Transcript 103–A Whiter Shade of Pale

NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.

Hello! And welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, the show that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.

My name is Claude Call, and I’m fighting through something my wife gave me, but we’re going to power through this together, you and I. Maybe you shouldn’t listen through headphones; I don’t want you to get an ear infection.

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Oh, I’ve got some cool trivia for ye this week. We all know that several artists are known for long concerts. Bruce Springsteen once went for four hours and six minutes. The Cure went for four hours and sixteen minutes. Nobody timed The Pixies’ tribute concert to the Chilean miners, but they did 33 songs, one for each miner. So that’s got to be in the four-hour ballpark. Musician Chilly Gonzales once played for 27 hours and three minutes straight, specifically to set a world record for the longest solo performance. But there’s a performance that beats all of them by far. Who is the artist? I’ll have that answer, and the story behind it, near the end of the show.

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“A Whiter Shade of Pale,” the debut single by Procul Harum, is often considered one of the songs that helped define that Summer of Love in 1967, while at the same time evoking a more classical sound than the “peace and love” or psychedelic sounds of that era.

I think part of the initial appeal of the song is exactly that: it sounded very different from so much other stuff that was popular at that time. Other songs on the charts around then included The Hollies with both “Carrie Anne” and “On a Carousel,” the Strawberry Alarm Clock hit us with the psychedelic bubble gum of “Incense and Peppermints, The Association was hot with “Never My Love,” Scott MacKenzie was giving us sartorial advice should we choose to visit the West Coast…really, the only thing that came anywhere close would be…maybe? Vanilla Fudge’s cover of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”. And if that sounds like a long list, know that I cut it down, because there was just so much going on at that time.

But I think we can both tell that the summer of 1967 was also the time that pop music really started to evolve, in terms of the sophistication levels of both the music and the lyrical content. And Procul Harum as a band was pretty emblematic of that, giving us a blend of baroque sounds combined with a kind of blue-eyed soul.

OK, let’s back up just a little bit with the band, largely because “a little bit” is all there is TO back up.

[POISON IVY]

The band started out as The Paramounts, and they were based out of Southend-on-Sea, in Essex, England. They had a minor hit there in 1964 with this cover of the Coasters’ “Poison Ivy,” but when there weren’t any other hits, they broke up in 1966. But in 1967 founding member Gary Brooker put together another band with Matthew Fisher on the Hammond organ, guitar player Ray Royer, bass player David Knights and Keith Reid, who couldn’t sing or play, but he wrote poetry and that’s where most of their songs came from. The band got its name from their manager, who took the name of their producer’s Burmese cat, whose “cat fancy” name was indeed Procul Harun—that’s H A R U N. “Procul” was the breeder’s prefix. Now, many people have said that the phrase translates as Latin, meaning “beyond these things,” but that’s just nonsense. “Procul” is a Latin word which has a few meanings, and “beyond” is within the realm of such a translation, but “Harun” is an Arabic name, similar to the Hebrew Aaron. The nearest translation comes out to “warrior lion.” So “Procul Harum” with an M, doesn’t mean much of anything, really. Sorry.

Anyway, the only reason I’m even mentioning The Paramounts is because, after “Whiter Shade of Pale” was released and became a hit, some of them came back to Procul Harum, specifically drummer B.J. Wilson and guitarist Robin Trower, when the players they replaced left the group to form a band called Freedom. Got all that? The band recorded the album with one lineup, then toured and recorded their follow-up single with another. And after 1968 there were many, many lineup changes before they finally broke up in 1977.

But let’s go back to 1967, shall we? According to the book Procul Harum: Beyond the Pale, Keith Reid first got the idea for the song when he was at a party and he overheard someone saying to a woman there, “You’ve turned a whiter shade of pale.” In an interview with Uncut magazine, Reid said that he was attempting to create a mood with the song, more evocative than descriptive. I mean, yes: the song is about a girl leaving a boy, but Reid is clearly reaching for metaphors, and he has long denied that the song was influenced by drugs. And frankly, given that he echoes the Canterbury Tales in the chorus with the line about the Miller’s Tale, I’m buying that explanation. However, Reid also has said that he never actually read The Miller’s Tale, it just sounded good. So go figure.

