'Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes'
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.
'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.
- 'It was all once bright jewels': this is one of the earliest Procol songs to start with the headline-writer's 'it', and its key-word 'bright' occurs, in various forms, in In The Wee Small Hours Of Sixpence, Shine on Brightly, All This And More, About to Die, Broken Barricades, Fires (Which Burnt Brightly), New Lamps for Old, Fool's Gold, Something Magic, Holding On. The jewels thus described are seen as something rare and excellent, as in Luskus Delph; in view of the broken barricades below, they may be symbols of virginity. The Bible describes flowers as the jewels of the Earth, and the opening lines establish a paradisal simplicity that is despoiled in the rest of the lyric.
- 'And glittering sand': we might expect 'golden sands' from a 'pop' song writer; Reid's substitution of the more deceptive 'glittering' draws on the pairing 'all that glisters is not gold' inherited from Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. This 'glittering' is the image chosen by producer Chris Thomas as his cue for voicing the musical ornamentation, a technique he built high in Grand Hotel and allowed to wither during Exotic Birds and Fruit. Reid's songs mention sand frequently – 'the sand has taken seed' (Conquistador); 'new-mown sand' (Mabel); 'one foot on the seashore and the other in the sand' (Magdalene (My Regal Zonophone)); 'A sand so white' (A Salty Dog); 'sands of gladness' (Whaling Stories); 'swimming in the sand' (Butterfly Boys ); 'Sands are running fast' and 'On these burning sands' (Holding On).
- 'The oceans have ravaged': 'ravaged' has overtones of rape, which will be significant in the context of broken defences and monstrous births below. The destructive power of the sea is noted in Conquistador where it 'has washed across your face and taken of its fill'; in Whaling Stories daybreak metaphorically 'washes' … 'rotting all it rotted clean' and the words of Into the Flood take us back into that elemental struggle. No particular shift of emphasis seems to be implied in Reid's alternation of 'sea' and 'ocean'. At a literal level the ravages of the sea are often mitigated by man's constructs, groins, dykes, and so forth: here those barricades are broken. At another level, where the sea might represent the collective unconscious, or that amniotic ocean in which we were all nurtured, the broken barricades could allude to the collapsing of emotional restraints erected by experience (in Blake's terms) or by hardening 'character armour' in Wilhelm Reich's.
- 'And strangled the land': most listeners are reminded of the global punishment described in Genesis when only Noah, his people and his gathered animals are spared God's 'reformatting' of humanity. The 'land' can be a nation and its people, as well as their literal terrain. The conjunction here of 'land' and 'waste' reminds us of Eliot's The Wasteland, the central 20th text that looks for a spritual re-fertilisation of the land. But too much water destroys fecundity, and this flood brings strangulation: we also find 'strangle' in In the Autumn of My Madness, whose narrator will 'strangle [his friends] with words' – words to which he gives birth in a 'flood' during Typewriter Torment.
- 'Waste fills the temples': in contrast to the natural imagery of the preceding lines, the next four look at the failure of things made by man. The waste in the temples may be ordure, profaning what is intended to be a holy place; or the 'waste' may be wasted opportunities or resources. The reference could be to Jesus's wrathful overturning of the money-lenders' tables in (John 2: 12-22). In any event, waste here seems to be a sin: it could be a derogatory term for the idols that are mentioned later.
- 'Dead daughters are born': the reference is to still-births, and the implication is that the regenerative cycle is interrupted. A decline in female births poses a great threat to the future of a race, especially if enemies maintain normal fertility. Conceivably these deaths are caused by the sin described in the previous line; we note that the daughters have probably died in the amniotic fluid, whose constitution is very similar to that of the sea-water that is strangling the land. The daughters are not necessarily babies, however: they could be a writer's ideas, stillborn: Kafka, for instance, regarded his stories as his offspring (see Eleven Sons).
- 'The presses are empty': as in Without a Doubt a printing press is implied here, although presses do also exist to process fruit and so forth. 'Empty' is a word full of meaning when thus placed, suggesting perhaps vapid content or a moral void in the published matter. The implication could equally be that there is nothing to print, in which case this song would seem to be the beginning of the 'songs of lack of inspiration' which peak on Procol's Ninth: presses are also used for making records, of course. The word 'empty' is given a similarly prominent place in Dead Man's Dream, and the idea of 'emptiness' recurs in such lines as: 'got the only empty seat' (Something Following Me); 'I came home to an empty flat' (Toujours l'Amour); 'The cellar is empty' (Drunk Again); 'So sad to see such emptiness' (Nothing But the Truth); 'broken promise empty lie' (Fool's Gold); 'I was feeling kind of empty' (Last Train to Niagara).
- 'The editors torn': the line makes a pun on 'torn', which can mean 'unresolved, in two minds', or can mean ripped, like a sheet of their paper: another image tallying to an extent with the title of the song. The editors [of newspapers, or of a central religious text such as The Bible] could be torn between their moral duty and the political and social exigencies of their predicament.
- 'Whose husband was the first to fall?': with the musical shift to the middle section, we get four lines of rhetorical questions, almost like mediaeval riddles: the music is appropriate in its archaic, modal flavour. The answer to this first riddle would seem to be 'Eve', if we take 'fall' to mean 'fall from grace with God' (a common theme of Procol songs). The invoking of Adam here matches that of Noah in the oceanic flood that starts the song, and also the possible answer, 'Christ', to the next question. 'Fall' could of course refer more mundanely to being slain in combat – the song has many warlike images, not least 'your enemies lord' – and this dovetails with losing God's favour, if we choose to believe in a deity who lets his people be subjugated by inferior races, as revenge for their spiritual decline. The loss of husbands poses a further threat to the reproductive cycle, over and above the stillbirths.
