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  • Gilbert Klein
    Gilbert Klein

    An Even Whiter Shade of Pale

    Once again I expose my sordid past for your amusement and edification. Maybe you’re tired of hearing about the damn Sixties. I understand that, but I don’t care. Maybe this one’s too obscure for some of you but I doubt it. Everyone knows it, but no one knows what it’s about. It’s a classic song, d-d-dammit, and you’re gonna learn something. And afterwards, besides amazing your easily impressed friends, this is going to kill the next time you’re at a karaoke bar.

     

    Everyone who listened to radio knew it, and most of the people who collected records had this one. If I remember correctly (sometimes I do!), this was a song that we didn’t always sing along to, sometimes we’d just listen. It put us in a melancholy, wistful mood, and we all seemed to take the song personally. It’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” by Procol Harum. It was one of the hippest records around and no one knew what it was about. But it sounded so cool… and that legendary organ break! Classic Hammond organ through a Leslie speaker.

     

    It was fifty years ago next month, or maybe the month after. I’d just gotten back from California and was living in my parents’ house and looking for a way out, when I got a call from my old friend Bob, who asked what I’d been doing. I told him about being there and being here. He knew I’d played folk music, but he didn’t know I’d picked up an electric guitar and got a band together. I told him we had four guys and a chick singer and we called ourselves Heads and Tail. We played one date, a school dance, but I had the fever. He told me he was connected to a band that was looking for a rhythm guitarist, and that’s what I was! Oh, I knew I was no musician, I could never play lead, but I knew a bunch of chords… He said the band needed the slot filled so they could go out on tour, and asked if I wanted to audition for the group. The next day I was at the infamous Chelsea Hotel* with Bob, struggling to tune my red Hagstrom 12-string guitar without embarrassing myself, when Bob left to find the bass player, who was going to audition me. Ever tried to tune a 12-string with no “ear?”

     

    What my ear told me was one step ahead of a guess, but soon it was either in tune or close enough, so I sat until I was led to another room where I was introduced to the band’s bass player, who asked what kind of music I liked to play. I said blues and rock. “Okay, let’s play a blues,” he said, “How about in E?” I was clumsy and inept and… awful. 

     

    I was just so awful. To this day I admire the guy for being kind enough not to laugh. How bad was I? When he said a blues in E, I asked about the A chord, asking “You mean the E chord up on the fifth fret?” Y’see? Hell, if I wasn’t getting paid for this, I’d never tell you about that. It took less than five minutes to see that God had deprived me of any discernible musical talent, he said “That’s enough,” and I asked, “Was that okay?” He said, “Sure, sure. That was good.” Then he thanked me for coming in from the Island, and said he’d call. I went home and told my mother and my friend Freddy that I was going out on tour with the Pleasant Street Blues Band. I was in a band! I was going nationwide! My pal Freddy was blown away. My mother was not amused. 

     

    The bass player never called and there were two reasons: I was awful, and the next day the band’s singer and lead guitarist shot up some bad heroin and the left side of his face was paralyzed. It would be twenty-two years before I got into another band, and I must have written about that somewhere. 

     

    But that’s not what this is about. This is about what happened before my audition, in that brief period while I was waiting in the first room. I was sitting on a bed in the Chelsea Hotel while Bob had gone out, and once I had the guitar in tune I looked around and saw a Billboard magazine. I browsed through it and read a story about the newly-released-but-already-classic, “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” which had just come out and was an instant hit. I read the piece, and all I remember of it is that they printed an unknown third verse. A third verse? Everyone knew the song and could sing all two verses… but a third verse? I never knew about that- and I read Rolling Stone faithfully, d-d-dammit! And no one knew else it or knew of it. I collect rock ‘n’ roll trivia, y’know, so I memorized it, and up until this week I still remembered everything but the last line. Then I waited years for the chance to amaze and amuse friends and strangers with my erudition, but so far… nothing. And then I remembered that I have this column, and I finally had someone to impress. And then I remembered Google, so I went looking for the missing line of the third verse, and you know what I found out? There were four verses! Four

