A whiter shade of… – well, of what exactly?

There’s a scene in the movie based on Roddy Doyle’s novel, The Commitments, where one of the characters is discussing the Procol Harum song, A Whiter Shade of Pale, with a Roman Catholic priest. Getting to the bit in the lyrics where ‘sixteen vestal virgins [are] leaving for the coast’, both admit they have no idea what on earth that is supposed to mean. Indeed, the lyrics of the song as a whole are a mystery to most. There are, as you would expect with such things, all sorts of theories, including that it was about being high on cocaine, waking up from a dream, an interpretation of a Chaucer poem, the end of a relationship, and so forth. The songwriters themselves have never said, and my own theory is that the words have no deeper meaning at all; but who am I to know anything?

Anyway, Whiter Shade has just been declared to be (in one of those odd league tables) the ‘most played song in public places’ over the past 75 years, beating Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody into second place. And would you believe it, there is not a single Beatles song in the top 10, though they then enter big time in the 11-20 places.

Whiter Shade of Pale was a hugely enigmatic song, with its mysterious lyrics and its Bach-like opening. The band did have other hits, though none as big, and indeed they are still singing and even recording. But for many people this song was the signature tune of my generation, and it continued to be that long after those vestal virgins must have reached the coast.

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11 Comments on “A whiter shade of… – well, of what exactly?”

  1. […] Original post by universitydiary […]

  2. That list is very questionable… Wet Wet Wet? Not right.

  3. alerek Says:

    Ok, I can’t let this one go by.

    This song is obviously about death from an overdose of drugs. The drug referred to in the song is coke, but it could be any drug overdose. The “miller” is obvious, and key to the song’s meaning.. A “miller” is any type of moth that has white, powdery wings. Look it up. The first verse of the song obviously describes the trip the author is on. Ever been on one? This is exactly it. Could have written this verse if I’d known the words. And who said there was not readily-available coke in the late 60s? You apparently didn’t live in the 60s.]

    Think about it. When is something a whiter shade of pale? Ever seen a corpse in a coffin? Death is when you are a whiter shade of pale. Nothing on earth is the ghostly color of a corpse.

    “And so it was that later as the miller told his tale that her face, [at first].. just ghostly,[then] turned a whiter shade of pale [as she died]. She [death] said, ‘There is no reason and the truth is plain to see.’ But I wandered through my playing cards and 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.”

    The “she” here is death. There is no reason for the author’s death. The author here is being mocked by the very drug (death) that enticed him. The author’s fate was out of his hands (… I would not let her [death] be) when he became addicted to the drug. His eyes were wide open, but they might have well been closed. Eyes wide open but might have been closed? That’s addiction, people.

    What I can’t believe here, is that folks are even discussing this. The meaning of this song has been well-known for years. Don’t make the song so complicated..! Having trouble with the imagery and symbolism? Think Hotel California..!..!

    • matthew corbett Says:

      utter nonsense alerek. simply by noting your posting time, i can derive you are probably a fan of white powdery “moths” yourself…any number of band members have indicated the lyrics have no comprehensive meaning and are dismayed that anyone would waste their time trying to extrapolate such. go to bed child, tomorrow is almost here…!

  4. T-Rex Says:

    Not really that enigmatic, I think. A guy and girl are at a party or club, whooping it up, dancing, drinking probably more than is good for them, and then, after self-medicating their inhibitions, do what young couples frequently do in those circumstances. It may be the girl’s first sexual experience, which would explain why she’s a little scared as well as drunk — although another possible reason for turning a “whiter shade of pale” is that, as Garrison Keillor once said, she’s about to ruin the guy’s evening as well as his best shoes. But I doubt that, because we know for sure that she is NOT going to be one of those 16 virgins, Vestal or otherwise, who are leaving the party. The final two stanzas, which PH didn’t record (would have made the song too long) includes a few more not very subtle puns about crash-diving into the ocean bed, after a little more poety obfuscation about mermaids. But we know what these two are up to.

