Graded on a Curve: Procol Harum,
A Salty Dog

Yar! During my years as a pirate on the high seas, sailing beneath the Jolly Roger and switching my eye patch from one eye to another as the mood struck me, my mates and I had one album we listened to all the time. I’m talking about Procol Harum’s 1969 release A Salty Dog, which made for the perfect soundtrack to those quiet nights when we drank rum until we were stone blind, too blind certainly to find the other LP we had on board, The Instrumental Pirate Songs of Burt Bacharach, which no one wanted to listen to anyway.

A Salty Dog came highly recommended. The famed rock critic Robert Christgau, who served his seven years beneath the mast as our pegboy, gave it a rare A+, and even our finicky parrot, who liked nothing but techno, kept his mouth shut when it was playing. And why not? If the title cut isn’t the best sailor’s tune this side of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” what is? True, A Salty Dog doesn’t have “A Whiter Shade of Pale” on it, a fact that irked us because although we had the single, our 45 rpm adapter got blown overboard during a typhoon. It even piqued our techno-loving parrot, who liked to demonstrate his displeasure by crowing “House on Pooh Corner” at the top of his lungs. Why we never threw that goddamn bird overboard I’ll never understand.

As for Procol Harum, they’ve gone down in history as a proto-prog band, a fact that horrifies me because I despise progressive rock the way Blackbeard despised whiny plank-walkers. No, to me they’re just a rock band that happened to borrow occasionally from the classics without sounding beholden to them, a trick they pulled off better than any other prog band in history. Gary Brooker handled the bulk of the lead vocals, although guitar savant Robin Trower and keyboardist Matthew Fisher also took their turns. The rhythm section was composed of Dave Knights (who like Fisher would leave shortly after the completion of the album) on bass and B.J. Wilson on percussion. Oh, and the band had its own Bernie Taupin in the form of Keith Reid, who wrote the band’s lyrics.

The title track is sublime, a sailor’s dream come true; “All hands on deck” sings Brooker to open, before talking business (“Replace the cook/Let no one leave alive”) while the band plays an elegiac tune that never fails to bring a tear to my tar’s eye. Fisher plays some great piano, the band proves they know exactly how to use a string section to maximum effect, and the song’s crescendo is unforgettable. Meanwhile, “The Milk of Human Kindness” showcases Trower’s guitar skills, and sounds a bit like Jethro Tull until the band goes plucky on ya, and Fisher once again shows off on the old 88s. “Too Much Between Us” is a song about having “too much sea between us,” and is a bit too sweet for my pirate’s ear (I lost the other one in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait), but nice anyway.

“The Devil Came From Kansas” should come as no surprise to anyone who’s actually been to Kansas, and boasts a big bad beat, two monster solos by Trower, and certainly has nothing to do with the sea, unless my knowledge of geography is even worse than I thought. Great chorus, lots of drum bashing—this one’s a sea shanty and dead tar’s song even if the nearest ocean is one very long brigantine ride away. “Boredom” is like supercool, a jaunty and tropical music-influenced triumph on which Wilson’s congas and tabla steal the show, as does Brooker’s recorder. Throw in some voices crying out in the background, and this one is perfect for your typical pirate’s summer vacation on some obscure South Seas atoll, where you can wile away the hours drinking rum punch and doing the Samoan fire dance with the ghost of Amelia Earhart.

“Juicy John Pink” is a blues complete with harmonica and some great Trower guitar, and happens to be the name of the cook on our galleon. He’s not much of a cook, seeing as how he lost both his arms in a hand-to-hand fight against a frigate a while back, but you should see him toss a salad with his feet. I should add we’re a vegan ship, eat lots of lemons, and are totally scurvy-free, which is more than you can say about those brutes on Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge, where beef jerky is on the menu seven days a week. Fisher handles lead vocals—and plays a busy piano—on “Wreck of the Hesperus,” which is jauntier than you’d expect from a song adapted from a Longfellow poem about a horrible sea disaster in which the captain’s beloved daughter is drowned while tied to the mast. Meanwhile Trower tosses off some great guitar and the string section looms overhead like the mighty blizzard of 1839, upon which Longfellow loosely based his poem.

“All This and More” is another bleak sea song lyrically, but Fisher’s piano keeps things upbeat, with help from Trower; “Whirlpools rage on constantly/I’m not so well these days” sings Brooker, but he is consoled (I think) by “the bright light of your star,” which keeps “shining through.” The rough-voiced Trower handles the blues that constitute “Crucifiction Lane,” and he summons up enough vocal enthusiasm to serve as chief mate of one of Melville’s whaling boats before taking the song out on an organ-accompanied guitar solo. Finally, Fisher sings lead on LP closer “Pilgrim’s Progress,” a pretty song with ethereal organ that takes the album out on a lovely note, especially when the song returns and the band sing and clap hands and sound a lot like England’s answer to the Beach Boys. Church bells included, free of charge!

A Salty Dog is one great album, perfect for swinging the cutlass or manning the crow’s nest or drowning, should one of the King’s ships get the best of you. From the seagulls that open the album to the Beach Boys hubbub that close it, A Salty Dog will take you to that place Brooker sings about in the opening cut, where “Upon the seventh seasick day/We made our port of call/A sand so white and sea so blue/No mortal place at all.” I’ve sailed the seven fucking seas for many a year, and I’ve seen plenty a loyal mate killed by cannon shot or gone to the gallows, but this album consoles me for everything, except for that infernal parrot with his “House on Pooh Corner.”

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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