Talk about hubris! It's one thing for a Procol fan to record his own version of A Salty Dog as Sev Lewkowicz has done, re-styling the melody and the arrangement, or to execute it using a radically-different instrumental sound like Jeffrey McFarland-Johnson; but surely it's quite another to attempt to recreate the backing-track, orchestra, piano, three-string guitar, and Barrie Wilson ... with synthesisers!
Yet this is what Ethan Reilly – by his own admission a non-keyboardist with double tinnitus – has done on A Salty Sequence, and it's extraordinarily good. If there's a pub anywhere on the planet where a karaoke Salty Dog would be tolerated, this is the disc to take with you on the big night: and for your encore, a note-perfect Wreck of the Hesperus is included as well.
A Salty Dog (Gary Brooker – Keith Reid)
When this immaculately-realized record first came into circulation, Larry Pennisi wrote thus to the Procol Harum mail-list:
All and sundry, I am today in receipt of Ethan Reilly's wonderful digital tribute to PH, A Salty Sequence. While done electronically, the sonorous acoustic tones he has achieved are a delight to the ears. Authentically reproducing ASD, Hesperus and a piano only section called Piano Wreck, it is almost like listening to the originals only without the vocals. Tastefully recorded and painstakingly planned, I highly recommend A Salty Sequence to any PH collector. It is a wonderful addition and is quite novel. It was obviously recorded and realized with a great deal of loving care.
Larry is not wrong ! The string sound is believable, there's not a hint of mechanical-ness in the rhythm section; the hardest moment must have been counterfeiting BJ's most dramatic and extraordinary entry: but this is credibly realized from the rhythmical point of view, though the tom-tom sound is not 20-20 perfect; I was impressed by the strings' dramatic upward sweep towards the end of A Salty Dog, though perhaps the tone of their pizzicato is a little curt. Since the Westside boxed set came out we've been accustomed to having the AWSoP backing-track: I wonder if it's just me, or can others hear the ghost of Brooker's voice in their headphones? It will be interesting to know if other Palers can listen to Ethan's work without inwardly hearing the soaring Brooker tonsils.
Or, for that matter, the more down-to-earth throatings of Fisher in Hesperus? Here the piano sound is oddly less-perfect than some of the other detail, such as the finicky and exposed rhythm guitar, which has had to be programmed in string by string, and then reduced to near inaudibility: it sounds extraordinarily authentic. It's a bit more clinical, of course: but the original songs were recorded on equipment hilarious more primitive than that used by Ethan, which, for all its sophistication, cannot be expected to capture the mushy warmth of Abbey Road, 1969. Only the tone of Trower's guitar falls short of expectation: perhaps this is the very hardest instrument to counterfeit by such methods. Listen for a mischievous little bit of detail on the bass at 2:52! Not everyone will like the way Hesperus ends with a burst of speed-psychedelia seemingly imported from See Emily Play ...
Track three, the (almost!) piano-only mix of Hesperus, uses a more credible synth-patch. Its complexity suggests reasons why the original session may have required two pianists though, once composed, this part is certainly playable by a single musician. The first time I met Matthew Fisher I remember him saying, of this track, 'There's really nothing to it,' which is odd: the piano part as exposed here serves only to emphasise the superb drama of the Wagnerian orchestration he wrote and dubbed on. I can't agree with those 'purists' who prefer the un-orchestrated version of this song: I love the swooping strings and plunging brass: Ethan's adventures wonderfully focus our fresh attention on something that may have been staled by thirty years' lo-fi familiarity.
Less interesting is the final track, a strings-only Yesterday: but at the price one can hardly complain: not least because the whole record is available free: the benign Ethan requests his patrons only to make a charitable donation, such as they feel they can afford:
The cost to have each of these CDs burned was 15 German Marks. If you enjoy what you hear, and the spirit moves you, please send 23 German Marks (8 to cover postage) or the equivalent in your own currency to: Oxfam Worldwide Hunger Relief Fund 274 Banbury Rd. Oxford OX2 7DZ, England. Or you can make a direct donation online with a credit card.
So who is this Reilly? Something of the true Procoholic shines out of the very wording of his album-cover, and from the address that adorns the inside: 'Live from the Hotel White Lamb, Ratisbona, Roman Empire'!
'Greetings Procol Parishioners throughout the Cosmos!
Long about three months ago, as I prepared some sequences to augment a project for an upcoming tour, I was suddenly struck with a curious, wee hankering to pursue an idea which had long bounced aimlessly through my rattled skull. Boing! Boing! Boing! Boing!
