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A Whiter Shade of Pale

UK rock band Procol Harum came out in 1967 with their “one-hit-wonder” based on a phrase overheard at party: “You’ve turned a white shade of pale.”

If you ever felt that the song made you sad or pensive, that was on purpose. While some believe it’s about the Titanic sinking, or a bad LSD trip, as Keith Reid, explained, he wrote the song as a “straightforward, girl-leaves-boy story.”

Gary Brooker arrangement was inspired by Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Air on the G String,” merging classical and rock influences into a masterpiece. This performance in Denmark 2006 is so gorgeous that it almost redeems the loss of those relationships that have left for the coast.


We skipped the light fandango
Turned cartwheels ‘cross the floor
I was feeling kinda seasick
But the crowd called out for more
The room was humming harder
As the ceiling flew away
When we called out for another drink
The waiter brought a tray

And so it was that later
As the miller told his tale
That her face, at first just ghostly
Turned a whiter shade of pale

She said, ‘There is no reason’
And the truth is plain to see
But I wandered through my playing cards
And would not let her be
One of sixteen vestal virgins
Who were leaving for the coast
And although my eyes were open
They might have just as well’ve been closed

And so it was that later
As the miller told his tale
That her face, at first just ghostly
Turned a whiter shade of pale


Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” is supposed to be felt, more than examined.  But if we must…

 It begins with the man “at revels.” He’s drunk, but having too much fun to stop. But he then realizes that as more “social lubricant” is brought, his lady realizes that it’s time to end the relationship.

The Confusing Phrases

“As the Miller Told his tale” — While the song isn’t about Chaucer’s Canterbury tales, the cultural reference is clear.  Miller’s tale “one-ups” the Knight’s Tale of romantic chivalry with a tale of cuckolding, where the carpenter’s wife is seduced by two young rogues.

Obviously, telling this kind of tale at a party means it’s “THAT time of night,” probably time to head home.

“One of sixteen vestal virgins” –  could be the Roman hearth and home goddess Vesta, whose priestesses tended the hearth fires of her temple. These “Vestal virgins” performed sacred rituals to enhance the agricultural harvest and fertility of women. If they’re heading for the coast, then the winter of the relationship is upon them, and there’s nothing he can do about it.

Alternatively, “One of sixteen vessel virgins” refers to 16 new ships making their first voyages in 1912, of which the Titanic was one, heading for the New World.

There’s also some LSD version where it time travels the man back to the ancient procession of the 16 Vestal versions that guard of the tumor Vesta. Not getting into that.

“A Whiter Shade of Pale”‘s obscure, impressionistic vibe influenced a generation of artists, most notably the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper.  If you care about music’s impact on culture, you should know it. And for music lovers, this version is a must.

And for comparison, here’s the originals: