Procol Harum

the Pale

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'Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes'

The Mark of the Claw

Album: Something Magic (1976)

Authors: Grabham / Reid

 Read the words

Performed: promotionally

Cover-versions: none

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.

Thanks to Frans Steensma for additional information about this song

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