Procol Harum

the Pale

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Procol Harum – Beyond These Things

A Salty Dog

Phil Jackson's Procol Harum retrospective was intended to introduce newcomers to the band's music following the elaborate cover of In Held 'Twas In I by TransAtlantic. Read his introduction and his Salty Dog piece below, and follow the numerous links to other regions of BtP that you may not have visited in quite a while!

Trouble at sea - A Salty Dog

Rolling Stone’s John Mendelson wrote an oddly paradoxical review in May, 1969 on the release of Procol’s third album A Salty Dog – he uses the words ‘mediocre’ and ‘trivial’ in his opening paragraph and then goes on to praise just about every track!

Joan May solves the mystery – it is Robin Trower’s contributions he doesn’t like – describing Juicy John Pink in Crawdaddy as ‘very crude’ and the singing on Crucifiction Lane as ‘awful’.

Notwithstanding the bad atmosphere surrounding the album (recorded on 8 track at Abbey Road with Matthew Fisher as producer) for me this is the Procol Harum album.

Perhaps the fact that this album didn’t sell as well as it should have or receive the level of critical acclaim it so patently deserved was the final nail in the coffin for Matthew Fisher.

Still harbouring a sense of injustice from not getting the credit he felt he deserved for his contribution to A Whiter Shade of Pale (Yes, that record again!), Fisher’s singing certainly sounds tired and weary.

Also the tension between Brooker and Fisher was clearly growing: Brooker is quoted as saying, "After A Salty Dog Matthew had said he didn’t want to tour anymore and we said ‘Bloody good job because he was such a misery.’"

However, there is enough great material on A Salty Dog to flatten most bands on the planet – then or now – and, if it lacked a little in continuity there was the burgeoning of great individual talent with Fisher and Trower contributing more than ever before.

Opinion is certainly divided on Procol’s third release – Henry Scott-Irvine described it as ‘patchy’ in his sleeve notes to the 30th anniversary set – mind you, the album wasn’t helped by the exclusion [sic] of A Salty Dog itself, a blot on an otherwise faultless landscape!

And Joan May isn’t sure about it either:

"My main criticism of A Salty Dog is that it was produced more as a set of Brooker, Fisher and Trower solo projects than a Procol Harum album."

She laments the fact that Procol’s ‘huge and glorious ensemble sound with its unique blend of instrumentation and incredible musicianship was mostly lost in this production, replaced by generic studio sweeteners – strings, marimbas, celestes, bells, whistles, brass, sound effects, overdubs, claps, stomps and harmonica’.

Anyway, I will just have to agree to disagree and move on to the music itself:

The title track, the one with the eerie strings and seagulls, should need no introduction to any serious music listener. Chris Welch, writing in Melody Maker: "Procol Harum have given us one of the greatest pop singles to emerge in recent years. The tune is beautiful, the arrangement brilliant, the performance perfect. As the strings move from climax to climax, so every listener with the slightest sensitivity will be moved."

Keith Reid’s acerbic lyric ‘is brilliant on the second track, The Milk of Human Kindness’ and Trower’s guitar playing is economical but clean and expressive – ‘gorgeous razzy guitar’ was Nick Logan of NME’s description.

Too Much Between Us is accurately described as: "Magnificent – the kind of song you can float away on – its background and vocal of marimba and acoustic guitar ... perfectly understated waltz-time are beautifully ethereal." by John Mendelson in Rolling Stone.

The Devil Came from Kansas is a screamer of a track. And ‘There’s a monkey riding on my back been there for some time He says he knows me very well but he’s no friend of mine is for me’ is one of the most memorable lyrics in the annals of rock music.

Joan May picks up on the overdubbed (echoed) vocals and this can be irritating once your attention is drawn to it – also the stereo panning of Trower’s guitar solos is quite a shock when listened to nowadays! Nevertheless as John Mendelson wrote ‘It nearly overflows with latent energy’.

Boredom is an infectious little calypso on which the band (including Matthew who sings the lead vocal) sound like they’re having fun.

I can’t understand for the life of me why it wasn’t a number one hit – opening with its wonderful ‘quirky’ instrumental arrangement – Trower on sleigh bells, Fisher on marimba, BJ on congas and unidentified whoops like ‘Yes man!’.

Juicy John Pink is a great first step for Trower, I think – only 2 minutes long – just Rob on electric, Brooker on vocals and harmonica accompanied by claps and foot stomps – a 12 bar blues no less!

Wreck of the Hesperus with its Wagnerian arrangement sounds almost incongruous next to Juicy John Pink but for me contrasts like this are what make this album so interesting.

Wreck is a beautiful Fisher composition with its sweeping strings (‘strings that spin like whirlpools of water, wrote Nick Logan in NME – rather poetically)

The arrangement complements the pathos of the vocal perfectly as the sounds of waves crashing against the rocks fade into All This and More. If you forget the rather crude stereo panning that isolates Brooker’s vocal in your left headphone half way through the song, All This And More is full of power and passion.

It is really just a logical continuation of the more dramatic Brooker – Reid compositions on the first two albums.

The strings at its conclusion take us into Trower’s second solo composition Crucifiction Lane. Contrary to some critical opinion, I believe this ballad would have graced Trower’s very successful early solo albums (like Bridge of Sighs) – more advanced than Juicy John Pink it is both passionate and menacing – ‘If you could see inside me I don’t think you’d have me here’. Lines about ships and salty seas cleverly help to link this to the overall theme.

For me though the best track on the album is the moving Pilgrim’s Progress, the greatest Matthew Fisher song ever with the celestial organ sound reminding us once more of what Procol are all about. The piano / drums / hand claps / percussion / bell ending is inspirational and fades out much too quickly!

Rating – 10/10

Thanks, Phil

More Features at BtP Index page to the other sections of Phil Jackson's piece

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