Procol Harum ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ & meaning

One of the most irritating records of the 60s, Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale, is back in the news with the High Court forced to decide who stole what from Bach. If the work is innovative, I guess it’s because it almost anticipates contemporary sampling techniques; pick a piece of music you like, mess about it with a little and hey presto. It’s a kind of Lockean: the old philosopher held that when you take something that nobody owns and mix it with your labour, it becomes yours.

Anyway. Many people, many of them fans (who call themselves Palers), have spent many an hour debating the meaning of A Whiter Shade of Pale. The bloke who sang it has always claimed not to know. But it isn’t it obvious?

We set the scene with references to nauseating drunkenness (indeed the whole piece may be designed to induce nausea in the listener) and as the characters find themselves on the verge of vomiting their faces turn a whiter shade of pale: ‘I was feeling kinda seasick… / The room was humming harder… / When we called out for another drink / the waiter brought a tray’

There is clear menace in the lyric (‘but the crowd cried out for more’) and the female subject is clearly in trouble. The narrator is about to rape her, but may be too drunk. This is emphasised in additional lyrics only performed in concert: ‘so I took her by the looking glass / and forced her to agree / saying, “You must be the mermaid / who took Neptune for a ride.” / But she smiled at me so sadly / that my anger straightway died’

The coyness of the performer and the claimed influence for the song – a hippie gathering – seem to support this reading… don’t you think?

44 thoughts on “Procol Harum ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ & meaning

  1. Wow, what a review of “whiter shade of pale”, one of the greatest songs of 20th century. It is sad, divine, deep and certainly a pleasure to ears and heart…
    A piece of art.

    Sure you are entitled to your opinion but, man, this song belongs to humanity. It is a classic, get over it!

  2. A Whiter Shade of Pale is such a good song. It is deep and meaningful, but do you really need to know “the lyrics” to understand what it means. Just listen to it and find your own meaning.

  3. Kool, Kyle. I always laugh when I hear say something is “meaningful” and then can’t explain the meaning. But you captured the true essence of the meaning of this song, which is musical. For me, the meaning is enchanting, uplifting.

  4. I’ve always thought that the lyrics entail the illusory nature of love, and lust between man and women, (would not let her be a vestal virgin) and the deception, ritual, contradiction, and illusion involved with that connection. (There is no reason and the truth is plain to see)

    The last two verses which usually get skipped reinforced that interpretation for me.

  5. For several years i always wondering what’s the meaning behind the lyrics, but Kyle really open my eyes, good job Kyle!

  6. “(indeed the whole piece may be designed to induce nausea in the listener)”

    I finally understand my uneasiness while listening to this song for forty years.

  7. There is always debate whether art belongs to the artist or the spectator… in most cases both I guess, if it had a meaning to the writers it does not mean it has to be universal, it is an awesome song.

    PS: Why does everything have to mean something, if you can’t enjoy it just listening to it, your loss.

  8. or maybe its a robby burns rework ? check out tamm “o” shanta then it makes a bit of sense.

  9. Lets face it the melody is the most haunting part of the song,it has an eerie ghostly feel to it, great to listen to, but most of us believe the author was totally wasted on coke when him or her wrote the lyrics and possibly imagined thats what death is like.

    P.S. I love it.

  10. i’ve always believed the song to be about getting high and then the girl suffers an overdose.

  11. I’ve heard this song over and over again all my adult life – it was first released when I was 9 – and I still don’t even know what words are in the lyrics. I don’t care – never have – it’s just a wonderful song. The lyrics are just a brilliant counterpoint and duet with the organ that really leads this song, and is clearly inspired by the genius of Bach.

  12. Well I always interpreted the song as being about addiction. “Whiter Shade of Pale” = dead. The “she” in the song is either Death, or the Drug that killed…take your choice. “Eyes wide open…” simply means, the addict understands what is happening, and has no choice but to see it to it’s conclusion: death.

  13. I don’t know. I was born in the seventies but somehow I found the song in my early twenties and held onto it. Just could never let it go. I think the rape thing might be it. Might be the meaning. That explanation seems to fit it just right in my heart. Wish I knew…

  14. Boys, I’m an italian. For a stranger like me the explanation is overall in the music. Beautiful! Any Italian can’t understand the lyrics. But yesterday evening I told to my son Oscar, sixteen years old that “…probably it means an “out” condition, drug effects”. I told him it doing a parallelism with “Lucy in the sky with diamonds”. It means “hallucination” like A.W.S.O.P. For us, abroad, when you don’t understand anything about the lyrics, the song explanation is only one: drug effects.

    Ciao ciao.

    Vittorio P.

  15. who cares about the meaning its a great song no matter what it means…
    you cant just go and say its designed to ‘induce nausea’ and stuff like that though, its a classic and people will continue to love it for a long time regardless of meaning.

