Procol Harum

the Pale

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'Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes'

Poor Mohammed

Album: Broken Barricades (1971)

Authors: Trower / Reid 

 Read the words

Performed: never

Cover-versions: none

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 album’s 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.

Thanks to Frans Steensma for additional information about this song


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