A Whiter Shade of Epiphany

It’s true. A record can change the course of your life…

The summer of 1967 was a big one for me. I became a teenager and received my first record player as my birthday present. Although my father loved music, and was an excellent jazz pianist, we had no records, nothing to play them on. No instrument in the house (the baby grand had gone a few years before).

I went into town and bought my first single and LPs. A significant rite of passage, and one that changed me in more ways that I could ever imagine then. The single was one that was all over the Light Programme – Radio 1 was still a couple of months away – one that was the hit of the summer, Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade Of Pale.

It was strange, enigmatic, and very literate, gnomic in its lyrics. And the music, with bits of Bach organ carrying the melody over the descending bassline, was mathematically precise and beautiful, a sharp contrast to Gary Brooker’s bluesy rasp of a voice, one that gave an earthiness to the words.

It offered a sense of mystery, of something uniquely different – the guitar might as well not have been there. At its heart was a timeless, still quality, yet it couldn’t be anything but modern. But that made sense: it was a very different year, one that turned the world on its head, at least to a boy from the provinces.

London had been swinging for a few years. We knew that because the papers and TV told us. In the capital, maybe all across the South, British youth had emerged, blinking and dazed, into the 1960s, grown its hair and put on peacock plumage. It was a lovely idea, one that had slowly grown since the Beatles emerged in 1962, and the Rolling Stones, Animals, Kinks, Small Faces a year or two later.

Yet it was really 1965 when the first waves of the sea change really rolled in. The new fashions, the colour. It’s a cliché that Britain was in black and white until the ‘60s. Yet true, until the middle of the decade. And longer up North. We had Top of the Pops, Ready Steady Go! Had been and gone. But walk through Leeds and the reality looked somewhat different. Drab and dour, still hungover from the ‘40s and ‘50s.

Procol Harum, even more than the Beatles and Sergeant Pepper changed that for me. I don’t know how many times I played it. Plenty, with such a small collection, although it didn’t send me off in search of more by the band. It was such a perfect little gem on its own.

What it achieved, with me, was to help me understand that music had possibilities beyond pop. It was a huge hit, supremely catchy. But at its core, it wasn’t pop music. It was deeper, it aspired to be more. So did many other things at the time, including the Beatles themselves, and the Stones’ awful attempt at psychedelia.

The hippies had been going in California, although footage on TV showed them holding a funeral for the movement as it became adopted by so many. So it was over, wasn’t it? And what exactly was psychedelia?

I was too young and naïve to join the dots, probably to even understand they existed, when I went into Woolworth’s and bought the single. However, it didn’t take me long to discover more. Along with records, I discovered music papers, then John Peel on the radio – the pirate stations at first, then Radio 1.

Between them, they offered a real panorama. Not just of music, but a world that belonged to the young, beyond the understanding of the older generation that ran so much of the world. There was a wide-open vista ahead, and some people were leaving the herd and galloping off into it. I wanted to be a part of that.

The original promo film that wasn’t used…you can see why.

By Christmas, the music I was buying – not much, I was 13 and only had pocket money – had moved away from what was in the charts. I read the weekly music papers. I’d become an avid listener to John Peel’s Top Gear. Not that I’d completely turned away from the charts; this was a time when the space between rock and pop was very fluid. I was very taken by keyboards, especially the rich fullness of the Hammond organ, although I was learning to appreciate well-played guitar. But the changes went deeper than music. Some switch inside had clicked because of that single, and I’d realised that you didn’t have to follow the crowds. It was fine to become yourself. A gradual process for any teen, of course, no matter the decade. But without conscious thought, it seemed to become the way I lived my life.

My musical tastes have evolved over the years. They’re bound to, for anyone who loves music. From progressive rock, such as it was, gradually, I learned about roots, where the Rolling Stones, John Mayall, Fleetwood Mac drew their inspiration, and I delved into that, and my tastes headed farther afield.

I know it’s ironic that one of the most-played and most popular singles in British music history should send me off down a very different path. But there it is. My Damascene moment, my epiphany. And now, more than 50 years later, I have absolutely no regrets.

3 thoughts on “A Whiter Shade of Epiphany

  1. Barbara Oehm

    What a fantastic description of “A whiter shade of pale” !! Yes Bach is so mathematically correct and is the purest of music, very beautiful, although my favourite is the other German (Beethoven). I once tried to play the accompaniment for Bach’s, “My heart ever faithful” – gave up. Bach is so continuous, just goes and goes….
    Although I have listened to this lovely song many times, I have never actually seen the group singing it. Thank you so much for this post, i just loved reading it, and your experience of it. And as always…keep writing those books!!!

    1. Thank you, Barbara. I’m not sure it’s so much about the song as its lasting effect on me. I do like Bach, ideally on piano, although these days my heart is more with vocal music – Tallis, Part, sacred music.
      There are three books coming out this year, so hopefully there’ll be something in those that you enjoy.

      1. Barbara Oehm

        Tallis – wonderful!!! Have you heard the Tallis scholars sing??? more recent composer….Stanford. Check out his Magnificat in C. That Amen..!! (Goose pimples every time I hear it)
        Three more books. 🙂 Best news I have had had today. Not finished my Christmas supply yet, but when I do I will be searching..Cheers Barbara

Leave a Reply to chrisnickson2 Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s