Best Beat

Setting the Rhythm for Your Music

The Lost Lyrics of Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale”

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 that 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 Eyden (later replaced by Bobby Harrison).

Even the group’s most dedicated fans may not know that Procol Harum had an important “sixth member”: lyricist Keith Reid, whose song title has confounded fans. Reid says “A Whiter Shade of Pale” was a comment he’d overheard at a party; that original idea inspired the mysterious lyrics that followed. The challenge for the musicians was to deliver a music track with the same gravity.

Pianist Gary Brooker came up with the chord sequence that was a nod to Bach’s “Air on the G String.” Matthew Fisher’s melancholy organ pattern followed along, then morphed into Bach’s “Sleepers, Wake!” Like the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” and the Left Banke’s “Walk Away Renee,” “A Whiter Shade of Pale” was characterized as “baroque rock” because of its classical influences.

As complex as the track sounds, it was recorded live in two takes at Olympic Studios in London. Brooker has called the result a happy accident, unlikely to be repeated. Producer Denny Cordell hoped to give “A Whiter Shade of Pale” the flavor of American soul music; Cordell says the searing vocals and solemn organ of Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” were the catalyst for Procol Harum’s sound.

There has long been confusion about the meaning of “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” The consensus is that, like most songs, it is about a man and a woman attempting to get together. The song’s nautical references give a sense that the couple is on board a ship. The confusion may be due to the fact that half of the original lyrics were tossed out before the song was recorded.

When first written, the song had four verses. When it came time to record the track, the second and third verses were dropped, leaving what were originally the first and last verses. The song’s meaning becomes clearer when you include the missing verses, which have been performed live by the group. The abandoned lyrics, as enigmatic as those on the final recording, confirm that the setting is, in fact, the sea; the singer tells his love, “You must be the mermaid / Who took Neptune for a ride.”

Those who find Keith Reid’s lyrics hard to decipher are not alone. Matthew Fisher has said that even he can’t understand Reid’s puzzling lyrics, but it’s never bothered him because “they sound great… that’s all they have to do.”