GARY BROOKER DIED RECENTLY. Most people won’t know that name. But huge numbers of people around the world would recognize the 1967 tune he wrote with his bandmate Matthew Fisher: which became a worldwide hit song called A Whiter Shade of Pale.
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I always like to find bridges between China and the west, and 1967 is an interesting one – it was a revolutionary time in both east and west. In China, the peasants had chased away the nationalists. While some of the resultant social experiments were clearly disastrous, the theme of ordinary people rising up intrigued people around the world–suddenly, all things Chinese were cool.
Gary Brooker’s band Procol Harum didn’t sing about politics, but he was fascinated by China. In concerts he liked to dress in Chinese clothes. Here are some early pictures of him.
He would sometimes perform wearing a Chinese hat, and in this image, a pigtail too. The band hit number one in the singles chart with their first record on the 12th of June 1967, the same day the Beatles’ hit number one in the UK album chart with Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Now John Lennon did a lot of reading about China, and in the following year, 1968, he wrote a song in which he tried to contrast “good revolutions” like the communist uprising, with bad elements like the cultish violence of the Red Guards. “If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow.” (Not his finest lyric!)
He later went on to write a song about a world in which there was no private property – which he himself described as pretty much the Communist Manifesto set to music. Consider the words of “Imagine”.
“Imagine no possessions. I wonder if you can? No need for greed or hunger: A brotherhood of man. Imagine all the people sharing all the world.”
In 1971, the Rolling Stones interrupted one of their own concerts to invite a famous Maoist onto the stage. In fact in those days there were so many lefties, far lefties, in pop music that the FBI started investigating them.
Looking back from today, the songs “Imagine” and “A Whiter Shade of Pale” have become two of the biggest pillars of modern musical history. And the late Gary Brooker kept his Chinese clothes until recently, when he auctioned them off (below) to benefit a family in need.
But there’s one more east-west overlap here. The words for this mega hit came from a poem written by his bandmate Keith Reid, about being at a social gathering and feeling ill because of substance abuse. An odd topic for a song, you might think.
Now look up the most popular ancient songs and poems of China. Top of the list are the poets Li Bai and Du Fu. What did they write about? Being at social gatherings and feeling ill because of substance abuse.
They would certainly have nodded sagely at the words of the 1967 song. “And the room was humming harder as the ceiling flew away.”
Image at the top is collage of images of Gary Brooker, from historical sources