Procol Harum: A Salty Dog

MAY 1969 (43 YEARS AGO)
Procol Harum: A Salty Dog is released in the UK.
# allmusic 4.5/5
# Rolling Stone and New Musical Express (see original reviews below)
A Salty Dog is an album by Procol Harum, released in May, 1969 in the UK. The title track, backed with “Long Gone Geek”, reached number 44 in the UK singles chart in 1969 and the album itself number 27 in the album chart.
Having an ostensibly nautical theme, as indicated by its cover (a pastiche of the famous Player’s Navy Cut cigarette pack), interspersed with straight rock, blues and pop items A Salty Dog showed a slight change of direction from its predecessors, being thematically less obscure. The title track itself was the first Procol track to use sound effects and an orchestra, as would be referred to in the live album performance some three years later. The musical tensions between the group and Robin Trower were beginning to show in this album, and although his guitar sound remains integral to most of the tracks, Crucifiction Lane (featuring a rare Trower vocal), in retrospect, shows that Trower was already moving in a different direction from the rest of the band. Still this album is much more musically varied than the two previous albums, with 3 Fisher vocals and 1 by Trower.
The title track, backed with “Long Gone Geek”, reached number 44 in the UK singles chart in 1969 and the album itself number 27 in the album chart. When Gary Brooker first played “A Salty Dog” at the piano for B.J. Wilson, a sunbeam illumined Wilson’s face and he told Brooker he thought it was the most beautiful song he had ever heard.
The album was the first record produced by Matthew Fisher, who quit the band soon after its release.
Clanging bells and sombre piano chords set the mood for A Salty Dog, one of the most moving songs created by Procol Harum during their ten year career. The warning cry of ‘All hands on deck’ sends a chill of fear that only sailors in a storm might fully understand. It was typical of the band that they could create such atmosphere with the simplest of themes and phrases. Certainly the title track set a standard of excellence maintained throughout this remarkable album.
A Salty Dog, originally released in 1969, was Procol’s third LP and their first to enter the UK charts at number 27. It seems extraordinary now to realize that the band which came to fame with the blockbusting 1967 hit A Whiter Shade Of Pale had to wait so long for recognition at home. But they had spent a lot of time touring abroad, particularly in America, where audiences were quick to realize that Procol Harum were not just one hit wonders. Here was a band of substance with many more tunes to play. But it took British audiences a while to cotton on.
The combination of Gary Brooker’s haunting vocals, Keith Reid’s imaginative lyrics and Matthew Fisher’s classical organ tones helped create the distinctive Procol Harum sound and style. Their appealing mixture of gospel, funk, soul and Bach was far more subtle than most contemporary rock. Sometimes mournful, sometimes obscure, there was, however, always a feeling that Procol were sending a message to its audience ultimately more rewarding than any number of hard rock riffs. Procol’ songs had depth and the power to move mind as well as body.
Released as a single, A Salty Dog reached Number 44 in the UK chart in 1969 and was a much bigger Top Twenty hit when reissued on a special maxi-single with A Whiter Shade Of Pale and Homburg in 1972. The album was recorded just before the departure of Matthew Fisher and their bass player Dave Knights who quit the band in March 1969. Knights wanted to take up management while Fisher intended to concentrate on production. They were replaced by Chris Copping who came in on bass and also played organ. The arrival of Copping, who had been at university, meant that Procol Harum now had the same line-up as The Paramounts, the R&B group which had launched Gary Brooker on the road to fame.
Brooker (born May 29, 1945), had grown up in Southend-on-Sea, Essex, where he met guitarist Robin Trower (born March 9, 1945) and Chris Copping (born August 29, 1945) at school. Brooker had learned to play piano as a child, although he played banjo and guitar in his first skiffle group. He later learned how to adapt his piano and vocal style to a rock’n’roll band after discovering the music of Jerry Lee Lewis and Ray Charles. The Paramounts were formed in 1959, and by 1963 their line up included Gary Brooker (piano, vocals), Robin Trower (guitar), Chris Copping (bass) and BJ Wilson (drums). They played mainly covers of US R&B standards and had a chart hit with their version of Poison Ivy in 1964. They were hailed as one of Britain’s best young R&B bands and appeared on TV and in clubs supporting the Rolling Stones. But by 1966 the band faced competition from their mentors, like James Brown, who were now touring Europe.
There was less demand for covers bands no matter how good. Brooker had been on the road for some years and decided to retire! Instead of hammering the piano at one night stands, he would sit at home in Southend and concentrate on writing songs. He was friendly with DJ Guy Stevens, who worked for Island Records. Guy not only indoctrinated him with all the latest gospel, R&B and soul records from America, he introduced him to Keith Reid (born October 10, 1946), a brilliant young lyric-writer from London’s East End.