Now, oddly enough, while we didn’t read all of the Canterbury Tales in high school, the Miller’s Tale is the only one of them that I remember. The oversimplified version of it is  the story of a carpenter whose much-younger wife is pressured into having an affair with someone; meanwhile another young man is also interested in her, but since she’s already involved with the first guy, she’s resistant. Eventually he talks her into letting him kiss her through the privy vent, and because it’s dark and he can’t see, she sticks her butt through the window and he kisses that. Now the second guy is angry, so he goes to the local blacksmith and gets a red-hot coulter, intending to burn her with it. He knocks on the window a second time, but by now the first man with whom she’s having the affair actually needs to use the privy, so to get in on the joke he’s the one who sticks his buttocks out the window, and he gets burned instead. All this ruckus leads to the carpenter learning about the affair, but when he tells the story all the townspeople laugh at him and think he’s crazy. As I’ve said, that’s vastly oversimplified but it’s truly a fun story, and you can find modern English versions of it for free in the Amazon Kindle store, so you don’t have to wade through the Middle English like I did. For what it’s worth, Reid originally wrote a much longer song, with four verses, because long tracks like “Hey Jude” or “Like a Rolling Stone” were kind of in vogue at that point, but pretty early on they decided to drop them. However, they did occasionally play three and sometimes all four in concert.

[BACH]

So ANYway, the band put together maybe a dozen songs for the first album, but “Whiter Shade of Pale” was one of their stronger contenders, and it was one of the first tracks they cut for the album. Reid once said in an interview that he liked that one and another track called “Salad Days (Are Here Again)” as the first single, but “Whiter Shade” was the one that recorded the best. Reid noted that in those days, it wasn’t just how good the song was, it was how good you could make it sound. Multi-track recording was still pretty much in its infancy, so they were still basically recording the whole thing live, so if you had a bad engineer or a wonky studio, the recording wouldn’t sound good. And fortunately, Reid said, their first session came out sounding pretty good.

Gary Brooker said in the same Uncut magazine interview that he’d been listening to a lot of classical music and jazz around the time the song was written, and when he saw the lyrics that Reid had written, he decided that he wanted to give it a specific atmosphere with the music. He’d been working with something earlier that incorporated a bit of classical music and it all fell together. So if you listen to the chords, it starts with Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Air on a G String” and departs from there.

[CIGARS]

What Brooker doesn’t mention is that the Bach was probably on his mind because of a jazz version of the piece that was being used in the UK for some very humorous and popular cigar ads…

[WHITER SHADE]

Some people have also compared the chords to Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” and I can kind of hear that, too. But while the chord structure was a game changer, I don’t think anyone can deny that it was Matthew Fisher’s Hammond organ that really pulls you in.

[WHITER SHADE]

In fact, even though the song is four minutes and three seconds long, it only has two verses and the chorus twice. As I mentioned earlier, the song started out much longer. There’s a lot of instrumentation in there, and Fisher’s sound specifically gives the song its signature sound, enough that Fisher eventually sued for a partial writing credit in 2005. In December of 2006 he won the case and was given a 40% share of the music copyright, but he was not granted any back royalties. The case was appealed, and the Court of Appeal upheld the co-authorship but said he should get NO royalties because he’d taken so long to get around to suing. This wasn’t quite true; he’d attempted to sue a few times earlier but the lawyers kept telling him he didn’t really have a strong claim. As a result of that appeal, full royalties came back to Brooker. In 2009 that decision was appealed, which in England means it goes to the House of Lords, which ruled unanimously in Fisher’s favor. So at this point, Matthew Fisher is receiving a 40% share of music royalties from 2005 onward.

Meanwhile, back in 1967, producer Denny Cordell was a little bit worried about the sound of the record overall, specifically the fact that the session drummer they’d used was just a little too prominent when it came to his cymbals. So he sent an acetate copy of the song to Radio London, which played the record on the air and announced that the song sounded like a massive hit.

