestal virgins) to get away from their family life and responsibilities for a while. Took her by the looking glass.. showing her her reflection and how beautiful she is. Compliments her by telling her she’s a mermaid. She’s touched by this. Woo Hoo! about to get lucky. He then continues his pick up with music and good times. Finally, they crash dive into all the sexual tension and attack the ocean bed. Score!!!!!!!

  17. Cap Says:

    Oh oh oh, I left this out. “And likewise, what’s behind is in front. The dirt in fact is clean.” She left her life behind….It’s still in front of her for when she goes back. Sex may be dirty, but it’s still good clean fun.

  18. fencer Says:

    Well, Cap, that is one way to interpret. The song is good, though, isn’t it, for leaving us so much room to show our reflection….

    Thanks for visiting.

    Regards


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