The song “A Whiter Shade of Pale” is as much a homage as it is a rock hit; musically based on both “Sleeper’s Wake” and the “Air on a G-String,” it flows through various images and scenes depicting a fragmented tale between lovers.

Like many other popular groups in the 1960s, such as the Swingle Singers, Procul Harem took inspiration from other classical-music composers. The single also references The Miller’s Tale from Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.” The female protagonist of the song’s lyrics turns “a whiter shade of pale” when “… the miller tells his tale.” That’s an interesting twist because the lyricist says, without question, that he did not intend to quote Chaucer.

It’s also interesting to note that the single was musically complex and had verses laden with metaphor and meaning a full year before The Beatles released “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Before 1966, a lot of singles, even those of the supergroup to end all supergroups, were direct and, most of the time, boppy and inconsequential. “She Loves You,” “Surfin’ USA,” and “Roses Are Red” by The Beatles, The Beach Boys and Bobby Vinton are examples of that kind of song. Bob Dylan’s mid-60s musings, including the great “Like a Rolling Stone,” carried great meaning, much of it hidden, and “A White Shade of Pale” fits that mold.

Powerful Imagery of Drunken Sex

Keith Reid said that his idea was to present a succession of images that resembled a movie or a television program. He wanted people to see what he was thinking by digesting and interpreting the words. The single is about an inebriated coupling that goes horribly wrong. As Keith Reid told Uncut Magazine in a 2008 interview “I was trying to conjure a mood as much as tell a straightforward, girl-leaves-boy story. With the ceiling flying away and room humming harder, I wanted to paint an image of a scene. I wasn’t trying to be mysterious with those images, I was trying to be evocative” Further, he said that he had had ideas about the song for a while and that one day, it was like the last jigsaw piece falling into place.

Assumptions and Interpretations About the Title

There are a lot of stories circulating among the listeners about the reasons the song has been titled “A Whiter Shade of Pale”. The first story is that the singer was overhearing a conversation between a man and a young woman at a party, leading to the song’s conception. He heard a man telling a young woman that she had turned ‘a whiter shade of pale’, and somehow the phrase stuck in the mind of Keith Reid. The phrase stuck so much from that couple at the party that it inspired him to write an entire composition about it.  

The second story and interpretation of every line is even more interesting. It is connected to the famous Titanic, the unsinkable ship that sank on April 15, 1912. The listeners see each line of the verse in likeness to the incidents happening on the ship while it is sinking. 

Back to Bach Basics: Wonderful Harmony

The single does not quote Bach rather, it takes the first two bars of “Air on a G-String” into the song’s melody and then branches out into the group’s own ideas. “Papa” isn’t far from their minds, however, because all of the cadences at the end of verses and the chorus progress through the “circle of fifths” just the way he would have written them. The chord progression is A-minor and D-minor, and the key is C-major. That makes the main organ melody progression vi-IV-ii-V-I, which is both famous and commonplace throughout the Baroque. Gary Brooker said as much when he mentioned that Bach was in him when he was writing the song.

It claimed immeasurable love and appreciation from all over the world and has been played more than hundreds of thousands number of times to date. Given the love and acknowledgement it got, it broke all records and became one of the best compositions ever made in the history of music. However, there was some dispute about its copyrights and royalties between Matthew Fisher and Gary Brooker, which were transferred to the House of Lords in November 2008 for resolution and dismissal.

Further Context

The song has had a wide reaching cultural impact, in 2004 it was confirmed to be the most-played record by British broadcasting in 70 years by Phonographic Performance, and named joint winner of the 1977 Best British Pop Single 1952-1977–a title it shared with Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Additionally, the song was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018 in the singles category.

The Hesitations covered the song in 1968, reaching No. 100 for two weeks on the US Billboard charts and 83 in Canada.


We skipped the light fandango
Turned cartwheels ‘cross the floor
I was feeling kinda seasick
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
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

And so it was that later

Source: LyricFind

A Whiter Shade of Pale lyrics © Onward Music Limited, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

Editor’s Note: This article was first published February 23 2023 and last updated June 15th 2023.

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