Procol Harum‘s ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ stands as one of the most accomplished works of the 1960s. From the haunting organ to the cryptic portraits of mermaids swimming to the beat of the solemn drum, everything about the track screams excellence, and it stands as one of the most accomplished tunes of the decade.
Everyone who listened to it loved it, and that included members of The Beatles. They were drawn to the production, the poetry and how quintessentially English it sounded, no signs of American influence imprinted on the finished product.
According to the band’s press agent Derek Taylor, the tune inspired John Lennon to compose ‘I Am The Walrus’, arguably his most vividly imaginative tune, embellishing his personal literary proclivities with his own sense and perspective of England.
His heritage was Irish, his musical influences were American, but Lennon was first and foremost an Englishman, something he had scarcely acknowledged in The Beatles’ vast output. By 1967, Lennon felt brave enough to sing from a more personal place, imbuing ‘Being for the Benefit of Mister Kite’, ‘Strawberry Fields Forever‘ and ‘A Day in the Life’ with an arched viewpoint of the world that was English in its scintillating production design and scant regard to the listener.
And then along came ‘I Am The Walrus’, a scathingly written dissertation on the failings of his country’s society, replete with nonsensical verse and imagery. Author Ian MacDonald says that ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ acted as a model to the song, permitting the Beatle to write with unvarnished honesty and with great regard for the country that had birthed such nonsense scribes as Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll.
If it did, Lennon was loathed to admit it, favouring the tried and tested story that he was spurred on to write a tune that would confuse teachers who were asking their students to discern meaning from The Beatles’ work. “The first line was written on one acid trip one weekend,” Lennon admitted in 1980. “The second line was written on the next acid trip the next weekend, and it was filled in after I met Yoko. Part of it was putting down Hare Krishna. All these people were going on about Hare Krishna, Allen Ginsberg in particular. The reference to ‘Elementary penguin’ is the elementary, naive attitude of going around chanting, ‘Hare Krishna,’ or putting all your faith in any one idol. I was writing obscurely, a la Dylan, in those days.”
The work is wonderfully subversive, spinning tales of lechery and bigotry as it aims to tear down the upper classes from their ivory towers. The words, jagged and laced with bitter irony, were coming for the men and women who belittled and begrudged the working classes, despite being the foundations that made the country tick.
Caught in the intensity of the work, the song is bolstered by Ringo Starr’s jaunty drum work, and the cymbals splash merrily off Lennon’s voice. The Beatles were enjoying working with each other, and the sessions that led to the band’s excellent Magical Mystery Tour were among the most fruitful and enjoyable of their career. It’s impossible to discern some of the negativity that soaked either The White Album sessions, or the rehearsals that led to the underwhelming Let It Be album, but instead shows four men enjoying the tapestry they are piecing together.
While the jocularity is evident, it’s harder to find clues that pinpoint the band to the Procol Harum opus. It’s to their collective credit as an outfit that the band were capable of covering up their tracks and barring a wild string accompaniment; it holds few of the trappings of the Procol Harum original.
Gary Brooker must have felt relieved to hear that his seminal classic inspired another astonishing psychedelic number, and the two tunes helped decorate the mosaic of sound that made up the recordings of the year. It was psychedelia that offered musicians the chance to return to their agrarian roots, and the angular tunes were buttered with a bite, barbed wit and whimsy that was decidedly British in tone and timbre. ‘I Am The Walrus’ boasts one of Lennon’s more acutely acidic vocal performances, invoking memories of a childhood spent playing truant and terror.
Piecing an England that had previously only existed in books, ‘I Am The Walrus’ is a strong contender as the band’s strongest outing. It rocks harder than ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, and it’s more impactful than ‘She’s Leaving Home’, offering the more left-leaning intellectual listener a rock opera that stemmed as much from the head as it did from the gut. Indeed, the song is brilliant on so many levels and stands beside ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ as one of the emblems of a bygone era. And we are the lucky recipients of the music.