By the time that Procol Harum had released their third studio album, A Salty Dog in 1969 they had already been through line up changes that would continue after the album’s release, as well as changes in fortunes in the charts. Having had a massive international smash hit with the classic single, A Whiter Shade Of Pale in 1967, followed by a self titled album that reached Number 26 in the British charts and Number 48 in the US, their second album Shine On Brightly had failed to enter the British charts at all – even after A Whiter Shade Of Pale had reached the Number 1 spot. Shine on Brightly did better in the US reaching Number 24 (A Whiter Shade Of Pale Number 5). So when A Salty Dog came out in 1969, the band had not yet been able to capitalise on the success of their first single in the UK. At this point it sounds like a disaster after the heady days of their first single but through Shine On Brightly the band had begun to establish themselves as one of the originators of Progressive Rock, albeit in their own inimitable style.
A Salty Dog is one of the great songs of the sixties and although it’s hardly obscure, it’s something of a forgotten classic. They released the single in the UK in May 1969 and although the album did break the Top 30 reaching Number 27 (Number 32 in the US) the single stalled at Number 44. But it’s such an evocative piece of music, slow paced and an unlikely single – one wonders if they were actually trying to repeat the success of their debut by releasing something equally moody. It starts with seagulls, keyboards and strings and then Gary Brooker’s plaintive vocal, first dry and then with reverb, a memorable drum roll from B.J.Wilson – Brooker sounds a bit like Steve Winwood as he sings:
All hands on deck, we’ve run afloat!’ I heard the captain cry
Explore the ship, replace the cook: let no one leave alive!’
Across the straits, around the horn: how far can sailors fly?
A twisted path, our tortured course, and no one left alive
We sailed for parts unknown to man, where ships come home to die
No lofty peak, nor fortress bold, could match our captain’s eye
Upon the seventh seasick day we made our port of call
A sand so white, and sea so blue, no mortal place at all
We fired the gun, and burnt the mast, and rowed from ship to shore
The captain cried, we sailors wept: our tears were tears of joy
Now many moons and many junes have passed since we made land
A salty dog, this seaman’s log: your witness my own hand
Pizzicato strings and long bowed notes and continued dynamic drum rolls, breaks, builds and a beautiful melody. What a great piece of music as the seagulls carry it away in their beaks out of the charts and out to sea.
A Salty Dog’s cover was based on the Players Navy Cut cigarette packet (they probably wouldn’t have got away with it today). Also their weren’t many bands whose lyricist wasn’t actually in the group, there was of course Pete Brown who wrote lyrics for Cream but he didn’t get in the photos like Procol Harum’s full time lyricist Keith Reid. Robert Hunter was writing words around the same time in San Francisco for the Grateful Dead album, Aoxomoxoa 1969, but it was an unusual set up.
The Milk Of Human Kindness, comes next with keyboards and Matthew Fisher’s organ, B.J.Wilson playing similar rolls as the opener. This amusing comment from Wikipedia:
(Steve Peacock in SOUNDS magazine, reviewing a 1971 concert: Peacock actually wrote, unfairly, that B.J. thrashed around like “an octopus in a hot tub.”). B.J.Wilson did have an unusual drumming style, sitting low on the kit and hitting the cymbals like he might be a swordsman or a famous painter.
Too Much Between Us is the first track with noticeable guitars, and they’re acoustic. The song is a co write with guitarist Robin Trower and it really sounds like a Gabrielesque early Genesis track. Organ still features, two more albums and Trower was gone to his Hendrix influenced blusey power trio. Trower’s bluesy guitar features at the end of the next song, The Devil Came From Kansas and it shows the range of music on this record. It’s hard to pick the style – it’s just music, it doesn’t need to be called anything.
Boredom, the final track on Side 1 has recorder and a different vocalist in organist Matthew Fisher (who produced the album). More of an Incredible String Band type folky sixties song, so another style change and it works perfectly well, a campfire party atmosphere jam at the end with recorders and home made drums and what sounds like lots of revelry and dancing.
Country blues on Juicy John Pink showing Brooker’s flexibility as a singer. Sounds live, with harmonica, electric guitar and hitting found objects with sticks for the rhythm.
Wreck Of The Hesperus has piano and reverb, drums and acoustic guitar with Matthew Fischer singing again over a constant arpeggio piano. Big sounds of orchestra strings, like a Moody Blues song. Fisher would leave after this album as I suppose he wanted to sing, write, do it his way and Brooker had the voice, but like The Beatles I personally like the different singers in the band even though Brooker had the superior voice. The variety gives the record a more interesting diversity instead of the same trick over and over again.
All This And More is an instrumental till 2 minutes in and then it takes a Shakespearean turn:
Dull and sullen, much subdued, my skull a stony glaze
Whirlpools rage on constantly, I’m not so well these days
An out of character Robin Trower singing on Crucifixion Lane comes next. A straight blues track that gave us a taste of what was to come. (I saw him play in the seventies at a sold out show at Liverpool Stadium, somewhere between 1974 and 1976. I can’t be more precise I’m afraid but I also saw him in San Diego around 2010 – and he still pulls those faces!
The album ends with Pilgrim’s Progress, Matthew Fisher singing and reminiscent of A Whiter Shade of Pale in its feel. It could be a John Cale song off Paris 1919. It’s quite a lovely melody and the lyric may or may not be inspired by 17th century Christian John Bunyan’s works? Reid being something of a surrealist at times and then a storyteller and then both. I think all the lyrics are open to interpretation.
Long Gone Geek was the B-Side Of A Salty Dog single and is a straight rock track. McGreggor is an outtake originally intended for Shine On Brightly but somehow finds itself here.
A Salty Dog set Procol Harum on a path into the seventies that saw, Fisher leave, bass player, David Knights leave and Trower leave after Broken Barricades 1971 – Brooker being the only original member. Chris Copping came in on organ and bass and stayed, BJ Wilson stayed. Other players came and left including Dave Ball on guitar for the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra Live album in 1972. Conquistador originally from the first album was a hit reaching Number 16 in the US (Number 22 in the UK). The album went on to be their best selling record reaching Number 5 in the US. (Number48 in the UK). (Ball played in a band with The Move’s Ace Kefford and was also in short lived Bedlam with Cozy Powell). Alan Cartwright came in on bass at the same time as Ball and Mick Grabham came in on guitar for Grand Hotel 1973. Pete Solley came in on organ for Something Magic 1977 as Cartwright left and Copping went to bass. The whole story is in the links but this special album is one to be treasured as a creative masterpiece, unafraid to experiment with styles and release that beautiful opening track as a single.
Sadly, drummer B.J.Wilson died at the age of 43 in 1990.
The album on You Tube: