11 years ago today “A Whiter Shade of Pale” was the most played song in public places in the past 75 years (as of 2009), according to a chart compiled for BBC Radio 2.
It was the debut single by the British rock band Procol Harum, released 12 May 1967. It reached number 1 in the UK Singles Chart and, without much promotion, it reached number 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the US. “A Whiter Shade of Pale” was used as one of the main anthems of the 1967 Summer of Love, it is one of the best selling singles in history, having sold more than 10 million copies worldwide. In 2018 the song was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in a new category for singles.
UK performing rights group Phonographic Performance Limited in 2004 recognised “A Whiter Shade of Pale” as the most-played record by British broadcasting of the past 70 years. Also in 2004, Rolling Stone placed it 57th on its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
In 1977, the song was named joint winner (along with Queens’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 (including Annie Lennox, Willie Nelson, Sarah Brightman, Joe Cocker, Percy Sledge, Bonnie Tyler, Fun Lovin’ Criminals, Phil Lynott, to name a few). It has also been used in the soundtracks of numerous films.
Keith Reid, who wrote the lyrics of every Procol Harum song, got the title and starting point for the song at a party. He overheard someone at the party saying to a woman, “You’ve turned a whiter shade of pale”, and the phrase stuck in his mind. Claes Johansen, in his book Procol Harum: Beyond the Pale, suggest that that the song “deals in metaphorical form with a male/female relationship which after some negotiations ends in a sexual act.”
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. It has also been heavily paraphrased, in forms like “an Xer shade of Y”, to the extent that it has been recognised as a snowclone—a type of cliché and phrasal template.
Sociomusicologist Simon Frith on The History of Rock described “A Whiter Shade of Pale” as one of the sixties most distinctive singles through its combination of “white soul vocal and a Bach organ exercise” and enigmatic lyrics that “hinted at a vital secret open only to people in the right, drug-determined, state of mind”.
Well, this COVID-19 pandemic, it’s the uglier shade of pale, dontcha think?
Video via Tanya Yursa, Procol Harum performing live on a TV show “A Whiter Shade of Pale” in 1968.