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?