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The Lost Lyrics of Procol Harum’s "A Whiter Shade of Pale"
In 1967, British group Procol Harum released one of the few singles to sell 10 million copies worldwide: “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” The members who recorded the song were Gary Brooker (vocals and piano), Matthew Fisher (Hammond M-102 organ), bassist David Knights, Ray Royer on guitar, and session drummer Bill Ayden (later replaced by Bobby Harrison).
Even the group’s most devoted fans may not know that Prokol Harum had an important “sixth member”: songwriter Keith Reed, whose song titles have left fans confused. Reid says “a whiter shade of pale” was a comment he overheard at a party; That original idea inspired subsequent mystical lyrics. It was a challenge for the musicians to give the music track with the same gravity.
Pianist Gary Brooker came up with a chord sequence that was a nod to Bach’s “Air on the G String.” Matthew Fisher’s melancholy organ sample followed, then Bach’s “Sleepers, Wake!” converted into Similar to The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” and Left Bank’s “Walk Away Rainie”, “A Whiter Shade of Pale” has become known as “Baroque Rock” due to its classical influences.
As intricate as the track sounds, it was recorded live in two takes at Olympic Studios in London. Brooker called the result a happy accident, unlikely to be repeated. Producer Denny Cordell hoped to give “A Whiter Shade of Pale” a taste of American soul music; Cordell says the searing vocals and grim organ of Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” were the catalyst for Procol Harum’s sound.
There has long been confusion over the meaning of “a whiter shade of pale”. The consensus is that, like most songs, it’s about a man and a woman trying to get together. The song’s nautical references give the couple the feeling of being on a ship. This confusion may have been due to half of the lyrics of the original song being removed before the song was recorded.
When the song was first written, there were four verses. When it came time to record the track, the second and third verses were dropped, leaving the original and last verses. The meaning of the song becomes clearer when you include the missing verses, which are performed live by the group. The abandoned lyrics, as cryptic as they are on the final recording, confirm that the setting is in fact the ocean; “You must be a mermaid / Who took Neptune for a ride,” the singer tells his love.
Those who find Keith Reid’s lyrics difficult to decipher are not alone. So says Matthew Fisher he Reid can’t understand the confusing lyrics, but it never bothers him because “they sound great… that’s all they want to do.”
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