Gary Brooker, the Procol Harum frontman who sang one of the most enduring hits of the 1960s, A Whiter Shade of Pale, has died. He was 76. The English rock band said Brooker died at his home on Saturday. He had been receiving treatment for cancer.
From my blog in August of 2017:
August of 1967, the new group “Procol Harum” had a major hit on their hands, landing at #5 on the Billboard chart. If “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was the album of The Summer of Love, then Procol Harum had the single of that era, “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”
At a time when the increasingly experimental British pop music of the mid to late Sixties was on the cusp, Procol Harum’s debut single did more than any other individual song to push it over the edge into what we now know as rock.
A mournful lament with a teasing – even disturbing – lyric masquerading as a feel-good summer love song, AWSOP (as it is known by its devotees) was a conundrum from day one. Clearly inspired by other works, it clearly inspired other works. It was both classical and pop. It was soul without funk. It helped invent rock that didn’t rock. It was a worldwide hit single by ‘serious artists’ that ushered in the era of the album as the true medium for ‘serious artists’. It was the most successful record ever broken by pirate radio… just as pirate radio was about to sink below the waves and be replaced by something more official and terrestrial.
Chris Rodley of The Guardian got right to the point. Or at least tried to.
What’s it about? Sex? Drugs? Death? Procol Harum’s mysterious, classically influenced song, released exactly 50 years ago, was an unlikely hit but went on to sell 10m copies.
I was just 14 when I first heard it, walking through the Hertfordshire countryside in the middle of the night.
Who was behind such music? Procal what? Surely the definite article was missing? (Even Pink Floyd were called The Pink Floyd back then.)
The music was even harder to pin down. The voice sounded black; the tune recalled that posh classical stuff that we thought we didn’t much like; the words … well, what on earth did they mean? What was a “light fandango” when it was skipped? I knew what a schoolboy virgin was, but what was a “vestal virgin” when he, she or it was at home? With every swell of that celestial Hammond organ, the mystery became deeper and more delicious.
It is the most played song in public places in the UK and the most played record ever on British radio.
Is it about a drug experience, a drug death, or a half-remembered, girl-leaves-boy relationship? Or is it simply about a drunken seduction, the sex having been drowned in metaphors about travelling the seas?
A few months ago Billboard.com interviewed co-founder, singer and keyboardist Gary Brooker.
When it was written and I was singing it, just the piano and vocal, I thought, ‘This is different.’ It was a good song and the recording came out very well, so that was job done. And of course it was a smash hit around the world straightaway, which is even more fantastic. But I never even thought 10 years ahead, let alone 50. I never thought that far in front at all.
It is still a great mystery to me why, how it’s come to be still so strong in so many people’s brains and lives and feelings. And new people pick it up as well. It’s not everybody that met their first girlfriend in 1967, you know? There’s people that have picked up the song along the way. And if I hear it myself on the radio, it always sounds different to all else that is going on in 2017, just like it sounded so different to everything else in 1967. It still sounds different.
Procol Harum’s lyricist Keith Reid wrote the words.
“It’s sort of a film, really, trying to conjure up mood and tell a story. It’s about a relationship. There’s characters and there’s a location, and there’s a journey. You get the sound of the room and the feel of the room and the smell of the room. But certainly there’s a journey going on, it’s not a collection of lines just stuck together. It’s got a thread running through it.”
Here’s Procol Harum performing A Whiter Shade of Pale with the Danish National Concert Orchestra and choir at Ledreborg Castle, Denmark in August 2006.