'Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes'
The Mark of the Claw
The verbal violence of The Mark of the Claw is heralded by a stroppy over-driven riff from composer Mick Grabham's guitar. It fits easily under the fingers, suggesting it was 'found' on the instrument, as is the case with Robin Trower's parallel songs, Juicy John Pink, Whisky Train, and About to Die. This is Grabham's only Procol song to date: 'It came about simply because I said I'd like to write a song for the band, or have a go at writing a song for the band. Keith gave me the words to Mark of the Claw, and that was it.' he explains here. Some reports suggest that Gary Brooker was short of material for a new album, but the evidence points in the opposite direction: it's perhaps more likely that there weren't enough guitar-vehicle songs emanating from the Brooker / Reid partnership at the time; in which case it is perhaps odd that this song showcases the first big Solley synth solo on record, where a guitar break might have been expected.
'I don't think that [Claw] was particularly incredible … just something that was up, almost up-tempo,' said Grabham in Déjà Vu (1977). 'That's not to say that everything we did wasn't up-tempo, but it was generally mood music as opposed to good rock'n'roll.' The Mark of the Claw may be the Something Magic album's closest approximation to an all-out rocker, but the recorded version seems to have some difficulty getting into its stride: when it finally does start to rock, in the second verse, we notice how it's been slightly creaking elsewhere. This may be down to its highly episodic nature: it has its share of rallentando, and although Grabham wrote it, it does exhibit the Brooker characteristic of stopping dead in its tracks frequently; it was originally demoed at Brooker's barn (with Gary on drums, as Mick told Shine On) and it may be that we hear a fair bit of Brooker in the arrangement. The pounding piano octaves are unusual, reminiscent perhaps of Ian Hunter's Little Richard stylings, or the piano-playing on Aladdin Sane-period Bowie (Watch that Man has several Claw-like passages); there are effective passages of Fisher-like organ, the guitar solo when it comes is strong, the double-tracked vocal is dramatic; die-hards. however, objected to the frequent indulgence of Solley's pitch-wheel, especially when it resulted in some off-key high notes.
The song's verses are constructed on C major's pop standard I IV V VI chords, but not in that conventional order, and the overall feel is conditioned by the implied A minor of the opening riff. Further non-standard features include the odd bars inserted between phrases (eg before 'a moment of madness'). There is a notable use, in the linking phrases, of transitional diminished chords, a tendency we also see in Mick's solo albums. 'I always felt at home with that kind of thing,' he told BtP. 'I don't know why, I've always had an interest in that sort of direction.' One is reminded of Ian MacDonald's remark, in Revolution in the Head, that the Beatles' lead guitarist favoured 'dour progressions' in his compositions for the band. The Mark of the Claw, however, has a very sprightly, mobile and hard-to-pitch melody, which we might have expected to issue from the imagination of a practised vocalist.
The words are full of interest, and it seems that Keith Reid is proud of them. He told ZigZag in 1977, 'If you look at the lyric of The Mark Of The Claw, there is no-one else who could have written that, whereas I was certainly fairly heavily influenced on the first album,' and he selected this song for his anthology, My Own Choice. It is echoed twice on the next album, recorded fifteen years on: 'a moment of madness' is heard (You Can't) Turn Back the Page, and 'the method of access' in Man with a Mission. It's interesting that a lyric he so esteemed should have been given to Grabham for this one-off collaboration.
The interspersed sound-bites that conclude the recorded song are so literal that they effectively 'read' as part of the narrative, and the heavy footsteps, creaking hinge, woman's scream and slamming door are bound to affect the way listeners try to impose a linear narrative on the dream-like contradictions in the lyric. Do they reflect what happened before the trial … or are they a consequence of the prisoner's having been freed? It has been said that the gaps that now contain these effects were occupied by drum fills from BJ at one stage during the Miami sessions for this album. To many listeners that would be preferable to the mildly kitsch device that the team finally settled on.
Brooker has announced the song in concert with various, more or less fanciful accounts of its origin ('a dreadful obscenity discovered in Central Park: a dark tale of an unnamed crime in which the prisoner was freed through a fateful miscarriage of justice' (more on mp3 here)); it may or may not have been 'reported in The News of the World', but on balance it does seem likely that the words are based on some real story; a similarity to Edgar Allan Poe's Murder in the Rue Morgue has also been noted.
