Behind the Hit

 
Updated November 21

Next Update: February 20, 2018

The following features interesting facts and stories behind classic singles from the past. Songs are chosen arbitrarily.

 

A Whiter Shade Of Pale - Procol Harum (1967)

UK Charts - #1 .. U.S. Charts - #5

 

"A Whiter Shade of Pale" is the debut single by the British rock band Procol Harum, released May 12, 1967. The single reached number one in the UK Singles Chart and stayed there for six weeks. Without much promotion, it reached number 5 on the Billboard pop chart in the United States. One of the anthems of the 1967 Summer of Love, it is one of fewer than 30 singles to have sold over 10 million copies worldwide. With its Bach-derived instrumental melody, soulful vocals, and unusual lyrics, by the song's co-authors Gary Brooker, Keith Reid and Matthew Fisher, "A Whiter Shade of Pale" reached No. 1 in several countries when released in 1967. In the years since, it has become an enduring classic. It was the most played song in the last 75 years in public places in the UK (as of 2009), and the United Kingdom performing rights group Phonographic Performance Limited in 2004 recognized it as the most-played record by British broadcasting of the past 70 years.

 

cover art

In 2004, Rolling Stone placed "A Whiter Shade of Pale" 57th on its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

 

500 Greatest

In 1977, the song was named joint winner (along with Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody") of "The Best British Pop Single 1952-1977" at the Brit Awards. In 1998 the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. More than 1000 recorded cover versions by other artists are known. The song has been included in many music compilations over the decades and has also been used in the soundtracks of numerous films, including The Big Chill, Purple Haze, Breaking the Waves, The Boat That Rocked, Martin Scorsese's segment of New York Stories, Stonewall, and Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's documentary series The Vietnam War. Cover versions of the song have also been featured in many films, for example, by King Curtis in Withnail and I and by Annie Lennox in The Net.

 

"Bohemian Rhapsody"

The song was performed and recorded at Olympic Sound Studios in London, England, with Gary Brooker providing the vocals and piano, Matthew Fisher on a Hammond M-102 organ, David Knights on bass and Ray Royer on guitar. Drums were by session drummer Bill Eyden. A few days later, the song was re-recorded with the band's then newly recruited drummer Bobby Harrison, but that version was discarded, and one of the original mono recordings was chosen for release. Producer for the record was Denny Cordell, and Keith Grant was the sound engineer. The song was included on the US release of the Procol Harum album, in September 1967, but not on the later UK version.

 

album

Contrary to previous interpretations of the song's lyrics, Keith Reid was quoted in the February 2008 issue of Uncut magazine as saying:

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. I wasn't trying to be mysterious with those images, I was trying to be evocative. I suppose it seems like a decadent scene I'm describing. But I was too young to have experienced any decadence, then. I might have been smoking when I conceived it, but not when I wrote. It was influenced by books, not drugs.

Structurally and thematically, the song is unusual in many respects. While the recorded version is 4:03 long, it is composed of only two verses, each with chorus. The piece is also more instrument-driven than most songs of the period, and with a much looser rhyme scheme. Its unusually allusive and referential lyrics are much more complex than most lyrics of the time (for example, the chorus focuses on Chaucer's "The Miller's Tale"). Thus, this piece can be considered an early example of progressive rock. The phrase a whiter shade of pale has since gained widespread use in the English language, noticed by several dictionaries. As such, the phrase is today often used in contexts independent of any consideration of the song.

 

"The Miller's Tale"

Writing in 2005, Jim Irvin of Mojo said that its arrival at number 1 on June 8, 1967, on the same day that the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band topped the national albums chart, marked the start of the Summer of Love in Britain.

 

Summer of Love

The first promotional clip for "A Whiter Shade of Pale" was shot in the ruins of Witley Court in Worcestershire, England. It features four of the five musicians who played on the hit single: Gary Brooker, Matthew Fisher, David Knights and Ray Royer, in performance and walking through the ruins. Only the drummer in the video isn't on the record: early band member Bobby Harrison is seen miming to session man Bill Eyden's drumming. The film was directed by Peter Clifton, whose insertion of Vietnam War newsreel footage caused it to be banned from airplay on the BBC's Top of the Pops TV show.

 

promo clip

 

In 2005, former Procol Harum organist Matthew Fisher filed suit in the High Court against Gary Brooker and his publisher, claiming that he co-wrote the music for the song. Fisher won the case on December 20, 2006 but was awarded 40% of the composers' share of the music copyright, rather than the 50% he was seeking and was not granted royalties for the period before 2005. Brooker and publisher Onward Music were granted leave to appeal, and a hearing on the matter was held before a panel of three judges during the week of October 1, 2007. The decision, on 4 April 2008, by Lord Justice Mummery, in the Court of Appeal upheld Fisher's co-authorship but ruled that he should receive no royalties as he had taken too long (38 years) to bring his claim to litigation. Full royalty rights were returned to Brooker.

In 2008, Fisher was granted permission to appeal this decision to the House of Lords. Lawyers say it is the first time the Law Lords have been asked to rule on a copyright dispute involving a song. The appeal was heard in the House of Lords in April 2009. In July 2009 the Law Lords unanimously ruled in Fisher's favor. They noted that the delay in bringing the case had not caused any harm to the other party; on the contrary he had benefited financially from it. They also pointed out that there were no time limits to copyright claims under English law. The right to future royalties was therefore returned to Fisher. The musicological basis of the judgment, and its effect on the rights of musicians who contribute composition to future works, has drawn some attention in the music world.

 

lawsuit

"A Whiter Shade of Pale" was covered by Annie Lennox for her 1995 album Medusa. It was released as the second single in May 1995 and became a top-forty hit in Europe and Canada. Other artists to cover the song include Willie Nelson, The Everly Brothers, Bonnie Tyler, Joe Cocker and Sarah Brightman.

 

Annie Lennox

Gary Brooker recalled the writing of the music in an interview with Uncut magazine February 2008: "I'd been listening to a lot of classical music, and jazz. Having played rock and R&B for years, my vistas had opened up. When I met Keith, seeing his words, I thought, 'I'd like to write something to that.' They weren't obvious, but that doesn't matter. You don't have to know what he means, as long as you communicate an atmosphere. 'A Whiter Shade Of Pale' seemed to be about two people, a relationship even. It's a memory. There was a leaving, and a sadness about it. To get the soul of those lyrics across vocally, to make people feel that, was quite an accomplishment.

The "Vestal Virgins" were the virgin holy priestesses of Vesta, the goddess of the hearth and home. There were six of them chosen by lot and they were sworn to celibacy. Their main task was to maintain the sacred fire of Vesta. The Vestal duty brought great honor and afforded greater privileges to women who served in that role. The Vestals lived in the Atrium Vestae near the circular Temple of Vesta at the eastern edge of the Roman Forum.

 

"Vestal Virgins"

This was the first song Procol Harum recorded. After it became a hit, they fired their original drummer and guitarist, replacing them with Barry Wilson and Robin Trower, more experienced musicians who could handle the subsequent touring.

 

vinyl 45

This song has a chord progression that is similar in spots to that of "When A Man Loves A Woman" by Percy Sledge, although its melodic line is quite different. It is the chord progression, melodic line and song lyrics working together that make a song into a unique artistic entity.

 

Percy Sledge

In the UK, this was re-released in 1972, reaching #13.

 

Procol Harum

Lyrics:

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
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
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

 

 

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