Sunday Night Journal, September 10, 2017
Sunday Night Journal, September 17, 2017

52 Albums, Week 37: A Salty Dog (Procol Harum)


Seems like I recently said that something was one of the great albums of the '60s...what was it?...maybe not...well, anyway, this one is, or close to it. I've always felt that Procol Harum was under-appreciated. Most people only know "A Whiter Shade of Pale," which is a great song wonderfully performed, but there's much, much more to them than the one song. I think the whole album, which is just called Procol Harum, on which that song appears is very fine, though reportedly it was put together hurriedly. Their second, Shine On Brightly, is a mixed bag, with several very good songs in the vein of the first album but marred by an grandiose 17-minute suite which in my opinion doesn't succeed. A Salty Dog, released in 1969, was their third, and I think their best, though the next one, Home, is very good as well. The one after that, Broken Barricades, seemed a real falling-off, and I didn't hear the ones that came after, though I've heard good things about a couple of them and should give them a listen.

My only reservation about A Salty Dog is that the second side doesn't quite measure up to the first. Yes, I still think of all the albums from that period in terms of "sides," not just because they were physically sides but because you tended to hear each side as a unit; at minimum there was going to be an interruption when you turned the record over. I don't think there's a better side in all of pop-rock music than side 1 of this album. If I had to, I'd swap at least half of the Beatles' catalog for those five tracks. I say "tracks" instead of "songs" because although these are very fine songs the performances and arrangements are essential parts of the package.

Having written the two preceding paragraphs a couple of days ago, and not having heard the album for years, I thought I should listen to it again and see if I'd changed my mind. I listened to the "sides" separately, a day apart. Side 1 is at least as good as I remembered, maybe even better. The title track, the first on the album, is simply a masterpiece. It's not rock, exactly-- I don't know how you'd classify it. It's a slow, majestic, soaring tune with a haunting piano and string arrangement, and lyrics that tell a story of a ship and crew that sail right out of this world. There are no guitars, and the drums don't come in until halfway through. If I were going to pick one song to make my case that a deep spiritual yearning sometimes showed itself in '60s rock, this would be my best choice. I found it almost unbearably moving when I heard it all those years ago, and it hasn't lost any of its power. I almost hesitate to include it here, because if you don't know it you're liable to hear it in some inconvenient setting where you can't fully appreciate it. But here it is anyway. 

Procol Harum was one of the few groups who had a lyricist who was more or less a member of the group but not a musician. This might be his best lyric.

The other four tracks of side 1 are all different and all more or less brilliant: pretty straight-up rock ("The Milk of Human Kindness"), a gentle song about failing love ("Too Much Between Us"), heavy(ish) rock ("The Devil Came from Kansas"), and a lively and whimsical complaint about "Boredom."

Perhaps the side should seem like a hodge-podge. Maybe some people think it is. But to me it all flows together very nicely.

Next day I listened to "side 2." For the first three songs I thought You were wrong. This is great. "Juicy John Pink" is a blues with potent death-and-judgement lyrics:

 Won't you have mercy on your wicked son
Take me up to heaven not hell where I belong

"Wreck of the Hesperus" is a great song, classic Procol. But they made a mistake in having Matthew Fisher, the keyboard player responsible for that majestic organ in "Whiter Shade," sing it. His voice is not bad but Gary Brooker was one of the great rock vocalists, and the song would have been even more powerful with his voice. "All This And More" is more classic Procol, deficient only in comparison with their absolute best--and Brooker sings it. 

With "Crucifiction Lane" came the big letdown, reminding me why I didn't like side 2 as well. It's a long, slow, bluesy song, at five minutes the longest on the album. It's not that great a song, and Robin Trower sings it, and he's not that great a singer. 

But then it's back to excellent with the closer, "Pilgrim's Progress." Once again Fisher sings, and it probably would have been better if Brooker had. but it's still fine, even if it seems to be trying to be another "Whiter Shade of Pale." It's freshened up with an outro that makes for a nice farewell.

