We’ll skip the light fandango and cut to the chase. In my opinion Procol Harum’s magnum opus is not A Whiter Shade of Pale, which announced their arrival in 1967 and still makes the crowd call out for more, but the epic title track from their third album, A Salty Dog.
Released in 1969, the LP first came to my attention on my way back from a calamitous university interview in Manchester. There it was, displayed in One Stop Records by Piccadilly station, the Player’s-Navy-Cut caricature on the cover seemingly saying: 'Hello, sailor! Buy me.' Which I did, a textbook example of sleeve art coaxing a gullible punter into parting with his hard-earned.
The moment the stylus landed on the record I realised I'd struck lucky. Instead of the piano and organ to which those who stayed with Procol after A Whiter Shade of Pale faded from the hit parade were accustomed, there was lush orchestration. This was a time, remember, when earnest, album-carrying young men (like myself) often condemned songs with strings or brass as somehow 'selling out' counter-cultural ideals.
Procol never quite fitted that underground image. Their best-known song tended to be regarded as a Summer of Love novelty, albeit a beautiful, Bach-influenced one. I don’t recall anyone in the Sixties gushing about The Harum as they did about The Floyd. They were lazily bracketed with the Moody Blues and Barclay James Harvest; I saw them as more like Traffic or The Band. Over the next decade they were lumped in with the bombastic prog-rock set.
In the summer of ’69 Procol were a group who embraced genre-hopping, as A Salty Dog’s 10 tracks proved. Yes, there was what critics labelled symphonic, or classical rock, but also hard rock, grungy blues, folk, pop and even calypso. As uber fan Martin Scorsese put it in Henry Scott-Irvine’s excellent biography, The Ghosts of a Whiter Shade of Pale: 'Each tune became a cross-cultural whirligig, a road trip through the pop sub-conscious.'
However, they all bowed before the majestic sweep of the titular opener, which Jimmy Page calls 'their masterpiece'. It was written by singer/pianist Gary Brooker and non-performing lyricist Keith Reid, the latter delivering the words which the former fitted to music.
This way of working has also, of course, served Elton John and Bernie Taupin well. Brooker, in an online interview with the American DJ Carl Wiser in 2010, singled out A Salty Dog as the song that vindicated their mode of collaboration. '(It) was a musical idea… very much a type of chord progression with a certain rhythm. And soon after I got that idea, Keith sent me the words… and they just seemed to fit with it very, very easily.'
The song begins with the sound of gulls and staccato strings, creating a tense mood. You can picture the once-billowing, now-ragged sails and less than jolly Jack Tars. 'All hands on deck, we’ll run afloat, I heard the captain cry,' sings Brooker. Did Reid mean 'run aground'? Whatever the truth, the line tells you this is no ordinary maritime ditty.
Further evidence comes as he continues: 'Explore the ship, replace the cook.' Replace the cook? Again, the words add to the mystique and make the listener’s imagination work. In fact, it is one of Reid’s less surreal lyrics – Scott-Irvine likened it to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge – which navigates the vessel’s 'twisted path' and 'tortured course' to a shore described as 'no mortal place at all'.
Along the way, he slips in one of the staple rhymes of Tin Pan Alley pop without undermining the song’s dark, eerie atmosphere. 'Many moons, and many Junes, have passed since we made land,' declares Brooker's narrator. Rolling Stone’s reviewer, nominating his favourite line, misquoted it as 'since we made love'!
Brooker’s vocal, brooding and soaring yet sublimely soulful, is a reminder that he had learned his trade with the Paramounts, the Southend R&B combo who toured the US with the Beatles and the Stones. His richness and clarity compare favourably with lesser talents who went on to stadium shows and knighthoods.
Yet the real star of the track is arguably the late Barrie Wilson. On a number which did not require 'rock' drumming (or Matthew Fisher’s Hammond organ and Robin Trower’s guitar, both absent), he created an extraordinary part for himself which Jimmy Page hailed as 'almost orchestrating the song'.
Nick Logan, writing in the NME, acclaimed 'music that rises and crashes like the waves'. Much of the credit belongs to Fisher, who produced the album shortly before quitting the band for whom he provided the signature organ sound to A Whiter Shade of Pale. His relationship with Brooker was soured by his belief that he was denied a rightful share of royalties for that best-seller, leading to a long court case that found in his favour.
Fisher, incidentally, may have allowed himself a wry smile when he learned that the two salty dogs of Procol, Brooker and Reid, are no longer in tandem. The band's forthcoming album, Novum (which has distinctly unenticing sleeve art), features lyrics by Pete Brown, who famously wrote for Cream.
In a 2012 interview with dmme.net, Fisher derided the idea of Procol Harum releasing a greatest hits album as 'funny', adding: 'They’re a one-song band. That’s all they’ll ever be.' As the 50th anniversary tour looms, his own magnificent work on A Salty Dog refutes his understandably barbed perspective.