  16. Ok, I can’t let this one go by.

    This song is obviously about death from an overdose of drugs. The drug referred to in the song is coke, but it could be any drug overdose. The “miller” is obvious, and key to the song’s meaning.. A “miller” is any type of moth that has white, powdery wings. Look it up. The first verse of the song obviously describes the trip the author is on. Ever been on one? This is exactly it. Could have written this verse if I’d known the words. And who said there was not readily-available coke in the late 60s? You apparently didn’t live in the 60s.]

    Think about it. When is something a whiter shade of pale? Ever seen a corpse in a coffin? Death is when you are a whiter shade of pale. Nothing on earth is the ghostly color of a corpse.

    “And so it was that later as the miller told his tale that her face, [at first].. just ghostly,[then] turned a whiter shade of pale [as she died]. She [death] said, ‘There is no reason and the truth is plain to see.’ But I wandered through my playing cards and would not let her be one of sixteen vestal virgins who were leaving for the coast and although my eyes were open they might have just as well’ve been closed.”

    The “she” here is death. There is no reason for the author’s death. The author here is being mocked by the very drug (death) that enticed him. The author’s fate was out of his hands (… I would not let her [death] be) when he became addicted to the drug. His eyes were wide open, but they might have well been closed. Eyes wide open but might have been closed? That’s addiction, people.

    What I can’t believe here, is that folks are even discussing this. The meaning of this song has been well-known for years. Don’t make the song so complicated..! Having trouble with the imagery and symbolism? Think Hotel California..!..!

  17. Oddly enough, and maybe disheartening to the people who read drugs into this song…I seem to think it’s about the Titanic

  18. ok, I don’t mean to add to the heap of conjecture, but I had once heard a pretty convincing story that it was about a coast to coast flight – vestal virgins referring to the flight attendants – as the story went, they hit some pretty bad turbulence, and even the flight attendants got sick – and turned the eponymous hue…could be bull-oney because I have not found any sources to corroborate this version

  19. I love that people actually debate this still. I found this looking for the 2 missing verses from the lyrics.

    I don’t mean to rain on anyone’s parade but it seems to me pretty obvious especially when you read the missing verses:

    She said, ‘I’m home on shore leave,’
    though in truth we were at sea
    so I took her by the looking glass
    and forced her to agree
    saying, ‘You must be the mermaid
    who took Neptune for a ride.’
    But she smiled at me so sadly
    that my anger straightway died

    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 straightway quickly
    and attacked the ocean bed

    It is what Booker and Reid always says what it is: a literary poem about a man and a woman in love.

    I had always assumed when I first heard it that it was about drugs and death but I imagine that comes from a) being a song from 60′s and the fact that it’s got a bit of that nonsensical poetry feeling to it. Isn’t poetry always about love, death, or drugs?

    By the way Mr. Newton,

    Rape? What the F are you thinking?

    Your hatred of the “hippie gathering” is shining through a bit here.

    Riffing on Bach isn’t really a crime. It’s called variation on most music is based on it. Bach himself was quite found of it. Since the musicians in question have always credited him, it’s not like they were really trying to get away with something.

    And really who among us isn’t standing on the shoulders of giants in our daily lives?

    Isn’t the whole of human existence based taking what others have done and adding to it?

  20. hey guys, listen im trying to find some information on the true meaning of this song for my english assignment which is to annalyse it. So can someone help me out?

  21. Hmmmm.

    I started becoming obsessed with this after having seen a video of Annie Lennox’ version on YouTube. I asked a friend to view it and comment on the references to Bach in the music. He felt there was some nod to the “Aria” but was confused by Annie’s interpretation of the song …

    His response:

    “I am just having trouble understanding the bear suit and the mask
    and her walk in the sand. But you might be able to help me with that.”

    Brilliant. All of you. And I still love the damned song. :)

  22. The lyrics have done their job, to all you people who say the lyrics dont matter you are correct and to all of you who say the lyrics do matter you are also correct. Music is subjective to anyone who listens and everyone is entitled to their opinion or perspective on it. If a songwriter states outside the track “this is what its about” then there can be no argument on its meaning… or can there?………. do you see?????

  23. Until lately when I found the missing verses of this song on the web, I had trouble understanding what it was all about. But when I found them out on the web, things opened for me. The whole song if loaded with metaphors, that may be pulled in any direction you may like.
    This is what I feel.
    I have the feeling that the song is a kind of love song. A song about impossible love. Two un – equal people meet somewhere, on board a ship that is sentenced to die. No-one knows, but one.
    The lovers are bound to go under. Personal, as well as social, Physical, as well as mental.
    The first verse is pretty clear. A party is on. Music, dancing, drinking, and Doing athletic gags across the floor. Cheering people, and more drinks.
    After some drinks, she tells that she “is home on shore leave”. Hey man. Home? Shore leave? Here? In the middle of the sea? Way out man!
    Now she “has blown her cover”.
    Wikipedia tells about Mermaids:

    This our friend knows. He confronts her. Pulls her up to a mirror to make her agree. He makes her sad, and he melts down.
    He is blinded by love. He cannot have her. But he can’t let her go. Cannot let her be.
    Finally the disaster is on. Totally chaos. They have to “leave the ship” . And crash-dive down in the sea, “the ocean bed”. Stuck together, dies together, may be….
    The “Mermaid verse” opens the song, and make it make sense.

