Procol Harum

the Pale

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A Salty Dog

Contemporary album review

Judging from Franky Brooker's scrapbook, lately (2011) lent to 'Beyond the Pale', this review was published in UCLA's Daily Bruin, 23 April 1969, under the title 'Audrey's Review of Salty Dog'. It apparently appeared inRolling Stone over a month later, with the final line (and the typo!) added, and one paragraph (here shewn in brown) excised.

John Mendelson in Rolling Stone magazine – 31 May, 1969: A Salty Dog: Procol Harum, (A&M SR 417)

A Salty Dog is a confusing album. At its best it represents the group's greatest success to date with the brand of rock for which the group is known; at its worst it is both surprisingly mediocre and trivial. The most tenable explanation for this unevenness of quality is that Procol Harum, now produced from within by organist Matthew Fisher and boasting three songwriters where it once boasted one (or one and a half if you wish to consider Fisher's infrequent early contributions), is growing, but not without suffering growing pains.

Robin Trower's brilliance as a guitarist considerably overshadows his present ability as a composer. Juicy John Pink, a quickie blues recorded in a friend's basement, succeeds neither in being a particularly amusing parody nor the taste of Muddy Waters that Trower hoped it would be. The result of his trying to give Crucifiction Lane an Otis Redding feel is a laughably ugly vocal, which is a shame because this slow, mildly gospelly, 1957-type ballad might have worked had it been sung by Gary Brooker.

Three cuts fit comfortably into the familiar Procol mold. All This And More is quite reminiscent of Homburg, although not nearly so good. The Milk Of Human Kindness features a sort of torchy (ie late Thirties musical-style) guitar line and some nice Procol Harum country funk on the choruses. The best of the three, however, is The Devil Came From Kansas, which nearly overflows with latent energy. BJ Wilson here alternates march and bolero rhythms behind gigantic piano chords and a powerful vocal by Brooker.

Each of Fisher's entries is lovelier than the one before. Boredom's gentle calypso feeling is created by some very pretty marimba work (by Fisher) and various exotic percussion instruments. On The Wreck of the Hesperus he sounds a little like Paul McCartney. The song's essential prettiness will no doubt be lost on those who, because of its Wagnerian-sounding arrangement and theme (lots of talk of Valkyries here) will dismiss it as pretentious. Pilgrim's Progress is even prettier, with a melody gorgeous enough to have been written by a Bee Gee (not meant sarcastically). Keith Reid's introspective confessional lyrics are backed by a Whiter Shade of Pale-sounding organ.

And now to the really magnificent parts. Too Much Between Us is the kind of song you can float away on – its background and vocal of marimba and acoustic guitar in a perfectly understated waltz-time are beautifully ethereal. This is probably the best non-mold song Procol have yet produced. A Salty Dog opens with eerie strings and seagulls (and threatens for a moment to become just a bit too luxurious). On the part where the words are 'How many moons and how many Junes have passed since we made love?' [sic!] (my favorite line on the album), the drums come in hard, the strings swell mightily, and Brooker's voice soars excitingly (leaving you so knocked out that you won't even notice the rather gauche strings that start the cycle up again until your third or fourth listening).

This could have been an astonishing album. But where Procol Harum is staying where they've been (especially Trower's recorded guitar work and Wilson's drumming) they're becoming a bit too predictable, and they're a little awkard [sic] in their pursuit of the new directions suggested by Trower and Fisher. Also, Reid's lyrics, which might have served as the glue that unified the diverse sides of the album, are becoming too diffuse, too self-conscious to function in that way. And one can't help but wish that Brooker and Fisher will resist their urge to fool around with string arrangements until such time as they can make them something more than superfluous.

Get it anyway. Its several incredible moments will make it well worth your while.