Keith sent Gary a package of lyrics which the pianist parked on his piano and promptly forgot. However, a week or so later he found them, was intrigued by the flow of ideas, and began setting the words to music. Gary phoned Keith, who came down to Southend, and the pair began a historic songwriting partnership. Their first efforts at writing for other artists met with little response, and they became disheartened. In the end Reid advised Brooker that he should sing the songs, while Guy Stevens encouraged them to form their own band. Guy Stevens came up with a name for the new outfit, taken from a friend’s cat called Procol Harum.
Through an advertisement in Melody Maker, they found a skilled Hammond organist called Matthew Fisher. The band included Bobby Harrison (drums), Ray Royer (guitar) and Dave Knights (bass). Harrison and Royer were replaced by BJ Wilson and Robin Trower after they’d recorded A Whiter Shade Of Pale. (but see who played drums)
The song, based on Bach’s Air On The G String with its surreal Reid lyrics, was played non-stop on pirate radio and eventually became a huge hit in France, Germany, England and America. It topped the UK charts for six weeks and got to Number 5 in the States where it sold a million. It eventually sold six million copies world-wide and was hailed as one of the greatest singles of all time. It was a hard act to follow, but the band returned with the equally imaginative Homburg, Quite Rightly So and Conquistador.
Their first album Procol Harum (1967) was followed by Shine On Brightly (1968) both now re-issued on Repertoire CDs and packaged with fine performances. On A Salty Dog, tracks like The Milk Of Human Kindness, The Devil Came From Kansas and Wreck Of The Hesperus showed how Procol Harum were developing as a songwriting collective. Although all their past work had relied heavily on the Brooker-Reid collaboration, there was now the chance for others to have their way.
Recalls Gary Brooker: ‘We did a lot of touring during this period and we were writing a bit on the road. Robin Trower now had his chance to write songs, but we always used Keith’s lyrics. Robin by now had earned his colours, so he contributed Juicy John Pink and Crucifiction Lane.’
The title track was, however, a Brooker-Reid song that Gary still plays to this day. He cut a new version of it on his 1996 ‘live’ album Within Our House and played it as a featured number during a 1997 US tour with Ringo Starr’s All Star Band. Gary wrote the piano part to A Salty Dog in Switzerland and played it to Keith Reid on his return to England. Remembers Keith: ‘It was a pretty amazing song with a lot of seafaring imagery. All those songs had different ideas behind them.’
Says Gary: ‘A Salty Dog was the first time that we used orchestration. I wanted to have strings on the number and it was my first arrangement. I loved doing it. I’d met a viola player when we were on tour with the Bee Gees in Germany who were using an orchestra. He was very supportive, almost like a music teacher. He actually put an orchestra together for us and members were all leaders of top London orchestras. We got a very warm chamber music sound on A Salty Dog.’
The song’s lyrics were heavy on metaphor and reversed meanings of words, a device that Keith Reid used a lot. A good example is the captain’s phrase ‘All hands on deck – I think we’ve run afloat’ instead of ‘aground’.
‘I don’t know what it’s all about’, admits Gary. ‘You can put your own interpretation on it. Somebody in America once wrote about the song for her university degree thesis. She developed no less than 17 different interpretations of the song, which were all a kind of valid. I’ve always sung it for BJ Wilson since he died a couple of years ago, and it does seem to be about man’s journey through life in some way. It’s also about the group. It’s a glowing piece of writing.’
Other songs on the album are also about relationships, notably The Milk Of Human Kindness, which Gary describes as ‘a Procol blues.’
Another song Brooker revived with Ringo Starr’s band was The Devil Came From Kansas. Says Gary: ‘A couple of things I should mention about the A Salty Dog album are that it was the point where Matthew Fisher wanted to move on to becoming a producer, which he did very well. We also moved up to using an 8-track machine which gave us a lot more scope.’
Procol recorded A Salty Dog at EMI’s Studio 2 at Abbey Road where they had a ‘traps’ cupboard packed with instruments which their predecessors The Shadows and The Beatles had loved to use on their records.
Remembers Gary: ‘You could get all the odd instruments out like xylophones, which they didn’t have at Olympic. It gave us a bit more scope and there is  a very colourful sound on this record. The production also was much better than the previous two albums.’
Says Keith: ‘A lot of things had happened by the time we made this. Robin was still with us, but Matthew didn’t like being on the road, and he wanted to be a record producer. Also our original producer Denny Cordell wasn’t really interested in doing a record with us anymore, and so Matthew produced the third album himself. The Rolling Stones had a rehearsal studio in Bermondsey and we rehearsed all these songs down there in the basement. At this time the first record by The Band had come out and we had been very impressed by that and it had an influence on us.’
