A good song always poses a question or two around a dinner party table but a great song can occupy the Pub Debating Team for decades.
And so to Procol Harum with their 1967 and 1972 hit A Whiter Shade of Pale.
Question. Well, what’s the definitive spelling of Procol/Procul/Procal Harum/Harem/Harun for starters. And what is one when it’s at home?
Answer. It’s Procol Harum of course and they allegedly took their name (there are various “origins” stories) from record producer Gus Dudgeon’s Burmese cat – presumably because it was a suitably pretentious progressive rock disguise for a Southend band which in earlier incarnations had quite happily got by as The Paramounts (one Top 40 hit with a cover version of The Coasters original Poison Ivy and plenty of misses) and briefly The Pinewoods.
Anyway, if in addition to vocalist Gary Brooker and the usual guitars/drums/keyboards instrumentalists the band boasted a poet (Keith Reid) in its line-up who would take you seriously with a pop/blues band name? Not to mention the kaftans and droopy moustaches favoured at the time. Procol Harum ticked all the boxes.
Question. So what’s it all about? It’s one thing skipping the light fandango and turning cartwheels ‘cross the floor (don’t try it at home!) but quite another finding sixteen vestal virgins who are leaving for the coast (even in 1967 and especially in Southend).
Answer. Ask the predictably enigmatic Keith Reid who reckons he had the title first then wrote the rest like bits of a jigsaw puzzle. Then again he claims the reference to a miller telling his tale had nothing to do with Chaucer so he’s clearly got a bit fuddled over the years.
Perhaps better to go with Uncut magazine’s conjecture that the most commonly held interpretation is that it’s all “a snapshot of a drunken sexual escapade gone astray.” Well, that would have it banned from the BBC wouldn’t it? Fandango indeed.
Question. Actually does it really matter at all because, after all, it’s a timeless masterpiece isn’t it?
Answer. Not a jot. The band looked naff (even by 1960s standards) and the lyrics were deliberately dopey (even by 1960s standards) but once you heard Matthew Fisher’s Hammond organ piercing the air you were hooked – even if you didn’t realise as Wikipedia puts it rather less emotionally this was actually “a structure reminiscent of Baroque music, a countermelodybased on J. S. Bach‘s Orchestral Suite N° 3 in D Major.”
It’s a shame Fisher didn’t receive any royalties for his contribution until years later – and Bach never did!
Produced by Denny Cordell who in 1964 had helped The Moody Blues hit the top spot with the classic Go Now, it’s one of those “can you remember where you where when you first heard it” songs which sounds as good today as it did back then. Coffee bar, on holiday, staff canteen, youth club, glued to a pirate radio station’s wandering signal? Whatever. Just remember, as the mournful vocals of Gary Brooker would have us believe in the longer version of the half a century old song: