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Monday, November 27, 2023


The Vestal Virgins

GUEST BLOG / By Jim Beviglia writing in American Songwriter magazine
--Who could have possibly predicted the success of Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade Of Pale,” which went to #1 in the UK in 1967, #5 in the US, and has outlasted so many other flower-power and psychedelic-flavored tracks from that era to be one of the most enduring songs of the 60’s? 

It was the first single released by a relatively unknown British band, it was driven by a classical organ part derived from Bach, and it featured some of the most inscrutable lyrics of the era. Yet the moment that Matthew Fisher’s Hammond organ pierces the air, “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” is utterly mesmerizing. 

Procol Harum’s singer Gary Brooker was responsible for writing the music, although Fisher’s organ part was so prominent that he also eventually received a songwriting credit after a protracted court battle. Keith Reid, who served as the band’s chief lyricist, wrote the words that have confounded generations of fans who still can’t help but singing along. 

But what are the lyrics telling us? 

In an interview with Uncut magazine, Reid shed a little light on the song’s origin and meaning. “I had the phrase ‘a whiter shade of pale,’ that was the start, and I knew it was a song,” he said. “It’s like a jigsaw where you’ve got one piece, then you make up all the others to fit in. 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.” 

 The general consensus is that “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” is a snapshot of a drunken sexual escapade gone awry. Yet the song defies a specific interpretation, instead conjuring various shades of melancholy which are embellished by the mournful music and Brooker’s pained delivery. 

Even when you can’t quite understand their meaning, Reid, who was clearly influenced by Dylan’s surreal story songs from the mid-60’s, writes lines that leave a lasting impact, right from the immortal opener: “We skipped the light fandango.”

Attempts to wrangle these lyrics into linear coherence are thwarted at every turn, in part by red herrings (Reid claimed that the line “As the miller told his tale” has nothing to do with Chaucer) and by the demands of pop radio (Two extra verses were excised to keep the running time low.) 

Don’t let it bother you. 

If you spend too much time trying to figure out Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade Of Pale,” you might miss out on its majestically-rendered sorrow. 

Lead singer the late Gary Brooker in 2006 in concert.

Listen:  Procol Harum performing “A Whiter Shade of Pale” with the Danish National Concert Orchestra and choir at Ledreborg Castle, Denmark, August 2006. CLICK HERE  

The Lyrics were composed by lead singer Gary Brooker, lead lyricist Keith Reid and Matthew Fisher. More from Wikipedia: CLICK HERE

Procol Harum was the name of a Siamese or maybe it was a Burmese cat that someone hanging around the band knew. To rock promoter Gus Stevens Procol Harum sounded better than their original name The Pinewoods. 

 Latin scholars know Procul Harun to mean beyond these things. 

And so it was. 

Like this: 

THE LYRICS (all four orginal verses).

We skipped the light fandango 

Turned cartwheels 'cross the floor 

I was feeling kinda 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 have just as well've been 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 

 She said, 'I'm home on shore leave' 

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' 

But she smiled at me so sadly 

That my anger straightway 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.

Procol Harum bandmember playing the Hammond M102 organ in concert.

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