Enclosed you will find one 'performance unit', containing the harvest of untold hours transcribing, sequencing, and faithfully editing an inspired, if ambitious tribute to an inexcusably under-celebrated moment in pop music history. It was no easy task trying to replicate this stuff in all its brilliance. Most especially BJ's drum parts seemed to laugh mockingly at the mere notion of electronic replication. It was with grave doubts therefore, that I perused the original performances, in sobering reverence. Still, my scepticism would prove no match for this gnawing inclination, and on the day of 25 February, 1998, I did commence programming; part by part, bar by bar.
... Many years passed. Many lives were lost. And then when hoped seemed to have wheezed its final gasp, from the cyber-abyss did I emerge – catch in hand. Alas, this was only to face the fiercest contender of all: the vast and arduous task of 'unloosing' a veritable mountain of metronomic data, and snagging the elusive pearl form this clenched and chilly oyster! I will leave you to judge my results.
For those who may be interested: these sequences were conjured using Logic software, with the Roland XP80, and Alesis S4+ synthesizers. Lastly, though not leastly (!), I have known from the outset, that an undertaking as delicate as this one, could well result in the most highly conspicuous dispensation of egg to my industrious little face. If, for any reason, I have missed the mark in my efforts, I can only offer my humble apologies, and indeed remove my hat to all those transcending my own, perversely entrenched Procol-meticulosity! That said, it is my sincere hope that this little souvenir of Ethan’s Adventures in Procoland will spark some delight or (dare I say) fascination in the ears of all those for whom it rears its grisly, frothing mug!
Wishing You and Yours A Super-Swell Day!
BtP asked Ethan for some background information, and his wise, comprehensive reply reveals a wealth of insight about the original tracks:
This recording is the result of over 250 hours of transcribing, sequencing and editing, done (if I remember correctly) over a period of about six weeks.
Here are some thoughts on the process: well, first of all, obviously A Salty Sequence is anything but 'live', but the rest of that little blurb cresting its cover is accurate, at least in a roundabout sort of way. I lived six of my seven years here in Regensburg at a place which had originally been called 'Gastätte Weisses Lamb' (The Hotel White Lamb) which, as the plaques on its exterior boast, hosted in its heyday the likes of Mozart, Haydn and Goethe (very possibly in the room where I lived, or the one directly above, as these were the premium river-front rooms).
The two thousand year old city of Regensburg (whose less-than-savoury callers have included Napoleon, Hitler and yours truly) was previous designated 'Ratisbona', and prior to that, 'Castra Regina'. Founded by the Romans, Castra Regina (bordered by the Danube river) was for a time, the northernmost tip of the Roman Empire.
As to the transcriptions and programming of the songs – I guess I must have slipped into momentary madness, and then of course, there was no turning back. I make my living replicating songs on stage, but these two PH tracks are about as intimidating a pair as one could pick – not merely because they’re so sophisticated, but moreover, because they’re simultaneously not. What I mean is that they are so alive with dynamics – BJ’s drumming most of all is so raw and passionate – it defies human replication, but to endeavour it with a computer is really volunteering one’s neck for the cutting board.
Computer replicating is really all about deceiving the listener’s ear, and doing so with a device which is hopelessly, laughably inferior to the human hands and mind. The limitless finesse that a violinist expresses with his vibrato and bow, the programmer must attempt to recreate with a little dime-bag of cyber-tricks. It’s sometimes not unlike trying to build a fuselage with mucilage, if see what I mean.
But I am reminded of Beatrix Potter’s story (the name of which I forget) where one of the little animals thinks his mother has forgotten his birthday and his cake, so he and his furry friends decide to gather vegetables from the garden and make 'birthday soup'. This project for me was very much like birthday soup, I really enjoyed the challenge of doing as much as I could with my limited resources.
Over a period of about six weeks, I spent in the area of 250 hours on those two songs – over forty hours in the acoustic guitar parts alone – arpeggiating each strum independently with the mouse. So you can see it was indeed a labour of love for me. The discovery part of transcription on a song like Hesperus is at times almost orgasmic – no drug can rival the experience of those blessed 'Aha!' moments when you finally decipher what was played in some impenetrable passage.
I’m not a piano player, but I have ears, a wealth of dedication and all-important patience when it comes to music for which I have so much reverence. Every instrument on these tracks was studied and programmed part by part, note by note, bar by bar. Having tinnitus in both ears and hearing loss in my left, a variety of headphones, and all manner of isolating the stereo left and right, running one side of the original track to both ears, and wickedly exaggerated EQ settings were employed in the transcribing.
