The “Listen Again” series was popular enough that your favorite music man has decided to follow the lead of some Los Angeles TV executives and do a spin-off. In this series we’ll once again examine previously-released albums BUT the discs we’ll discuss in this particular series will be (Rolling Stone magazine) FIVE-STAR albums. In this edition we look at Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale (or as it was originally known Procol Harum.)
Procol Harum is a UK rock group founded in 1967. The original line-up included: Matthew Fisher on organ, Dave Knights on bass, B.J. Wilson on drums, Robin Trower on guitar, Gary Brooker on piano and vocals and lyricist Keith Reid. The band is credited for their significant contributions to the genres of progressive rock and symphonic rock. While they are best known for their classical and baroque influence, the band’s material embraces soul, R&B and the blues as well.
Their debut song was “A Whiter Shade of Pale”. Released a month before their first album, this record reached number one on the UK Singles Chart and remained there for six weeks. Despite little promotion, the single hit number 5 on the US charts and took the top slot in several other countries. (To date it is one of the less than 30 singles to have ever sold over 10 million copies worldwide.
Their premiere platter consisted of ten tracks as was eponymously titled Procol Harum. It was released in 1967 on the Regal Zonophone label in the UK. It was recorded on multi-track but was issued in mono. (The mono would later be rechanneled stereo for the release of the album in the US.) The original multi-track tapes were lost in the mists of time and a true stereo mix of the 10 tunes may never happen. (Many alternate takes have been mixed into stereo and are today available on CD.)
The majority of the tracks were written by Brooker and Reid. Side one opens with “Conquistador”. According to Reid, the music for this tune was written before the lyrics. He also said that this was odd because “99 out of 100” of the band’s songs “were written the words first, and then were set to music.”
The second song here is “She Wandered Through the Garden Fence”. The band actually recorded and eventually released two versions. One had a firm close and the other simply faded out.
This side included three other songs including “Something Following Me”, “Mabel” and “Cerdes (Outside the Gates Of)”. It was clear very early on what made this band unique. It was the totally unlikely, imaginative, realized combination of musical styles.
Brooker’s vocals were reminiscent of blues wailers like Ray Charles. Trower’s notably distorted guitar was much like Eric Clapton’s blues-based work in Cream. Fisher’s cathedral organ took something from the classical composers that was serious, precise and majestic. Reid’s lyrics were reportedly inspired by Blonde on Blonde Bob Dylan and Wilson provided individualistic, nimble drumming. Furthermore, Brooker’s near constant combination of organ and piano was pretty much unknown in the rock music genre of the day.
The flip side of the record includes the lead-in “A Christmas Camel” and the colorful “Kaleidoscope”. This is followed by “Salad Days (Are Here Again)”. This particular piece is said to have been lifted from the motion picture Separation. The next number is “Good Captain Clack”. (This would eventually be left off of the US re-issue to be replaced by the band’s hit single “A Whiter Shade of Pale”.) The closing cut is a noteworthy tune by Fisher titled “Repent Walpurgis”.
The album first came to America on the Deram label. The original Deram release included a poster of the album cover artwork by Dickinson. The original American version would be re-issued as to A Whiter Shade of Pale to take full advantage of the band’s single which had been released before the album. The US release dropped “Good Captain Clack” in favor of adding the hit song “A Whiter Shade of Pale”.
The song was slotted as the lead-in and included guitarist Ray Royerin place of Trower and drummer Bill Eydenin place of Wilson. The song was a success due in part to its Bach-tinged melody, imaginative lyrics and soulful vocals. The song was written by Brooker, Reid and Fisher. (It would go on to become a classic.)
Yet another version of the album would be released in Germany on the Polydor label. This version had only one difference from the original UK release as well. This version omits “Good Captain Clack” in order to slot in a song titled “Homburg” as the opening number.
“Homburg” was the 1967 lesser-known, follow up single to “A Whiter Shade of Pale”. This was written by Brooker and Reid. It took the top slot in several countries including Australia and the Netherlands. It also reached number 5 on the UK charts, number 15 in Canada, and even made it to number 34 in the US.
The lyrics evoked many of the same feelings as the band’s first single. It also featured Fisher’s deep, rich Hammond organ. This is different in that the guitar and piano are brought to the fore in terms of overall sound.
The theme of this song is nowhere near as Bach-like as in their hit “A Whiter Shade of Pale”; still, the single was originally considered to be much like it by some critics. The flip side of the single includes “Good Captain Clack” which is missing from every version of the album but the original. A few years later, in 1972, a live version of a tune from the album–“Conquistador”—made the US single charts.
Procol Harum and “A Whiter Shade of Pale” would not be forgotten. In the 1980s yet another version of the first album would be released on a fifteen-track CD. It would include both the hit song “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and the often omitted “Good Captain Clack”. It would also feature four bonus tracks including: “Lime Street Blues”, “Homburg”, “Monseigneur Armand” and “Seem to Have the Blues All the Time”.
Indeed, the work has been reissued and repackaged quite often over the years. One noteworthy reissue was put out in 1998. Procol Harum . . . Plus! is a compilation on the Westside label. It includes over 20 cuts. It features every cut on the above-mentioned CD as well as additional bonus tracks from that same time period.
The new millennium witnessed no wane in the popularity of the band’s hit “A Whiter Shade of Pale”. Another interesting reissue surfaced in 2003. This would be a monaural, audiophile vinyl repackaging on the Classic Records label.
This record opens with “Homburg”. Oddly, it does not include “A Whiter Shade of Pale” or “Good Captain Clack.” Instead it features bonus singles of the original monaural and alternate stereo versions of “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”
In 2004 the tune was recognized as “the most-played record by British broadcasting of the past 70 years” by the UK performing rights group Phonographic Performance Limited.
That same year Rolling Stone magazine slotted “A Whiter Shade of Pale” in at number 57 on its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. As of 2009 the piece was “the most played song in the last 75 years in public places in the UK” as well.
In fact, to date over 1000 different cover versions of the hit song have been documented. “A Whiter Shade of Pale” has been a part of numerous compilation albums and been used in many movie soundtracks as well including: The Big Chill, Purple Haze, Breaking the Waves, The Boat That Rocked and New York Stories. Other movies have featured covers of the tune including King Curtis’ version in Withnail and I and Annie Lennox’s in The Net.
Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale/A&M4373 was also named as one of Classic Rock magazine‘s “50 Albums That Built Prog Rock”. It is an award-winning work that exemplifies some of the best in musical creativity and imagination. It is truly worth its five-star rating.
My name is Phoenix and . . . that’s the bottom line.