Hello there! In this week’s blog we consider the song A Whiter Shade of Pale. This is a haunting and mysterious pop song by Procol Harum. We will start with the original, and then we will review covers from Joe Cocker and also Annie Lennox.
Procol Harum and A Whiter Shade of Pale:
In the fall of 1965, I arrived in Oxford to begin graduate work on my doctoral thesis. I experienced a number of culture shocks in the UK; however, one of the most dramatic differences between the U.S. and England was in the availability of rock music on the radio.
In the US, rock music could be found all over the radio dial. So, in the evenings back in Niagara Falls, N.Y. where I grew up, I would listen to Buffalo’s powerful WKBW station. But on a good night, my old AM radio could pick up faint traces of some of the 50,000-watt giant radio stations broadcasting from Nashville and even occasionally Shreveport, LA.
In those days, one could still find “mainstream” radio stations that would play big-band records and Perry Como tunes, and there were a number of country stations that featured the Nashville sound.
However, American rock music stations were becoming ever more specialized. In the 60s, ‘progressive’ rock stations began playing entire albums; or, they would play blocks of rock music that focused on one specific genre (folk-rock, heavy metal, etc).
Coming from this atmosphere to England was a real eye-opener. I was stunned to discover that, to first order, there was precious little rock music on BBC Radio!
The BBC had a monopoly on both radio and TV in the UK, and they used their power to tightly control broadcast content. There were a couple of weekly TV programs such as Top of the Pops, but I did not own a TV.
Because of the lack of rock music on BBC radio, various ‘pirate’ stations had sprung up. Radio Luxembourg had a gigantic transmitter located in Luxembourg, that broadcast to much of western Europe. However, for me the most enjoyable rock music came from Radio Caroline.
‘Radio Caroline’ consisted of a couple of ships anchored outside the 3-mile limit (the limit at that time of Britain’s territorial waters). The good news was that Radio Caroline broadcast an interesting mix of rock and roll music most of the day, and featured American-style DJs who rapidly gained a following.
The bad news was that to some degree the ‘pirate radio’ stations lived up to their nickname. Apparently they did not pay royalties to record producers, composers or artists. As a result, the stations had rather tense relations with the music industry: by broadcasting songs, pirate radio increased record sales, but they avoided paying royalties for the songs they played.
It was interesting to see the fury that pirate radio evoked from British lawmakers. They claimed that pirate radio transmissions interfered with signals from emergency shipping channels, broke international agreements, and of course made a mockery of the BBC’s broadcasting monopoly.
Anyway, in the spring of 1967 while I was working on my thesis research, Radio Caroline began playing a fascinating new pop song. It contained a haunting and unforgettable organ solo that appeared to have been copied from a J.S. Bach piece. The lyrics were arcane and mysterious; but the song was memorable and rapidly gained a following.
The name of the band was Procol Harum, and the song was A Whiter Shade of Pale. The Radio Caroline airplay generated a tremendous demand for the album or a single record. There were only two problems: first, no album existed; and second, to all intents and purposes there was no band, either.
Below is a photo of Procol Harum circa 1967, suitably decked out for the Summer of Love. From L: Dave Knights (bass), B.J. Wilson (drums), Gary Brooker (piano & lead vocals), Matthew Fisher (organ) and Robin Trower (guitar).
‘Procol Harum’ was the name chosen by a quintet of session musicians that included piano, organ, guitar, bass and drums. Supposedly Procol Harum was the name of a cat belonging to a friend of the producer. The musicians had recorded a demo tape, and the demo was being test-marketed on Radio Caroline.
Once it became clear that the song was going to be a hit, the group returned to the studio and rushed out an album.
The melody to A Whiter Shade of Pale was composed by lead vocalist Gary Brooker, with lyrics supplied by Keith Reid. The lyrics are rather ambiguous, but they appear to be describing a romantic encounter.
We skipped the 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
[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
She said: “There is no reason
and the truth is plain to see”
but I wandered through my playing cards
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 been closed
Where else in rock music do you find references to Chaucer (“as the miller told his tale”), vestal virgins, and “skipping the light fandango”? Apparently the inspiration for the song came to Keith Reid at a party when someone remarked to a woman “You’ve turned a whiter shade of pale.”
Due to the length of the organ solo, only two stanzas of the song were included in A Whiter Shade of Pale, so that the song would fit into the normal range for a pop tune. The full song actually contains two additional stanzas, but those lyrics are much weaker than the others.
Here is the first music video produced by Procol Harum for A Whiter Shade of Pale. While the song plays in the background, the video contains some shots of the group performing. Interspersed are images of the band members wandering around the ruins of Witley Court, an English stately home that was gutted by fire in 1937 and never restored.
