A Whiter Shade of Bach?

I’m finally back from a pretty intense three days in dear old Swindon. On the train coming home I happened to listen to this classic for the first time in ages and, too tired for anything else this evening, I thought I’d share this version  I found on Youtube because it’s positively dripping with nostalgia for the Swinging Sixties.

Incidentally, I’ve always believed that a Whiter Shade of Pale by Procol Harum was based pretty directly on music by Johan Sebastian Bach. I don’t know who told me so, but I’ve always taken it for granted. Listening to it a few times on my iPod and again since I got home has made me realise that I’ve probably been a bit unfair to the songwriters Gary Booker, Keith Reid and Matthew Fisher, a sentiment confirmed by the wikipedia article about the piece I linked to through its title.

It is true that it sounds very much like Bach, especially the trademark descending bass figures which feature in the Hammond organ part; indeed, the first few bars of the accompaniment are pretty much identical to the second movement from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068 better known as “Air on the G String“. After that, although the piece continues to sound like Bach, in the sense that the chord progression has a compelling sense of logic to it, it’s not an copy of anything I recognize (although of course I stand ready to be contradicted by music experts…). The melody is also, as far as I’m aware, quite original.

Here are the chords, by the way, if you’re interested. They’re a great illustration of the difference between a real progression and just a sequence. In fact I’m quite surprised this hasn’t been taken up by more jazz musicians, as it looks like very fertile grounds for improvisation – just as much of Bach’s own music is.

Anyway, whatever the inspiration, it was a huge hit and I think it still sounds fresh and interesting over 40 years later. I for one don’t think the word “masterpiece” is an exaggeration.

18 Responses to “A Whiter Shade of Bach?”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    An absolute classic. Their next single was an inferior repeat, but their 3rd, A Salty Dog, was amazing too, albeit far less immediate, and in a totally different style.

    This song enriched the lawyers too, for Procol Harum fell out about who wrote it and the royalties.

  2. I like the music, though the lyrics seem the usual par for the time rambling stuff. To me, they are a one-hit wonder; I consider them one of the most overrated groups in history (though, again, I do like the music to this song).

    Back when I was taking a course in music theory, we learned some of the rules which determined, in the Baroque times, which chord progressions were allowed and which not. Homework was always to write a chorale using this scheme, which the teacher would then play on the piano or we would sing after the pupil in question had written it on the blackboard (which had permanent staves). Since the scheme seemed to some rather restricted, after a few weeks someone asked what we do if we run out of chord progressions. We then calculated that we could all write a chorale an hour until we die and still not run out (not to mention the various possibilities using the same progression!).

    BTW, the WordPress spell checker doesn’t recognise “staves” (nor does it like my British English).

    • Never forget that one hit is one more than most bands ever manage…

      • Right. When someone asked Don McLean what “American Pie” means, he replied “It means I never have to work again”. 🙂

        Of course, the four axes quality, difficulty, popularity and type of music (assuming the last can be ordered one-dimensionally) are all orthogonal. Then there is the question of songs which sell many copies, but over a long time. The charts are to music what bibliometry is to science. 😐

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Don McLean had two number ones in UK, and I regard Vincent as better than American Pie. As for Crossroads from the same album, an incredibly beautiful love song. The man was far more than a 1-hit wonder.

      • In October, I’ll be seeing McLean live for the first time.

      • telescoper Says:

        I’m sure he’s been alive for some time already.

    • If you perceive Procol Harum to be an overrated band, I suggest (if you haven’t already) checking out some of their other albums. Their premier album and A Salty Dog are my two favorites. Maybe “Cerdes (Outside the Gates of)” will change your mind. Or perhaps “Crucifiction Lane.”

  3. Cide Hamete Benengeli Says:

    Isn’t there a family resemblance to Je t’aime as well?

    Personally though, I feel the shades of old Johann Sebastian invariably pale before the real thing. Here’s one

    and there are dozens as hauntingly beautiful.

  4. procol had also grand hotel, another masterpiece

  5. The Daly Wilson Big Band did a magic version in 1977 with a flugel horn solo

  6. Val in Shropshire Says:

    The Bach piece is the slow movement of harpsichord concerto in F Minor.

  7. In 1985, the 300th anniversary of Bach’s birth, I saw one of the members of Procol Harum talking about how Bach influenced the chord progression of their song.

  8. Yes, “Air” was the musical influence. Gary Brooker tells the story:

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