'Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes'
The A&M promo sheet for Broken Barricades claims that the album 'speaks for the most part in the universal language of youth, hard rock and roll, with an accent of finely-wrought (and, dare we say it?) fashionable musical heaviness', and Poor Mohammed would seem to be one track that particularly lives up, or down, to this formula. A&M were doing everything they could to make Broken Barricades huge: their sales-target was half a million copies. 'It is, at long last, Procol Harum for the millions,' they claimed; yet the album reached only to No 32 in the Billboard chart, and stayed in the listings for twenty weeks.
To most fans Poor Mohammed remains one of the most perplexing anomalies in the Procol catalogue, in terms of the vocal, music and words. However A&M considered it 'the albums obvious choice for a single' (consumer ad 1971), and Rolling Stone (June 1971) called it 'the first noteworthy cut on the whole second side'. Some would argue that Poor Mohammed is the present set's token song of direct violence or intense hostility, of which we find one specimen per album on the Old Testament records: She Wandered Through the Garden Fence; Wish Me Well; Crucifiction Lane; Still There'll be More; Poor Mohammed; Bringing Home the Bacon; The Piper's Tune; The Mark of the Claw. The problem with this analysis is that there are plainly more vitriolic pieces on the present record, the others including Memorial Drive and Simple Sister. The high level of anger in Procol songs, and on this album in particular, may be viewed as a Jewish attempt to articulate, in various ways, what it is like to be rejected, despised, and discriminated against. Poor Mohammed takes this principle to an ironic extreme, seeming to advocate the violence it criticises; and the brutally-direct music to which Robin Trower sets the words offers the listener no clue that we are listening to a fallible narrator, and that post-modern ears are required to interpret them; that Poor Mohammed is po-mo.
Perhaps it was not such a surprising choice for a single, if we consider that the basic riff is not dissimilar to those Keith Reid's childhood friend Marc Bolan was regularly taking to number 1, with T Rex, around this time. Like Trower's other rocking composition on the album, Poor Mohammed is a three-chord song in B major, a convenient key for a rhythm guitarist, and a slightly awkward one for a pianist. Mohammed sticks with the conventional B E and F# (arguably offering some passing-chords in the solo slide passages, though these do not contribute much to the harmonic picture). The soundscape is powerful, but barren: Ross Taylor has commented that the song presents a blistering desert. complementing the waters of Broken Barricades, just as The Devil Came From Kansas does A Salty Dog. It features stirring slide guitar, cowbell punctuations and rock solid bass, but sounds incomplete: the dead-stops offer us nothing but the sound of steel on frets, occasionally decorated with guttural Trower exclamations, which perhaps reinforce the idea of putting the boot in to the luckless subject of the song. The guitar solo features a fine, fat sound, but we do sense the lack of interesting chords for Trower's line to spar with (as it manages to do even in the relatively-unadventurous preceding track). The slide-playing is unique in Procoldom, and the solo over the top makes for a most unusual mixture: by the end, the band is a five-piece, even a six-piece, as there appear to be two rhythm guitars on the job.
It's a track that sounds virtually free of Brooker influence, except perhaps for the little seven-quaver turnback at 1:27 (mp3 here) which has parallels in Simple Sister, Something Magic, and others. Gary tends to play a piano solo on Robin's tunes cp About to Die, Memorial Drive and this one offers brief harmonic interest in its addition of some minor thirds, but finds nowhere to go; Trower's composition is little more than a basic riff which leaves paltry scope for piano adornment. It sounds a bit like a return to the Paramounts' sound, without their strong material: it's hard to see how this is 'finely-wrought' or 'Procol Harum for the masses', since the people who had bought A Whiter Shade of Pale and A Salty Dog were not likely to be wooed by the final 85 seconds of a slogging B major chord decorated with a few whoops of studio excitement. In a sense this playout conforms to the Procol pattern of ending each album with a long instrumental passage, but even the normally-reliable Copping (whose bass-playing on Home had been such a revelation) sticks resolutely, or uninspiredly, on the root note.
