Sunday, January 10, 2010

January 10: Procol Harum, "A Whiter Shade Of Pale"

Artist: Procol Harum
Song: "A Whiter Shade Of Pale"
Album: Procol Harum (edit)/Pandora's Box (full)
Year: 1967

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

While the phrase is used quite often, the thought of a "band coming out of nowhere" is rarely accurate, as most of these bands had a solid, but smaller following before they broke into the mainstream. While this is far more difficult in the "age of the internet," in the 1960's and 1970's, it was nearly impossible, as the established bands of the time dominated music sales all across the globe. However, in one case, the phrase fits perfectly, as before their runaway hit single, they were virtually unheard of anywhere on the planet. In May of 1967, a single from a band that had just taken a new lineup was released, and within a month, it would be holding the top spot on the U.K. singles chart. The song would crack the top ten in more than a dozen countries, and along with Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," it would be named the top U.K. single from 1952-1977. Since it's release, the song has been covered nearly one thousand times on recordings, and it is without question one of the most instantly recognizable songs in history. Amusingly enough, the band also INTENTIONALLY left the single off of the U.K. release their debut album, which came AFTER the success of the song. With its deep, soulful, and absolutely beautiful melody, combined with the stunning lyrics and vocals, there has simply never been another song that has taken the world by storm quite like Procol Harum and their 1967 mega-hit, "A Whiter Shade Of Pale."

Easily one of the most frustrating musical moves that a band can pull is when they "fade out" at the end of the song. This often leaves music fanatics wondering, "What did they cut off the end?" and in the case of, "A Whiter Shade Of Pale," the answer is that more than two minutes of music were lopped off the single release. This lengthier version of the song (which is linked above) would stay tucked away for more than three decades, before being released on the Pandora's Box compilation. It is in this full version that one is able to grasp a full understanding of the stunning sound of the band, a group that was originally mistaken for a Detroit-based soul group. The fact that this was a group of U.K. musicians was a shock to most people, as the amount of emotion and the sound that they presented was something that was rarely heard coming out of anywhere but Motown. Truth be told, the music itself is actually based off of a pair of classical compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach, and there are a few moments on the song where this reference is quite clear. The Hammond organ line that dominates the song was played by Matthew Fisher, and the soul and melancholy feel that he gives the notes is a sound like nothing else before its time. This eloquent, mournful mood is kept in perfect balance by the rhythm section of David Knights and session drummer Bill Eyden, who make the song slowly rock and and forth. The guitar playing of Ray Royer is subtle, yet fitting, as it is Fisher's organ playing that moves the song. Whether it is the hook or simply the tone of the song, "A Whiter Shade Of Pale" remains one of the most instantly recognizable songs in history, as there has never been another song that sounds similar.

While the Hammond organ dominates the song, it is band founder and singer Gary Brooker that makes the song absolutely legendary. A man who was often referred to as "The white Ray Charles," there have been few singers of any race anywhere in history that sang with as much conviction and power as one will find on "A Whiter Shade Of Pale." As he soars through the choruses, and laments during the verses, listeners are treated to one of the most uniquely stunning vocal performances in history. Brilliantly working the entire vocal spectrum, one can sense that Brooker was following the mood and soul of the song more than the actual written vocal progressions. Although on the Pandora's Box version of the song, more music is added, the truth of the matter is, it still only contains the "original" two lyrical verses. However, the song actually has four verses, but these are not available on any studio recording, and were only heard at live performances of the song. In what may be the greatest and most overlooked juxtaposition in history, the actual lyrics to this mournful song speak of two people sharing an evening together, from a whirlwind of dancing to some sort of sexual act later in the evening. The fact that such a stark contrast has gone largely unnoticed over the decades is in many ways a testament to the power of the music and overall mood one finds on "A Whiter Shade Of Pale."

It is almost incomprehensible to think that a band would intentionally leave a hit single off of the album that followed, yet this is exactly the case with Procol Harum and their self-titled full length debut. This makes it less surprising that the album found little commercial success, as the lack of either of their hit songs was certainly a factor that turned many "casual" fans away from the purchase. Regardless of this fact, one simply cannot deny the amazing sound and power that can be found in Procol Harum's legendary single, "A Whiter Shade Of Pale." Bringing an R&B sound that had rarely been heard outside of Motown-based recordings, they literally shocked the world when it was revealed that they were in fact from England. Dominated by the mesmerizing Hammond organ work of Matthew Fisher, at face value, the song appears to be a lament, a mournful ode to...something. However, when one digs deeper, and listens more closely, one will find one of the most brilliant contrasts in history, as the song is simply a slower song of the joy of love (or perhaps lust in this case). Gary Brooker delivers the vocals in a way which has rarely been equaled, as his work on "A Whiter Shade Of Pale" represents one of the finest vocal performances in music history. There are few songs that are as instantly recognizable, and even less songs that have endured so well and been covered as often as one finds in Procol Harum's surprise 1967 hit, the truly iconic "A Whiter Shade Of Pale."

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