[Review] Procol Harum: A Salty Dog (1969)

An epic musical voyage, with the band’s collective artistry in full sail and Keith Reid’s poetry as their north star.

Kronomyth 3.0: A modern musical Odyssey.

Fifty years ago, Procol Harum recorded one of the most ambitious rock records in history, A Salty Dog. Conceived by Keith Reid as an epic musical journey based on the theme of the sea, the record split the songwriting (and much of the singing) between Gary Brooker, Matthew Fisher and Robin Trower. In that sense, A Salty Dog was the first Procol Harum record to move beyond the Brooker-Reid dynamic and showcase the band’s different musical personalities in equal measure. It also found the band experimenting with different musical instruments: celeste, marimba, recorder, congas, tabla.

As good a song as “A Whiter Shade of Pale” is, “A Salty Dog” is the best song the band has ever recorded, even if the “band” in this case omits Fisher and Trower. It is poetry set to music, which would describe most of the Procol Harum songs up to this point, yet it flows from such a natural place that it’s impossible to tell what is poetry and what is music. Reid’s songwriting partnerships with Fisher (“Boredom”) and Trower (“Crucifiction Lane”) are less organic though still highly effective, particularly on “Pilgrim’s Progress” and “Wreck of the Hesperus.”

One of the few knocks I have on A Salty Dog is the state of the singing. You’ll never hear better songs sung so poorly. Brooker was a middling vocalist at best and a shade better than both Fisher and Trower. Reid has lamented in interviews that more bands don’t cover Procol Harum’s songs, and I wonder if that regret isn’t from the realization that “A Salty Dog” or “Wreck of the Hesperus” might have reached truly epic proportions with an epic vocalist like Ian Gillan (or even a good vocalist, like Rod Evans).

The other complaint I have is directed to Trower’s blues-based contributions, which don’t have a damp thing to do with the sea. “Crucifiction Lane” is all right, but “Juicy John Pink” is the sort of track you expect to find tacked on to an expanded remaster, not smack in the middle of one of the greatest rock records of all time. In Trower’s defense, “Too Much Between Us” is a song for the ages, and whatever his contributions were to the song, they have earned him some measure of immortality in my book.

The closing “Pilgrim’s Progress,” sung by Fisher, puts the spotlight where it belongs, on Keith Reid. A Salty Dog is his finest moment; he is the tar that holds the craft together, the captain that steers the work on its epic course. Its silly Beach Boys ending aside, “Pilgrim’s Progress” is Reid breaching the fourth wall as he explains “I sat me down to write a simple story, which maybe in the end became a song.” There has been much conjecture over what that story is. “A Salty Dog” makes plain that the narrator is writing from the other side of life, so perhaps what follows is the seaman’s log of his past life or ruminations on his life from the vantage point of whatever island Limbo he had landed upon. Whether Reid intended it to be a cohesive story or (more likely) a clever device for stitching together songs using the sea as imagery, A Salty Dog is a musical Odyssey of classic proportions.

Read more Procol Harum reviews

Original elpee version

A1. A Salty Dog (Gary Brooker/Keith Reid)
A2. The Milk of Human Kindness (Gary Brooker/Keith Reid)
A3. Too Much Between Us (Robin Trower/Gary Brooker/Keith Reid)
A4. The Devil Came From Kansas (Gary Brooker/Keith Reid)
A5. Boredom (Matthew Fisher/Gary Brooker/Keith Reid)
B1. Juicy John Pink (Robin Trower/Keith Reid)
B2. Wreck of the Hesperus (Matthew Fisher/Keith Reid)
B3. All This And More (Gary Brooker/Keith Reid)
B4. Crucifiction Lane (Robin Trower/Keith Reid)
B5. Pilgrims Progress (Matthew Fisher/Keith Reid)

Orchestral arrangements on A1/B3 by Gary Brooker, B2 by Matthew Fisher.

CD reissue bonus tracks
11. Long Gone Geek
12. All This And More (take 1)
13. The Milk of Human Kindness (take 1)
14. Pilgrim’s Progress (take 1)
15. McGreggor
16. Still There’ll Be More (take 8)

The Players

Gary Brooker (vocals, piano, celeste, three-stringed guitar, bells, harmonica, recorder, woods), Matthew Fisher (organ, vocals, marimba, acoustic guitar, piano, recorder, rhythm guitar), David Knights (bass guitar), Robin Trower (lead guitar, vocal, acoustic guitar, sleigh tambourine), Barrie Wilson (drums, conga drums, tabla) with Kelloggs (bosun’s whistle, refreshments). Produced by Matthew Fisher; engineered by Ken Scott except B1 by Ian Stuart, B2 by Henry Lewy.

The Pictures

Art work and design by Dickinson.

The Plastic

Released on elpee in May 1969 in the US and Canada (A&M, SP 4179) and Germany (Polydor, 184 221); reached #27 on the UK charts and #32 on the US charts.

  1. Re-issued on elpee in 1972 in the UK (MfP, MFP 5277) with unique cover.
  2. Re-packaged with A Whiter Shade of Pale on 2-for-1 2LP in April 1972 in the UK (Cube); reached #26 on the UK charts.
  3. Re-issued on elpee and cassette in Belgium (Cube, 853008/C).
  4. Re-issued on elpee in the US (A&M, SP-3123).
  5. Re-issued on compact disc in 1985 in the UK (Sierra).
  6. Re-released on remastered compact disc in 1986 in the US (Mobile Fidelity, MFCD 823).
  7. Re-issued on elpee in 1993 in Russia (Anton, Π91 00265).
  8. Re-released on expanded compact disc in 1999 in the UK (West Side, WESM 534).
  9. Re-packaged with Home on 2-for-1 compact disc on March 17, 2003 in the UK (Beat Goes On, 558).
  10. Re-released on remastered 180g vinyl elpee in 2017 (Music on Vinyl).

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