PROCOL HARUM – Broken Barricades

Having gained mass popularity from their 1967 debut single ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’, Procol Harum’s career started with such force, it seemed they’d have nowhere to go but down. In the late 60s and early 70s, of course, bands weren’t always expected to follow their success – or even achieve success – instantly and that kind of open minded thinking really worked to Procol’s advantage. Across a series of varied but enjoyable albums released between 1967-1970, Gary Brooker, Robin Trower and company were given plenty of room to experiment. With the quirky pop of ‘She Wandered Through The Garden Fence’ (1967), they showed they could hold their own in the psychedelic world; with huge suites (‘In Held ‘Twas In I’, 1969) and an assortment of themed tracks on ‘Home’ (1970) they more than entertained the hardened prog fans; occasional Vaudevillian tendencies showed they also had a sense of fun and with various classically infused tracks they showed themselves as a cut above most musicians of the era. Prog, rock, pomp and even straight blues – for Procol Harum, nothing seemed off limits and yet their early works all still had a genuine coherency that some of their peers lacked.

By the time their fifth studio album ‘Broken Barricades’ appeared on the shelves in June 1971, Procol Harum, musically, had pretty much done it all. That doesn’t stop the album being hugely enjoyable, though, and several tracks even rank among the band’s finest. ‘Playmate of the Mouth’, in particular, is absolutely classic: Brooker plays a mean tack piano, underscoring the song with a sound that instantly connects with the debut album while offering a gruff vocal that totters around a bluesy tone without ever committing to an obvious genre style. Equally as important, Chris Copping lays down a fat bass groove – a career best – while wheezing brass accent an unease throughout this woozy mix, where blues, rock, soul jostle with something that sounds as if it were culled from a 70s film soundtrack. The real star is Robin Trower, whose lead guitar work clings on to a classic blues sound throughout. While never playing for flash, his presence is of a man who’s content with adding to a whole picture as opposed to dominating. All things added together show a band who’ve crossed a lot of boundaries in barely four years, but still sound far from tired. Likewise, ‘Simple Sister’ carries a lot of weight in helping Procol Harum shift from music geared towards a prog and psyche audience into something that would have pricked up the ears of the early 70s hard rock fan. It’s a really cheeky number, in the truest sense: parts of Brooker’s piano melody borrow heavily from the old 60s pop hit ‘Cool Jerk’, while Trower’s heavy descending scales take their very obvious influence from a few things – Cream, Mountain et al – but the riffs also unwittingly inspire the coda from Iron Maiden’s 1981 album cut ‘Innocent Exile’. By the time both elements blend together in the track’s second half, the grandness of the sound is absolutely marvellous and that’s before the world of orchestral overdubs kick in. Yes, it’s grandiose – almost too self-important for its own good – but, man, it’s one of the best things you’ve (n)ever heard. It sounds like five guys who just can’t wait to leave ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ further in the past…and it’s definitely not “prog” by the same definition as clung onto by most fans, but truly progressive.

With a moody chug, ‘Memorial Drive’ places a loud guitar against a fine organ sound. Brooker’s lead vocals lose some of the soul his early performances, but make up for that with a genuine sense of drive, while a clanky lead piano solo adds a real contrast to the blues-rock sound that’s quickly been established. For those only familiar with the grand pomp of the first two albums, this desire to rock may surprise, but on it’s own merits it’s absolutely fabulous. In fact, it’s closer to The Edgar Winter Group or, perhaps, a forerunner to ZZ Top than any prog or pomp, but the fact these musicians absolutely nail the job in hand just further proves how adaptable they are. Similarly, the Humble Pie-esque ‘Poor Mohammed’ features some ferocious blues-rock guitar. Set against a gruff vocal, Trower really goes for broke on parts of this track, but never in a way that upstages his bandmates. One of the era’s most under-appreciated axemen, Trower shows a real passion and the heavy focus on the lead guitar very much sounds like a springboard for his soon to be solo career.

