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Music

How J.S Bach inspired Procol Harum's biggest hit

@SamWKemp

Among all the British Invasion bands of the 1960s, few are as evocative of the summer of love as Procol Harum. Although it might seem pretty tame by today’s standards, their sound was revolutionary at the time, capable of alarming the older generation whilst filling young hippies with an urgent desire to get profoundly high.

The group were also different to their contemporaries in that they took inspiration from places few others had the courage (or interest) to look. This was of course their greatest strength, helping the Essex rockers to carve out a niche all of their own, where their eccentric melancholy was allowed room to bloom to its full majesty. As a statement released on Procol Harum’s website following news of frontman Gary Brooker’s death noted, the group’s hit 1967 single, ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ is widely regarded as defining the ‘summer of love’, “yet it could scarcely have been more different from the characteristic records of that era.”

This distance from modern pop was likely to do with one of Brooker’s key influences, which came all the way from the 18th century. As Brooker recalled during a 2008 interview with Uncut, the track was written with the help of Procol Harum’s lyricist Keith Reid. The two approached the song like a jigsaw puzzle, starting with a single piece, which in this case was the title ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’, and building up a fuller picture from there.

Brooker later acknowledged how this process often led to subconscious musical influences weaving their way into the finished product. At the time, Brooker was “listening to a lot of classical music,” and, as such, that listening moulded the sound of ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’.

As the frontman recalled: “I remember the day it arrived: four very long stanzas, I thought, ‘Here’s something.’ I happened to be at the piano when I read them, already playing a musical idea. It fitted the lyrics within a couple of hours. Things can be gifted. If you trace the chordal element, it does a bar or two of Bach’s ‘Air on a G String’ before it veers off. That spark was all it took. I wasn’t consciously combining rock with classical, it’s just that Bach’s music was in me.”

Recorded in just three takes, ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ became one of the defining singles of the ‘Summer of Love’, with John Lennon declaring himself a huge fan of Procol Harum and their work. So many years later, the recording, characterised by that swelling organ sound, still stands up as one of the most timeless pop songs of all time, perhaps – somewhat paradoxically – because its roots lie with a piece of music completely detached from the world of pop.