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the Pale

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Broken Barricades: Procol break with the past

Ross Taylor

I see April, 1971's Broken Barricades as the work where Procol Harum, for better or worse, perhaps just because of the turning of the wheel, made their cleanest break with the past. The Warhol-ish silver of the cover was as far as possible from the dark, imitation Beardsley print of the first album. Moreover, this was their hardest-rocking album to date (or ever). Some of this reflected the new rôle of Robin's guitar in the absence of Matthew Fisher's organ, some of it a new push with a new record label, but there was important thematic material too. Procol Harum's first four albums were in many ways Gothic – tombstones, church organ, hushed, echoing vocal parts, storms at sea. On Broken Barricades the band suddenly fell into the future. They had always really been on the breaking crest of modern – lifting material from Bach and melding it with a soul groove was cut-and-paste enough to be solidly post-modern. But on the fifth album perhaps they tried to clue more people in. They really didn't go well with niche marketing.


I'm going to focus mostly on the lyrics of four songs – the title number, Memorial Drive, Power Failure and Poor Mohammed. Of the others, Simple Sister and Song for a Dreamer seem mostly about the music. Luskus Delph and Playmate of the Mouth are mostly about sex. Fragmented, surreal views of sex, but basically they come down to a simple act (or maybe a number of complicated acts, I dunno.) Again, they seem to emphasize the music. [Please see Brooker & Reid's comments about the songs on this album here].


Memorial Drive sets out what I see as the album's stance: the greedy Past has bankrupted the Present and perhaps the Future. Besides the overt reference to slavery ('Zulu Queen / sold for a silver dollar . . .') there is imagery of ecological waste ('drink the seals' blood from the ocean / drink the whole ocean dry . . .'). More obscure are the first two lines:

Cellar full of diamonds, turret full of gold
all for a mermaid's locket – too much to hold

As elsewhere, I respect Reid's insistence on the basic surreality of his words – they don't collapse to a single meaning, much of their value is in their ambiguity. But part of their appeal is that they often can be parsed, if making a straightforward story out of their associations helps you with the feeling of the song. Why a mermaid's locket? She's a delicate creature of the sea, or our imagination of the sea, and the sea, like the rest of nature, is getting raped. Somebody who's amassed a lot of loot wants to give it to her, but she can't use it, she's not a prostitute. Why a mermaid? Perhaps to contrast with the reality of the next verse; perhaps to suggest the phoney romantic ideas the rapers have about what they are destroying. Empire-builders often glorify, in their imagination, the very 'noble savages' they are killing off.

In a new subdivision near me, the central drive is called Old Oak Lane. Yup, this street's right where that old oak used to be.


Broken Barricades, I should confess, is one of my favorite songs. It's beautiful, even more so because it's plunked down in the middle of all this dirty rock and roll. It takes a complicated attitude towards loss. In Conquistador the singer says '. . . though I came to jeer at you, I leave now with regret.' Like that song, Broken Barricades suggests a military loss, but then implies something bigger. Vietnam may have been un-winnable, but then perhaps so is the human condition.

Strangely, the disaster the song describes is very much like the experience mystics seek – union with the universal sea. Here's a paradox: 'waste fills the temple' and 'your prayers are unanswered, your idols absurd,' yet in some ways it's like the mystical surrendering of self. It's a bit like (cough, splutter) TS Eliot's The Journey of the Magi, where the breaking-down of egos by the infinite is described by people who barely understand what's happened to them (I really didn't know I was going to bring in TS Eliot, sorry!).

Of course broken barricades also suggest the loss of (female) virginity. 'Whose husband was the first to fall?' looks at war from a female perspective. Then it's back to the male for 'cobwebs have rotted your sword.' Another paradox: in a song about power and force, gender is pretty much up for grabs.

How typical of Brooker / Reid that the song peaks musically with its most surreal lyrics:

How many splinters in each separate band?
How many stations in the final hand?

We can technically call this couplet a Left-handed Dylan Reversal. However, if it's more calculated than stuff like 'the post office had been stolen and the mail box was locked' (or not, Dylan knew what he was doing), it's also more evocative. Bands splinter – look at Procol Harum. But a splintering band also suggests individuals breaking away from godhead, and then stations in a hand (or in a band or orchestra) suggests individuals brought together in one infinite being. (As long as we're talking about religion, 'splinters in the final hand' – which is how you would expect the line – could suggest crucifixion, but it also could just be about how vulnerable the body is.) This image, incidentally, was echoed in the graphics inside the cover flap, where a great hand was spread out under the cut-out holes for the faces of the band members.