The video also contains some unsettling graphics from the Vietnam War. There is considerable cognitive dissonance between images of the band, shots of Witley Court, and the Vietnam War footage. Because of the graphic nature of the war images, various British TV shows, notably Top of the Pops, refused to play the video. As a result, a second music video was created.
The organ part, which according to keyboardist Matthew Fisher was inspired by the Bach cantata Sleepers Wake, is simply mesmerizing. The combination of the perplexing lyrics, Gary Brooker’s impressive blues-based vocals, and the organ line, created an instant rock classic.
To say the song ‘went viral’ would be a gross understatement. A Whiter Shade of Pale sold over 10 million records; moreover, it has been certified as the most widely played song on British broadcasting in the past 70 years.
The song also sparked a fascinating lawsuit, when in 2005 organist Matthew Fisher claimed co-authorship of the tune. You might ask, if Gary Brooker composed the melody and Keith Reid the lyrics, just what did Matthew Fisher provide?
Fisher argued that he created the organ solo, and that this was an integral part of the song for which he should receive credit. Fisher won the lawsuit, establishing the argument that someone who creates a ‘signature part’ of a composition deserves to be named a co-writer.
Listening to A Whiter Shade of Pale, it’s hard to argue with Fisher. Surely if one removed his organ part, the song would be greatly diminished, and perhaps unrecognizable.
Next we show live video of Procol Harum performing at Zeltspektakel 2015 in Winterbach, Germany in July 2015. This is an enjoyable performance. Lead vocalist Gary Brooker, the only founding member of Procol Harum remaining in the band, starts out by mentioning other songs that feature a series of descending chords, such as occur in A Whiter Shade of Pale.
Of course, he begins with J.S. Bach, whose work inspired the song’s memorable organ solo. Brooker continues with snippets from When a Man Loves a Woman, by Percy Sledge, and No Woman No Cry by Bob Marley and the Wailers. After that, he segues into A Whiter Shade of Pale.
The group Procol Harum had reasonable success with some later compositions such as Conquistador and Homburg, but none of those songs approached the blockbuster reception of A Whiter Shade of Pale. Procol Harum’s pop songs were characterized by unusually sophisticated lyrics and strong keyboard parts.
Listening to A Whiter Shade of Pale instantly transports me back to those heady days of 1967. The song debuted just a few weeks before the release of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album, which brought even more excitement to the British music scene.
Joe Cocker and A Whiter Shade of Pale:
Joe Cocker was a British blues musician. He is one of my favorite artists, despite the fact that he produced relatively few original songs, as most of his best-known songs are covers of other tunes. However, he was a terrific bluesman whose best covers brought an entirely new take on a classic song.
We previously discussed Joe Cocker in our blog post on the Beatles song With a Little Help From My Friends. We also considered Cocker’s cover of Jimmy Cliff’s song Many Rivers to Cross. So here we will briefly review Joe Cocker’s life and career.
Below is a photo of Joe Cocker performing at London’s Crystal Palace Bowl in June 1972.
In the late 1950s, Cocker was attracted to music by following the career of British skiffle musician Lonnie Donegan, the same artist who inspired the early Beatles. We covered Donegan’s career in our blog post on the song Rock Island Line.
Cocker then became interested in rock and blues. He had the good sense to pattern his vocal stylings after rockers like Chuck Berry and in particular soul singers like Ray Charles. Ray Charles in fact inspired an entire generation of British blues singers, artists like Roger Waters, Stevie Winwood and Joe Cocker. You can definitely detect the influence of Ray Charles in Cocker’s vocals.
Cocker next worked his way through the British club circuit. Initially, he made little headway until he hooked up with Denny Cordell, who was the producer for British progressive-rock groups such as Procol Harum and the Moody Blues. With Cordell’s backing, Cocker was able to book larger venues and to work with more talented studio musicians.
After a couple of minor hits in the UK, Joe Cocker hit the big time with his cover of the Beatles’ With a Little Help From My Friends.
Although Joe Cocker’s cover of the Beatles’ classic made it into the UK Top 10 Singles chart in 1968, it made little headway in the US, not even cracking the Top 40. However, his album proved to be very influential, establishing him as an up-and-coming young bluesman.
Like many other young artists, Cocker’s appearance at Woodstock, and in particular his rendition of With a Little Help From My Friends, made him an overnight sensation. His career then took off like a rocket.
The reaction to Joe Cocker’s live performances is fairly predictable. At first sight, what grabs your attention are Cocker’s spastic motions, and unusual quirks such as his jerky air-guitar playing. At first sight, his performance might seem like a parody of a rock vocalist.
However, if you focus on his singing style, it becomes apparent that Joe Cocker is a master bluesman. Here is his take on A Whiter Shade of Pale, from a concert in the Loreley Ampitheatre in St. Goarshausen, Germany, in August 1983.
