Procol Harum

the Pale

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'Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes'

Memorial Drive

Album: Broken Barricades (1971), Procol Harum Live (DVD)

Authors: Trower / Reid 

 Read the words

Performed: briefly, revived 1995

Cover-versions: played live by SF's La Rue

In this very workmanlike composition Robin Trower appears to share Gary Brooker's disinclination to use the dominant chord, sensing that harmonic momentum can be preserved by avoiding a perfect cadence: Memorial Drive drives itself on a modest palette of three chords, I, IV and the (bluesily decorated) major II. It shares its B major key with Poor Mohammed, with which the same composer concludes the record, but is a much more complete-sounding number, not least in that its melody is much more developed, and is sung by Gary, who seems entirely at home with it – one wishes he had sung the other Trower compositions the band recorded (except, perhaps, the inimitable Song for a Dreamer).

This is one of the first batch of three songs recorded in December 1970 at the brand new AIR Studios in London; the master reel was compiled on 29 December 1970. It became a favoured opening number in the promotional setlists, and acquired a mystifying misnomer, Normie, when it appeared on a well-known bootleg, The Elusive Procol Harum, taken from the NY concert Procol played for US Radio station WPLJ on 4 April 1971: this set is much favoured by fans of BJ in particular, as he is on top form (mp3 here). It is the only Trower composition from Broken Barricades that was played live, and stage versions of it approximated closely to the record, though without electric piano, and they inevitably lacked some of the choice moments – listen to Gary's piano and hollering at 1:52! – that were achieved in the studio.

Unusually the song starts on the fourth beat of the bar, and it is full of invention throughout, featuring many cross-metres laid by piano and drums across the exceptional rhythm guitar playing of Robin Trower. The texture is muscular, but light, thanks to the innovative use of electric piano (though the break by Brooker is – as on About to Die, where he solos over Trower's rhythm – taken on acoustic piano). Gary's left-hand technique is extremely strong and many of his own songs rely heavily on 'composed' basslines which he often hammers out alongside the bass guitar; but here, where the R&B conception does not call for any particular bass-line, he uses the more transparent electric piano which allows the inventive Copping bass to shine through. BJ's fills are exceptional – those ending the first verse start two bars early, in conventional terms, and compile a series of five-note, three-beat fills over four bars, coming out into verse two with unrepeatable finesse. At the end of the song the tension builds over a sustained C sharp major chord, with minor third interpolations, while the rocking bass of Copping explores: it is very different from the ending of Poor Mohammed. Jostling triplety piano and straight-rocking guitar gradually come to a rhythmical accommodation, only to have their new accord disrupted by a subtle shift in the drumming pattern, followed by a neat little dubbed-in roll, and the definitively 'live-sounding' ending. Quite a lot of studio chat, unintelligible, remains on the track from about from 3.19 onwards: but it does no harm, and many would wish that all Chris Thomas's Procol productions had had the clarity this achieves. Memorial Drive carries forward the energy of Still There'll be More, and adds swing; it is the perfect evangelising song to play to critics who argue that Procol couldn't rock; and one need only compare it with the relatively leaden Mark of the Claw to observe what a marvel Brooker and Reid briefly had in the Trower / Wilson / Copping power-house.

Cowamarup, Western Australia'Robin … just expressed a desire to write and I wrote some lyrics for him. I don’t envisage that anyone other than Gary and myself will be writing in the future but you never know,' Keith Reid told Disc in September 1971. This was Reid's first textual excursion to South Africa, yet Trower's music carries no overtones of that country, being somewhat reminiscent of New Orleans boogie which was modestly popular at this time thanks to the prominence of Dr John (admired by the Procols) and Redbone, who had a hit with Witch Queen of New Orleans in 1971. Playmate of the Mouth also betrays some New Orleans influence. The main correspondence between text and sound is the high-pitched cry near the end: this is a unique event in the catalogue and is, one presumes, a contradictory imitation of the abused woman in the text. The title forms a series with the fictitious addresses of Crucifiction Lane and Dylan's Desolation Row, but there are Memorial Drives in cities all over America, and no evidence ties this title to a particular town. The word 'memorial' is most often used in connection with war, and the events loosely depicted in the song are linked to economically-based warfare; and 'drive' is a most apt description of its rhythmic feel. As with Poor Mohammed, the song explores cruelty and racial oppression. Ross Taylor suggests that Memorial Drive follows the album's theme, that a greedy past has bankrupted the present and jeopardised the future; notions of slavery, and ecological waste, mix with the mermaid and the Zulu queen, 'perhaps to suggest the phony 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.'

The song was first played during the short US tour in February 1971, and flourished in the April concerts; it can only be regretted that Trower's departure from Procol Harum in May meant that Memorial Drive was not heard again … until 1995, when Geoff Whitehorn successfully recreated the original sound of the record until letting rip 'as himself' at the very end.

Don't walk away, Rene

Thanks to Frans Steensma for additional information about this song


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