Trower's gutbucket blues vocal, as first assayed on Crucifiction Lane, was added after his guitar playing; we may wonder why Gary Brooker didn't sing the song. There appears to have been a Beatle-like consensus in the band that people generally sang their own tunes, Memorial Drive and perhaps Too Much Between Us being obvious exceptions. Gary's articulation might have been clearer the present compilers laboured for years under the misapprehension that they were listening to 'Poor Mohammed at the teashop
Kierkegaard is old and feeble' but it also seems likely that an obscure delivery of these words is a good smokescreen against outraged misinterpretation.
Keith Reid told NME (5 June1971) that Poor Mohammed was '
the first track we recorded [for this album]. It was our first time in the AIR, London, studios, those luxury rooms George Martin has in Oxford Street, London, and we were just finding out the sounds of the studio. We were really knocked out. Robin sings on it, but he won't do it on concerts. Says he can't sing and play guitar at the same time.' The song may have been played first, but it does not appear on the first master-reel of the session (29 December 1970). And the NME in question was published after Robin Trower had left the band, so his ostensible reluctance to sing and play (which he had done for years on Wish Me Well) is not the main reason for the song's never having been performed live. It would probably have made a good encore number, and it may well have sounded fantastic on playback in 'those luxury rooms', but Poor Mohammed on record leaves most fans glancing at their watches.
- 'Poor Mohammed
' 'Poor' here may mean short of money, or simply 'unfortunate'; he obviously becomes unfortunate as the song progresses, but the first time he is mentioned he might be short of cash, obliged to 'peep' at whatever spectacle is involved. Mohammed is the Islamic name (alternatively spelt 'Muhammad') for the Prophet of Mecca, though it is now extremely widely used in the Arab world. There is no need to suppose that the Prophet is being mentioned here, though a partial hagiography could be devised to bring out images from his life that that relate to Procol Harum: as a child Mohammed tended sheep (Robe of Silk); the widow who proposed to him ran Camel caravans; he was obsessed with seeking for the Truth, which is why he retreated to a cave to question the absurdity of the three stone Idols. Gabriel appeared when Mohammed was forty: and told him to read. "I Am A Reader" said Mohammed. His wife took him off to a Christian and he studied Torah and the Gospel, then he saw the angel (Rambling On) fly in a chair. Then he was told to wash himself, and that's when Islam began, and its holy wars; the first husband to fall was struck with a sword, and the women were tortured by the enemy (Still There'll be More); the angel Gabriel took Mohammed on a winged horse to Jerusalem. Mohammed was nicknamed by his own people Al-Amin [the truthful]; he and his followers migrated (A Christmas Camel) leading to some absorption of Jews to their community. One Jew and his daughters tied nine knots in a cord and put it in a well, making Mohammed ill; Gabriel came in a vision and verses were recited, one verse to undo each knot, and it seems that such persecution of the Prophet is not unrelated to what we hear in the present song. It has been noted that 'the Mahamad' is the executive officer of the Sephardi synagogue; the Sephardic Jews originated in Spain and dispersed to Arab and Turkish homes when the Spanish Inquisition was active we shall mention a connection with a Poe inquisition-story below. Interestingly, Reid uses the words 'Spanish', 'Arabian' and 'Turkish', among relatively few other nationalities (Prussian, French, Mexican, Zulu).
- 'At the peep-show': 'peep-show' could be used for an event at which many unwanted onlookers have gathered, but it often refers to a kind of surreptitious sex display (of a naked dancer or video) for which the onlooker pays to look through an aperture. The previous song concerns voyeurs, so that idea will be in listeners' minds as they progress through the album. This song could be intended to present a critique of Islamic civilisations where a voyeur might expect to be treated harshly. Or perhaps Mohammed here is 'poor' because he has fallen from his religious observances, in succumbing to the temptations of a peep-show. Cerdes (Outside the Gates of) contains the enigmatic name 'Peep the Sot': a connection of some sort is not inconceivable.
- 'Kick the beggar down the stairs': presumably Mohammed himself is being referred to as 'the beggar'; 'beggar' might signify general poverty (tallying with the epithet 'poor') but his present activity does not constitute begging. It's not clear whether 'kick' is an imperative, or if it is short for 'let us kick'. Literally to kick someone downstairs would be harsh and punishing, but the phrase does have a blustering, comic currency, as in Lewis Carroll's You Are Old Father William in which father tells son to 'Be off, or I'll kick you downstairs!' Oddly the phrase 'down the stairs' implies that the peep-show is upstairs: a typical setting for such sleazy entertainment would be a basement. Conceivably Mohammed has been spying at a bedroom door, a scenario possibly not unrelated to that in A Dream in Ev'ry Home. Stairs are involved in another turbulent scenario on this side of the same album: 'Crashing down from broken stairs' in Power Failure. Elsewhere we learn that 'the stairs up to heaven lead straight down to hell' (Skip Softly (My Moonbeams)) which might well accord with the experience of one who goes up to spy on lovers in a bedroom, and ends up imprisoned in a rat-infested cellar.
- 'Can't keep guard, he's old and feeble': we may surmise that Mohammed has been set to guard a door, and has instead looked through the keyhole. His unfitness as a guard is indicated by his age and weakness, so he must have been employed for some other reason: conceivably this is a tale of discrimination against an immigrant in a low-paid job (night-duty, perhaps).
- 'Steal his books and burn his prayers': if Mohammed is an Islamic immigrant, the prayers might be on sheets, and the books would include the Koran. The gravity of the punishment is surely not commensurate with the offence; we are reminded of Simple Sister where the girl's punishment includes 'stealing' (it's odd to see the mechanism of retribution equated with a crime in these two cases). In The Merchant of Venice Shakespeare shows the Christians at the end vanquishing Shylock by insisting that he forsake his Jewish faith. Reid makes copious use of the verb 'burn': 'We fired the gun, and burnt the mast' (A Salty Dog); 'Burnt by fire' (The Wreck Of The Hesperus); 'The harbour lights are burning bright' (All This And More); 'Ain't gonna burn up no more flame' etc (Whisky Train); 'burn out her eyes' (Still There'll Be More); 'A candle burning bright enough to tear the city down' etc (About to Die); 'Have to burn her toys' (Simple Sister); 'Burn me up sweet oyster girl' (Luskus Delph); 'Falling over burning chairs' and 'Spark plugs burned up, power's fused' (Power Failure); 'I'll burn down the town' (A Rum Tale); 'Fires which burnt brightly' (Fires (Which Burnt Brightly)); 'We're burning in the furnaces' (Butterfly Boys); 'the stars which burnt so bright' (Something Magic); 'He hacked it to pieces and burnt it to dust' (The Worm and The Tree); 'On these burning sands' (Holding on); 'I'll burn down the house' (Man with a mission)
- 'Poor Mohammed at the keyhole': we cannot tell whether this is a second offence or a recapitulation of the original sin; 'keyhole' is more suggestively anatomical than the previous reference to 'peep-show'. Other images of locks and keys in Procol songs include 'the key's in my kaleidoscope' (Kaleidoscope), 'Throw the key into the sea' and 'Lock her in a cell' (Simple Sister); 'please don't lock your door' (Robert's Box) and possibly 'locked in bitter strife' (Fool's Gold); a notable hole comes in 'used like a hole in the ground' in another Trower / Reid humiliation song, Memorial Drive.
- 'Sit him by the kitchen door': the kitchen location would seem to be midway between the peep-hole and the cellar; kitchens are normally creative and communal places, not the sites for torture. Other Procol kitchens, however, include 'I'm sitting in the kitchen wondering' (Seem To Have The Blues Most All The Time); 'even the kitchen ceiling has collapsed' (Glimpses of Nirvana); 'From the kitchen I called' (Monsieur R. Monde). Not much cooking seems to go on in these rooms, but the next line does at least suggest that food has been prepared.
- 'Slop his food all around the table': the first stanza punishes Mohammed physically, this one sets out to humiliate him in gross fashion. The fact that he is old and feeble adds to his degradation. The line may remind us of the 'soup spilled out' in Whaling Stories but that image appears to suggest a superfluity of food, not a waste as in this case. 'Slop' as a transitive verb suggests a slobbish casualness; as a noun it is the usual term for the waste at the end of a meal. Prisoners responsible for cleaning their own toilet buckets are said to 'slop out'.
- 'Let him lick it off the floor': 'let him' is either an instruction ('oblige him to lick it') or a negligent aside ('he can lick it if he likes'). In Bringing Home the Bacon we hear 'blubbering in the cream' which similarly suggests compromised oral hygiene.
- 'Put Mohammed in the cellar': to some listeners 'cellar' may suggest a vault for the storage of wine, but the cellar in an average British house was used for coal, and would be an extremely grimy and desolate purlieu. Procol cellars have variegated contents: 'In the cellar lies my wife' (Mabel); 'Cellar full of diamonds' (Memorial Drive); 'The cellar is empty' (Drunk Again); in general, a cellar (in a castle perhaps) could be a useful place to confine a victim or prisoner, often, of course, with the intention of leaving him there to perish.
- 'Keep him there 'til half past ten': If we imagine Mohammed as able to overhear these instructions for his vilification, we may suppose him heartened to hear that his confinement will apparently end. We will discover, however, that 'half past ten' is merely the time when another, even more disturbingly unkind phase of it is to begin. It is not usual to find a fully-expressed time in a Procol song, though Reid has 'quarter past six on Lime Street' and the Last Train to Niagara apparently leaves at 1:15; his songs often relate to a time of darkness ('the dark hours of the soul' in Something Magic) or signify the passage of time by clocks' and watches' chiming ('six bells struck' in Whaling Stories). Many pop songs use specific times, often in titles: examples include Chicago's 25 or 6 to 4, The Lovin' Spoonful's 6 O'Clock, Blondie's 11:59, and the Bachelors' 3 O'Clock Flamingo Street.
- 'Tie some bacon to his beard': since the eating of pork is forbidden to Muslims, this 'bacon' is not part of 'his food' that was strewn on the floor earlier; it appears to have been specified particularly to intensify the humiliation of Mohammed. A beard is traditionally worn long by Islamic men; a genial limerick of Edward Lear (18121888) dwells amusingly on every beard-wearer's concern for items that might get lodged in the growth, and most English children are acquainted with this. But here the deliberate attachment of a pork-based food to the Islamic beard constitutes a rape-like assault.
- 'Let the rats out on him then': this last couplet represents a brilliantly nasty enrichment of the torment suffered in Edgar Allan Poe's The Pit and the Pendulum, where the narrator's imprisonment, in Toledo, is made more ghastly by the arrival of rats, lured by the 'pungently-scented' meat his Inquisitors have left by his bound body. In Poe's case the narrator eventually eats some of the meat, but Mohammed in all likelihood cannot, if he is to remain true to his (probable) faith; the rats, however, will clamber in his beard, and dine while he starves. Poe's narrator has been remanded to the dungeon by the Spanish Inquisition (see above), the victim once again of religious persecution. However Reid's domestic version, despite lacking the enormous contrivance of the ever-descending pendulum, is somehow more sordid and hideous, not least since the narrator and his accomplices appear to have procured a supply of rats, primed for release at a particular hour. This is dispassionate and calculating, and does not allow us to imagine some equivalent of General Lasalle bursting in to set this Mohammed free. The kitchen in Monsieur R Monde also contains a rat, but of rather more comical potential. Poor Mohammed is an unremittingly savage song, and though some would argue that it adds a spiritual dimension to the album's treatment of bodily appetites and lusts, it must be conceded that it does so in a desperately negative way.
Thanks to Frans Steensma for additional information about this song