Debut singles don’t come much more auspicious than Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade Of Pale.”
Released 50 years ago today (on May 12, 1967), the four-minute first single from Procol Harum skipped the light fandango — whatever the hell that meant — and became a Summer of Love anthem that spent six weeks atop the U.K. charts and reached No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100. A perennial selection on Greatest Songs list and a frequent soundtrack choice for movies (The Big Chill, The Commitments, New York Stories), the Bach-flavored track was, and remains, original and ethereal, melodic and mysterious. It’s been echoed (try Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over”) but never equaled, and is the rare song of psychedelia that sounds as fresh now as when it was released.
Procol Harum, meanwhile, is still an active concern, led by co-founder, singer and keyboardist Gary Brooker. The group released a new album, Novum, earlier this year and will be announcing 50th anniversary concerts soon, but Brooker took a few minutes away from 2017 to remember when he turned cartwheels ‘cross the floor….
When you were recording “A Whiter Shade of Pale” could you tell it was one for the ages?
No, not at all. When it was written and I was singing it, just the piano and vocal, I thought, ‘This is different.’ It was a good song and the recording came out very well, so that was job done. And of course it was a smash hit around the world straightaway, which is even more fantastic. But I never even thought 10 years ahead, let alone 50. I never thought that far in front at all.
With the benefit of hindsight, what do you think accounts for the song’s enduring appeal?
It is still a great mystery to me why, how it’s come to be still so strong in so many people’s brains and lives and feelings. And new people pick it up as well. It’s not everybody that met their first girlfriend in 1967, you know? There’s people that have picked up the song along the way. And if I hear it myself on the radio, it always sounds different to all else that is going on in 2017, just like it sounded so different to everything else in 1967. It still sounds different.
Did you ever ask Keith Reid what he was going on about in the lyric?
No, not at all because I understood it. There isn’t much to understand, but it paints these images. There’s certainly a girl involved somewhere, and there’s the guy and there’s something going on. But you just have to draw out from each couple of lines what is going on or the type of chaos that might be happening at that particular moment. They always spoke to me, those lyrics.
Do you have favorite uses of “A Whiter Shade of Pale” in movies and popular culture?
Not really. In movies it very often tends to come in when somebody’s reliving the ’60s in some way, living some past memory or thinking back on something. I think the song makes people do that. It makes them think back to a certain type of person or a certain era. I mean, Martin Scorsese used it (in New York Stories). He’s a great director and filmmaker and I know he loves his music inside out, so it’s kind of a thrill that he used it.
You have a new album (Novum) out this year. Any other 50th anniversary plans for “A Whiter Shade of Pale” or Procol Harum in general?
Well, we’ve got a lot of concerts lined up, but I haven’t organized any sort of party, not yet. Fifty years, you can’t just let that go by; If there’s ever a good moment to do something new and fresh and write new songs and get in the studio, it’s now. Once you’ve been around 40 or 50 years, you’ve done a lot of things and your brain doesn’t get that woken up by new experiences because there’s nothing new. You have to work to find them. But I still like singing and I like doing all the Procol songs, from 1967 right through to now. And it’s always been people that enjoyed each other’s company, for the most part, so it’s become what I always thought a band is supposed to be.