In a mood much closer to typical Procol Harum, the beautiful ‘Luskus Delph’ opens with a soft piano refrain, which is quickly underscored by ascending bass notes that sound as if they were written with orchestration in mind. Quickly grabbing a hold of a deceptively simple melody, Brooker’s voice absolutely sings with a sense of wonder and sadness. It’s absolutely unashamed in its attempts to pull at the heart strings…and then the expected orchestra arrives for the kind of one-two punch designed to make the listener absolutely melt. The main melody never really shifts from it’s opening salvo, but it doesn’t need to. Between a fine Brooker vocal, some really tasteful strings and a superb tune, it has everything…and as a number that seems to call back to older works from ‘Shine On Brightly’, it deserves to be a fan favourite. In a change of mood, ‘Power Failure’ kicks back into rock mode, at first delivering a very 70s, percussion heavy groove. Although the vocal will always make it distinctly something from the Procol back-cat, the loose vibe running through it comes closer to ‘Shoot Out At The Fantasy Factory’ era Traffic and at its core is a very African inspired drum and percussion solo. Although impeccably played by B.J. Wilson, in some ways that solo gets in the way of a brilliant tune. Still, its cut and paste feel wouldn’t stop it becoming a staple on the band’s next few tours…

A huge musical side-step, Trower’s ‘Song For A Dreamer’ is absolutely unrecognisable as being Procol Harum at all. A psychedelic blues number, it was written as a response to the death of Hendrix, and a very fitting tribute, it applies spacey runs of blues guitar that very deliberately echo Jimi’s own ‘May This Be Love’ throughout. Joining Trower’s near-perfect channelling of a legend, Wilson’s drums totter across various spacey noises, seeming to never connect with anything else. The tune never rushes; the multi-layered guitars wander and weave before a harder sounding solo exposes a great guitar tone. The very heavy use of echo, no Brooker vocal and lack of organ throughout also means this track pulls further towards Trowers impending solo career, but it’s certainly none the worse for that. …And in between all this already great material, the album’s title track provides a moment of reflection with some fine piano and vocal work from Brooker, very much the kind of thing that carries not only a quiet grace, but a distinctive sadness that always seems to lurk beneath the surface of the best Procol Harum album cuts. There was always so much more to Procol than ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’…and this more than proves that.

‘Broken Barricades’ packs a hell of a lot of greatness into just thirty five minutes. Grandiose pop, aching balladry, some proto-hard rock and heavy blues come together to create the kind of album that deserves to be better known. It might not have a lot in the way of Procol’s more obvious “hits”, but as a whole, it’s actually more consistent than it’s two predecessors, ‘A Salty Dog’ or ‘Home’.

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A 3CD deluxe edition from Esoteric Recordings issued in 2019 is a most comprehensive edition of the album, providing a whole wealth of extra material of great interest to the Procol fan (even a fan that owns the expanded edition from 2009). Various unreleased rough mixes of selected album tracks and backing tracks give a good insight into works in progress, each helping to construct a picture of an album that could be possibly considered Procol Harum’s most consistent, but the real gem among the studio material is the sketchily named ‘Memorial Jam’, effectively a very early take on what would become ‘Memorial Drive’. On this instrumental take, we get a great snapshot of the band in full groove mode; the 70s electric piano dances against various louder guitar howls, but if anything, its the rhythm section that own the piece. Both Copping and Wilson play their arses off throughout, giving off a vibe that would be an equal to any US jam bands of the day, whilst simultaneously leaning towards jazz fusion on occasion.

That’s all good, but obviously, it’s the sheer bulk of unreleased live material stretched across discs two and three that provide the real need to upscale to this deluxe edition. With three complete shows represented, it really is an archive of treasures and feels especially so, considering the band’s obvious refusal to wheel out ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ for the hundredth time…

The four track BBC ‘Sounds of The Seventies’ broadcast is a little rough in places, since two tracks have come from an off-air cassette as opposed to having been handed over from the Beeb themselves. The opening ‘Simple Sister’ is plagued with distortion throughout, but f you don’t expect perfection, the performance of the track is storming. Trower’s guitar work sounds especially angry and Booker’s lead vocals – shrouded in sinister organ – come across as particularly haunting. ‘Quite Rightly So’ makes the suspected off-air status very plain. With the audio quality of a fourth generation cassette, the recording sounds half underwater and this very much disguises the drums throughout. However, despite being less than great sounding, Brooker’s voice is pretty clear and its one of his best performances, while the inclusion of a spoken intro from Whispering Bob really adds to the period context.

