A Chequered musical quilt of an autobiography, in song-shaped episodes. My Pop Life takes one moment in my life and looks at it through a piece of music. Sometimes the piece of music fits that moment really well, other times not. It is not a list of my favourite songs. It is my look back at an eventful, dysfunctional, random musical life. It is therapeutic and hopefully without regret. There is no plan. Here is one entry.
We fired the gun, and burnt 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, this seaman’s log: your witness my own hand…
Following the death of Gary Brooker at the age of 74 last week, I feel compelled to pay tribute to his finest song, or perhaps his second finest song. Obituaries have been full of praise for the songwriter and lead vocalist of Procol Harum, concentrating on his first celebrated hit single A Whiter Shade Of Pale which reached Number One in the UK singles charts in the Summer of Love, July 1967. This piece shines a spotlight on a lesser -known song which is nonetheless full of power and emotion.
Back in 2011, ‘my’ band The Brighton Beach Boys were at the height of our ambition, and having performed both Pet Sounds AND Sgt Pepper for two years now, we decided to add another show and learn some new songs. The sister show was, by overwhelming public demand, a rendition of final Beatles’ LP Abbey Road. We did this show three times, but the conundrum was always – what would we play in the first half? In Year One, we played an LPs worth of tunes written by our St Paul Glen Richardson and called it Pop Dreams – brilliant songs, beautifully composed and sung, a gig I sadly missed playing in due to work (the film Pirate Radio), so I missed key rehearsals, but I watched from the back of the church (See My PopLife #229). Glen didn’t want to repeat that exercise the following year so in 2012 we started to put together something we called “The 1969 Show”, playing songs that appeared in that glorious year alongside Abbey Road. This led to irritating yet tremendous rehearsals of Aquarius, Pinball Wizard, Wichita Lineman, Gimme Shelter, Space Oddity, Midnight Cowboy, The Boxer, My Cherie Amour, River Man, Crosstown Traffic, Blackberry Way, Something In The Air and The Liquidator/Return Of Django/Israelites. A slideshow was produced. It was a hit – although some of the audience didn’t think it “gelled” – but why should it? Others thought it was a tremendous kaleidoscopic presentation of a great musical year. And the following year an extra date was added to the fringe diary – the Rest of The 1969 Show where enthusiasts could hear extra selections from The Kinks, Creedence, The Archies, Mama Cass and Crosby Stills and Nash.
1969 is a rewarding seam to mine for pop jewels. My rather pleasing rediscovery while researching the show was this gem from Procol Harum. A Salty Dog was their third LP, and the title track was written by singer Gary Brooker with poet member Keith Reid providing the Melville-esque lyrics :
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
Any song with seagull noises will get my vote. The rather amazing chord sequence behind this verse structure can only be marvelled at in a pop context, sounding more like Sibelius or Mahler than chart music. One for the musos then – here are those sixteen amazing chords :
Db-5 Csus4 C Cm7 Bbsus4 Bb
“All hands on deck we’ve run afloat” I heard the captain cry
Fm/Ab Fm Fm7 Db-5 E6
Explore the ship replace the cook Let no one leave alive
B/F# F# B Bmaj7 B7
Across the straits around the horn How far can sailors fly?
E Em6/G B/F# F#sus4 F#
A twisted path our tortured course And no one left alive
Yes, that is a pastiche of the Capstan Full Strength cigarette packet, the strongest smokes money could buy in 1969. This is the first song in My Pop Life to have been dissected with a chord chart but I only discovered it recently and I have become quite unreasonably obsessed with it as a piece of music. There’s some fantastic footage of Gary Brooker singing this in 2009 in Denmark with a symphony orchestra and choir, quite wonderful. Listen to his voice as the sailors see land in the final verse, it is very special.
I’ve always fancied myself as a bit of a seafaring chap, but evidence would suggest I’m more of a landlubber. I have a very early memory of sitting between my dad’s knees in a long rowing boat – an “Eight” ploughing across the waves of The Solent off the coast of Portsmouth where we lived. It was a racing rowboat Cambridge v Oxford style – the waves chopping all around us, the oar blades slicing through the water, the coxswain yelling “Stroke!” and the breathing of my dad and his team. I must have been five, or six, around 1963. I couldn’t swim. It was terrifying and exhilarating as we rowed under one of those black looming World War Two forts that sit in the sea down there, and surged through the wake of ferries, plying their route across to The Isle Of Wight. I could taste the salt all the way home.
Conrad Ryle is probably the most comfortable person I know on sea water (apart from Robert Pugh, but I haven’t sailed with Bob -yet.) Conrad has taken me out from Piddinghoe near Newhaven on his boat and I loved it, but I didn’t help much as Conrad pulled ropes and swung the sail and hoisted this and that. Conrad and I went to school together, played in a band together, his family were very kind to me when my family were gently disintegrating in the early 70s…and it was in his folks’ house that I first saw this LP, as Conrad reminded me at my 60th birthday party as my buddy Hereward K was playing the song with his son and a 14-piece band in The Old Market in June 2017. A birthday party to remember, and recalled as it should be in My Pop Life #200 – Hello Goodbye.
I always talked about living by the sea, the sea, the sea, but there was little evidence that I wanted to spend any time ON IT. I like looking at it out of the window. Final proof came in 2010 when I was cast in one of those ‘small boat with sharks nearby’ films – shooting off Simonstown on The Cape of Good Hope with Halle Berry. We boarded the craft at 8.00am every morning and stayed on board for lunch which was delivered by another boat coming alongside, shooting all afternoon both on board and occasionally in the water until the fading of the light, for six days a week, six weeks straight.
You’d think I would have got used to it. We had a box of ginger for seasickness – biscuits, sweets, drinks. You could tell if it was a rough day by looking at the box – always full in the morning, often decimated by lunchtime. I felt seasick pretty often, but held it down. I think Halle was sick on Day One but she’s game, and never complained. We bonded over puke in fact. What a beautiful lady – inside and out – the complete professional, courteous, charming, warm and honest. The sea rolled on, I refused to vomit, but then we went round and filmed on the other side of the Cape – the Atlantic side -and it was much much rougher. Yes I puked. I think we all did that day. Empty ginger box. The horrible thing about seasickness – as opposed to land puking – is that it doesn’t banish the nausea. At all. For a fuller story see My Pop Life #236 – Superman.
Maybe the nearest I got to salty dog status was when Jenny and I were sitting on the giant anchor of Admiral Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory in Portsmouth one evening, waiting for her train to London, and an undesirable separation. The anchor was the size of a fire engine. What shall we do now? she asked me. I didn’t think twice as I recall. “Let’s get married” I said. Two years later, we did.
Ralph Brown is an actor, writer and musician who lives in Brooklyn, NY. He has worked in the West End, Broadway and Hollywood and his writing has been translated into French, German, Italian, Spanish and Japanese.