  24. sorry. something dropped out about the Mermaids.

    Wikipedia tells about Mermaids:

    Mermaids were noted in British folklore as unlucky omens – both foretelling disaster and provoking it.[5] Several variants of theballad Sir Patrick Spens depict a mermaid speaking to the doomed ships; in some, she tells them they will never see land again, and in others, she claims they are near shore, which they are wise enough to know means the same thing. They can also be a sign of rough weather

  25. ok i took it to mean a story of young love and lost chances. a gf wanting to leave after her grad., a bf wanting to stay at home w/ her but she was needing something that a small port town could not offer. she missed her chance for one reason or another and she turn a whiter shade of pale as she realizes all the hope and dreams of a bigger life were sailing away. and the bf is dealing w/ rejection and heartbreak and looking at the future w/o her. but i was born in the 80′s smoke weed never used coke so wht do i know. and rape? please, small mind crackpots like that just need to stay at home and hate monger by themselves.

  26. It’s about a tightrope walker, in the circus. I heard the guy who wrote it years ago on Radio 4 talking about it.

  27. I clearly was only 9 years old when this became a hit. It was the Viatnamese War and drugs was a transient escape. But if you we were one never to do a drug in the 60′s & 70′s and take a deep look at the lyrics of Whiter Shade of Pale, I could say it is about a bunch of close war time friends spending their last days together before they go back to doing their service. Whiter shade of pale to me is coming to terms with the truth of dying and the people you love you leave behind. This same visual is seen in the aftermath of shell shocked victims “Turned a whiter shade of pale”

  28. This was explained by a well-connected radio jock at the time about a special maiden being taken…….

    “the room was humming harder as the ceiling flew away…”: active party

    “so it was that later as the miller told his tale that her face at first just ghostly turned a whiter shade of pale”

    “Miller recounting the special moment!

    “She said there is no reason and the truth is plain to see” – she is plainly

    “I wandered through my playing cards and would not let her be one of 16 vestal virgins”… he does not want her to be like his previous conquests i.e.
    she was special.

  29. Wow! Just sit back and enjoy the song. I’ve been listening to this since I was a teenager and never took drugs of any kind. I love the organ background. I never took much stock in analyzing the “hippie” music, even Lucy in the Sky. Too many versions and the lyricists will never tell. They like the mystery to keep the records flowing.

    So much great music came out of the 60′s and some of the 70′s. Today, forget it. They don’t know how to keep the music in the background and the singers audible. No screaming, no meaning. Sorry. We’ll see if it lasts 40 years.

    Also, not to pour acid on the wounds, but I don’t think the depth of meaning is in the music, thus the reason for these postings.

  30. Wooooy… “A whiter shade of pale” a great song, and I’m interested in singing and hearing. The song heard when I was fourteen years old, and now I was 57 years old. Bravo !

  31. Thank everyone for explanation. I´ve heard this song more then 20 years ago and I was from first moment amazed (for me were lyrics and event meaning not understandable). But I think that in future I will again feel only music,Hammond organ, singer´s voice…

  32. Its about the moment you realise that she is not meant for you. The sad moment when you fall out of love. She is a ghost to him by now… but later that evening he falls completely out of love as she turns a whiter shade of pale

    This is the woman which he tried to have but could not have….

    In the end he gets it and moves on

    A jouney ends….

  33. Uh uh. If you listen to the rest of the song (the mysterious missing lynch pin of the cut off two verses) you find out that he was drunk but he was on a ship. A drunken hallucination that might have been a ghost that was actually there warned him that the ship was going to crash. He jumped over board and the ship ACTUALLY DID SINK.

  34. I think this song has to be something about life. We are characters playing our parts on the stage set by the designer.
    It has some religious tones, The flood, the sea, carpenter and his wife, etc.

    Draw your own conclusion but read Chaucer, know what vestal virgins are. Dig deeper to find out what it actually means.

  35. By reading all of the comments above, the song obviously has slightly different meanings to people. Whether you think it about love, death, drugs or indeed, a maritime disaster, does it really matter?

    I think it refreshing that some songs don’t conform with the ‘norm’ as it’s what makes them unique and memorable. The song in question induces memories of the individual listener and that should be what matters. For me, the fact that it was one of my late Dad’s favourite songs, will always make it special to me.

    Love it or hate it, take from it what you will.

  36. Hi, I was told from someone in that era that the song was actually about a girl that was pregnant to another guy hence the truth was plain to see! And it was really about a guy realising the baby wasnt his and looking around at all the virgins ahem etc to find out the whole scene is a lie! Would love, if you listen to the song again in that light what you think?

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