Reid was under considerable pressure to come up with new lyrics during this busy period. ‘This was the trouble, particularly when the other guys started getting involved in writing music as well. It wasn’t just Gary saying “Can you give me more lyrics?” I wasn’t incredibly prolific and I found it quite difficult to satisfy everybody. I always felt under pressure to come up with stuff, whether I was ready to write them or not. But I felt very pleased with the songs on the first three albums. I do remember by the time we got to Home, the fourth album, I definitely felt very pressurised.’
‘On this album The Milk Of Human Kindness has a country rock feel and was quite influenced by The Band. Too Much Between Us was a love song written about somebody who was in New York while I was in London. It’s written like a letter.’
‘The Devil Came From Kansas was influenced by a Randy Newman song called The Beehive States which I liked a lot. There is a line in there about “The Senator from Kansas” which inspired me to write The Devil Came From Kansas. Boredom was just made up in the Beatles’ studio at Abbey Road as a bit of fun.’
‘Juicy John Pink was a country blues number without any drums. We just stamped on the floor and Robin sang the lead [sic] on this one, which he wrote. That’s what strange about that album. Not only do other people share songwriting credits, but both Robin and Matthew sing, and in retrospect it seems a dreadful mistake. I can’t imagine why Gary didn’t sing the songs! He was the stronger singer by far. Wreck Of The Hesperus I remember very well because we were in San Francisco and that was a song where Matthew wrote the music and I wrote the words. I can remember sitting in a hotel by San Francisco Bay staring out at the water. Matthew sang it and there was a brilliant orchestration which he wrote. But I think Gary should have sung it!’
All This And More was inspired by a phrase that Keith discovered after a university gig in England. ‘I remember we were driving back through the night to London and somebody had told me about ‘lollards’, who were travelling minstrels in the olden days. I was very taken with this thought and turned it into a song.’
‘Robin sings Crucifiction Lane which is an Otis Redding type thing with a confessional lyric. We tried to get a Stax feel on that. Pilgrims Progress was done by Matthew. I came up with the title after I’d written the words. It was actually a song about the process of writing songs, with a little ripped off from John Bunyan.’
Procol Harum went on to release Home (1970), Broken Barricades (1971), the highly successful Procol Harum In Concert With the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra (1972) and Grand Hotel (1973). In 1975 came Procol’s Ninth but the final album, Something Magic (1977) failed to chart in the UK.
The group broke up in 1977 after a farewell tour. Gary Brooker went on to record solo albums, while Keith Reid re-located to New York where he began writing with other artists. In 1991 Procol Harum reformed and Brooker-Reid began writing songs together again for the first time in 14 years, producing the critically acclaimed new Procol Harum album The Prodigal Stranger. It was time once more to ring the bell. ‘All hands on deck … and skip the light fandango!’
~ Chris Welch, London, 1997
John Mendelson in Rolling Stone magazine – May 31, 1969
A Salty Dog is a confusing album. At its best it represents the group’s greatest success to date with the brand of rock for which the group is known; at its worst it is both surprisingly mediocre and trivial. The most tenable explanation for this unevenness of quality is that Procol Harum, now produced from within by organist Matthew Fisher and boasting three songwriters where it once boasted one (or one and a half if you wish to consider Fisher’s infrequent early contributions), is growing, but not without suffering growing pains.
Robin Trower’s brilliance as a guitarist considerably overshadows his present ability as a composer. Juicy John Pink, a quickie blues recorded in a friend’s basement, succeeds neither in being a particularly amusing parody nor the taste of Muddy Waters that Trower hoped it would be. The result of his trying to give Crucifiction Lane an Otis Redding feel is a laughably ugly vocal, which is a shame because this slow, mildly gospelly, 1957-type ballad might have worked had it been sung by Gary Brooker.
Three cuts fit comfortably into the familiar Procol mold. All This And More is quite reminiscent of Homburg, although not nearly so good. The Milk Of Human Kindness features a sort of torchy (ie late Thirties musical-style) guitar line and some nice Procol Harum country funk on the choruses. The best of the three, however, is The Devil Came From Kansas, which nearly overflows with latent energy. BJ Wilson here alternates march and bolero rhythms behind gigantic piano chords and a powerful vocal by Brooker.
Each of Fisher’s entries is lovelier than the one before. Boredom’s gentle calypso feeling is created by some very pretty marimba work (by Fisher) and various exotic percussion instruments. On The Wreck of the Hesperus he sounds a little like Paul McCartney. The song’s essential prettiness will no doubt be lost on those who, because of its Wagnerian-sounding arrangement and theme (lots of talk of Valkyries here) will dismiss it as pretentious. Pilgrim’s Progress is even prettier, with a melody gorgeous enough to have been written by a Bee Gee (not meant sarcastically). Keith Reid’s introspective confessional lyrics are backed by a Whiter Shade of Pale-sounding organ.