The remainder of the Beeb session sounds as if it’s been taken from existing masters. A pristine ‘Broken Barricades’ isn’t greatly different from its studio counterpart. In providing a slightly different take on things, though, it’s still lovely. Brooker’s voice sounds as if he’ll break into tears at any second against the stately piano phrasing, while a busy ‘Power Failure’ gives B.J. more than enough opportunity to rattle his toms and percussion and he harmony vocals throughout this take help to give a strong representation of the great live band Procol could be in their prime.

In absolutely stellar audio quality for the age, a twelve song show from New York City finds Procol starting out with their rockier side on a mean and dirty ‘Memorial Jam’, still brand new at the time, but clearly designed to rouse a crowd. Faithful renditions of ‘Still There’ll Be More’, ‘Salty Dog’ and ‘Shine On Brightly’ give the old fans plenty to enjoy, but this is a gig weighted towards the then new LP. A fuzzed up ‘Simple Sister’ is an equal to ‘Memorial Jam’ in giving Trower a meaty workout and his bluesy stance is allowed to really flow; ‘Luskus Delph’ is a touch wobbly in places, but that’s to be expected for a tune yet to embed itself into the band’s repertoire, something more than made up for by Brooker’s stage banter; ‘Broken Barricades’ sounds as if it’s on its way to being an old staple already – this performance seems surprisingly comfortable – and ‘Power Failure’, as with the Beeb recording, becomes a rhythmic tour de force. If there’s anything odd about this show at all, it’s the sequencing… Since drum solos are synonymous with audience toilet breaks, it’s a brave move on Procol’s part to use ‘Power Failure’ as a show closer! Overall, this gig is fantasticand it is a set that eclipses the live material from the ‘Procol’s Ninth’ deluxe, but it’s the eleven song performance recorded at Folkets Hus, Stockholm in October ’71 which is the best by far, with the band digging further back into their catalogue.

As always with so many early 70s shows, the audience sounds polite between songs if judged by more modern standards, but that doesn’t stop Procol giving their all. A heavily echoed ‘Still They’ll Be More’ (originally from ‘Home’) marks an early highlight fusing a few rock ‘n’ roll moods with a hefty dose of pomp in a way that sounds a little like the Traffic shows from that time; the then current ‘Simple Sister’ is angry and raw, showcasing some very dark piano and vocal refrains; ‘Magdalene (My Regal Zonophone)’ doesn’t fare quite as strongly as the recording seems to mute some of the subtler parts even more, but in terms of pace, it gives the band and audience time to recharge before an especially epic ‘Salty Dog’ and ‘Repent Walpurgis’ act as a reminder of Procol’s more theatrical side. Those who love hearing the band stretch out will surely be in their element during a performance of ‘In Held ‘Twas In I’s second half which, as you’d hope, is pretty flawless. In terms of a Procol live shows, this is a top-quality archive recording.

Those who’ve picked up any of the other Procol Harum deluxe reissues from Esoteric will find this one an essential edition to their collections. As before, it’s a genuine masterclass in how deluxe editions should be delivered: there’s a wealth of unreleased material (yes, it’s mostly live, but who doesn’t love live stuff from the 70s?) and the price point for the three disc set is even cheap enough for those who’ve not heard ‘Broken Barricades’ for years – or at all – to take a punt. There’s so much to love within Procol Harum’s back catalogue of long players, but now with a truckload of live material, ‘Broken Barricades’ is the best of the lot. In a word, unmissable.

Read a review of the deluxe ‘Procol’s Ninth’ here.

March/June 2019