Thanks to Joan May for submitting this to BtP. Joan comments (January 1999):

And MY favorite lines on the album are: 'In searching like the sycophants of learning' and 'The symmetry it calls to me.' <G>

This review is a bit confusing because Mendelson begins by saying that some of the music is 'mediocre and trivial, ' yet when he describes specific songs, he has very few negative things to say about any of them. But he doesn't discuss Robin Trower's songs, and I suspect that this review was edited (ie parts of it cut out) prior to publication, the lucky recipient of this editing being Robin. Mendelson almost certainly felt that Robin's tunes were the weakest on the album, judging from his comments in his article / interview with the band members in Crawdaddy magazine that same year, in which he referred to '... Juicy John Pink, a very crude twelve-bar blues that I originally thought was a parody...' and '... his awful singing on Crucifiction Lane ...'

I agree with Mendelson in his praise of Matthew Fisher's songs – especially Wreck of the Hesperus and Pilgrim's Progress – the compositions, his beautiful soulful / ethereal vocals (providing a very enjoyable contrast to Gary's voice), the Hammond on Pilgrim's Progress of course, and also his brilliant piano on Hesperus, which, as with Grand Finale on the previous album, went uncredited, leaving the listener to assume it to be Gary's.

I also agree about the high quality of most of Gary's songs. But my main criticism of ASD is that it was produced more as a set of Brooker, Fisher and Trower solo projects than a Procol Harum album. Neither Matthew nor Robin played on the title track, replaced by those strings. The only song that really featured Matthew's trademark celestial Hammond was Pilgrim's Progress. Robin's incipient exciting guitar solo on Hesperus was cut short and replaced by orchestration. Gary's vocals were marred by overdubs on The Milk of Human Kindness and The Devil Came From Kansas, resulting in an unpleasant 'barroom brawl' quality on the choruses that did great disservice to both songs. There's also an annoying 'doubling' of the vocal on the verses of The Devil Came From Kansas, particularly evident when listening with headphones. BJ's drums were sadly missing from Juicy John Pink, usurped by handclaps and footstomps. The drums were slighted in the bass-tones and adulterated by handclaps on Pilgrim's Progress, and obscured by orchestration on the title track and Hesperus.

Procol's greatest asset, its 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 not forgetting that horrible harmonica – and all this at a time when the quality of sound engineering had finally improved enough to do the band justice if only those wonderful songs had been recorded Live in the studio, or better yet in an audience-free concert hall. Ironically the tune Matthew produced which came closest to a live Procol Harum sound was the 'B' side / outtake Long Gone Geek, and I'm glad this great song has been included in recent reissues of ASD. Matthew told the BBC in 1992 that Long Gone Geek turned out to be one of his favorite Procol productions, but in 1969 it wasn't even considered worthy enough to be included on the album.

At first I thought that Matthew produced ASD the way he did because he was suffering from a combination of 'New Producer-itis' and Beatle Mania, but from reading articles and interviews with band members, I've realized that something much more significant was affecting his production: the fact that he was just plain suffering:

  • From 1997 Repertoire Reissue of Home
    Gary: '.....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. ... He was an immaculate player, but he wasn't enjoying it like everybody else. He wouldn't join in the fun ...' 'We became a four-piece and made Home,' recalls Gary. 'We did in fact produce four or five tracks with Matthew, then we kind of fell out for some reason. I can't remember if he was still being too miserable about life, but we had a parting of ways! '

    From Shine On, 1979
    Gary Brooker: 'The thing with Matthew was once he had something down like the organ part for a song, he'd lose interest in it. In the end he wanted to put down his organ completely and play rhythm guitar ... He didn't think very much of his organ playing, you know, he wasn't interested as seen from the fact that he doesn't really play now. He's always been more interested in production.'

    From Bud Scoppa's interview with Gary Brooker, Crawdaddy, 1970
    '... See, that's just why Matthew left. He gets bored so quickly. He's bored as soon as he's recorded a track. He's bored with it and never wants to hear it again, and when he hears it the next week, he wants to rerecord it .... Perhaps he needed his freedom to – he wanted to produce things, produce records. When he left, I thought he would've chomped into it and we would've suddenly seen great things come out, but like he hasn't done a thing, he lies in bed, which is a shame.

  • These and other interviews with Gary strongly suggest that he doesn't understand the reason for Matthew's increasing unhappiness during that time, and why Matthew left the band soon after ASD was released.

