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Gordon Robinson | Three sides to every story

Published:Tuesday | December 12, 2017 | 12:00 AM

One of my favourite recordings is Procol Harum's Whiter Shade of Pale.

Matthew Fisher's haunting Hammond Organ dominates the song, so few pay attention to the lyrics. If they do, their heads spin. I've always understood this strange song's origin to be rooted in an argument between band leader, pianist, and songwriter Gary Brooker and lyricist Keith Reid about whether music or lyrics was more important to a song.

A bet was struck. A song would be written with good music but nonsensical lyrics. If it was a hit, Gary won. If it missed, Keith triumphed.

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.

Chorus:

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.

Gary (with, as was later ordered by House of Lords, Matthew Fisher) created a unique musical fusion of Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach and Percy Sledge's When a Man Loves a Woman. Keith's inspiration for the lyrics' focal point happened at a party where he overheard a woman being told, "You've 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;

would not let her be!

One, of sixteen vestal virgins,

who were leaving for the coast.

And, although my eyes were open,

they might've just as well been closed

[Chorus]

The band was named for Keith's friend's cat. The cat was said to be of the breed Procol Harum (Burmese Blue), but photos dispelled that rumour, and it's more likely that Procol Harum (a bastardisation of the Latin phrase 'procul harun', 'procul' meaning 'beyond' and 'harun' an Arabic name from the Hebrew Aharon) was the cat's name, not the breed. Poirot, please?

The song has a seldom-heard (in live performances) third and an almost-never-heard fourth verse that convince lyric detectives it's a metaphorical description of a male-female relationship that after 'negotiation' (drunken seduction), ends in a sexual act.

She said:

I'm home on shore leave,

Though in truth we were at sea.

So I took her by the looking glass;

forced her to agree.

Saying, "You must be the mermaid

that took Neptune for a ride.

Then she smiled at me so sadly

that my anger straight away died.

[Chorus]

 

FORM OF TRAVEL

 

Modern lyric detectives conclude that in the lyric, sex is metaphorically described as a form of travel (usually nautical). The lyric "as the Miller told his tale" supports the sex story interpretation of the song as it's a clear reference to 'The Miller's Tale' from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, which every literature student knows was a vulgar/bawdy story, told by the Miller.

If music be the food of love

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 straight away quickly

and attacked the ocean bed.

[Chorus]

Reid and Brooker grew up in heavily Jewish East London - Brooker in Hackney; Reid in Mile End Road. Reid's father was one of 6,000-plus Jews arrested in Vienna during Kristallnacht (November 9/10, 1938) and transported to Dachau. Released months later, he immigrated to England, leaving behind parents whom he'd never see or hear from again.

Growing up, Keith was steeped in Holocaust history and his idol was American Jewish songwriter and Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan. But rebellious Keith's lyrics relied more on superficial surrealism inspired by his love of French avant-garde films and Rene Magritte and Salvador Dali's art.

Many felt Keith's lyrics were about drugs, but in February 2008, he told Uncut Magazine his version of Whiter Shade of Pale:

"I was trying to conjure a mood as much as tell a straightforward, girl-leaves-boy story. With the ceiling flying away and the room humming harder, I wanted to paint an image of a scene. I wasn't trying to be mysterious ... . 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."

Which version do you prefer?

Peace and love.

- Gordon Robinson is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.