I can't help getting out of my depth (pun?) and saying something about the music. The simple piano figure that runs through the song, by itself, could be a child's étude called something like Ocean Waves. Repeated as insistently as it is, particularly in the final vamp, I think it does for the 'oceanic feeling' what the riff from Satisfaction does for anger. With the sublime drumming throughout, this long vamp (well, only about 1 minute 10 seconds, but when I first heard it, it seemed infinite) creates a rocking, melodic minimalism – sort of 'Bang, Bang, You're Terry Riley' <G> [See the Riley connections here]. Oddly, it reminds me of nothing so much as Philip Glass, who would have been the minimalist least likely for Brooker to have been exposed to in early 1971.


Power Failure sounds like it is about performing. It has a big sound, the guitar sliding chords in broad strokes, even canned applause. But it's different from the star of the genre, the Byrds' So You Want to be a Rock'n'Roll Star. The lyrics of that song ironically imitate advertising copy; the lyrics of Power Failure ironically imitate the free association of private thoughts – it's an inward-looking song about being in public.

Brooker has said about this song: 'It's all about touring on the road and the situation when electricity is somehow cut off and we leave it to BJ and his drum solo to keep things going until we get the power back on.' In fact a lot of the phrases are fairly literal descriptions of problems with equipment and logistics. 'Watching over smoking embers / falling over burning chairs' sounds like the kind of little 'fires' (glitches) a computer sysadmin keeps 'putting out.' The song gets personal with 'rushed across and shown alone' and the repeated last verse, which my 1971 liner notes transcribed thus:

Speech reduced by poor relations,
Strung from weeks of self-abused,
Chopped up, churned out, weeks of greasy
Spark plugs burnt up power's fused.

'Self abuse' vs. 'self-abused?' Could be the editor's error, but it's like the playing with sound and expectation Reid does elsewhere. Also, it's my impression he's concerned about the details of his transcriptions. But what is abused? The 'weeks?' The 'weeks of greasy spark plugs burnt up power's fused.'? After insisting on regular punctuation, including a string of modifiers that cross a line break, suddenly the grammar goes haywire. I feel it imitates confusion born of conflict between private and public faces. I keep saying, Reid's the Hamlet of rock'n'roll.

Well, heck. Isn't that the sort of stuff you only have to worry about in grad school? Do I have to figure out all those Robert Johnson and Rolling Stones and REM and Pavement lyrics?

No, and you don't have to know what kind of guitars they were playing, but some people want to know. There are details all around us to be noticed.


Poor Mohammed is musically as blistering as the desert. With the faintly Arabian effect of the cow bell, this is opposed to the water of Broken Barricades just as The Devil Came From Kansas is opposed to A Salty Dog. (The plains of Kansas, millions of years ago, were the floor of an ocean which, as poet James Wright said, 'once solved the whole loneliness of the Midwest.' Can't get away from ocean metaphors with Procol Harum (wow appropriate that their first single was first played from a boat.)

Poor Mohammed is also Reid sounding his angriest. It's a searing portrayal of the mind set that oppresses the outcast, the poor and the non-white. If Poor Mohammed is spiritual, it is so in a very ironic, post-modern, negative way. By focusing grossly on food, violence, physical degradation, everything body – it evokes that-which-is-not-mentioned. This is an unreliable narrator (a story-telling trick used by Randy Newman as well as Edgar Allan Poe). He thinks he is better than Mohammed – who is, at the very least, named after the religious figure. But we know the narrator is the real pig. Just as Under My Thumb suggested new ideas about women by showing the old chauvinist at his worst, Poor Mohammed encourages us to have second thoughts about our material lives. Not traditionally pious, it's still 'Sympathy for the Prophet.'


Perhaps this piece should end, like my copy of the LP, with several loud pops and a crackle. And so, in conclusion, Ladies and Gentlemen, I recommend that someone reissue this sterling album, preferably with extra material, and perhaps other live material from the period, toute de suite. Thank you, and good afternoon.

More features at BtP Ross Taylor looks at Four Odd Songs

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