  • From an interview with Matthew Fisher, NME, 1973
    'I wanted to leave the band as early as July 1967, when it became obvious that I wasn't going to get the credit I should've got for Whiter Shade Of Pale, and that it was going to be a one-man-band and a backing group. And for the next two years, I was talked out of it each time I decided to go. Eventually, that particular time, no one tried to talk me out of it.'
  • Between 1967 and 1969, as AWSoP progressed toward immortality with Matthew's uncredited part of its music receiving much of the acclaim, he was – justifiably – becoming more and more depressed about not being credited or compensated for his crucial contribution to that song, and was understandably finding it difficult to remain in Procol Harum under such circumstances. Playing his Hammond and hearing the classic Procol Harum sound must have been particularly painful for him, reminding him of that injustice with every celestial note. That's why I believe he produced ASD the way he did, avoiding the classic Procol ensemble sound, turning away from his Hammond in favor of playing rhythm guitar and tinkering around in the control room – desperately trying to find some way to take his mind off that terrible injustice and still remain in the band. I also think he might have – perhaps on a subliminal level – wanted to make an especially 'commercial' sounding album to compensate for the AWSoP revenues that were being unjustly denied him. The result was this studio-dominated album with a Sgt Pepper- style production, abetted by that closetful of instruments that The Beatles had unfortunately left behind in the studio.

    But the type of production that had worked for The Beatles (whose greatest assets were not exceptional instrumental prowess and a huge powerful live sound) didn't work for Procol Harum, and when ASD wasn't the hoped-for hit, especially in the USA where it didn't do as well as SOB, Matthew's continuing despondency over the AWSoP credits – with no compensatory success from ASD – drove him from the band and into despair and inactivity for the better part of the next three years, until Robin hired him to produce his first three solo albums.

  • From A Gary Brooker interview: Martin Webb in New Musical Express, 25 Sept 1971
    '... We certainly improved the bass and drum sound on Salty Dog, and the piano and organ sound. Fisher produced that album but he still didn't have a good ear for the guitar and he couldn't bring it out ...'
  • Robin's music was so poorly presented on ASD; why would he hire Matthew as his producer, risking his fledgling solo career in the process?

  • From: Robin Trower – by Pete Frame, ZigZag 27, December 1972
    So, Matthew Fisher, totally bored with life on the road [
    sic] split to 'become a producer' [note the quotation marks ] ... Robin and Jimmy Dewar, having found a musical compatibility, are now in the middle of recording an album to be released under Robin's name. On drums, Reg Isadore (ex Quiver) completes the trio and Matthew Fisher ('a great talent but a dormant one: he can't get out of bed in the mornings') is producing.
  • That's a very unusual way for Robin to have announced his new producer – unless it's the main reason he was hiring him, as I think it was, ie that he perceived Matthew's suffering and thought the job might alleviate it – as it certainly did! I feel a great sense of gratitude toward Robin – I think he put Matthew's welfare above his own interests. He knew that Matthew wasn't feeling up to par, and he obviously didn't have an ASD-type production in mind for his solo work. Note that he didn't mention ASD in that interview; the only thing he expressed was his concern about Matthew's well-being. Matthew has said that Robin really had to coax him, that he refused the job at first, not thinking he'd be interested in a power-trio type of band. (See Ron Smith interview part 2). Similarly, when Matthew first quit PH in 1969, it was Robin who went to his house and coaxed him back for awhile. (See the Circus Raves article).

    I think it's very possible that Robin saved Matthew's health or even his life – at the very least his career – by hiring him when he did. Fortunately, 'karma' worked the way it should in this situation: Robin was richly rewarded for his kindness by Matthew's brilliant productions, and the two of them enjoyed more commercial success during their three-year collaboration than either of them has ever achieved before or since. I think a big reason for their success is that Matthew's production of Robin's work differed drastically from the way he produced ASD, with no orchestration or extraneous instrumentation obscuring the unique sound of Robin's music. I believe that the reason Matthew didn't produce Procol that same way stems from the crediting injustice, that monumental and far-reaching oversight which still needs to be corrected, and which led to the destruction in 1969 of Procol's greatest line-up.

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