Friday, 7 May 2010

A Whiter Shade of Pale

The other night, while we were watching House, the song A Whiter Shade of Pale featured. This Procol Harum hit from 1967 has been in my musical awareness for as long as I can remember, starting off with the original Tour of Duty soundtrack album, and popping up every now and then in different circumstances. Like most people, I have a musical soundtrack for my life. Just hearing certain songs can take me back to places and times that I otherwise wouldn't have thought about. A Whiter Shade of Pale did that for me when I heard House playing it on tv this week.

Just like the keyboard player from The Commitments (1991), and probably every other pianist, I've longed to sit down at a big pipe organ in an empty church and start playing the introduction. I managed to do it once on (unfortunately not on a pipe organ - just a regular one), but the buzz was just the same.

This song was also the first number that my very first band played each night. As a keyboard player, I loved how it featured such a cool organ part. However, I'd get really annoyed with our bass player, who had it in his mind that this is a very slow song and so would drag the tempo throughout, until the drummer and I were almost fighting against him to pick up the pace again. It went the same way as most other songs I've played year after year in bands: on the backburner, and a song I couldn't bear to listen to for a long time after we disbanded. A shame, really.

Several years later, while I was backpacking around Italy, I met a woman in my hostel and spent the day wandering around Florence with her. We came across a music store and had fun browsing through various titles in the 'international' section (ie music in English that we know on this side of the world). "Oh, here's Dad's band," she said, holding up a Procol Harum CD. "I can't believe they're still around! Mind you, I suppose we are in a bargain basement somewhere in Italy." She had my attention. I asked what instrument her dad played. "Keyboards," she replied. OMG! It turns out that her father was the replacement keyboard player for the band (not the one who filed various lawsuits claiming his contribution to the song's composition should make him entitled to receive royalties from it - he eventually won) but he had toured extensively with the band in the 60s and 70s.

So who knows what the song really means? The lyrics are the bizarre type that everybody at a party can belt out with great gusto while not having a clue as to their meaning, nor do they care. Everyone has a theory about various lines and the stories become more elaborate as the alcohol flows. I think A Whiter Shade of Pale is just one of those songs that will continue to pop up during my life and elicit a raft of memories about different people, places, and situations.

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