If side 2 isn't as good as side 1, it's better than I remembered. That means it's an even greater album than I remembered. I'll amend my earlier statement: I'd swap half the Beatles' catalog for this album minus "Crucifiction Lane." 

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.


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All good stuff, Mac. I will confess that I cannot remember ever hearing any Procol Harum other than "A Whiter Shade of Pale". I just looked them up and they put out a new album in April of this year! I was more into Robin Trower and had a few of his albums when I was a kid, so I knew he had been in the group. Back when I was living in Miami I went to lunch with two co-workers, a Venezuelan and a Cuban, so on the way to the restaurant they had the radio on a Spanish-language station. I recognized the melody of the song being sung in Spanish and asked, "are the lyrics being sung a whiter shade of pale?"

Hmm, it might be funny to translate the Spanish back into English.

See, if somebody as much into pop music as you only knows Whiter Shade, they really are under-appreciated. Trower I think always tried to pull them into a more hard-rock direction. Broken Barricades is really that way, almost sounds like Black Sabbath at times. I think he left after that album.

Whatever group put out an album last year probably doesn't have much of the original group. They had a lot of personnel changes after their first few albums--one of those bands where the personnel list in their Wikipedia entry goes on and on.

Yeah, I see from AllMusic that Brooker is the only original member. Favorable review though:

I should trade all my Led Zeppelin CDs in for something more interesting like this, that I have not heard over and over ad nauseum (like your days in the record shop)!

How did some classic rock groups get so much radio play on everything they recorded, while for others it was just a few songs?

I would certainly encourage dumping Led Zeppelin. I never did like them very much.

I don't impression is that it is mostly the singles that get airplay. But then I haven't listened to the radio all that much for a long time.

I listened to Physical Graffiti recently and recognized most of the songs even though I never owned or even intentionally listened to it.

The reason why I don't say anything about the 52 Albums is that I've never heard of any of them

That's part of the fun--we get to hear about all this good music that we might not have come across otherwise. The other part is the pleasure of talking about the ones we do know (like or dislike).

By the way: we are getting on toward the last quarter of the year. Them as claimed this or that album at the beginning might want to think about writing those pieces pretty soon. I'm kind of tired of doing most of them although I can certainly come up with 15 more if I have to, it being imperative that there actually be 52. If we do something like this next year I'm going to call it "Possibly As Many As 52" things.

Robert, Physical Graffiti was one of their less popular albums, wasn't it? I've never heard it that I know of though I guess there's a chance I would recognize some of it too.

I've got two pieces under construction, Mac. I may get one of them done this weekend if things go as planned.

With my age group, at least where I grew up in South Florida, every single Led Zeppelin album was wildly popular.

Speaking of knowing songs by not realizing who might have sung them....last night I watched the Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons movie Clint Eastwood made a few years back, called Jersey Boys. I knew all of the songs, and found the movie to be a lot of fun. I need to ask my mother if she and my father played those records growing up. I'm guessing they did.

Im going to do Blood on the Tracks as soon as I can. By the 21st of September.

Mac, had you planned to do a Sigur Ros album? If not, I'll do one for Oct/Nov.

"If we do something like this next year I'm going to call it "Possibly As Many As 52" things."

Probably wise.

No, I don't have any definite plans at all. I'm pretty much just winging it week to week. So it's not necessary for y'all to commit to any particular week. If I have something from someone else by Monday or so, I use it, otherwise I do one.

Frankie Valli's voice was an odd phenomenon and an odd taste. I was in my early teens when the Four Seasons appeared (I think) so have teenage associations with some of those songs, like "Sherry".

Speaking of Zeppelin: this series has been all about albums we like, naturally. Maybe I'll do "Why I hated Led Zeppelin II" (to the extent that I heard it).

"No, I don't..." above was a reply to Rob--didn't see Louise's comment.

I've thought from the beginning that it would be fun to do a bad album, or a very over-hyped one that you can't stand like Michael Jackson's Thriller. Everyone would know all of the songs by osmosis.