Often, some passage is so buried that one must begin by assessing what is NOT there, and narrowing it down to whatever possibility is left. One must be very careful however not to let one’s imagination run wild, because often enough – there actually IS nothing there – the instrument has dropped out completely in a place where you might not have expected it to. If you start 'reading between the lines' and 'augmenting' based upon your imagination, it won’t take long before your sequence sounds like 'The Hollyridge Strings Crucify Procol Harum'.
One thing I find very helpful when I’m unable to 'decode' a section of a song, is to play the track and actually distract myself from it – in other words deliberately think about something else, and allow the sound to become background noise. Then, very often, the part I’m searching for 'jumps out' at me because my mind is no longer distracted by the rest of the track.
Only minutes before running A Salty Sequence down to DAT, I listened once more to the PH Hesperus and was amazed to find that I had failed to notice the 'mermaid' soprano voice in the solo section – she’s there alright. 'Hold the presses!' I exclaimed, and quickly went back to add her on to my version.
Ethan writes more about the 'mermaid' voice in The Beanstalk (full story here)
I have well over 150 hours in my Hesperus replication efforts alone. I would love to be able to share the thrills and sheer delight that I experienced – those blessed and delicious moments, after hours of painstaking transcription trail and error, when I would finally – suddenly – realize 'Oh God – THAT’S what he (Fisher) played! (on the piano)'. I cannot convey the unspeakable delight of recognizing that I had been caught on some passage, because his brilliance was, quite simply – that far ahead of me.
The solo section to Wreck of the Hesperus is the Hesperus sinking ...
My 'psychedelic' ending to Hesperus came about because when I had completed sequencing it, I found that I didn’t want to fade it out as the original recording had done. In truth, mine (before the ad-lib stuff at the end) lasts as long as the original, but without the fade. When listening to it back, I found that I wanted to keep the power of the waves, thunder and musical chaos "up front" all the way out. (You may notice on the refraining "outro" I have taken the liberty of repeating one of my favourite BJ licks.)
These songs were programmed in a fairly linear fashion. I already had scores of hours in Hesperus when I got to the second solo section and found that (to my ears anyway) the tone of horns / brass sounded different than in the first. For starters, there is reed (piccolo? fife?) or something doubling an octave above the horns in the second solo section (I believe I used a piccolo on mine). Anyway, I spent hour after hour blending and "tweaking" different trombones, brass and horn "sections", French horns etc. ad nauseam trying to nail the timbre just right.
Now bear in mind, most of the programming of these two songs was done between the hours of 11 pm and 8 pm. Due to a bunch of Bavarian bureaucracy (as well as the the fact that the owner of the house was carted off to prison for fraud earlier in my stay) I was ultimately the sole resident at "The Hotel White Lamb" for my entire last year there. Out of sixty or seventy rooms in that five- or six-hundred-year-old house, it was just me and Mozart’s ghost roaming aimlessly about the place. And despite it being in the heart of the old city, my windows faced the river, and the old stone walls were very thick, so in the dead of the night, I would sit at the computer in my little window with those sequences cranked up to earth-shattering, downright sterilizing volumes.
Meantime – in order to find the horn sound I wanted, I had to put the refrain into an "endless" loop, so that it would repeat itself over and over and over for great lengths of time whilst I checked out all manner of horn samples. Suddenly all of the brass in that pernickety little section began to sound wickedly out of tune to me – I mean none of it seemed right, and I thought to myself, okay – this is what shell-shock is like! I’m losing it! If I have to hear this goddamned refrain one more time, this entire computer and MIDI studio is going right out the window and into the Danube!
So you see, my impetuous and frantic "toy piano" refrain at the end simply demonstrates my (shall we say) "precarious" state of mind during the last hours of work. That musical suffix is my signature (if you will). The mumbo-jumbo melodies trailing off are likewise shades of self-induced emotional instability. I have one version on my hard drive with Fisher’s Good Captain Clack solo (a sardonic masterpiece in and of itself!) in the concoction as well, but I left it out because the only Hammond sounds I had available were a wee bit too lame.
Still, there actually is a theme to my parting snippet, which is as follows: The bongos are a native beckoning from some tropical island; the "Wily Coyote" sound is a rat jumping ship – SPLASH! into the water, and the speedy "toy piano" which follows is him on a tiny wooden scrap of ship, frantically rowing off to the tropical island for rum and reinforcements! There’s more imagery there too, but you’re going to have to find it for yourself!