     

    The song is credited to Keith Reid, Gary Brooker, and after a lengthy lawsuit, Mathew Fisher. Reid wrote it, Brooker sings it and plays piano, and Fisher plays organ. Reid said he overheard someone at a party saying to a woman, "You've turned a whiter shade of pale", and the phrase stuck in his mind. Despite various interpretations, Reid said, “I was trying to conjure a mood as much as tell a straightforward, girl-leaves-boy story. With the ceiling flying away and room humming harder, I wanted to paint an image of a scene. I wasn’t trying to be mysterious with those images. I was trying to be evocative. I suppose it seems like a decadent scene I’m describing. But I was too young to have experienced any decadence, then. I might have been smoking when I conceived it, but not when I wrote. It was influenced by books, not drugs.”

     

     

    Just before we get to all four verses I want to show you why this song is worth a little extra time:

     

    • “A Whiter Shade of Pale” was released on May 12, 1967, and in two weeks it reached number 1, where it stayed for six weeks. 
    • It reached No. 1 in several countries when released in 1967.
    • Considered an anthem of the 1967 Summer of Love, it is one of fewer than 30 singles to have sold over 10 million copies worldwide. 
    • According to a music journalist, in the context of the Summer of Love, "A Whiter Shade of Pale" was the "one song [that] stood above all others, its Everest-like status conferred by no less than John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who were enthralled by the Chaucerian wordplay and heavenly Baroque accompaniment"
    • Jim Irvin of Mojo said that its arrival at number 1 on the national singles chart on June 8, 1967, on the same day that the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band topped the national albums chart, marked the start of the “Summer of Love” in Britain.
    • Another writer said that “amid the search for higher consciousness during the flower power era, the song galvanised a congregation of disaffected youth dismissive of traditional religion but anxious to achieve spiritual salvation."
    • In 1977, the song was named joint winner (along with Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody") of "The Best British Pop Single 1952–1977" at the Brit Awards.
    • In 1998 the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
    • In 2004, it appeared at number 57 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the "500 Greatest Songs of All Time."
    • More than 1000 recorded cover versions by other artists are known.
    • The song has been included in many music compilations over the decades, and has also been used in the soundtracks of numerous films.
    • Cover versions of the song have also been featured in many films.
    • British TV station Channel 4 placed the song at number 19 in its chart of "The 100 Greatest No. 1 Singles."
    • It was the most played song in the last 75 years in public places in the UK (as of 2009), and a United Kingdom performing rights group recognized it as the most-played record by British broadcasting of the past 70 years.
    • When Reid was asked what “Procol Harum” meant, he said, “It’s the name of a cat, a Siamese cat.”
    • Don’t forget that thing about killing at the karaoke bar. Also useful in bar bets.

     

     

     

    Thanks for waiting. Click here for “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” by Procol Harum.

     

     

              

     

     

     A Whiter Shade of Pale

    We tripped the light fandango, and turned cartwheels across the floor 
    I was feeling kind of 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
    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 just as well have be closed
    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

     

    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
    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 I’m home on shore, 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’
    She smiled at me so sadly that my anger straightaway died
    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

     

    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
    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

     

     

    *Extra Credit: I’ll buy a drink for anyone who knows what a Chelsea Straw is, and another drink if they tell me how they knew that.

     

     


     

     

     

    GilbertgGilbert Klein has enough degrees and not enough stories. He’s been a radio talk show host, a nightclub owner, event producer, and has written two books: FAT CHANCE about the legendary KFAT radio, and FOOTBALL 101. He threatens to write one more. He spent 25 years in New York, 25 years in San Francisco, and is now purportedly retired in Baja.

    Edited by The Computer Audiophile


    User Feedback


    Thanks for posting your article. I enjoyed reading it. I've always been a big PH fan, especially the earlier stuff, before Trower left, and I got to see them play twice, while B.J. Wilson was still with us.

