Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Procol Harum's "A Salty Dog" and an Ode to AOR

A Salty Dog

Matt Domino pens an ode to Procol Harum's lost masterpiece.


Editor's Note: This piece was written a month ago. No one wanted to publish it, so I published it here.

This past winter, when David Bowie died, I was listening to Procol Harum. Not, like, when he actually died, but in general. Specifically, their 1969 album, A Salty Dog. An album that is, in my estimation, one of the great tossed aside records in the canon of 1960s rock n’ roll.

I’m a boring person by nature, especially as I get older. Though I still look for new music, new bands, new albums to appreciate and enjoy, my idle mind will fall back on the pleasures it knows best: well-recorded drums, albums with vintage from 1967-1981 (maybe 1987 on a very lucky day), a singer that is English and sounds extremely white while he is attempting to sound black. My domain of expertise has become, half-wittingly, dad-rock.

And what band could better define dad-rock than Procol Harum? If you close your eyes, you can almost hear that classical, empty-church, organ melody. You can hear the faux-soulful voice warbling about, “one of sixteen vestal virgins who were leaving for the coast.” Venture further into those tight-lidded visions, and you’ll uncover the face of a young William Hurt, slightly doughy and boyish with hayhair. To your left is bony Glenn Close in the midst of her beguiling run of 1980s sexiness, all sharp edges and frizzed hair. And there is Mary Kay Place, round-cheeked and button-eyed with an air of permanent country about her. Jeff Goldblum smokes marijuana in the corner as the organ swells unbearably for the millionth time. Yes, it sure is The Big Chill all right.

Other than the fact that “A Whiter Shade of Pale” was one of the biggest songs of 1967, put the “baroque” in “baroque pop,” and was used in the most iconic Baby Boomer film of all-time, what do you truly know about Procol Harum? For some reason, that was the question I asked myself this past winter as I decided to take a scan through their discography.
It turns out, like most people, I knew nothing about Procol Harum. But what I found was a band with a series of solidly made AOR records and who took a strong lean into progressive rock. Like any music nerd, I have a cautious appreciation for prog rock: My heart instinctively admires and embraces its ambition, while my brain tells me most of it is bad, un-self-edited shit.

A Salty Dog is described as prog-rock, but it’s really not—unless you call Abbey Road or Bridge over Troubled Water prog-rock (both released within a year of A Salty Dog, by the way). It’s also described as a concept album, but it’s even less of a concept album than Sgt. Pepper’s. They both share an opening, theme-setting, titular song, but Procol Harum don’t even segue into a vaguely connected follow-up, and there sure as hell isn’t a reprise to be found anywhere. Instead, what A Salty Dog is, is a finely made record, one that lacks filler or fat; an album that stands up with the towering achievements of its release year. It’s a record that feels adventurous, even if it isn’t. It’s a work of art that is of its time, but still sounds fresh today. A Salty Dog isn’t an overlooked work of genius, but rather it bears more of a similarity to a well-written novel that was appreciated just enough in its day, but whose craft couldn’t save it from the greater forces of time and history—its craft couldn’t make it canon. It is similar to how a twentysomething would react to discovering a Thomas McGuane or James Crumley novel.

Oh, but what craft there is to enjoy! The title track starts off ominous and pretentious. There are sounds of sea gulls, you dumbly try to picture a 19th century schooner and think you can smell seawater. But then the first drum fill hits your speakers and you are on board (no pun intended!) all the way. If the drums sound that good, then surely the album has to be good.

The second song, “The Milk of Human Kindness,” (I know, the title screams prog, but I swear it’s not!) sounds as if The Band invited Jethro Tull to Big Pink, told Ian Anderson to ditch the flute and instead tied his hands behind his back, taped his mouth and let Garth and Richard lead the way on organ and piano. The melody has an undeniable swing and a home-spun chorus that’ll put you at ease immediately. It’ll make you want to reach for a whiskey. Who cares if it’s not American-made.

Up next is “Too Much Between Us,” and this track screams, “sequencing!” It is a classic third song move. You start off with the anthemic, thesis statement track, follow that up with an enjoyable song that relies on the goodwill of its groove, and then ease into the first slow song on the record to show off the contemplative side. As I’ve said, A Salty Dog sounds of its time and this is a song that could have appeared on Crosby, Stills and Nash’s self-titled debut. At moments, you might even mistake Gary Brooker for Graham Nash. Plus, this song gets credit for bringing the “sea” back into its lyrics to try and keep the conceptual thread.

“The Devil Came from Kansas” marks the centerpiece rocker. It’s a blues-rocker that the Pretty Things would have approved of and sounds the way a tornado on the horizon looks. Listen to it while you approach a shitty bar that you’ve been to a million times with your friends and you will feel inspired somehow.