There is for certain, one wrong note (which repeats itself) in my Hesperus (and no doubt others). It came to my attention after the CDs had been made. Trivia Q: Within Wreck of the Hesperus (Track 2 version) there are tiny pieces of 3 other songs. Can you name them? Clue: One of them is a nursery rhyme.
There are likewise some 'deliberates' (if you will) where for one reason or another, I have taken liberties, and strayed the path of perfect adherence. These are so rare that I’d rather let the listener try to find them, but I will say that in the end, I was forced somewhat to 'homogenise' the wonderful tempo changes found on the original ASD for my version. Indeed, I began by programming them in to a T, but I ultimately found them to be too dramatic for the computer (or my programming skills) to pull off. Mine definitely does 'breathe in and out' tempo-wise, but in the end I had to minimise this somewhat, to keep the tempo changes, though painstakingly finessed, from calling attention to themselves in spite of my efforts. Odd, having to make it less like the original, in order that it would sound more like the original.
As to the future, I haven’t any plans for sound-alike sequencing right now, although were someone to hear this CD and take an interest in my work, I’d be quite pleased with that. With each of the individually-made CDs goes a request that if the recipient enjoys the music, he or she make donation equivalent to my costs (23 German Marks – about $13, or £9) to:
Oxfam Worldwide Hunger Relief Fund 274 Banbury Rd. Oxford OX2 7DZ, England Or online with a credit card at: http://www.oxfam.org.uk
BtP has compiled various other bits of e-information about Ethan to complete this feature:
What's your musical history?
I grew up listening to The Kingston Trio, The Beach Boys and then of course, The Beatles. My brother brought home the PH album (on Deram) in '67 and I pretty much kidnapped it (brotherly banter here and here!). While I was a fan of The Move, I never followed Pink Floyd or Moody Blues as many PH fans seemed to – to be honest I always thought they paled embarrassingly when juxtaposed with PH.
I had my first group in 1967 at age 12, playing guitar and singing many of the songs I still sing today. By 1970, having seen a live performance of former Monkee Mike Nesmith and (his) First National Band, I began to take a great interest pedal steel guitar (which I apparently have in common with Brooker’s father: (see here and here)).
I began playing steel at 17 and within months, I was performing with it professionally. By 19 (at the time of Rhinestone Cowboy) I was working in Glen Campbell’s group, and throughout the next ten years I made my living primarily with steel. During that time I performed on television, in the studio, or on stage with the likes of Willie Nelson, Albert Lee, Delaney and Bonnie, Leon Russell, Dwight Yokam, Ronnie Milsap, Dr Hook, Roger Miller, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens and Loretta Lynn, among others.
Throughout the years I have played in such venues as The Hollywood Bowl, The Las Vegas Hilton main showroom, Olympia Halle and Circus Krone (Munich, Germany), and many others throughout the US, Europe and New Zealand.
By age 23 I began to yearn for my old rock roots and started to put together the group I still have today; 'Ethan Reilly & The Boys'. Specialising in Beatles, Beach Boys, Stones, Cream, Hendrix and just about everything 60s save (oddly) PH.
I was performing with this group at a Manhattan Beach, California club when a man with a German accent walked in one night and asked if we would like to come to Germany. That was about 13 years ago, and his hunch that we would be quite successful here proved to be quite a good one. He lived in Regensburg, so we simply followed like puppy dogs, eventually setting up shop full time here, and I still don’t seem to be able to take my leave.
I originally played rhythm guitar with The Boys, but eventually picked up a Höfner bass, in the interest of adding a keyboardist/rhythm guitarist to get the most diversity out of a four piece group. I’ve done a bit of orchestration sequencing throughout the years to augment our performances. Yesterday (Scrambled Eggs as McCartney originally called it) on the Salty Sequence CD was done for The Boys. Others have included A Day in the Life, All You Need is Love, Penny Lane, Touch Me (The Doors), Classical Gas (Mason Williams) sections from the Abbey Road medley, as well as portions of the tracks on our CD, Ethan Reilly & The Boys – Baby Blue (which by the way, is likewise available for purchase to any who might be interested).
Can you tell me which pressings / releases of the songs you found gave you the most detail when you were listening so carefully?
I just have the A&M CD of A Salty Dog.
Have Gary or Matthew had copies of your work?
I actually sent Matthew two copies of Salty Sequence (fearing that the first might never have arrived) but I have yet to hear anything from him about it. I thought about wandering up to England and popping into Gary’s pub and dropping off a copy for him there.
So that's the story of this charitable musician from Regensburg, or Ratisbona as he whimsically insists on calling it? Does he know that 'Ratisbona' probably derives from Latin words meaning 'good ship' ?
Sail on, Ethan!