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    Just wanted to thank you for the excellent article and bringing back some fond memories. This song always does that for me. You may have already read Pete Brown's excellent biography on the Beatles (The Love You Make), wherein he mentions that John had a studio grade turntable installed in his psychedelic Rolls Royce Phantom. They sipped tea laced with LSD and...

    “At one point in the party George discovered that Derek (Taylor) and John were curled up in the plush backseat of John’s Rolls, listening to A Whiter Shade of Pale for the hundredth time, and he climbed in with them”

    They were all blown away by that song. I was/am too.

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    Great story, thanks!

     

    I always loved this song, a classic.

     

    This song has something that always made me think of other music but I could never tell which one.  That was until about a week ago, when I read that A Whiter Shade of Pale is an adaptation of JS Bach's Air on a G String.  I then knew that I had just found that other music.

     

    My source: Eric Siblin, author of this book on Bach's cello suites https://www.amazon.ca/Cello-Suites-Casals-Baroque-Masterpiece/dp/0802145248.

     

    I read it on page 252 of the pocket book edition in French, in the chapter on the 5th suite. I have no connection with E Siblin.

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    This album is cool because it has a few unreleased outtakes; including a mono vamp blues tune with no title and a stereo version of Lime Street Blues.

     

    As vinyl, it is a bit of a farce.  The liner notes clearly state that the source is ..... digital.

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    Boy that song sure tugs at some old memories ...  o.O

     

    I am always amazed at all the associated memories that come along like baggage when these old songs are heard.

    It's like the song is just a key to a door unlocking all those experiences that we stored as long forgotten memories.

     

    Thank-you for the story.

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    I was lucky enough to see Robin open for Tull's Passion Play tour, but I did not get to see live PH.  Pity.

     

    Man, do I love your posts. Thanks very much, Gilbert.

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    1 hour ago, Charente said:

    A Chelsea Straw might be a type of 'straw hat' ???

    Surely it's a rolled-up banknote for snorting coke.

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    Great article, and one of my favorite songs.

     

    Listening to the audio, this sounds like a stereo version.

     

    I have several very good CD recordings of this song, all in mono.  I just listened to my rip on J River, and compared with the audio in the link from the article.

     

    The audio from the link definitely sounds more like stereo than my CD rip.

     

    Can someone reply with where this version of A Whiter Shade Of Pale may be found? 

     

    ABJ

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    On 8/26/2017 at 0:48 AM, JoseL said:
     
    It is a straw, rolled-up paper or banknote for...chasing the dragon?

    You are close, JoseL. The answer is kind of in the article, but you had to be there to know it. Or had a friend who was there.

    How about this: I'll come back in two weeks and tell y'all, giving some people a chance to earn those free drinks.

    And something I forget to do: thanks to all of you who've been so supportive and said such nice things about the column. I read them and they mean alot to me, but I always forget to reply.

    And one other thing I didn't put in the article: I was freakin' awful that day at the Chelsea Hotel, but I got better and played adequately in my next band, 22 years later. Someone put us on YouTube...

     

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    On 8/24/2017 at 4:35 PM, Gilles said:

    That was until about a week ago, when I read that A Whiter Shade of Pale is an adaptation of JS Bach's Air on a G String.  I then knew that I had just found that other music.

     

    My source: Eric Siblin, author of this book on Bach's cello suites https://www.amazon.ca/Cello-Suites-Casals-Baroque-Masterpiece/dp/0802145248.

     

    I read it on page 252 of the pocket book edition in French, in the chapter on the 5th suite. I have no connection with E Siblin.

    If Siblin actually wrote that, he was wrong. There is no doubt that Matthew Fisher's organ accompaniment owes a lot to the referenced Bach piece, but the song was written and the vocals and piano were recorded by Gary Brooker before Fisher's organ work was added.

     

    Booker's work contains elements reminiscent of Baroque music, but unlike Fisher's organ work there is nothing that can be directly attributable to the Air on a G String.

     

     

     

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