“The room was humming harder, As the ceiling flew away”

Lyrics from “A Whiter Shade of Pale”, Procol Harum, May 1967. Songwriters Keith Reid, Gary Brooker, Matthew Fisher. Song lyrics. Summer of Love – 1967.

” 4.03 minutes of time travel to 1967. The most played song in the UK in the last 70 years.

1000 recorded versions, 10 million copies sold and 1 copyright lawsuit.

But what’s it really about?”

— Douglas

If you were there

It’s the summer of 1967 – “the Summer of Love”.  There wasn’t anything else like “A Whiter Shade of Pale” on the radio.   For those who happened to be there it’s now a 4.03 minutes of time travel. You hear it and you are instantly there, in 1967. When films wish to evoke the year, the period, well this is the “go-to” song.

Was it really about drugs?

Many thought so. But then who knew the lyrics really. Before the internet your guess was as good as anybody’s.  Sure you could snatch a word here or there. But understanding it, really understanding it eluded you. It was still 3 weeks before The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album innovated the printing of lyrics on album covers. Now you just google it. And even if you do, well do you have a clear complete understanding of what this song is about? Even now?

Perhaps it was poetry? Words meant to evoke but not stoop to the standard pop-song formula?

J.S. Bach, composer, Air on a G String

The pedigree feels rightfully “un-pop-like” given the  underlying organ is based on Bach’s Air on a G String. It’s closest relative is Percy Sledge’s 1966 organ driven “When a Man Loves a Woman”.

But still it’s sui generis – a class of it’s own.

— Douglas

“It was influenced by books, not drugs”

— “A Whiter Shade of Pale” lyricist Keith Reid, Procol Harum

What writers think it’s about

Reid 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. The original lyrics had four verses, of which only two are heard on the original recording. The third verse has been heard in live performances by Procol Harum, and more seldom also the fourth. The author of Procol Harum: Beyond the Pale, Claes Johansen, suggests that the song “deals in metaphorical form with a male/female relationship which after some negotiation ends in a sexual act”. This is supported by Tim de Lisle in Lives of the Great Songs, who remarks that the lyrics concern a drunken seduction, which is described through references to sex as a form of travel, usually nautical, using mythical and literary journeys. Other observers have also commented that the lyrics concern a sexual relationship. source

What the songwriter says it’s about

Keith Reid was quoted in the February 2008 issue of Uncut magazine as saying:

“I was trying to conjure a mood as much as tell a straightforward, girl-leaves-boy story. With the ceiling flying away and room humming harder, I wanted to paint an image of a scene. I wasn’t trying to be mysterious with those images, I was trying to be evocative. I suppose it seems like a decadent scene I’m describing. But I was too young to have experienced any decadence, then. I might have been smoking when I conceived it, but not when I wrote. It was influenced by books, not drugs.”

Impact on Songwriters

Ray Coleman, author of Lennon: The Definitive Biography, tells about an episode at a party at Brian Epstein’s, just prior to the release of the Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper:

“We spoke a little about the state of the music scene, and he (Lennon) said there was one ‘dope’ record which he couldn’t get off his mind. He couldn’t remember the title. All other pop music of that period was ‘crap’, one of his favourite words at that time.”

“I remembered after I’d gone what record it is that I can’t stop playing, It’s…  Whiter Shade Of Pale.”

— John Lennon to biographer Ray Coleman, “Lennon, the Definitive Biography”

“In May of 1967, I heard this amazing recording on Radio Luxembourg by a ‘new’ band called Procol Harum. It was called A Whiter Shade of Pale and

it stopped me in my tracks!

Matthew Fisher’s ear candy Bach-ish inspired organ melody, Gary Brooker’s great song melody, and Keith Reid’s wonderful lyrics along with Gary’s lead vocal became an instant pop classic to me! I don’t want to overlook Ray Royer and Bill Eyden because they also helped create this remarkable recording.

— Beach Boys Bruce Johnston, “Procol Harum:Beyond the Pale”, Claes Johansen


Two of the 1000 versions

Complete Lyrics – “A Whiter Shade of Pale”

Released version stanzas

We skipped the light fandango
turned cartwheels ‘cross the floor
I was feeling kinda seasick
but the crowd called out for more
The room was humming harder
as the ceiling flew away
When we called out for another drink
the waiter brought a tray

And so it was that later
as the miller told his tale
that her face, at first just ghostly,
turned a whiter shade of pale

She said, ‘There is no reason
and the truth is plain to see.’
But I wandered through my playing cards
and would not let her be
one of sixteen vestal virgins
who were leaving for the coast
and although my eyes were open
they might have just as well’ve been closed

Unrecorded stanzas

She said, ‘I’m home on shore leave,’
though in truth we were at sea
so I took her by the looking glass
and forced her to agree
saying, ‘You must be the mermaid
who took Neptune for a ride.’
But she smiled at me so sadly
that my anger straightway died

If music be the food of love [see note, left, about this verse + its opening]
then laughter is its queen
and likewise if behind is in front
then dirt in truth is clean
My mouth by then like cardboard
seemed to slip straight through my head
So we crash-dived straightway quickly
and attacked the ocean bed