Midnight suns bid moors farewell, retreats from charging dusk
Mountain echo, curfews bell, signal ending tasks
They place their faith in oaken doors, cower in candlelight
The panic seeps through blood-stained floors as Grendel stalks the night
At age 15 I imagined that all women could be seduced merely by plying them with the right tune at the right time, every lock having its key and all that. Easy. Given that I was an intelligent, sensitive soul I knew I would need to distance myself from all my usual sweaty songs about sinking the pink, giving the dog a bone and shaking her all night long and move towards something a little more sophisticated and distinctive that would brand me as a suave caring attentive lover*. Marillion were as complex as I got, Fish’ poetic lyrics and clever-clever wordplay had me all agog, imagine what would be possible if it were deployed chickwards? it just wouldn’t be a fair fight.
Now for the connoisseur there was only one real choice, eschewing album tracks as being too common the real mother lode for us spotty Marillion fans had to be one of their top quality B-sides and what could be more niche than one of the B-sides from their first, non-album, single Market Square Heroes? That the one in question was a 17-minute epic based on Beowulf? even better, nothing makes ladies horny like 1000 year-old epic poetry in the Christian-Germanic tradition, bring on the hot lovin’; that the track was based on a novel that I bought and couldn’t properly understand that told the tale from the monster’s point of view? I’d be fighting them off; that it was such an insanely cool song that the band had already retired it after the 1984 Reading Rock Festival?** It had to be ‘Grendel’. Surely this would prove to be the elusive mystical element I needed in order to lower girls’ defences, Chicktonite if you will.
Now sadly, I was never quite able to inveigle myself into a position where I could scientifically test my theory. My two recorded attempts at Grendel-based rudeification ended in abject failure, one young, formerly meek, lady stopping mid-kiss to ask ‘what is that shit you’ve put on?’ and Chick #2 simply got up, walked over to the tape player turned it off and put on a Deacon Blue CD instead – which, ironically caused me to react in exactly the same manner as Chick #1 had.
As Grendel leaves his mossy home beneath the stagnant mere
Along the forest path he roams to Hrothgar’s hall so clear
He knows that victory is secured, his charm will testify
His claws will drip with mortal blood as moonbeams haunt the sky
Oh yes! Here’s one to sort out the casuals from the committed. A mere 28 years later the band got around to giving this track the release it deserved, Marillion Grendel, 12″ Picture disc was released for RSD 2013 – I first found out about it via Mr HMO and found myself desperately wanting it on what must have been a sub-atomic level, before having to buy it from some profiteering eBay turd a couple of days later. Picture discs and mark Wilkinson artwork being my own Chicktonite. And so it goes.
28 years ago ‘Grendel’ was like nothing I’d ever heard before, 17+ minutes of changing moods, rhythms and movements, all culminating in the protagonist’s murderous rage at being branded the outcast, monster and, umm, murderer. Essentially humanity’s hypocrisy in the way it treats those it brands as ugly and different is exposed and, essential to all good adolescent rages, religion is given a bit of a kicking too. It’s deep.
Grendel has two versions on it, the early 19-minute ‘Fair Deal Studios Version’ and the final performance of the track at Reading Rock Festival 1983, which weighs in at a puny 18 minutes. The earlier version is a bit undercooked and tentative, very understandably so in fact; Steve Rothery’s guitar solo is probably the most notable manifestation of this. When you compare this to the Reading Festival version, which captures a bunch of confident young bucks in full flow before an admiring crowd, the results are startlingly different. The music pounds and flows, the sections are sharply divided and Steve Rothery’s guitar solo spirals straight up and out of the song, arching off into the sky the way it was always intended to.
Great though Marillion are, it is Fish’s vocals that really fizz me. I’m a big fan of the big man and ‘Grendel’ reminds me exactly why, all his range and ability to carry a ton of emotion are in evidence, no mean feat when you have to deliver lines like this convincingly,
Silken membranes*^ span his path, fingerprints in dew
Denizens of twilight lands humbly beg him through
Mother nature’s bastard child shunned by leaf and stream
An alien in an alien land seeks solace within dreams
The shaper’s lies his poisoned tongue malign with mocking harp
Beguiling queen her innocence offends his icy heart.
I must have listened to this upwards of 12 times last night and tonight and enjoyed every second, every time. I do know just how daft the whole thing is, how it is easy to mock, how it resembles Genesis’ ‘Supper’s Ready’ a bit too closely at times BUT I love it for all that, there is something wonderfully unselfconscious, naïve and a bit unsophisticated about the whole thing, a bit small town, which I find really endearing. AND I haven’t even mentioned how Fish performed the last part of the song wearing a mock Anglo-Saxon helmet and in a move, later copied by Bruce Springsteen, he would get an audience member on stage and mime disembowelling them^. True story.
So I did eventually come to realize that popping ‘Grendel’ on as mood music was basically the musical equivalent of turning up to a first date with the AD&D: Monster manual tucked under one arm (I instinctively knew that would be a jive move), but who cared? I’d found the love of a good tune instead. Anyway, I’d learned the lyrics off by heart so well that I could write them out from memory by this point – surely the chicks would dig that? Just wait until I unleashed that on them, it just wouldn’t be fighting fair (etc, etc).
*once that had been established and my
vict companion lured into a false sense of security Operation: Fumble would be launched. potentially even Operation: Omni-Fumble.
**presumably, quietly, fearing their ability to pull chicks would forever be negatively affected if they carried on. Rightly so, too.
*^I misheard this as ‘silken men brains’ of course.
^although Bruce just danced with his volunteer, lightweight!