  5. janie Says:

    lyrics from geoffery chaucer novel the millers tale

  6. Omar Says:

    I think it has another meaning. First, one of the most important thing is the phrase: “As the miller told his tale”, that is related to “The Canterbury Tales: The Miller’s Tale”. This it is about a carpenter who was cheated by his beautiful wife and his guest. Other lines in the song refer to this story too.

    It is easy to think about drugs, it doesn’t matters because the context and the 70s crazy decade.

    “But I wandered through my playing cards
    And they would not let her be
    One of sixteen vestal virgins” means it is obvious (the cards are saying) she is not “pure” at her 16 years old… that´s one of the reason she is pale (maybe she is dead because of drugs too)

    This is a song written by KEITH REID, GARY BROOKER and this part is missing (not sang by Procol harum):

    She said, “I’m here on a shore leave,”
    Though we were miles at sea.
    I pointed out this detail
    And forced her to agree,
    Saying, “You must be the mermaid
    Who took King Neptune for a ride.”
    And she smiled at me so sweetly
    That my anger straightway died.

    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

    If music be the food of love
    Then laughter is it’s queen
    And likewise if behind is in front
    Then dirt in truth is clean
    My mouth by then like cardboard
    Seemed to slip straight through my head
    So we crash-dived straightway quickly
    And attacked the ocean bed

    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

    (I´m sorry, my english is not so good)

  7. Jkaasa Says:

    Whiter Shade of Pale is both vivid and vague; the story told is not necessarily sequential. The enigmatic lyrics paired with Mathew Fisher’s hauntingly beautiful organ accompaniment is a funeral dirge, a tragic tale of drunkeness, infidelity, murder-suicide, forgiveness, shipwreck, and finally peace.
    The meaning is impossible to discern without the entire four verses.

    The entertainer and his party are getting more and more inebriated in the first verse. The “ceiling flew away” could be both dizziness from drunkeness and the ship beginning to sink. It reminds me of movie scenes from the Titanic.

    In the second verse, an inebriated lover discovers his lover in a lie; it seems she is where she shouldn’t be but dismisses his concern casually: “She said there is no reason, and the truth is plain to see.”
    His reaction is to not let her be one of the sixteen vestal virgins leaving for the coast. The vestal virgins are the lifeboats leaving the sinking ship which he, in his drunken hurt and rage, will not let her escape on.

    In the third verse, he forces her to confront her infidelity,
    ” You must be the mermaid who took Neptune for a ride” is obviously a sexual allusion. Once she owns up, she is sorrowful for the hurt she has caused him and seeing her sorrow causes him to forgive her: “but she smiled at me so sadly that my anger staightway died.”
    Unfortunately, the time for escaping the sinking ship has past and they both perish. Thus her face at first so ghostly turns a whiter shade of pale, and his eyes although open could not see.
    She killed him metaphorically with her infidelity and he killed them both literally by not allowing her to leave.

    The fourth verse simply tells of their love and death as they dive to the ocean bed.

    • Jkaasa Says:

      Proco Haram needs to release a version of this song with all four verses as a decent recording of the whole song doesn’t exit. It is by far, both musically and poetically, the most beautiful and tragic pop song ever written

  8. John Says:

    Some good attempts here but I think it was about drunkin’ rape.
    She said “there is no reason and the truth is plain to see. I wandered through my playing cards and would not let her be on of sixteen vestal virgins who were leaving for the coast. So I took her to the looking glass and forced her to agree. She smiled at me so sadly that my anger straightaway died. So we crashed-dived straightaway quickly and attacked the ocean bed.
    her face at first just ghostly.
    Turned a whiter shade of pale.

    I don’t think this was a pleasant time for her.

  9. Piotr M Says:

    Chaucer’s poem is quoted twice here
    First is obvious, the second is “And likewise if behind is in front”, you can remember that in poem the mane kisses arse being sure it’s face.
    Moreover, “Then dirt in truth is clean” is about miller’s tale “(or way of living)” becomes “king’s tale” (or way of living); or about relation between them both.
    Hope forgive my english.

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