Procol Harum – A Salty Dog – Regal Zonophone/A&M (1969)/Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (1969) Limited Edition UDSACD2192 stereo-only SACD, 40:18 ****1/2:

This is a stunning re-mastering of classic Procol Harum!

(Gary Booker – piano, three-stringed guitar, celeste, bells harmonica, recorder, word, vocals and orchestral arrangement (Salty Dog, All This And More); Matthew Fisher – producer,
organ, acoustic guitar, marimba, recorder, and orchestral arrangement (Wreck of The Hesperus) David Knights – bass guitar; B.J. Wilson – drums, tabla; Robin Trower – lead guitar, acoustic guitar, sleigh, tambourine; Kellogs – Bosun’s whistle and refreshments)

In 1967, the music business was experiencing a cultural awakening. Albums like Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, Velvet Underground, Days Of Future Passed, The Doors, Surrealistic Pillow, and Disraeli Gears (among many) pushed the genre of rock music to dizzying creative heights. That year, another English band, Procol Harum released the single (and album) “Whiter Shade of Pale”. The symphonic opus managed to incorporate psychedelic rock with baroque (“J.S. Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major”) influences. Other bands intermingled compositions with classical overtones, but “Whiter Shade Of Pale” was the most fluent integration of pop with classical music. The band consisted of Gary Booker (piano, vocals), Matthew Fisher (organ, vocals), Robin Trower (guitar), David Knight (bass), B.J. Wilson (drums) and Keith Reid (lyricist) Prior to Procol Harum, Booker had fronted the Parliaments and was widely considered the top r& b singer in England. At the core of their success was the unusual pairing of piano and organ (like The Band), an acid-tinged guitar and strange lyrical imagery (Note: Famed rock critic Paul Williams praised lyricist Reid for his “success in conveying his motley mood”). The core group stayed intact for Shine On Brightly (1968) and A Salty Dog (1969).

A Salty Dog employed a distinctive nautical theme and the iconic cover had a painting of the Players Navy Cut cigarette pack. The album (somewhat inspired by Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde) featured a wide variety of rock, blues and orchestral arrangements. And now, Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs has brilliantly re-mastered A Salty Dog to SACD. The stellar audio quality of this release is evident from the “sea gull” sonic intro on the title track. The daunting (is there any other kind?) sea tale is recounted with stringed accompaniment (which has been compared to Chopin) of Booker’s superb vocals and piano. At the 1:00 mark, the first crescendo swells with Wilson’s intricate crashing drums. A piano/string interlude enhances the classical ambiance. A second crescendo and interlude fade into the seagull noise. It is a major accomplishment, including a bosun’s whistle. Switching gears, “The Milk Of Human Kindness” (a second Booker/Reid credit) is full of grittiness with hard-edged guitar runs and a tough Booker vocal performance.

This album embraces a looser, experimental approach than other Procol Harum efforts. In most instances, it is successful. On “Too Much Between Us”, a wistful melody in 3/4 time is framed by a simple acoustic guitar. Booker opts for a tender singing interpretation, and adds deft celeste accents. The final 40 seconds are graced by a glowing Hammond solo by Fisher. While not as flashy or hook driven as players like Steve Winwood, Keith Emerson or Jon Lord, his agile, meditative eloquence elevates the artistic texture. Another cut that permeates the imagination is the sprightly, “Boredom”. Fisher takes the vocal lead and his reedy tenor fits the calypso/South Seas jam. He adds sprightly marimba riffs and Booker contributes recorder to his resume. B.J. Wilson shines on percussion, including tabla. “The Devil Came From Kansas” is basic head-thumping rock. it features the uncanny Reid verbal musings (“…and don’t beg for silver paper, when I’m trying to sell you cheese”) and two prominent Trower solos. Trower would eventually leave the group to forge his unwavering commitment to Hendrix-inspired power guitar, fronting his own band.

A pair of blues numbers (written by Trower) demonstrates the British appreciation of American blues. “Juicy John Pink” is uncluttered and is acceptable, but not on the level of John Mayall or Cream. But “Crucifiction Lane” does not benefit from Trower on lead vocals. A second orchestrated song, “Wreck Of The Hesperus” (Fisher/Reid) combines the many talents of the band effectively. Booker’s rhythmic classical piano, Trower’s piercing guitar and Fisher’s understated voice are surrounded by well-timed prominent string flourishes. Booker’s trademark sound is at the heart of “All This And More”. There are music hall aesthetics, rock potency, classical piano nuance and horn enrichment at the finish. A pleasant surprise (and possibly the musical highlight) is Fisher and Reid’s heartfelt collaboration “Pilgrim’s Progress” The band is in lockstep with elegant organ shadings that craft a processional hymnal. Then, a spirited, rocking coda provides a satisfying finale.

MFSL has done an outstanding job re-mastering (Rob Loverde) A Salty Dog. Utilizing The Gain HD System, the digital conversion of the original analog master tapes is flawless. The compression does not alter or unnecessarily “clean up” intrinsic elements like the raw tonality of the electric guitar. Fisher’s Hammond glows with organic vitality. Subtle touches like celeste, marimba and three-stringed guitar are quietly weaved into the mix. The layered band instrumentation and orchestral structures are intermingled fluently. The updated technology remains faithful to the original recording. The SACD gatefold packaging mirrors the original, and the cloth-like disc sleeve is top notch. A Salty Dog is a welcome addition to any music library.

In 1972, Procol Harum released Procol Harum Live: In Concert With The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra to critical acclaim. MFSL previously released The Band’s epic live album Rock Of Ages on SACD with dynamic results. Perhaps some live Procol Harum will get a hi-res update.

A Salty Dog
The Milk Of Human Kindness
The Devil Came From Kansas
Juicy John Pink
Wreck Of The Hesperus
All This And More
Crucifiction Lane
Pilgrims Progress

—Robbie Gerson