234. Procol Harum – A Whiter Shade of Pale (1967)

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We’re now into the Summer of Love, and in the final, stormy week of June 1967 a landmark event happened, involving, erm, Reg Varney from On the Buses. The comedy actor became the first person to use a cash machine in the world, at Barclays Bank in Enfield. Trippy, man. Two days later Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones was jailed for a year for possession of drugs, and Mick Jagger was sentenced to three months for the same offence.

July began with BBC Two transmitting the first colour TV broadcasts in Britain, during live coverage of the Wimbledon Championships.  It was the final year in which the competition was amateur, and Australian John Newcombe won the men’s tournament, with American Billie Jean King winning the women’s. During Wimbledon, on 7 July, Parliament decriminalised private acts of consensual adult male homosexuality in England and Wales with the Sexual Offences Act.

In the singles chart, after months of rather lightweight pop ruling the charts, Procul Harum went to number 1 with their woozy, hazy classic debut single A Whiter Shade of Pale, on 8 June – the same day the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band topped the album charts for the first time. For the counterculture, it must have felt like the future was theirs for the taking.

Procul Harum formed from the ashes of the Paramounts, a beat group from Southend-on-Sea in Essex. They had reached number 35 in 1964 with their cover of Lieber and Stoller’s Poison Ivy, but split in 1966. Their singer, Gary Brooker, formed his new group in April 1967, and the line-up featured Keith Reid, a poet who would write their lyrics, Matthew Fisher on Hammond organ, guitarist Ray Royer and bassist David Knights. Their manager, Guy Stevens (later to come up with Mott the Hoople’s name and co-produce the Clash’s album London Calling) said they should name themselves after producer Gus Dudgeon’s cat. Dudgeon produced classic work from the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, David Bowie and Elton John. His Burmese pet’s ‘cat fancy’ name was Procul Harun, so they just switched the last letter.

A Whiter Shade of Pale originated at a party Brooker attended. He heard someone say to a woman’ you’ve turned a whiter shade of pale’, and the phrase stuck in his mind. Although the lyrics are full of Bob Dylan-style, mysterious imagery, it’s clear the song is about a man, a woman, and sex. Brooker admitted in the February 2008 issue of Uncut that it was a ‘girl-leaves-boy story’, wrapped up in evocative imagery. He also said that although he may have been smoking at the time, the song was inspired by books, not drugs. Reid must have also had a say in the words though, as he recieved co-credit at the time and didn’t play an instrument.

Matthew Fisher didn’t receive a credit for his integral organ contribution until 2009 in a court ruling. As interesting as the lyrics are, it’s fair to say the song wouldn’t be as famous as it was without his playing, inspired by Bach’s Air on the G string.

Procul Harum convened to record their first single at Olympic Sound Studios in London soon after formation. So soon, they hadn’t yet found a drummer, so session musician Bill Eyden took up the sticks. Produced by Denny Cordell, it was quickly wrapped up in two takes. A few days later they had a drummer, Bobby Harrison, and tried a new version, but opted to release one of their earlier takes in mono only. Cordell was worried about the single’s length and slightly muddy recording, until he sent an acetate to Radio London. John Peel was working for the station at the time, and fell immediately in love with it.

WIth its stately pace, dreamlike feel and surreal lyrics, A Whiter Shade of Pale is a perfect example of a song capturing the zeitgeist. It’s a great song, but it could only have been number 1 for six weeks at that moment in time. The fact it was there at the start of the Summer of Love has elevated its status, possibly making it a touch overrated, but it’s a very impressive debut and a great time capsule of flower power.

Much of British psychedelia harked back to an earlier time, to childhood memories, or even further back to Victorian and Edwardian styles. But the chorus of A Whiter Shade of Pale goes even further back, to Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale from the 14th century. Critics may complain the words are meaningless, but frankly, they need to get out more. It’s about the feeling they create, rather than a story being told. There’s some excellent acid-laced lines, including the introductory ‘We skipped the light fandango’ and ‘One of sixteen vestal virgins’. When performed live, the song sometimes featured a further two verses, which I’d be interested to hear.

Brooker’s vocal is also great, with his soulful, mournful tones adding to the elegiac tone. In fact, if you ignore the lyrics and just listen to the sound, there are some similarities to Percy Sledge’s beautiful When a Man Loves a Woman.

Procul Harum shot several promotional videos for the single, and if you click above you can see the first, which the band minus Harrison shot in the ruins of Witley Court in Worcestershire. Peter Clifton’s film was banned by Top of the Pops due to the splicing in of footage of the Vietnam war.

Following A Whiter Shade of Pale‘s immense success, Procul Harum were one of the bands of 1967. The single was loved by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, with Lennon in particular becoming obsessed that summer. Their first gig saw them supporting the Jimi Hendrix Experience. The line-up soon changed, with Harrison and Royer leaving to form Freedom. They were replaced by former Paramounts BJ Wilson and Robin Trower respectively. Follow-up single Homburg, released that September, reached number six, despite Peel preferring it to their previous 7-inch. They finished the year with their eponymous debut album in December.

It wasn’t until September 1968 that their second album came out. Shine On Brightly is considered one of the earliest examples of a progressive rock album, with the album closer, In Held ‘Twas in I, lasting over 17 minutes. 1969’s A Salty Dog went further down that route, and Fisher, who produced it, departed soon after. and was replaced by another former Paramount, Chris Copping.