“Boredom” and “Juicy John Pink” are perhaps the definitive “deep cuts” on an album that is a deep cut in and of itself. “Boredom” is the type of song that could’ve only been made in 1969-1971. With its mixture of cheery jingle bells, xylophone, strummed guitar, and recorder, it sounds like a subtler version of Three Dog Night’s “Shambala” or a looser, more unhinged version of anything Simon and Garfunkel were doing from 1968-1970. As for “Juicy John Pink,” well every 60s rock album had to have a slow, traditional blues song—the Stones showed us that.

The last four songs on the album are inarguably the high point of A Salty Dog. “The Wreck of the Hesperus” brings the “concept” back into focus. It starts with a tom hit that sounds like a slammed door before a continuous, haunting, rolling piano line takes over and drives the entire song. Amid caught lines like, “we’ll hoist a hand or drown amidst a stormy sea” and “I fear a mighty wave is threatening me” an orchestra swells, broken by horn flourishes and staccatos. The song takes its name from a Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem and it is the only song that truly conjures the 19th century—and by 19th century I mean Moby Dick. “The Wreck of the Hesperus” eventually ends with building strings, the horns turn mournful. Wind and storm sound effects enter. One can almost see a bad stage production of The Tempest unfold. But no matter what, in the end you are left moved and wondering why the phrase, “I fear a mighty wave is threatening me” resonates, even while you are walking along the streets of New York City in the middle of January.

“All This and More” is a slightly menacing, mid-tempo rocker. Gary Brooker sings the lyrics with venom and the song develops edges and elbows as it picks up momentum through its verses and choruses. The guitar is distorted just enough and the sustained notes fall on the right side of cheesy. If Brooker were a more distinctive singer, this one would be a classic. Sometimes I think what it would sound like if John Lennon had done a version. Sometimes 
history has a way of speaking for itself.

The penultimate song, “Crucifiction Lane,” (yes, that is spelled correctly) is a slow-burning, 1:00 AM blues track in the vein of “I Got the Blues” by the Rolling Stones, which they recorded a year later. The difference being that this one lacks the soulful flourishes that the horns bring to the Stones song. And also, while the Stones song title is generic in the most perfect way possible, the name “Crucifiction Lane” is too dramatic and on the nose for the song’s mood and tremendous singing to hold the resonance they deserve. But this song does get points for also bringing back the sea imagery with lines like, “tell the helmsman to veer to starboard, bring the ship around to port/And if the sea was not so salty, I could sink instead of walk.” Maybe Procol Harum deserve more credit for holding the concept than I give them.

A Salty Dog’s last track, “Pilgrim’s Progress,” is also its best one. It starts with a haunting, communion-hymn organ part on the Hammond organ. The drumming is slow and steady. The melody and tempo give the song the immediate feel of an album closer, an art that has very often been lost or missing on a majority of records throughout the last sixty years. After about three minutes in, the melody comes to a conclusion, before an entirely different tempo and melody rises. A striking piano enters, so too do brisk, shuffling drums. Vocal “chicks,” syncopated hand claps and wood blocks hit and an ethereal, unspoken refrain of “Oooh” floats above the arrangement as the entire song builds and builds before slowly fading out. By that time, you’re also hearing the clanging of a church bell and you feel as if you’ve just finished something important—and odd longing and emptiness—even if it’s just an album by Procol Harum.

I was listening to A Salty Dog non-stop when David Bowie died. I continued to listen to it after he died as well. And I was listening to it regularly when Prince died in April. Those two figures tower above music history—that goes without saying—and I listen to their records with awe and joy time and time again. But that is to be expected. David Bowie and Prince are part of the canon. Procol Harum are too, in their own, small, confused way thanks to “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and its own, small, confused legacy. Most of the time, history and time have a way of sorting out what’s important and what’s not—what lasts. And for art (or even our own memories) that is usually because the stuff that lasts is what is done best, what contains the most truth—the things we can’t forget.

But it’s nice to have a moment when you find something lost in time and can dig it up and regard it in the light for yourself, whether it’s a forgotten memory, friend or an album you never knew to give a damn about.  Sometimes you wonder why you feel so good when you stumble upon those obscure artifacts or memories. And you wonder if that good feeling is simply because you found the thing, or if because there is truly a merit, an admirable quality to what you’ve discovered that makes it worth holding onto. Either way, I’m holding onto A Salty Dog now—and probably will forever.

This summer, I’m staying with friends at the ocean. A Salty Dog is about the sea. But I probably won’t put it on while I’m there, while I can smell the salt water and sand scatters across a rented wood floor. Instead, I’ll save it for the middle of winter. That’s when I’ll probably need it the most.

2 comments:

  1. In the early 90s, when CDs were routing ever other physical format, I purchased A Salty Dog on cassette for pittance upon recognizing the band's name. On my long commute it played in the car and at work on the enormous boom box. Somewhere in the years that cassette disappeared and was never replaced, although I had a great affection for the music.

    Thank you for reminding me it existed.

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