And so we reach the summer of 1967, which you might also have heard of as The Summer of Love. Flower power. Tie-dye. Making love not war. (I dunno, really – I’m just hitting all the clichés.) If you can remember it, man, you weren’t really there…
Despite Britain being thousands of miles away from the pot-haze of Haight-Ashbury, somehow the singles chart managed to reflect, in real time, this cultural movement, with three heavyweight #1s between early June and early September. The first being this next one…
A Whiter Shade of Pale, by Procol Harum (their 1st and only #1)
6 weeks, from 8th June – 19th July 1967
It’s a record that strides confidently into the room, with an unmistakeable organ riff and Spector-esque drums. (Apparently it owes a debt to J. S. Bach, this intro… I wouldn’t know much about that. I would simply describe it as ‘soaring.’) It’s rock, it’s progressive, it’s classical, it’s psychedelic… It’s everything and nothing. It just is.
It reminds me a little of The Moody Blues’ ‘Go Now!’, from a couple of years back, in its proggy, jazzy take on pop music. But not really. ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ is unique. It doesn’t really sound like the logical next step in the evolution of pop; more like a record that has arrived, nobody knows how or from where, to dominate until normal service resumes.
As much as it stands out musically, what has made this such a famous record are the lyrics. Just what on earth are they about? We skipped the light fandango, Turned cartwheels cross the floor… The first verse, at a push, can be seen as someone drunk at a party. The room was humming harder, As the waiter brought a tray… But surely a song this renowned can’t just be about getting pissed at a party, turning white, and chucking up?
Well, no. We’ve not got to the Chaucer-referencing chorus yet. Or the second verse… I wandered through my playing cards, And would not let her be, One of sixteen vestal virgins… Uh-huh… ‘Vestal virgins’ being a select group of young women locked away inside a temple in ancient Rome to tend an eternal flame (my undergrad degree in History not going to waste there…) I mean, I don’t want this post to go on forever and so I’ll spare you my interpretation of the lyrics. They are, what they are: pretty far out, man.
Plus, boring lyrical analyses will just take away from the fact that this is a superb song – up there with earlier bizarro classics like ‘Telstar’ and ‘Good Vibrations’. A song that’s clever without being alienating, and weird without being off-putting. It’s a long song, at over four minutes, and oddly structured to boot – the two verses and two choruses sandwiched between long stretches of organ instrumental. I love the sweep of the organ every time the chorus begins, and the fact that it fades just seconds after the final, triumphant chorus begins. I love that there is a third and fourth verse that the band only play live. I love that they are called Procol Harum, after the ‘cat fancy’ name for their producer’s Burmese cat (I don’t even understand the reason behind the band’s name; let alone the name itself!)
Above all, I love that we’ve finally broken the cheesy, easy-listening slump that 1967 has brought to the charts. For the next three chart-toppers, at least, we’re back innovating, pushing the envelope of pop. Procol Harum, for all the brilliance of their debut hit, wouldn’t bother the singles charts too much afterwards. Their follow-up, ‘Homburg’, did hit #6 though, and is actually the first Harum song I ever heard, as it featured on the sixties compilation tape in my parents’ car that I must have mentioned twenty times by now. I guess the compilers couldn’t afford ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’.
Anyway, I’m sure you are in no doubt about the brilliance of this record, but just to make sure… It was announced in 2004 that it was the record with the most radio/TV plays of the previous seventy years. It has sold more than ten million copies worldwide. Over one thousand cover-versions have been recorded… No doubt about it – ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ is pop royalty.
My hand-made Spotify playlist: