Due to the continuing stickiness in Nice, we decided to extend our stay in Ireland to enjoy the cooler weather and the hot sex that comes with it. County Cork is a place where the inhabitants consider 21C/70F a heat wave, making it a very appealing option for ladies who prefer to have sex when clad in leather.
There is a downside: our little cottage is a one-minute walk from the main house where my parents are staying. I love my parents and I love hanging out with them, but hardly a day goes by when Dad isn’t bugging me to review some of his favorite albums, most of which I’ve rejected several times. It’s finally reached the stage where he says “What about . . .” and I say “No fucking way” before he finishes the sentence.
One morning last week we had just sat down at the breakfast table when Dad pounced on me before I had a single sip of my morning coffee. “What about A Salty Dog by Procol Harum?” I ignored him and started to raise my coffee cup to my lips when my mother jumped in and said, “Yes, I think you might find it quite interesting.”
Waylaid by both parents, helpless without my caffeine fix, I had no choice but to surrender.
To be honest, A Salty Dog has been on my to-do list for years but every time I considered the possibility I always managed to find something else to write about. My reluctance to review the album had nothing to do with the music or Keith Reid’s often enigmatic lyrics. I kept putting it off because I didn’t want that hideous album cover to wreak havoc on the website’s visual appeal. The guy from the Player’s Navy Cut cigarette pack looks like the rapist in my worst nightmares.
My usual M.O. when creating a post is to insert the cover first, but not this time. I did not want that creepy face to skew my evaluation, so I’ll drop his ugly mug into the post right before I hit the PUBLISH button.
A mere two months after “A Whiter Shade of Pale” took the world by storm, the tag team of Gary Brooker and Keith Reid decided to 86 their drummer, lead guitarist and manager in one fell swoop. All three former employees filed lawsuits; later the session drummer added his name to the list of plaintiffs. The follow-up single “Homburg” was released according to plan and reached No. 6 in the UK, but the legal wrangling delayed the UK release of their maiden album, which in turn led to a temporary loss of their British fan base. Neither of their first two albums appeared on the UK charts; they compensated for the fallow period in the homeland with frequent visits to the United States, where they were still quite popular (my parents saw them play twice, once at the Fillmore-Carousel Ballroom backed by Pink Floyd and once at Fillmore West with Santana).
The lawsuits were certainly an expensive and irritating distraction, but Brooker quickly addressed the personnel shortage by reconnecting with two very talented former bandmates from the Paramounts. Robin Trower was definitely an upgrade on lead guitar and Barrie Wilson would develop such a solid reputation as a top-tier drummer that Jimmy Page and Robert Plant approached him first about the Led Zeppelin job. Adding those two gentlemen to the original core of Brooker, Reid, bassist Dave Knights and multi-instrumentalist Matthew Fisher made for the pretty impressive lineup you hear on their first three albums.
A Salty Dog was their third effort and easily their most diverse, with compositional contributions from Trower and Matthew Fisher balancing out the standard Brooker-Reid collaborations. Keith Reid still wrote all the lyrics and his repetition of certain metaphors gives the album an impression of thematic coherence. The dominant metaphors are all related to journeys, with nautical excursions referenced in five songs and two involving pilgrimages more suited to landlubbers. The devil-angel dichotomy is presented in two songs, leading some online commentators to go completely overboard by insisting that the entire album is a repository for Christian dogma, ignoring the fact that Keith Reid was born into a Jewish family who barely escaped the Holocaust by getting the hell out of Nazi Germany at the last possible opportunity. Given that one of Reid’s lines in “Juicy John Pink” reads “I got down on my knees praying Lord, but it didn’t do no good at all,” Reid was at best a religious skeptic, for he had to have serious doubts about a god who allowed the Nazis to kill twelve million of his religious brethren. As noted in the New York Times obituary:
His father’s experiences at the hands of the Nazis left emotional scars that Mr. Reid said influenced his worldview, and his writing.
“The tone of my work is very dark, and I think it’s probably from my background in some subconscious way,” Mr. Reid said in an interview with Scott R. Benarde, the author of “Stars of David: Rock ’n’ Roll’s Jewish Stories” (2003).
Reid was at his best when he used imagery and provocative language to create impressionistic moods, as in “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and “Homburg.” Narrative poetry was not his strong suit, though on occasion he did manage a compelling story or two. And though most of his work does lean toward the dark side, he always wrote at least one light song for every Procol Harum album.
“A Salty Dog“(Brooker-Reid): Before delving deeply into the original, I listened to cover versions by a diverse trio of artists: Sarah Brightman, Mark Almond and Styx. Though the instrumentation varies a bit in each interpretation, I found myself moved by the deep respect displayed by those artists in approaching this Brooker-Reid masterwork. The covers rarely stray from Brooker’s original orchestration and all maintain the stately tempo while lovingly replicating the original vocal crescendos.
Why mess with musical perfection anyway?
Like many songs composed on piano, it’s easier to play on a keyboard but a guitar version is indeed possible if you slip a kapo on the third fret to make things easier on the fingers. I figured out the chords on my piano in about twenty minutes, with one exception—that slightly sour opening chord. When I consulted the chord charts on the internet, nearly all of them identified the opening chord position as Bb major (actually Db major when accounting for the capo), which I immediately dismissed as rubbish. I finally figured it out by assuming the Bb major position and lifting my index finger off the first string, forming a dissonant, melancholy chord consisting of the notes Ab-Db-F-G, which Oolimo’s guitar chord analyzer identified as Abmaj13-sus. When I nailed it, I felt shivers going up and down my spine—it’s such an intriguing chord.
The entire chord pattern is beautifully mesmerizing with its subtle rising and falling changes, and if you remember to substitute the “Abmaj13-sus” when “Bb Major” is called for on the chart, the diagrams submitted by sheilsoft on Ultimate Guitar are spot-on. Many of the chord changes involve moving a single note to create sus4 chords, minor chords and sixth chords.
The arrangement is exquisite, mixing staccato and legato strings, Brooker’s somber piano and Barrie Wilson’s propulsive fills that cue the dynamic changes. Brooker’s R&B origins serve him well here, as he moves from the lower end of his range to soulful highs that enhance the emotional content of the music. The opening sounds of seagulls and the use of a bosun’s whistle are also nice touches.
The mood created by the music combines tragedy with hopelessness, and Keith Reid’s lyrics fit the musical theme like a glove. Brooker told Songfacts, “Usually the best combinations do happen very naturally. If we take something like ‘A Salty Dog’ that was a musical idea, it’s very much a type of chord progression with a certain rhythm. And I think soon after I got that idea, Keith sent me the words and they were already done, and they just seemed to fit with it very, very easily.”
The lyrics may have fit sonically, but many people who have tried to interpret Keith Reid’s lyrics have dismissed them as word salad without much in the way of tangible meaning. I think part of the confusion involves the delayed identification of the narrator—we don’t find out who is telling the story until the last two lines of the song:
A salty dog, the seaman’s log
Your witness, my own hand
Another aspect of Reid’s lyrics that people have found puzzling involves the nonlinear narrative. Reid begins the tale by describing the disaster in verse one, flips to flashback mode in verse two, and then makes a double leap to the tragic ending depicted in the closing verse. Nonlinear narratives (in medias res = “into the middle of things”) have been an acceptable mode of tale-telling since Homer’s Iliad, and since we’ve seen the method employed in dozens of films, I’m surprised that people found Reid’s use of the technique puzzling. If you read the lyrics in chronological order, they make perfect sense:
- Verse 2: A ship sails “for parts unknown to man” and winds up near an island in the middle of nowhere, with “a sand so white, a sea so blue, no mortal place at all.”
- Verse 1: While approaching the island, the ship begins to take on water below decks (“run afloat” definition in the Collins dictionary). Reid engages in a bit of foreshadowing in the lines, “A twisted path, our tortured course/And no one left alive.”
- Verse 3: After one mighty blast of the guns, the crew burns the mast and climbs into rowboats to reach the island.
Though the captain and crew cry “tears of joy” when reaching dry land, they’ve actually landed in deep shit. Remember, they were sailing “for parts unknown to man,” so no one on earth knows where the hell they are, eliminating any possibility of rescue. They’ve also landed on an island described as “no mortal place at all,” implying a severe lack of survival provisions. The salty dog writes his final words in the vain but all-too-human hope that someone will find the log someday, securing the sailors a footnote to human history:
Now many moons and many Junes
Have passed since we made land
A salty dog, the seaman’s log
Your witness, my own hand
We read a lot about the great navigators of the Columbian era and extol them for their courage, but it’s pretty likely that for every Vasco da Gama there were a hundred salty dogs who sailed to their doom. “A Salty Dog” is a tragic masterpiece, a beautiful and majestic composition that I consider Procol Harum’s finest work.
“The Milk of Human Kindness” (Brooker-Reid): Almost any song that followed “A Salty Dog” would pale in comparison, so Procol Harum made the wise decision to insert a song of limited scope with entirely different textures. In “The Milk of Human Kindness,” the piano is supplemented by Matthew Fisher’s organ and harmonium and the strings give way to Robin Trower’s bluesier fuzz tone riffs and counterpoints. The lyrics are a pretty straightforward depiction of a failed relationship where the guy has given it all he’s got but the sadistic bitch he’s been saddled with feels the need to run him into the ground. Nothing remarkable, but the song serves its purpose as a temporary break from the grandeur of the title track.
“Too Much Between Us” (Brooker-Trower-Reid): The sonic diversification continues with this melancholy acoustic guitar number highlighting Gary Brooker’s timbral range. At first, I had a hard time identifying the gentle voice whisper-singing the verses as Brooker’s, but the double-tracked harmonies and the seamless transition to his more soulful voice in the chorus gave it away. Most of the chord charts for this song misidentify Matthew Fisher’s accompaniment as a celeste, but while that might have been nice, the sound actually comes from a marimba. I love the darkening of the chord progression in the closing moments of the chorus, where Trower plucks a pattern of F+, F, C (-9), the latter chord augmented by a dissonant C# note that captures the unresolvable tension of a dying relationship more effectively than Keith Reid’s lyrics. The most notable line involves the reintroduction of the sea metaphor, used here to express the vast separation between the one-time lovers (“With so much sea between us”). This beautifully haunting piece hasn’t earned much attention from critics, but I would describe it as the album’s hidden gem.
“The Devil Came from Kansas” (Brooker-Reid): I’ll permit myself a brief rant here directed at the lazy bloggers on the internet who regurgitate misinformation without double-checking easily available sources. These “sources” identify Randy Newman’s “The Beehive State” as the inspiration for Keith Reid’s lyrics, offering the following lyrical quote as “proof”: “Well, you’re the senator from Kansas.”
Sorry, folks, but Newman’s song begins with the line, “Since you’re the delegate from Kansas.” There’s no mention of a senator anywhere in the lyrics. Even worse, the source of the misinformation was Keith Reid himself.
Here’s something I learned a long time ago from Ian Anderson, who loves to fuck with reporters and music critics: songwriters are not reliable sources of information about their songs. Some lie, some forget, some pretend not to remember, some like to play tricks on you—and a surprising number have no idea what the fucking song is about.
“The Devil Came from Kansas” falls into the latter category. The lyrics hint at something meaningful but fail to deliver the goods. We have no idea why the devil came from Kansas, where he went, or why the narrator even cares to mention him. The narrator predicts doom and gloom but doesn’t bother to connect the “dark cloud just above us” to Lucifer, Dorothy, Toto, Auntie Em or anyone else from Kansas. The worst bit of nonsense appears in the third verse:
No I never came from Kansas, don’t forget to thank the cook
Which reminds me of my duty: I was lost and now I look
For the turning and the signpost and the road which takes you down
To that pool inside the forest in whose waters I shall drown
And may those disappointing lyrics drown along with him.
The sloppy lyrics are clearly a lost opportunity, for the music provides a solid frame for a good story. The percussive duet in the verses featuring Brooker and Wilson has the feeling of a slow-progress journey and the introduction of multiple singers and Trower’s distortion-heavy reverb in the straight-time chorus creates a highly suitable platform for meaningful choral singing. Barrie Wilson’s drumming is imaginative and always in sync; my only gripe with the music is the decision to place Trower’s solo way out in left field instead of making it the centerpiece.
“Boredom” (Fisher-Brooker-Reid): Side one ends with this little calypso number sung by Matthew Fisher featuring wood recorders, sleigh tambourine and acoustic guitar. The lyrics are . . . well, they’re boring, but at least they make sense. “Boredom” may not be much of a song, but it adds to the album’s diversity without inflicting damage.
“Juicy John Pink” (Trower-Reid): Okay, okay, enough with the diversity, fellows—or at least limit your musical explorations to genres where can demonstrate some talent. This pure blues number confirms that Gary Brooker’s soulful leanings did not translate into blues vocal chops and that Robin Trower had a lot more room to grow before heading out on his own.
“Wreck of the Hesperus” (Fisher-Reid): This reimagined version of the poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow presents something of a dilemma. In his heyday, Longfellow was one of the most popular poets in history, with adoring fans all over the world. He has also been described as a kind and gentle soul, sort of a 19th-century equivalent of Taylor Swift, who has also been described as a very nice person when she’s not ripping Katy Perry a new one or reaming her exes in her latest hit.
Longfellow was your classic sing-songy poet whose metrical fancies were eminently predictable, so it’s hard to read his stuff without lulling yourself to sleep. On the plus side, he knew how to present coherent narratives completely understandable to the common folk. The gist of the Longfellow story can be summed up in a few phrases: the skipper of a boat decides to bring his daughter along on his next voyage, ignores the advice of a salty dog that a hurricane is on the way and winds up killing himself, his daughter and everyone else on board.
And therein lies the dilemma. I was hoping that Keith Reid would have provided us with richer imagery and greater depth while maintaining the connection to the storyline, but so much for hope. Reid’s version makes no mention of any of the characters, so forget about the narrative. He throws in a Valkyrie to impress us with his knowledge of Norse mythology, leaving us gasping for meaning. He makes the fatal error of personifying a cemetery (“Here lies a coffin”, cries the cemetery, “it calls to me”) and sums things up with “Burnt by fire, blind in sight, lost in ire,” an odd set of images to describe a hurricane that killed the travelers by freezing them to death. While it’s entirely possible that Reid was using the Longfellow poem to depict the horrors of the Holocaust, he fell far short of making a firm connection to an “aha” moment.
The music is equally inappropriate, with Brooker racing over the piano keys, Barrie Wilson desperately trying to find a rhythm and the melodramatic orchestration adding little beyond pomposity. In such a chaotic environment, Matthew Fisher’s rather thin voice has little chance of piercing through the storm. We’ll file “The Wreck of the Hesperus” under “Progressive Rock Failures” and move on.
“All This and More” (Brooker-Reid): This is a piece that clearly needed more work. The only guy who comes out of this a winner is Robin Trower, whose guitar fills give the piece some sense of coherence. Brooker oversings the muddled lyrics and for some reason finds his voice relegated to the left speaker in the closing verse in a vain attempt to perk things up. Reid throws in some more nautical imagery to absolutely no effect. Yawn.
“Crucifiction Lane” (Trower-Reid): Robin Trower’s sole vocal on the album confirms that his talents are in his fingers, not his throat. The narrator appears to be one sick, unhappy dude, and his whiny moaning quickly becomes tiresome. The song plummets when Reid tries to bring back the nautical theme and forgets that he just placed the narrator in a boat:
Tell the helmsman, “Veer to starboard”
Bring this ship around to port
And if the sea was not so salty
I could sink instead of walk
“Pilgrim’s Progress” (Fisher-Reid): Fisher’s organ reeks of “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and this pilgrim’s progress is far too pedantic to hold the listener’s interest. The pilgrim begins his journey by cloaking himself in fear; when that doesn’t work he goes exploring but realizes he misses home; he compensates for that mistake by forsaking learning, chasing money and causing pain to those closest to him. L-O-S-E-R!
Yes, Side Two is pretty much a complete waste of time, in part because the band’s decision to diversify their offerings allowed weaker songs to enter the mix. Keith Reid’s inconsistent lyrics certainly hurt the less-seasoned songwriters, whereas Gary Brooker nearly always managed to turn confusion into something approaching clarity, evoking meaning through his soulful voice.
The good news was that A Salty Dog did quite well in the UK and eliminated the perception that the band was a two-hit-wonder. As the years have passed, the album has been tagged with the “proto-progressive” or just plain “progressive” labels, and as an early example of the genre, it holds up pretty well in comparison to the more elaborate works of the 70s and beyond.
Okay. I’m going to pop that ugly mug into the post, hit PUBLISH and steel myself for the parental blowback.
Wish me luck!