The song, as a lively counterbalance to some of the band's statelier offerings, was performed frequently on the Something Magic promotional tour, complete with harmony vocals, sound effects (the latter both played off tape and inserted live by the band) and dramatic lighting changes (there was darkness on stage for all the sound-effects coda on the BBC TV Sight and Sound special, for example); it has not surfaced since.
- 'A question of judgment': this phrase usually alludes to personal choice: however the song involves a miscarriage of justice, requiring us to understand 'judgment' in its court-room sense – while not forgetting the 'Day of Judgment' overtones as well. 'A question of' can be understood neutrally (as in 'a matter of') but here Reid plays on its connotations of 'questionability' to prepare for the doubtful, irrational verdict later on.
- 'A case of malfunction, an error of taste': 'case of malfunction' would be appropriate language for the investigation of a machine, whereas 'error of taste' is resolutely personal. Are we to understand that the participants in this case are not quite human?
- 'A moment of madness': the phrase resurfaces in You Can't Turn Back the Page; there, perhaps more than here, it calls to mind the euphemistic verdict customarily returned on suicides, that they died 'while the balance of the mind was disturbed': this suggests that their deaths were not self-inflicted deliberately, and consequently allows their remains to be buried in consecrated ground. However the 'madness' here seems to have afflicted the judiciary, not the accused.
- 'Occasioned by stress': this phrase too applies to the court's verdict, not to the state of mind that preceded or caused the crime. The song itself leaves us in some doubt as to what the crime actually is, though most of onstage song introductions indicate that it's a murder, as does the Something Magic press-kit (1977): 'A murder mystery, a miscarriage of justice … the felon escapes and does it again.'
- 'A classic misjudgment, a God-awful mess': a sudden lapse into the demotic, as 'classic' is being used in its slang sense of 'typical', and 'God-awful' is very different in register from the forensic ring of some of the foregoing phraseology. Reid likes to use the word 'awful': see Something Following Me, Glimpses of Nirvana, Robert's Box; Nothing But the Truth (twice), The Unquiet Zone (twice), The Piper's Tune, and The Worm and The Tree. References to God also come in Piggy Pig Pig, Whaling Stories, A Rum Tale, Nothing But the Truth, Holding on, Perpetual Motion, The Pursuit of Happiness.
- 'The moment of panic ... the crash ... sickening terror ... deafening smash ... wail of sirens': Reid's dramatic language here suggests a car-crash, but elsewhere the song makes us think of a burglary, or a personal assault. The consequent kaleidoscopic impression is somewhat nightmarish, but whereas the rest of Reid's oeuvre might lead us to expect a corresponding gamut of guilt, this lyric seems entirely free of conscience – as perhaps befits the monster whose clawmark distinguishes its title.
- 'A loud wail of sirens descend on the scene': rock words don't usually venture into metonymy, as Reid does here, inviting us right into the scene by using the word 'sirens' to represent the vehicles that carry them. This subtlety, however, is compromised by the literalness of the sound effects – a trait of this album in fact. FX were last heard in these proportions on In Held 'Twas in I, which may have served as something of a model, in the record label's eyes, for a successful Procol Harum album.
- 'The camera dissolves a crescendo of screams': a 'dissolve' is a film-maker's term, the opposite of a jump-cut. The idea that one scene dissolves into another here suggests that we are watching an auteur's creation rather than the verité-style news footage implicit in Whaling Stories where 'flashbulbs glorified the scene'. Procol Harum's cinematic interests are well-known – 'I went to see a movie, got the only empty seat' (Something Following Me); 'Our local picture house was showing a Batman movie' (Rambling On); 'God's alive inside a movie! Watch the silver screen!' (Whaling Stories); 'Movie ... dream …', 'Got the picture, got the rush' (The Thin End of the Wedge); 'She swallows the camera' (in the unpublished A Real Attitude) – though a tape machine, rather than a camera, would be best suited to recording 'a crescendo of screams'. Other Procoloid screams come in 'I screamed on my knees in the witness box' (Lime Street Blues); 'The man looks in my mouth and screams' (Something Following Me); 'Sousa Sam can only hear the screams of Peep the sot' (Cerdes (Outside The Gates Of)); 'I managed to scream' (Dead Man's Dream); 'Echo stormed its final scream' (Whaling Stories); 'screaming "There's an eye in the middle of his head!"' (Alpha); 'an awful gaping scream' (Nothing But the Truth); 'Got the scream' (The Thin End of the Wedge); 'The camera dissolves a crescendo of screams' (The Mark of The Claw) and 'The worm started screaming' (The Worm and The Tree).