In the 1970s, they fell into a pattern of further line-up changes and ever decreasing album sales, embarking on a full-on symphonic progressive rock sound. Their final top 20 hit was Pandora’s Box in 1975. They split up in 1977, but two months later they were performing at the BRIT Awards, when A Whiter Shade of Pale was named Best British Pop Single 1952-1977, along with Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.

Procul Harum reformed in 1991, and have remained together ever since, with Brooker the only constant throughout. In 2017 they released their 13th album, Novum. While they were unable to continue with their initial popularity, A Whiter Shade of Pale is still considered one of the best songs of that heady summer, when music branched out and for a while it seemed as though anything was possible.

Written by: Gary Brooker, Keith Reid & Matthew Fisher

Producer: Denny Cordell

Weeks at number 1: 6 (8 June-18 July) 

Births:

Darts player Kevin Painter -2 July
Television writer Paul Cornell – 18 July

Deaths:

Actress Vivien Leigh – 7 July
Cyclist Tom Simpson – 13 July 

120. Del Shannon – Runaway (1961)

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The often cool, cloudy summer of 1961 saw Barclays become the first bank in Britain with an in-house computing centre. The ‘No. 1 Computing Centre’ opened on 4 July in Drummond Street, London. The ‘white heat’ of technology was a few years away, but it was a start. Four days later, the Wimbledon women’s final was an all-British affair, and Angela Mortimer defeated Christine Truman.

At number 1 for a three-week period at that point, Del Shannon’s Runaway remains one of the most memorable rock’n’roll and pop songs of the early-60s. Key elements of the track, namely Shannon’s tortured falsetto and the sound of Max Crook’s Musitron, became very influential, which makes the singer-songwriter’s mental issues and eventual suicide all the more tragic.

Del Shannon was born Charles Weedon Westover in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in December 1934. Like many other future rock’n’rollers, he grew up playing the guitar and ukelele, and enjoyed country and western music by artists like Hank Williams. He entered the army in 1954, where he joined his first band, the Cool Flames. Upon his return to Michigan, he became a carpet salesman and truck driver for a furniture factory, and became rhythm guitarist in the Moonlight Ramblers, before replacing singer Doug DeMott, who was fired for drunken behaviour, in 1958. Westover changed his name to Charlie Johnson and renamed the group the Big Little Show Band. In 1959 the groups line-up was bolstered by the addition of keyboardist Max Crook. The keyboard wizard had been working on his own instrument, a primitive synthesiser he dubbed the Musitron. Crook had built this by modifying an old clavioline, adding television tubes, a reel-to-reel tape machine and parts from various household appliances. The group signed to Bigtop Records, but Johnson was urged to make another name change. ‘Del’ came from his favourite car, the Cadillac Coup de Ville, and he stole his surname from local wrestler Mark Shannon.

The origins of Runaway are unclear. Del Shannon once claimed it came about fairly instantly during a jam session on stage, but another version of events tells of unhappy initial recording sessions that resulted in Shannon and Crook being told to remake an earlier track known as Little Runaway, and to give the Musitron a place to shine during the new version.

Runaway starts off like any other rock’n’roll song, but the lyrics go deeper. Shannon’s sadness seems genuine, and his later reported problems suggest he was a tortured soul all his life, rather than one of the stereotypical handsome, clean-cut teen stars of the time. When he hits the falsetto on the chorus (Shannon claimed inspiration from Jimmy Jones, who had hit number 1 with Good Timin’ a year previous), he sounds genuinely pained, but it also adds energy to the song. And then when the Musitron takes over the instrumental break, we’re in uncharted territory. It may sound somewhat weedy now, but there’s an eeriness to it that resonates, as well as a sprightliness. A strange combination, but it’s definitely the highlight, and producers like Joe Meek were listening intently.

Del Shannon had a few more hits, usually containing the same bitter, melancholy lyrics, such as So Long, Baby. In 1963 he became the first American to cover the Beatles, when his version of their first UK number 1, From Me to You, charted before the original in the States. His fame started to slide, so he dipped his toes into other genres, releasing an album of Hank Williams covers, and he worked with Rolling Stones producer Andrew Loog Oldham on a psychedelic album, Home and Away, which Oldham wanted to become known as the UK’s answer to Pet Sounds, but it didn’t see a release in full until 1978. It does feature a pretty good, strung-out update of this track, in which Shannon sings in a lower register, but the problem with Runaway 67 for me is it doesn’t go far out enough, and where’s the Musitron solo? The 1968 follow-up, The Further Adventures of Charles Westover, was critically-acclaimed, but sold poorly. Alcoholism took its toll during the 70s, but he did work with Tom Petty, and in the 80s he re-recorded Runaway yet again, this time as the theme to the successful TV series Crime Story.

The nostalgia for 50s culture in the 80s did Shannon some good, but not enough, and perhaps he wanted to be considered a contemporary artist, not remembered as a singer from the past who was known for that one big hit.He began taking Prozac for depression, but it was not enough to save him from his personal demons. On 3 February, he performed at a memorial concert for Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, and five days later, he committed suicide with a gunshot wound from his rifle. He was 55. It seems that Shannon may have seen his career as unfulfilled, but Runaway is still considered an exceptional rock’n’roll track, and his falsetto was a big influence on Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees. It’s a tragedy that he felt life hadn’t been kind enough to him.

Written by: Del Shannon & Max Crook

Producers: Harry Balk & Irving Micahnik

Weeks at number 1: 3 (29 June-19 July)

Births:

Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales – 1 July 
Welsh TV presenter Gareth Jones – 5 July 
Comedian Jeremy Hardy – 17 July