Procol Harum, circa A Whiter Shade Of Pale.
Matthew Fisher, first from left. Gary Brooker, first from right. 

A Whiter Shade Of Pale
By Beppe Colli
May 12, 2017

May 1967, people all over the world were counting the days till June, 1st - the announced release date of the new album by The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Maybe the word "apparition" would be more appropriate than "publication", given the almost Messianic quality of all things Beatles-related.

It's a scenario that most readers nowadays may examine with more than a pinch of skepticism and incredulity. But let's not forget that at the time The Beatles's fame all over the planet was of a kind never seen before - or since. While it has to be noted that in the "countercultural" framework of the times - an aspect that has to be regarded separately from their "popularity" as a mere function of the number of people who liked them, though in a way it's correlated to that - artists such as The Beatles appeared to possess "the answers".

Just check what Pete Townshend clearly stated in The Seeker, the fine Who single released a few years later: "I asked Bobby Dylan/I asked The Beatles/I asked Timothy Leary/But he couldn't help me either."

It was then that, in a short while - just a few weeks - a song released by an unknown group became the soundtrack to that summer, all over the world. "A smash hit all over the world" is something not at all unusual in the age of Internet. But those were different times. Released in U.K. on May, 12th, the single entered the charts at No. 11 on May, 25th, to go straight to No. 1 a week later, where it'll stay for six weeks.

Readers will have no trouble checking the facts: No. 5 in the United States with almost no promotion, No. 1 almost everywhere else.

And while listeners all over the world heard the words "Directly from the Top of the English charts", or something like that, I wonder what those who listened to the song for the first time in England thought upon listening to the song on the radio.

Those who are familiar with the movie The Boat That Rocked - or I Love Radio Rock or one of the different titles it had in various countries - already know the "pirate radio" phenomenon.

It appears that the first radio station to broadcast the song was Radio London. Here opinions are bound to differ - there are also those who remember "An envelope of fives changing hands". Which should be seen in context: To determine if the sound of the cymbals had "smeared" over the other instruments.

Pandemonium erupted. And while people rushed to buy the single, a "non existent group" wondered what to do.

Statistics and anecdotes abound. "One of the thirty singles that have sold more than ten million copies". "A song that counts more than one thousand cover versions". "The song that John Lennon listened to one hundred times while sitting in his Rolls Royce".

But let's hear Gary Brooker, interviewed by Paul Carter, for Shine On, August 1997:

"The Beatles loved it. During that period, imagine A Whiter Shade Of Pale has come out, it's No 11 with a dash, from nowhere to No 11. We hadn't any clothes and we had to go on the telly that night for the first time, so we went to one of the King's Road boutiques, one of the exclusive ones where we had to ring a bell outside, and we went in and inside there were The Beatles who were in buying clothes as well. And they were all sitting round a harmonium this shop had, singing A Whiter Shade Of Pale as we came in. They didn't know we were going to walk in. I think Paul was on the harmonium and everybody else was singing it."

Pianist, composer, and singer, Gary Brooker had had enough of the meagre fortunes of The Paramounts, his fine R&B group. It was time to write songs. After many vicissitudes, Keith Reid's lyrics matched his music. But nobody seemed to care. So they decided to record those songs themselves.

Denny Cordell as producer, Keith Grant as sound engineer at Olympic Studios. Musicians were found thanks to ads placed in the Melody Maker. Matthew Fisher, organ. David Knights, bass. Ray Royer, guitar. Sticks in his hands, Bobby Harrison did not appear to be able to "cut it" in the short time of a session, so it was decided to stick to "Plan A", giving the nod to Bill Eyden, the session man and jazz drummer who had already been booked to cut the song(s). The arrangement had already been finalized by Brooker and Fisher, featuring the (not yet) world-famous intro, and the organ interludes that appear in the song.

Four tracks, recorded live. Readers are invited to concentrate on the use of echo and equalization applied to Brooker's voice. Listen to the "light" change while Booker sings "As the miller told his tale".

Let's have a look at what Peter Frame wrote in his "family tree" about Procol Harum which appeared as liner notes in the group's "best of" titled Portfolio (Chrysalis, 1988).

"Brooker's transition from natty blues disciple to zonked-out psychedelic seer was symptomatic of the times. In Britain, in 1966, a lot of musicians started smoking dope instead of swallowing pills; some started taking acid. Many stopped playing R&B and began to play with their own ideas. It was a bizarre and fertile period which saw the creation of Traffic, Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, Family, Jimi Hendrix Experience, Nirvana, Crazy World Of Arthur Brown, the Move, Tomorrow... all providing appropriate music for what was known as 'the underground scene'".

Those who are familiar with the songs released at the time will remember the practice of having an instrumental intro designed to immediately grab listeners' attention open the song. Just think about Satisfaction by The Rolling Stones, Badge by Cream, Proud Mary by Creedence Clearwater Revival, Time Of The Season by Zombies, Light My Fire by The Doors... the list is endless. It was an approach an artist a lot less naÔve that he wanted his audience to believe, David Bowie, made great use of in the seventies, thanks to the contribution of guitarist Carlos Alomar.

In February 1967, Strawberry Fields Forever's Mellotron brought a somnambulistic, opiate mood to the top of the charts. Many did not like it. Sure, there was a "zeitgeist" at work - listen to the intro to the single version of You Keep Me Hangin' On by Vanilla Fudge, and pay attention to its length - its starts with solo Hammond, then the group - compared to the single's total duration.

We travel to November, 1967 and hear the influence - the arrangement, at the very least - of the Procol Harum song on a worldwide hit such as Nights In White Satin by The Moody Blues, with the Mellotron "answering" the sung lines.

But no intro has ever been regarded as a "composition" proper as the intro to A Whiter Shade Of Pale. An intro played on a Hammond organ so extended as to make people believe at first they were listening to an instrumental.

Readers are invited to listen to the lyrics.

"And although my eyes were open/They might just as wellíve been closed".

© Beppe Colli 2017 | May 12, 2017