And now to the really magnificent parts. Too Much Between Us is the kind of song you can float away on – its background and vocal of marimba and acoustic guitar in a perfectly understated waltz-time are beautifully ethereal. This is probably the best non-mold song Procol have yet produced. A Salty Dog opens with eerie strings and seagulls (and threatens for a moment to become just a bit too luxurious). On the part where the words are ‘How many moons and how many Junes have passed since we made love?’ [sic!] (my favorite line on the album), the drums come in hard, the strings swell mightily, and Brooker’s voice soars excitingly (leaving you so knocked out that you won’t even notice the rather gauche strings that start the cycle up again until your third or fourth listening).
This could have been an astonishing album. But where Procol Harum is staying where they’ve been (especially Trower’s recorded guitar work and Wilson’s drumming) they’re becoming a bit too predictable, and they’re a little awkard [sic] in their pursuit of the new directions suggested by Trower and Fisher. Also, Reid’s lyrics, which might have served as the glue that unified the diverse sides of the album, are becoming too diffuse, too self-conscious to function in that way. And one can’t help but wish that Brooker and Fisher will resist their urge to fool around with string arrangements until such time as they can make them something more than superfluous.
Get it anyway. Its several incredible moments will make it well worth your while.
Nick Logan in New Musical Express, 5 July 1969
The most exciting facet of this tremendous album is not so much that it contains the Procols’ best recorded works to date, but that their potential is still nowhere near being fully spent.
If this is an example of what their experiments can lead them to, long may they continue to push out past the accepted frontiers of pop.
It would be hard to pick a stand-out but the title-track, also their current single, must rank as their most potently commercial offering since Whiter Shade of Pale. The poetic quality of Keith Reid’s lyrics delivered by Gary Brooker against music that rises and crashes like the waves adds up to a positively stunning track.
Brooker takes five other writing credits; Milk of Human Kindness is a personal favourite, mainly for its gorgeous razzy guitar. Too much Between Us, which he co-wrote with Robin Trower, is wispy and dreamy with shades of Incredible String Band in the harmonies. The Devil Came from Kansas has a distinct country feel with Barrie Wilson’s powerful drumming behind a piano running rife. All This and More is nearer the old Procols.
Boredom, by Brooker and Matthew Fisher, has the latter featured strongly on marimba with a pretty calypso lilt making it one of the most appealing songs.
Fisher on his own has two entries, stand out being Wreck of the Hesperus with a complex arrangement for piano and strings that spins like whirlpools of water and has a charm and prettiness little found in today’s pop.
The album also marks the emergence of Trower as a writing force. His two songs include Juicy John Pink, a strident rock blues with shades of John Lee Hooker. Other titles: Crucifiction Lane, Pilgrim’s Progress.
“A Salty Dog” – 4:41 (Gary Brooker/Keith Reid) – Brooker vocal
“The Milk of Human Kindness” – 3:47 (Gary Brooker/Keith Reid)
“Too Much Between Us” (Gary Brooker/Robin Trower/Keith Reid)
“The Devil Came From Kansas” – 4:38 (Gary Brooker/Keith Reid)
“Boredom” – 4:34 (Gary Brooker/Matthew Fisher/Keith Reid)
“Juicy John Pink” – 2:08 (Robin Trower/Keith Reid) -Brooker vocal
“Wreck of the Hesperus” – 3:49 (Matthew Fisher/Keith Reid)
“All This and More” – 3:52 (Gary Brooker/Keith Reid)
“Crucifiction Lane” – 5:03 (Robin Trower/Keith Reid)
“Pilgrim’s Progress” – 4:32 (Matthew Fisher/Keith Reid)
The following bonus tracks were included on a 1999 reissue by Westside:
“Long Gone Geek” – B-Side of the single release of “A Salty Dog”
“All This And More”
“The Milk Of Human Kindness” (instrumental version)
“Pilgrim’s Progress” (instrumental version)
“McGreggor” – previously unreleased track, originally intended for “Shine On Brightly”
“Still There’ll Be More”
The 2009 released CD version has different bonus tracks:
“Long Gone Geek” (Reid/Brooker/Fisher)
“Goin’ Down Slow” (James B. Oden) (live in the USA, April 1969)
“Juicy John Pink” (Trower/Reid) (live in the USA, April 1969)
“Crucification Lane” (Trower/Reid)(live in the USA, April 1969)
“Skip Softly (My Moonbeams) / Also Sprach Zarathustra” (Brooker/Reid)/(Richard Strauss)(live in the USA, April 1969)
“The Milk of Human Kindness” (Brooker/Reid)(take 1; raw track)


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