Procol Harum

Beyond
the Pale

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'Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes'

Broken Barricades


Album: Broken Barricades (1971)

Authors: Brooker / Reid 

 Read the words

Performed: rarely 

Cover-versions: none

Glittering like a comet, the beautiful Broken Barricades burns briefly across the sombre nightscape of Procol's fifth album like a portent of things to come. In a universe of stanzas reprised and meagre changes eked across countless repeats, its rich chords, its wide-ranging melody, and its structural variety mark it as a fragment broken away from the Grand Hotel set, still two years ahead in Gary Brooker's mind. It is also a miniature of a song, clocking in at under two minutes before its shimmering tail begins the long fade into silence.

It stands out in several obvious ways in the wider Procol canon too: its emphasis on dotted rhythms, its accented melodic major sevenths ('jewels', 'sand'), its middle eight (or sixteen, if it's in compound time: at Redhill Gary had already played this song when he announced A Rum Tale as 'the first waltz of the evening': we can therefore conclude that Barricades is in 6/8). It also makes the most obvious use of synthesisers in the early albums, and the most extravagant layering of them anywhere before The Prodigal Stranger. Producer Chris Thomas reported that 'It was the first time I really thought of an idea for an arrangement of a song the chords on one hand, and the arpeggios tinkling away on the other that was a specific thing from the line about 'glittering sand', trying to make the music sound something like what's in the lyrics.'

On the other hand the song has common features too: underlying the unusual piano figuring we hear the 'collapsing' cell that pervades Brooker's writing, in this case a D major followed by an A major, sharing a pedal A in the bass. This motif is repeated with variants in higher and higher keys, reversing the technique used in For Liquorice John, another fall-from-grace song with delicate piano right-hand work. The song starts in A, but it does not really establish any home key until the middle section, which begins in C but really inhabits A minor. The song's harmonic currency is that of shifting sands and maintained tension, nowhere more so than in the long fade at the end. This use of quasi-minimalist techniques echoes the build-up in the middle section of Simple Sister, the previous track, and corresponds to the repetition heard throughout this album, where texture (eg Song for a Dreamer) is often as important as melody. The main interest in the long synth playout, however, is the great Barrie Wilson's drumming, surely one of his most illustrious passages on disc.

The introduction on the album is delicate; a rare bass-slide brings in the full ensemble, and the Brooker vocal soars quickly to some strong high notes; the ends of the verses feature an awkward chord shift, repeating a pattern down an unrelated semitone: the melody is contrived smoothly over this very unusual transition, foreshadowing the tricky playout of Robert's Box. The verses have an unusually light feel to them, but the middle section, with its more instinctive writing, and its Sandy Denny-like montage of minors (cp Fotheringay) provides a very effective contrast. Unlike many songs of this period the words really 'get somewhere' and the music is intelligently matched to the libretto: one has the sense that this song might have seen some adjustment to one or both components, rather than simply being the result of the superimposition of independently-finished work from Reid and from Brooker.

Thanks, Yan

'The words are the leaders and the rest of the album follows on,' Gary told NME (5 June 1971). Keith told Beat Instrumental (August 1971) that 'Everywhere you look things are hysterical I think that people know they are more than machines but everything around them convinces them that that is all they are.' Despite this implication that Broken Barricades carried a general significance, BJ told NME that it was 'a very personal song for the group': they must have been affected by all sorts of conflicts sweeping their world in the late sixties, the industrial disputes, sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland, student protest in London, Paris and elsewhere, to say nothing of their borrowed experiences of Vietnam from American tours. The world was beset by literal barricades, often broken in scuffles, which may have prompted the very literal photographic campaign mounted by Chrysalis. Their American label, A&M, threw themselves into the promotion of this album, targeting sales of half a million copies: in this connection, we note that the song concerns the plight of those who have fallen from an earlier grace, and examines the prospects for redemption. With its brief, paradisal start, its lapse into wretchedness, its onset of questioning, and its ending in dis-illusion, it carries reminders of William Blake in his Innocence and Experience era: it also shares his condensed, pictorial quality, annexing Biblical images in the construction of an essentially personal mythology.

Broken Barricades was first played during the April 1971 tour of the USA, but did not become a regular stage number like Simple Sister, Luskus Delph and Power Failure: it may be difficult to pitch correctly, if the monitors are less than perfect, and its drama is more intellectual than visceral. When Fred Kirby reviewed the Fillmore East show (23 April 1971) he wrote: 'the old Procol sound was present in Shine On Brightly and A Salty Dog and on Buttered Barricade [sic], the title number from their new LP'. The song appeared in an organ-drenched version on the bootleg The Elusive Procol Harum, taken from the New York concert Procol played for Station WPLJ in 1971, in which, unusually, a little lead guitar is heard in the playout, which is neatly wound up. Broken Barricades / Power Failure (A&M 1264) was released as a legitimate single in the USA in May 1971. Both sides feature edited versions (Broken Barricades a measly 2:17 instead of 3:10, Power Failure 3:13 instead of 4:30); the single was also issued as a white-label promotional copy. Barricades did not chart in the UK although Record Mirror (19 June 1971) thought the song 'one of their best', and it received warm endorsement from Radio One's more discerning DJs.

The song seems to have been brought out for use in some special circumstances, kicking off the broadcast parts of the marvellous Hollywood Bowl concert in 1973, in a specially effective orchestration that bolsters the song without costing it any delicacy. Here Procol Harum do sound, for once, slightly like The Band, in terms of the piano ornamentation (mp3 here). The effect of the strings is surprisingly similar to that of the multiple Moogs on the record (Chris 'The Grouts' Michie describes their tuning vagaries here) but a trumpet obbligato compromises the boldness of the minimalism; the choir is briefly, but effectively deployed. The song was also the opening number at Redhill, where the band sounded understandably slightly tentative. Special it may have been, yet this is the only one of the four songs featured on the album-sleeve that was not selected by Keith Reid for his book, My Own Choice.

Thanks to Frans Steensma for additional information about this song


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