One night in 1966 Keith Reid and Gary Brooker were invited to a party at the Notting Hill Gate home of DJ Guy Stevens who was angling to manage the new band they’d formed called Procol Harum. At the end of the evening as everyone was leaving, Guy turned to his wife Diane and said, “You’ve turned a whiter shade of pale. I think you better go to bed!”
That, at least, is one is version of the origins of a song that more than any other perfectly characterises the colourful psychedelic ambience that permeated England, and London in particular, in the summer of 1967. Sgt Pepper might have commanded the regiment but skipping the light fandango was what everyone in kaftans and beads really wished for.
This extract from Procol Harum: The Ghosts Of A Whiter Shade Of Pale by Henry Scott-Irvine, published by Omnibus Press in 2012, tells the remarkable story of this ageless, haunting and unforgettable song. It’s in three parts.
Though things seemed to be looking up for Brooker and Reid, other parts of the jigsaw needed to be in place before the puzzle was complete and Procol Harum was ready for launching. One particularly important piece arrived via an advert in Melody Maker of February 25 which read, ‘Hammond organist, harmony vocals, seeks pro group.’ The ad was placed by a classically trained keyboard player called Matthew Fisher.
Fisher was in the midst of a stint with Screaming Lord ‘Caesar’ Sutch & The Roman Empire when Brooker and Reid answered the ad in Melody Maker. They arranged to visit him at his home in Croydon where they gave him a demo of the song ‘Salad Days’ and promised him that Procol Harum were “going to be as big as The Beatles”. Fisher hated dressing up as a Roman soldier with Sutch while fending off hordes of drunks. “It was definitely time for a change,” he says. “Keith and Gary actually signed me up that very afternoon at my home in Croydon. We all wanted to do something serious...”
Meanwhile, [early manager] Guy Stevens was becoming distanced from the embryonic Procol. “Guy Stevens had been out of the picture for some time,” says Keith Reid. “Due to his financial circumstances he had returned to work for Chris Blackwell [at Island Records] which is how I had first met him. Consequently, Guy wasn’t able to concentrate on the development of Procol Harum and had kind of slipped into the background.”
In the event, Stevens’ fortunes turned from bad to worse. Sometime that spring, probably during April, he was busted for possession of hashish by none other than Detective Sergeant Jack Slipper whose career in the force would forever be linked with the Great Train Robbery and the pursuit of Ronnie Biggs. In May Stevens, then involved with Art, an Island signing who later changed their name to Spooky Tooth, would be given a six-month jail sentence, spending that important summer of 1967 incarcerated in Wormwood Scrubs jail north of Shepherds Bush.
With Stevens now edged out, [music publisher] David Platz and [record producer] Denny Cordell formulated other plans for Procol. Cordell set up New Breed Productions – which by July would be renamed Straight Ahead Productions – and formed an alliance with new business associate Jonathan Weston whom he appointed as manager for Procol Harum.
According to Matthew Fisher, “Keith Reid had actually wanted to manage Procol Harum at this stage,” but both Platz and Cordell felt that he should “make the creative decisions only, and leave the business decisions to a business manager”. As a result Procol Harum signed with New Breed Productions and entered into a separate deal with Jonathan Weston who became their manager at the end of April, some four weeks after Cordell produced a studio recording of ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’. Thereafter Keith Reid would become known as ‘Procol Harum’s co-manager’ as well as being their ‘lyric writer’.
Not only had he been edged out of the management of the group whose name he coined but, according to Guy Stevens’ wife Diane, her husband actually came up with the all-important phrase that became the title of the song that would transform their lives. “This was something that Guy never really got over,” she says. “Especially as he had named the band and coined the famous phrase that inspired Procol’s masterpiece...”
Reid, however, disputes this version of the story. “This isn’t quite correct,” he says. “It is true that ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ was born during a party at Guy Stevens’ house. There was a large group of us sitting round smoking and joking. During the course of much banter, Guy was trying to tell Diane that she had turned very white and he was jumbling up his words. It was this incident that gave me the idea for ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’. It was much later after… when I had written the whole song that I told Guy about my moment of inspiration. He was of course totally unaware that he had said anything that had inspired me.”
Whatever the genesis of the title, Reid produced a set of words around it that almost half a century later continues to confound, confuse and astound.
Though the lyrics defy analysis they rank, without question, among the most memorable ever written. They capture a time – 1967 – and place – London – with exquisite perfection, and as such form an essential component of the soundtrack to a memorable moment in English cultural history, the summer when The Beatles’ released Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the British establishment tried but failed to silence The Rolling Stones by jailing Mick Jagger and Keith Richard, and when America’s West Coast and the British flower power scene ran simpatico.
“It’s like a detective story that song,” says the film director Alan Parker. “It’s so important in all of our lives really. Yet nobody actually knows what the words really mean. Whatever you’re doing, whether at a script meeting or together with friends, we’d ask one another, ‘What do these lyrics actually mean?’ Every five years we’d sit down and have that same discussion!”
The writer himself is eternally baffled by the reaction of men like Parker. “I never understand when people say they don’t understand it?” says Reid. “‘We skipped the light fandango.’ That’s straightforward. ‘Turned cartwheels across the floor.’ It seems very clear to me! I used to go and see a lot of French films in the Academy [cinema] in Oxford Street. Pierrot Le Fou made a strong impression on me, and Last Year In Marienbad. I was also very taken with surrealism, Magritte and Dali. You can draw a line between the narrative fractures and mood of those French films and ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’.”
Gary Brooker: “‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ seemed to be about two people, a relationship and memory. There was a leaving, and sadness about it. To get the soul of those lyrics across vocally, to make people feel that, was quite an accomplishment.”
Keith Reid: “We felt we had something very important. As soon as we played it for anyone, we got an immediate response.”
In its original form ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ was almost twice as long as the familiar hit single, with an additional fourth verse that was cut. “Even at four minutes it was long,” says Brooker. “Up until that point most singles were two and a half minutes. So we decided to cut down the words.” “The fourth wasn’t any great loss; you had the whole story in three,” re-assures Reid.
Early music paper adverts for ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ described the song as ‘a poem’, but Reid is dismissive of this. “I never write my stuff as poems. I just strive to make them poetic. There’s a great deal of difference in the words that you write to be sung and the kind of words you write to be read.”