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*4.10-WHITER SHADE OF PALE (Procol Harum)

Procol Harum

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[Intro]

We skipped the light fandango
Turned cartwheels 'cross 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 they 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!

     [Chorus]

[Coda]

     And so it was that later...


Although Light My Fire by the Doors was the best-selling psychedelic single of 1967 in the U.S., the best-selling international hit overall for 1967 was Whiter Shade of Pale. Europe didn’t catch on readily to the Doors, but the Bach flavoring of this single played on a stately Hammond organ, appealed to the European aesthetic, and also appealed worldwide. Claes Johnansen wrote in Beyond the Pale that “One of the great discoveries Procol Harum made at this time was that it was actually possible to play a blues guitar over a set of classical chords, as long as it stuck with a minor key.” I think of Go Now (11/64) by the Moody Blues, She Smiled Sweetly (2/67) by the Rolling Stones, and Pay You Back With Interest by the Hollies (released first on the album For Certain Because 12/66) as precursors of this crown of baroque rock. And of course, mention should be made of the soulful organ in Percy Sledge’s When a Man Loves a Woman, released over a year earlier, that provided some of the tone in the record as well.

The organ’s descending bass line (a signature structural device for much psychedelic writing of the period) in Whiter Shade of Pale helped to make a song unsurpassed in popularity among baroque rock compositions of the psychedelic era, though there were some other successful attempts, such as Chest Fever by the Band and Because by the Beatles. The organ was being used more often in pop music by this time, largely because of the soul inflection provided by Steve Winwood while he was in the Spencer Davis Group in early 1967. But this baroque keyboard approach to music became increasingly more rare in the months that followed. Procul Harum was incapable of following up this classic with another baroque rock hit.

I will note here that white was a common color of the psychedelic period. There was White Rabbit, White Room, White Bird, and the Beatles' White Album. I submit that this color, or the lack of it, was meant to suggest egolessness, a blank canvas. On a less conscious level, most of the psychedelic audience was comprised of White youth. It’s odd as a metaphor, because whereas a rainbow of colors are suggested by the psychedelic period repeatedly, white is the absence of color. Of course, Whiter Shade of Pale accentuates this, and makes it “ghostly”.

This is truly a surrealistic lyric and it’s difficult to say what exactly is going on. There were further verses in this story that brought in Neptune and others, but they don’t clarify the intention of the writer. I’m glad they were left off the single version of the song, as the lyrics seem more mysterious without anchoring them in mythology. The opening line alludes to the old saw (hinted at in Shakespeare and Milton) trip the light fantastic. This is one of the few psychedelic songs that celebrates inebriation, although it seems to be a drunken tale. Especially captivating are the sixteen vestal virgins who appear to arrive out of a tarot deck. Vestal virgins were women that dedicated themselves to celibacy for the good of the Rome. Due to proximity with the vestal virgins, the lyric suggests that a metaphoric “hymen” has not been broken through; that though his eyes are functional, the singer might as well be blind. “The truth is plain to see”, but he can’t see it. The singer’s eyes, by comparison, are like a virgin’s genitals that have not yet experienced their fecund potential. The poet is unable to Break On Through to the other side, as the Doors had advised.

The drunken tale criticizes the state of mind that it appears to celebrate so majestically. The lyric suggests woozy disorientation. In a sense, then, it is an anti-drug song, an improvisation on the theme of Sloop John B by the Beach Boys. The poor girl, turning pale, can’t handle the trip, and the singer is feeling sea sick. There’s no enlightenment here, only confusion and regret.

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