A Whiter Shade of Pale was released in 1967 on the debut album of the English rock band Procol Harum. The song spent six weeks at No. 1 on the UK Singles chart and climbed to No. 5 on the US Billboard Hot 100. History looks back on it as an anthem of the 1967 Summer of Love. But not everyone knows the story behind the lyrics or how A Whiter Shade of Pale came to be one of the biggest hits of all time.
The song was inspired by a phrase frontman Keith Reid heard at a party in 1967. Hearing someone say, “You’ve turned a whiter shade of pale!” to a woman, the phrase stuck in his mind.
He used the phrase as a basis for the idea of a song about a sexual encounter between a man and a woman, though details around the encounter have been subject to widespread fan interpretation.
The phrase served as an idea for Reid, which led to a setting and characters. He wanted to create not just a story but also a mood around the characters, a man and a woman, in the process of breaking up.
References To Chaucer
In an odd turn of circumstances, the chorus of A Whiter Shade of Pale includes a reference to The Miller’s Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer. Reid himself was surprised to hear this, as he had never read the story and did not intend to quote Chaucer; he later was unable to describe where he had taken the words from.
Even stranger is the thematic relevance of the reference. The Miller’s Tale, featured in The Canterbury Tales, is a bawdy tale about an adulterous affair with sexually-charged humor throughout. This seems to fit the sexual themes of the overall song, making its inclusion a strange coincidence.
The first mention of the phrase “a whiter shade of pale” follows immediately after the reference to Chaucer, seeming to imply that the unnamed woman of the song turned pale with shock at the rude content of the story.
A Whiter Shade of Pale follows a couple through a night of partying. However, they know they are not happy; the woman is determined to end the relationship, and the narrator seems to know it is coming. Consequently, he spends the evening drinking heavily and feeling seasick at the prospect of breaking up.
Other theories from both critics and fans usually center on the song’s sexual language. Some argue that the song deals with a male and female negotiating their way to a sexual encounter. Others think it involves drunken seduction, referencing sex using nautical, literary, and mythical language.
This theory was popular among young people of the flower power era, particularly in the sexually-liberated summers of the late 1960s. It became well-known among the disaffected youth seeking purpose and spiritual revelation while eschewing traditional religion and values. In this context, A Whiter Shade of Pale has often been called the most distinctive single of 1967, particularly because of its enigmatic, soul-searching lyrics.
Literary & Historical References
Chaucer isn’t the only writer referenced in the song. One of the verses also quotes Shakespeare directly with the line “If music be the food of love,” a famous line from his play Twelfth Night.
Other references include a nod to Roman mythology in a story about the god Neptune pursuing a mermaid. This ocean imagery continues throughout the song, contrasting images such as being on shore leave and being stuck at sea. Reid also mentions the Vestal Virgins, a group of ancient Roman priestesses, traveling along the shoreline.
A Whiter Shade of Pale has a distinctive style with a Bach-inspired organ part. This was played on a Hammond M102. The song is in C major and has a bassline that moves stepwise downward in a repetitive pattern. This is called a ground bass in classical composition. The song’s harmonic structure is the same as the organ, chorus, and verse.
The main organ melody appears at the beginning and end of each verse and chorus. It can be heard throughout the song in different thematic variations and contrasts to the vocal melody. The chorus commences simultaneously as the vocal and organ accompaniment begin a crescendo. The organist runs up and down the keys on the entire board. Finally, the instrumental fades out.
Reception Upon Release
A Whiter Shade of Pale topped the charts at No. 1 in just two weeks, staying at the top for six weeks. It arrived at No. 1 on the same day in early June 1967 that the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band peaked on the national albums chart. These together marked the start of the Summer of Love in Britain.
The song stuck out prominently, especially after John Lennon and Paul McCartney praised it for its wordplay and Baroque accompaniment. The song profoundly impacted Brian Wilson, leader of the Beach Boys. He said he believed it was his funeral march and still feels like he is at his own funeral when he hears the song today.
A Whiter Shade of Pale sold more than a million copies. It reached No. 5 on the US Billboard Hot 100 and No. 22 on the soul charts. It was included in Procol Harum’s US album release but not on the UK version. The Netherlands charts saw the single hit No. 1 the month it was released and again the following month. A re-release also peaked at No.13 on the UK charts.
The song has received critical acclaim ever since its release. It has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and listed as one of the best songs of all time. The song was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in a new Singles category in 2018.
The song has been covered several times. Annie Lennox covered A Whiter Shade of Pale for her second solo album Medusa, released in 1995. The song was then released as the album’s second single, becoming a Top 40 hit in Canada and Europe. Irwin Winkler’s film, The Net. featured the song in its closing credits. The Hesitations covered the song in 1968, reaching No. 100 for two weeks on the US Billboard charts and 83 in Canada. R.B. Greaves debuted a version in 1970 that hit No. 82 on the US Billboard charts and 85 in Canada.
Hagar Schon Aaronson Shrieve covered A Whiter Shade of Pale in 1984 for their album Through the Fire. They later released it as the album’s only single. The cover reached No. 94 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Since the song’s release, the phrase “a whiter shade of pale” has become widespread throughout the English-speaking world. The phrase is often used nowadays without any direct reference to the song, even by people who have never heard it. It has been heavily paraphrased in other forms until it came to be recognized as a snowclone, a kind of template phrasal cliche.
The wordplay in the song has also been interpreted to be referencing the phrase “beyond the pale,” meaning “crossing the line of decorum or acceptance.” This connects to the image of a woman turning pale with shock after hearing a bawdy story.
The song was named joint winner of the 1977 Best British Pop Single 1952-1977–a title it shared with Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. It was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998. It was recognized in 2004 as the most-played record by British broadcasting in 70 years by Phonographic Performance.
In 2009, the song was listed as the most played in UK public spaces for the last 75 years. Rolling Stone awarded it 57th place in its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. A Whiter Shade of Pale has been included in countless music compilations since its debut. Many films and TV shows have used it in their soundtracks.
There are many layers to the song. Is it a simple story about a breakup, a calculated tale of sexual favors, or a psychedelic song about nothing? It has been interpreted countless times over the years; its mystery only adds to its intrigue.
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