A Salty Dog - Procol Harum
Some groups record a track that is so iconic, so unique, that it is the thing they are always remembered for, so much so that people seldom get beyond it to listen to their other work. "A Whiter Shade of Pale" with its Bach lifted electric organ and enigmatic, classically referenced lyrics is one such track, which has to many eclipsed Procol Harum's other songs such as its follow-up "Homburg" and the excellent "Conquistador".
But their other masterpiece is the Melvillian "A Salty Dog", operatic in its presentation, epic in its scope, classic in its dramatic orchestration and as atmospheric as a smoke-filled bar in 17th century Jamaica. From the first plaintive cries of the seagulls and the piano and strings, inching forward like a sail being hauled up a mast, and the call
"All hands on deck,
we're run afloat"
I heard the captain cry,
we know we're on the Spanish Main. And then immediately there is the suggestion of a murderous boarding by a pirate crew
"Explore the ship
replace the cook
let no-one leave alive"
whoever they are, whatever vessel they are on, this is classic literary nautical fare, we're with Ahab on the Pequod, Arthur Gordon Pym on the Grampus, with Jim Hawkins and the pirates on the Hispaniola, Odysseus on his long journey home. The way is tough, twisted and tortured, beset by terrible trials. and the constant threat of death....
Across the straits, around the horn how far can sailors fly? a twisted path, our tortured course and no one left alive.
We sailed for parts unknown to man where ships come home to die no lofty peak, nor fortress bold could match our captain's eye upon the seventh seasick day we made our port of call a sand so white, and sea so blue no mortal place at all
And then the release, as they desert the ship, wrecking it behind them, like the Bounty mutineers on Pitcairn Island,
We fired the gun and burned the mast and rowed from ship to shore the captain cried, we sailors wept - our tears were tears of joy! now many moons and many Junes have passed since we made land a salty dog, the seaman's log your witness, my own hand.
This is music at its poetic, majestic best, this is epic adventure, all swash and buckle, tragedy and heartache, and as the ancient mariner might say, life and death and nothing but. Lyricist Keith Reid has taken every legend, every literary tale of piracy and derring do on the southern seas, and squeezed them all into this bright diamond - a salty dog.