- 'Who died the worst death of them all?': the word 'stations' in the fourth riddle will remind some listeners of 'Stations of the Cross', in which context we might assume that this line alludes to the crucifixion. One interpretation of Crucifiction Lane suggests that Christ is the narrator, dying a meaningless death in a seemingly godless world, despairing that he has walked on water where others might have enjoyed oblivion by drowning, begging those who survive him to intercede if they have more luck with their maker than he has. Even to a Doubting Thomas, one who inserts 'fiction' into 'Crucifixion', it is clear that such a death of Jesus could number among the worst deaths of them all.
- 'How many splinters in each separate band? / How many stations in the final hand?': 'band' could refer to musicians, the splinters being 'splinter-groups' or factions. However 'stations' could suggest troops 'stationed', in which case 'band' could be construed to mean 'platoon' or 'posse'. The final hand would then be the last stage of a battle, where you play your hand, show your hand, etc. A splintering band also suggests the decline of a monotheistic religion into the worship of sundry idols, something forbidden in the Ten Commandments, and touched upon at the end of the song. The 'Stations of the Cross' is a Catholic devotion on the subject of Christ's passion, usually presented in graphic form, almost in terms of 'story-boarding' his betrayal, crucifixion and burial; there are normally fourteen such stations but the additional 'in the final hand' might seem to be asking, 'how many of these stages in suffering were crucial, in the last analysis'? The 'hand' image was picked up in the vinyl album-sleeve, which opened to reveal a great grey hand opened under the die-cast apertures through which the band members' faces had shown. There is a Dylan-like reversal of expectation in this couplet (as in 'he just smoked my eyelids, and punched my cigarette' from Stuck Inside of Mobile …) and we might have expected to hear 'splinters in the final hand', referring to the aftermath of crucifixion. It's unlikely that 'splinters' cued Thomas or Brooker to devise a Philip Glass-like minimalistic conclusion to this piece.
- 'Now gather up sea shells': the music returns to its opening motif, and the words return to an image of natural life, this time inviting humanity to start its endeavours afresh. The sea-shell – though often collected for ornamentative use, and associated in romantic poetry with ideas of being gentle and peaceful – does however represent the residue of a dead creature, left in the wake of the ravaging ocean. The Roman historian Suetonius tells us that the emperor Caligula insructed his troops, poised for an invasion of Britain, instead to collect sea-shells as 'spoils of the sea'. The cockle (scallop) shell is the most notable symbol of St James the Great, one of the three witnesses to Christ's agony in the garden of Gethsemane. James was also the first apostle to die for the Christian faith (Acts 12: 2). Scallops are depicted in a great many churches dedicated to St James, notably along the Pilgrim's Way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, where he may well lie buried.
- 'And write down brave words': with the foregoing line, this presents a tonal parallel to Fires (Which Burnt Brightly): there the words written in poems and letters come to naught, and the sea-shells are replaced by flowers and feathers as fragile emblems of gentility.
- 'Your prayers are unanswered, your idols absurd': it seems that the 'brave words' are to be a comfort in the vacuum of unanswered prayers; perhaps the idea is (again closely following Blake) that 'all deities reside within the human breast'. Equally the unanswered prayers could correspond to the empty presses – and perhaps to the Dalai Lama's gnomic dictum in Glimpses of Nirvana, and to Dylan's punchline in the 1968 The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest, 'Nothing is revealed'. The 'idols absurd' phrase seems to clinch the implication, in earlier images, that this song laments the decline of a civilisation that has lapsed from the virtues of monotheism: and a later song also shows how 'The Idol' will be no help at all, refusing either to sink or swim. The present song foreshadows some of the moods of Exotic Birds and Fruit, starting with a retrospect like Nothing But the Truth's 'It seems as clear as yesterday', and perhaps presenting the band as 'fallen' ('like Icarus') from a once-glittering position in the full sunshine of public esteem.
- 'The seaweed and the cobweb have rotted your sword': this destruction of the sword by the ravaging ocean recalls images from Conquistador. The sword is an image of male potency [comically flourished in Randy Newman's A Wedding in Cherokee County where 'she will laugh at my mighty sword'] and this is another line signifying the waning fertility of a people fallen from grace. We might also note that seaweed and cobweb seem very innocuous, some might say 'feminine' images, yet their power is notable; and a feminine perspective on the Fall is offered in 'whose husband was the first …'. In light of the 'brave words' above we might suspect a subtext containing the adage 'the pen is mightier than the sword', but in this song editors too are disabled.
- 'Your barricades broken': as implied above, a falling from grace into sin has resulted in the lord not protecting a chosen people from their enemies, who are now 'lording' it over them. On the record sleeve the word 'Lord' is capitalised. Contemporary advertisements portraying literal barricades athwart a street chose to emphasise the military content of the song at the expense of its spirituality.
- 'Your enemies Lord': this is Reid's only use of the word 'enemy'. He does use the word 'friend' in a variety of somewhat ironic ways (see here) but in his lexicon perhaps 'stranger' predominates. In any event, the song's conclusion is chilling in its absolute concession of defeat, though the hint remains that brave words can still be penned, while the sea-shells – and the band's almost-endless glittering ostinato – remind us of a time when things were more perfect.
Thanks to Frans Steensma for additional information about this song