top of page
  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"A Whiter Shade of Pale" is Baroque pop with plenty of additional intrigue

A J.S. Bach-inspired structure yields a unique and iconic recording.

After a recent stretch of talking about newer music, culminating in talking about one of the first major 2022 releases yesterday, I was compelled to take a look in the other direction once more. I hadn't explored the 60s in multiple weeks, so it was high time for me to do so for the first time this calendar year.

My selection was ultimately inspired by a recent conversation I had with my father about the nature of my writing. He asked why, given some of my university studies, I wasn't writing about any classical music. I responded that it wasn't the kind of thing I wanted to do because I didn't want to be on the more formal side with this project, and I also intentionally wanted to do something different from my studies; this website is intentionally a different sort of creative outlet for me than my classes are. However, I did note that I would bring up classical music in my posts when a track I'm covering is inspired by it. Such is the case today, with the J.S. Bach-inspired "A Whiter Shade of Pale" by Procol Harum, one of the few singles to sell more than 10 million copies and an excellent example of mediated classical influence in pop.

It's fitting that a band who derived their name from Latin — albeit an incorrectly conjugated phrase therein, roughly meaning "beyond these things" — took inspiration from the classical world. Specifically, the jumping-off point for "A Whiter Shade of Pale" is from the Baroque era: the opening of Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major (BVW 1068), movement II, better known as the "Air on the G String" thanks to a rearrangement in the 19th century. Procol Harum don't exactly quote the air, but founder and lead singer Gary Brooker acknowledged the inspiration from Bach. Said inspiration is quite audible if one has just listened to the opening of the air; both the Bach piece and "A Whiter Shade of Pale" begin with a descending bass line, above which a melody with a much freer contour emerges. Procol Harum use their pop sensibilities to know when to veer off the Baroque path by cadencing in the end of chorus, but the inspiration remains clear as the Bach-originated progression governs the entire track.

One major aspect of what makes "A Whiter Shade of Pale" so interesting and appealing for me is how the band took this Baroque inspiration and applied it to their typical instrumentation. Rather than the strings for which Bach composed, Procol Harum employ their standard lineup of organ, piano, guitar, drums, and bass. Matthew Fisher's Hammond organ takes the lead line, which feels to me like a tangential connection to the Baroque era. Pipe organs were a staple of Bach's time through their use in churches, and Bach himself was a renowned organist and composer for the instrument, but a Hammond organ's sound is far from that of what Bach and his contemporaries played. The Hammond sonic profile is not grand or ominous, but rather lush, especially when the speaker cone is rotating quickly like Fisher's does. Still, the fact that it's clearly an organ registers with me as a nod to the song's Baroque origins.

Along with the organ, I'm drawn to the recording by Gary Brooker's impassioned vocal performance. The peaks he reaches in the chorus are made even more impactful by his slight dynamic retreat leading into them, which gives him more space to grow in volume and grandeur as he arrives at each repetition of "And so it was that later..." His lyrics themselves register less with me than the contour of his voice throughout his performance, although the journey they relay is certainly an interesting one. All in all, I get the feeling from Brooker and the words he sings that "A Whiter Shade of Pale" is a song about a romance gone wrong in one or more ways, ending up in the would-be lovers drifting apart. Whether that interpretation is anywhere near what's intended, I'm not sure, and I'm honestly not concerned with intent, because the song means something to me on a personal level.

"A Whiter Shade of Pale" is certainly a unique track in the popular canon, between its Baroque origins and the lyrical tale Gary Brooker weaves. It likely means different things to each listener based on their exposure to the source material and their interpretation of the lyrics, and I find that beautiful. There may be "accepted" ideas on what a piece of music conveys, but the personal reading will always take emotional precedence and be most important to the listener at the end of the day.


bottom of page