- 'The memory's imprinted like some dreadful sore': 'memory's imprinted' introduces the idea that the eponymous Claw is branding more than mere flesh; 'imprint', in the context of memory, is a word used by psychologists to denote the way infants bond with close kin: a horrifying additional component to the trauma of this song.
- 'The fearful reminder: the mark of the claw': in mediaeval times witches were thought to have a devil's [claw] mark on their body, and furthermore the verdicts, in witch trials, were returned by a 'rule of thumb' such as determining whether the body of the accused would float in water (if it did, the suspect was indeed a witch!). RE Guiley in The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft has this entry (p 192) on the Lancaster witches [Pendle] case: 'Edmund accused more than 30 persons including Jennet Device. Seventeen of them found to bear the Witches' Mark were tried and convicted. Among them was Mother Dickenson, a young woman who confessed she had sold her soul to the devil for money which later vanished and another who was accused of making a pail of water run up hill. The latter apparently was in the habit of making rolling her pail downhill and running ahead of it.' Witches were 'pricked' by witch-finders to see if they could find the devil's mark. 'Mark of the Claw' carries overtones of 'mark of the beast', a phrase from Revelation 16:2 – 19:20. The British mage Aleister Crowley ('the wickedest man in the world') was fond of inflicting marks of the beast on people he met by biting them. To 'set the mark of the beast' on an activity such as drinking or gambling is to denounce it as immoral; ('mark of the beast' is also a jocular term for the coloured flashes on a midshipman's jacket!).
- 'The method of access': the phrase, repeated in Man With a Mission, is used in workaday police burglary reports.
- 'The possible motive': 'possible' here probably means 'putative' rather than 'practicable'.
- 'the absence of blood': it is hard to see how a claw could make a mark without drawing blood, unless the 'claw' is some kind of graffito left at the scene of the crime, in which case we are dealing with a hardened, self-mythologising villain. Or has the blood been cleared up by the perpetrator, or has the damage been inflicted on bloodless property, using a claw hammer (such as Barrie Wilson is holding in his right hand here). Or could the 'The Claw' be a criminal's nickname, and his 'mark' simply the style or modus operandi by which his work is known, the fearful reminders, the dreadful sores of memory? This bloodless crime could even speak of a 'death by voodoo' … the richness of Reid's text allows the imagination to run riot …
- 'the theories unanswered regarding the thud': theories are not questions, so they don't normally require an answer; the 'unanswered' idea is transferred from the word 'thud', presumably raising questions as to the origin of a sound connected with the crime: the song's coda gives great prominence to the sounds associated with the case, but we don't hear a thud among them.
- 'the jury was hung': a 'hung' jury is one which can not come to a decision and the phrase 'to hang a jury' refers to the deliberate production of such an effect: of course in a murder-trial the expected outcome would involve the hanging of the prisoner, not the jury.
- 'a ruling of thumb': a rule of thumb is an approximation, the phrase deriving from the approximate correspondence between an inch and the largest thumb-joint (cf 'foot', 'hand' and so on, as measurements). However Keith Reid, in Wax Paper (25 February 1977) offered a further insight: 'Society’s response to it is not necessarily ruled by rationality. The judgment is rendered by a movement of the thumb, the flip of the coin as it were, and we leave it to you to draw your own conclusions.' It has been ingeniously pointed out that the 'rule of thumb' and the ' raised hand' link jury and judge with the 'claw': they are accomplices, in committing then excusing the crime.
- 'The judgment was mercy: they tendered the plea': puns like this between 'mercy' and 'tender' are common in Procol's earlier songs. In fact 'mercy' would only be appropriate if guilt had already been established, and punishment then withheld.
- 'The judge raised his hand and the prisoner was free': there is real relish in Gary Brooker's voice at this point, and as the band takes off beneath him he adopts the persona of the criminal, hollering 'Well I'm free' (2.57). This may or may not have been part of Reid's intention, but it significantly colours the way we respond to the song: if our narrator turns out to have been the accused man all along, we can hardly be surprised that his account of the trial doesn't entirely seem to add up! It is perhaps curious that Reid, earlier a disciple of Dylan with his manifold songs about unfair imprisonments, should end up portraying a case in which the judge evidently wasn't strict enough!
Thanks to Frans Steensma for additional information about this song