And it did perform respectfully. The single was released the second week of May in the UK and within a couple of weeks it reached Number One, where it held the position for six weeks. In the United States it peaked at Number Five on the Billboard Hot 100 and sold over a million copies. It also made it to Number 22 on the Soul charts in the US. The song was on the US release of the band’s debut album, but for some reason it was not on the UK version. It was also a number one song in most of Europe, in Australia and New Zealand, and in South Africa.

The band made two promotional films for the song. The first one features four of the five band members who played on the record—they had a permanent drummer by then, so the session drummer wasn’t in the film—performing the song and walking about the ruins of Witley Court, a mansion that had been destroyed by fire in the 1930s, interspersed with newsreel footage from the Vietnam War. Because of that, the BBC refused to air the film on the Top of the Pops TV show.

So they made a second promotional clip, using Scopitone technology. Now, again I’m oversimplifying, but Scopitone was a kind of video jukebox that used 16 millimeter film and a magnetic soundtrack. Scopitone and similar technologies are probably the reason many bands made promotional films at all. This version has only three of the five original musicians in it, since Robin Trower and B.J. Wilson had joined the band by now. In this version, we see shots of the band walking around London, standing in fields and such, with Brooker miming the lyrics and the entire band staring without expression.

[LENNOX]

There are a bunch of covers of the song out there, but probably the most notable would be this one by Annie Lennox in 1995, on her album Medusa. It became the second single off that album, and was a Top 40 hit in several European nations but missed the Hot 100 in the US by a hair, although it did appear in the Top Ten on the Dance Singles chart. One thing do like better about Annie Lennox’ version is the ending. She gives the song a full ending, rather than that quick fadeout that Procul Harum does as they go into the chorus for a third time. I gotta admit, I never liked that ending.

instAnd now it’s time to answer today’s trivia question.

Back on Page Two I asked you about the musician whose concert lasted far longer than anyone else’s. Well: the story goes back to 1987, when composer John Cage wrote a piece of music that he titled ‘As SLow aS Possible’. And I should note that there’s some unusual spelling here, because the L in “slow” and the S in “as” are capitalized. Which means when its initialized, it’s not ASAP but rather ASLSP. “As SLow aS Possible” was written for the piano or the organ, and was designed to be played—surprise!—very, VERY slowly. Now, a typical performance will run anywhere between 20 and 70 minutes, however in 2009 the piece was played on an organ at Towson University, just a couple of miles from where I’m sitting right now, and clocking in at 14 hours and 56 minutes. In 2012 a performance took place in Australia that was designed to take eight hours. A cathedral in Montreal, Quebec, Canada did a twelve-hour performance by three different organists, and on June 22, 2019 a twelve hour performance was done in Christchurch, New Zealand, to celebrate the southern hemisphere winter solstice. But the real winner in this case is the organ version at the St. Burchardi church, located in Halberstadt, Germany. Now, the reason they chose to do this in the first place was to commemorate the first documented permanent installation of an organ, in the year 1361, in the Halberstadt Cathedral. Now, when they first proposed this concert in 1997, they planned to launch the concert in the year 2000, 639 years after that installation date. Unfortunately the organ’s construction was delayed, so they couldn’t play until a year later, in 2001. And if you haven’t guessed yet, the performance is scheduled to go for 639 years, which means that months or even years can go on between each segment, or “impulse” of the piece. In order to sustain notes, they’ve arranged for tiny sandbags to be arranged on the pedals. And in fact, the organ itself wasn’t completely installed by the time they began; they’ve been working on it since the performance started. There are a few videos on YouTube you can check out if you search “As Slow As Possible,” I’m not including any audio from the church because anything I could find comes from YouTube, so what you get is a low drone with a lot of room noise and the sound of people walking around. However, if you want to go see it for yourself, you’d better hurry, because you’ve only got until the year…2640.

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Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is when we talk about the power ballad that may have damaged Foreigner’s reputation.

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