Pop music moved at high speed in the 1960s, but even so the story behind the song for which Gary Brooker was always going to be remembered almost beggars belief. It was taped in April 1967, the same month that the band who recorded it formed: they hadn’t even got around to recruiting a drummer yet and had to use a jazz player moonlighting as a session musician. A couple of weeks later, Paul McCartney was interrupting his first date with his future wife Linda in order to rush to the DJ booth at Soho’s Bag O’Nails club, demanding to know what the hell he was playing (“God, what an incredible record,” he subsequently enthused) and John Lennon was informing a journalist friend that all current pop music was “crap” except for “that dope song, A Whiter Shade of Pale – you hear it when you take some acid and wooooh!”
A few weeks after that, it was No 1, a position it held until the middle of July. You do wonder how incredulous Brooker must have felt. He had only started Procol Harum as a last resort. He had left the minor R&B band the Paramounts with the intention of becoming a full-time songwriter, only to discover that no one wanted to buy the songs he had written with lyricist Keith Reid, so he would have to sing them himself. And now here he was less than two months later, on Top of the Pops and feted by the Beatles as the vanguard of pop. A Whiter Shade of Pale caused so much commotion that the effect was discombobulating: Procol Harum organist Matthew Fisher once recalled being mortified after they were parachuted into a headlining slot over the Jimi Hendrix Experience when “we weren’t one 10th as good as him”. Perhaps it was just as well he didn’t know that on the other side of the Atlantic, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys – in the throes of mental collapse and on the verge of abandoning his latest opus, Smile – had taken A Whiter Shade of Pale as another signal that he was finished: “I was so sensitive for the dramatic organ sound that I thought it was my funeral tune,” Wilson later recalled.
It was one of rock history’s great lightning-in-a-bottle moments. A Whiter Shade of Pale was completely of the moment – the psychedelic era was all about opening new vistas in pop music, and if there’s one thing everyone agreed on, it was that they had never heard anything like it before – while also harking to pop’s recent past and pointing towards its future. Brooker’s vocal spoke loudly of the hours he had put in touring the R&B clubs, belting out covers of Solomon Burke and the Impressions for the nation’s mods; the tune’s allusions to Bach and its dense, elusive lyrics – open to wild interpretation – presaged the arrival of progressive rock. It spawned hundreds of covers by everyone from Joe Cocker to Jackie Mittoo – soul versions, reggae versions, jazz interpretations, disco versions, mock-Gregorian chant versions – as well as a little subgenre of British psychedelia populated by obscure bands trying to make records that sounded like it: Meditations by Felius Andromeda and Reputation by Shy Limbs are two examples prized by psych collectors.
The chances of a band walking into a studio for the first time and immediately recording one of rock’s impermeable classics – 10m copies sold – are incredibly slim: the chances of them subsequently repeating that feat are almost nonexistent. Procol Harum certainly didn’t, which isn’t to say that the rest of their oeuvre – sorry – pales in comparison. Their follow-up Homburg was a fantastic song in its own right, which pulled being audibly cut from similar cloth to their first hit – stately paced, similarly haunting, more imponderable lyrics – without sounding like a craven imitation. Their eponymous debut album was impressively varied, leaping from the southern soul-infused Something Following Me to the epic closer Repent Walpurgis: if they had included its accompanying singles in place of some more whimsical filler tracks, it might have been more regularly hailed as one of the great albums of the psychedelic era. Shine on Brightly, from 1968 was patchier – if the side-long suite In Held ’Twas in I saw them pressing relentlessly forward into the prog rock era, its faux-music hall interludes, bass solos and ridiculous sitar-accompanied spoken word passes suggested a band trying a bit too hard – and it failed to even make the UK charts. But the following year’s A Salty Dog was fantastic. Prog that kept its pretensions in check, it was filled with superb songs, not least the beautiful title track.
They proved surprisingly adaptable: Matthew Fisher’s organ was obviously a key part of their sound, but when he left the band – he subsequently sued for a songwriting credit on A Whiter Shade of Pale – they pivoted to a tougher, harder rock sound, leaning more on the talents of guitarist Robin Trower. It was a move that suited Brooker’s voice: on Whiskey Train or Memorial Drive, Procol Harum were unrecognisable as the band who made A Whiter Shade of Pale. When Trower left, they pivoted back to ornate grandeur: their last consistently great album, 1973’s Grand Hotel, was a heavily orchestrated exploration of decay and ennui. Thereafter, diminishing returns set in, although Brooker and Reid were still perfectly capable of writing genuinely striking songs: As Strong as Samson, from 1974’s Exotic Birds and Fruit; 1975’s late period hit Pandora’s Box.
But they didn’t seem to know what to do when the musical climate changed with the advent of punk. Whatever the answer was, it definitely wasn’t Brooker’s idea to resurrect the spirit of Held ’Twas in I and record a side-long, three-part poetry recitation set to music called The Worm and the Tree on 1977’s Something Magic. Procol Harum broke up shortly after its release. That said, the changing musical climate didn’t do much to dent Brooker’s musical career. His playing had always been revered by fellow musicians – a pre-fame Elton John never missed an appearance by the Paramounts at his local venue in Harrow Weald, gawping at Brooker’s prowess on the electric piano; George Harrison got him to contribute to a succession of his post-Beatles albums – and he shifted neatly into a career as a blue-chip sideman, playing with Eric Clapton and Kate Bush, Ringo Starr and Bill Wyman. He reformed Procol Harum in 1991 and toured with them until 2019, releasing three warmly received reunion albums.
Throughout it all, Brooker never escaped A Whiter Shade of Pale. No matter how loudly aficionados rightly pointed out the greatness of less well-known Procol Harum songs, it never quite drowned out the sound of Brooker skipping the light fandango and watching vestal virgins catch the last train for the coast. At one point, Procol Harum stopped performing it altogether – it’s noticeably absent from their 1972 live album – but that did no good whatsoever: the same year said live album was released, a reissue of A Whiter Shade Of Pale was back in the Top 20. Nor did splitting up. Months after announcing their dissolution, Procol Harum had to reform specifically in order to play it: A Whiter Shade of Pale had been voted the best British pop single of all time at the inaugural Brit awards.
Perhaps A Whiter Shade captured its era so perfectly that it succeeded in transcending it. None of 1967’s other big songs, not even All You Need Is Love or Pink Floyd’s See Emily Play, feels quite so evocative of a mythic, idealised version of the British Summer of Love – of what the press took to calling “the beautiful people” drifting through London on a warm evening in a stoned, optimistic haze – which meant that whenever a film director or a radio DJ wanted a surefire burst of beatific nostalgia, they invariably reached for it. It turned up on umpteen soundtracks – everywhere from The Big Chill to Breaking the Waves – and in 2004 was named the most-played song on British radio over the last 70 years.
Or maybe it was just a completely fantastic song, of the kind that takes an inordinate combination of talent and luck to come up with even once in a career. You could argue it’s unfair that Gary Brooker’s musical legacy hinges on one song in the popular imagination. On the other hand, if you’re going to be largely remembered for one song, it might as well be one like that.