Cocker transforms the song from Procol Harum’s iconic pop tune into a doleful blues song. I like the sense of ennui conveyed by Cocker’s vocals. The song is not dominated by keyboards like the Procol Harum version, but there is more parity between keyboards and guitar. The backup singers provide a gospel-flavored complement to Cocker’s blues vocals.
Once Joe Cocker gained fame through his exposure at the Woodstock Festival and in particular as one of the stars of the Woodstock concert movie, he proceeded to carve out a highly successful career as a blues vocalist. His cover versions of rock classics always featured Cocker’s creative and inimitable blues style.
Joe Cocker died from lung cancer in Dec. 2014. He is greatly missed.
Annie Lennox and A Whiter Shade of Pale:
Annie Lennox is a Scottish singer-songwriter and political activist. Her initial musical training was in classical flute at the Royal Academy of London. She found this frustrating, particularly as she had to work several menial jobs in order to support herself at the time.
The final report from her flute teacher stated:
“Ann has not always been sure of where to direct her efforts, though lately she has been more committed. She is very, very able, however.”
After leaving the Royal Academy, Lennox worked as a flutist or vocalist with various bands. In 1980, she and guitarist Dave Stewart formed a group called Eurythmics.
Initially, Eurythmics were a new-wave band. After their first album was not a commercial success, Lennox and Stewart re-formed as a duo. They built their own 8-track studio, and began recording electronic tracks that they used to back up their performances.
This effort was liberating, as it allowed them a great deal of creative freedom, and freed them from paying for studio time. However, it was also extremely stressful, as they ended up transporting an enormous array of electronics from one gig to another.
This took a toll on their physical and mental health. Early on, Lennox and Stewart had been romantically involved, but this ended shortly after the formation of Eurythmics. In addition, Lennox had at least one nervous breakdown during this period.
Below is a photo of Annie Lennox performing with Eurythmics at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood in August 1989.
The second Eurythmics album, Sweet Dreams Are Made of This, was released in 1983. At this point, the group’s fortunes completely turned around. The title cut hit #1 on the Billboard Top 100 charts, and reached #2 in the UK.
Annie Lennox’s powerful alto vocals played a major role in the success of Eurythmics. In addition, Lennox and Stewart’s creative use of synthesizers and electronic music made them headliners on tours.
Eurythmics also became gender-bending fashion icons. Lennox was one of the major style trailblazers during this period, along with artists such as Madonna and Boy George. At that time, Ms. Lennox was sporting an orange crew-cut, and her androgynous looks and chic pant-suits were big hits in both music videos and on magazine covers.
In 1990, Eurythmics disbanded, while Stewart and Lennox pursued their individual careers. Lennox had a baby, and then issued a couple of solo albums, both of which were blockbuster hits. Meanwhile, Stewart produced some albums and worked with a couple of bands.
Here is Annie Lennox’s version of A Whiter Shade of Pale. This song was included on her 1995 album, Medusa. That album was primarily a collection of covers of classic pop songs from other groups.
This performance took place on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Annie Lennox turns this classic song into a sad, sweet ballad.
I’m not really taken with her clown costume, I don’t understand why she is standing on a chair, and what are the backup musicians wearing on their heads – mouse ears, tufts of grass, WTF? But overall, it’s an impressive performance. Annie Lennox has such a lovely voice, I could listen to almost anything that she sings.
Annie Lennox has won a slew of awards for her music. She has won 8 Brit Awards, more than any other female. In addition, she has won 4 Grammy Awards and an MTV Music Video award.
But Annie Lennox is also renowned for her activism and outstanding charity work. In 2011 she was awarded the Order of the British Empire in recognition of her humanitarian work.
Lennox and Dave Stewart donated all proceeds from some of their Eurythmics tours to charity. In addition, she has been an HIV/AIDS activist, and worked with Nelson Mandela on his Treatment Action Campaign on behalf of people with AIDS. In 2007 she performed during the Nobel Peace Prize ceremonies in Norway.
In 2009, Lennox criticized Pope Benedict XVI for his denunciation of condoms during a visit to Africa. In 2010 she was named a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for AIDS. And in 2015, she was a guest speaker at the 50th Amnesty International Annual Conference.
Annie Lennox has used her celebrity status to highlight important causes around the world. As far as I can tell, her activism is completely genuine and heartfelt. So, good on you, Ms. Lennox!
Wikipedia, A Whiter Shade of Pale
Wikipedia, Procol Harum
Wikipedia, Joe Cocker
Wikipedia, Annie Lennox
Lives of the Great Songs, ed. Tim de Lisle, Trafalgar Square Publishing, London, 1995.