I don't know that I would--don't underestimate my lack of exposure (does that make sense?) to the big hits after about 1975 or so. But yeah, feel free. I probably won't do the Zeppelin thing.

I once read a positive review of Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music and truly couldn't tell whether it was serious or not.

When I was very young -- 4 or 5 y.o. -- an older girl from across the street gave me some of her unwanted 45's. "Sherry" was one of them. I liked it a lot and played it often, but only found out some years later that "The Four Seasons" were actually a bunch of white men, not, as I had surmised, a group of "colored" women.

Heh. I don't remember thinking about it but I guess I assumed they were male.

Frankie Valli's real name is Francesco Stephen Castelluccio.

Lou Christie's real name is Lugee Alfredo Giovanni Sacco.

An Italian thing?

Dean Martin was Dino Crocetti. And I'm pretty sure Jerry Vale was Gerardo Vitale or something like that. I think it was common to do that with strongly "ethnic" names back then.

Fun factoid from the movie. Joe Pesci (actor, Raging Bull, My Cousin Vinny) was friends with Frankie Valli growing up, and introduced him to the guy who would end up writing all of his hit songs and become a member of the band.

Not surprisingly, I haven't seen those movies.

The way the label "ethnic" is deployed is still amusing. Back then it pretty much meant "not of the British Isles." I guess French names tended to get by because thanks to the Normans some of them were found in England. Strikingly German names didn't make it: Doris Kappelhoff became Doris Day. There is a funny bit in one of John Gardner's novels where a very provincial middle-aged Vermont lady meets a Mexican Catholic priest and is a bit offended to realize that from his point of view she is "ethnic."

Even now, even progressive people sometimes use "ethnic" to refer to things like Mexican food.

Finally got the chance to listen to these tracks. Generally speaking I'm not a fan of 60's music, but this is pretty nice stuff.

What?!? You deny the Golden Age?!? :-)

I said 60's, not 80's! :-)

So you're just one of those revisionists who want to replace the canon? :-)

I actually don't think '60s music was a golden age. But there sure was some great stuff produced then.

Yeah, it was just a little before my time, that's all. As a little kid in the 60's I listened mostly to what my parents listened to, which was "popular music." By the time I started listening to stuff on my own it was the top-40 of the early 70's, good and bad. I had a ton of 45's by the time I was in 5th or 6th grade; the first album I ever bought, at about age 12, was Creedence Gold.

Speaking of 60's music, over the weekend I watched that film Searching for Sugar Man, which you mentioned a couple years ago. I had totally forgotten about it, but a guy from work mentioned that he had seen Rodriguez in concert here a few nights back and in the process he referred to the movie. Really good story, and I liked the music as well.

Seems to be a pattern that the music we hear when we're young imprints itself in some way.

I had forgotten about the movie, too. :-/

"Seems to be a pattern that the music we hear when we're young imprints itself in some way."

Yes, I've never really thought of it that way but I think you're right. I still remember songs from my childhood that I probably haven't heard in 40+ years.

I don't think the rock music in the '60s was great compared to the music of the '70s. It was often pretty primitive. I do think the pop of the '60s was pretty well-crafted--what came be be known as easy listening.

Yeah, like the Velvet Underground. :-)

I guess this shows the effects of personal taste and possibly also the "imprinting", as I think you're a little younger than I am. For me, speaking *very* broadly, the music of the '70s was a decline. But that's partly because I was interested in people who appeared and did their best work in the '60s, but didn't sustain it much past then.

There was garbage in both eras. I'm not really talking about the "alternative" music of the 1960s. First of all, I don't know it well. I'm thinking of the main-line commercial rock bands. I don't like disco, but a lot of the commercial rock of the 1970s was just better.

You may be older, but I've got the '60s as imprinted in my mind, because my sister was 5 years older and that is all I listened to until I left home to go to boarding school at 14.

"...a lot of the commercial rock of the 1970s was just better."

Not a question that can be settled, obviously, but I disagree. There was less of a division between commercial and artsy in the '60s. The Beatles and many others were very much both. The Velvet Underground were an extreme case, pretty much an anomaly.

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