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.