by Paul Woodgate
Ask anyone about Marillion and the first three things they will say to you are:
- Lavender, Dilly Dilly
- It’s all long songs and prog, innit?
If only they knew.
One – I’m A Market Square Hero
I was an early convert to rock music. A school friend introduced me to some compilation albums that captured a combination of late period NWOBHM and its more melodic offspring. We would listen to Tommy Vance’s Friday Rock Show on BBC Radio 1; 9 P.M. every week, without fail. Often we’d record it using second hand TDK tapes and listen to them after school in his bedroom. It’s where I first heard Thin Lizzy, Gary Moore, Magnum and Marillion. I’d not long moved to a new town, so everything was unfamiliar. My friend became one of the few constants in my life, and we were bound by our love of music.
One Friday, Vance played a debut 12” from a band being heavily hyped as the next big thing. It was ‘Market Square Heroes’. My friend hated it. I fell in love. I was 12. I still have that single, though I can’t remember buying it. It’s hard to believe my mother allowed me to walk into town and buy it at that age. It’s possible I forced her to ask for it in the local Parrot Records, something she must have enjoyed. Remarkably, it still plays well. Perhaps more remarkably, it still sounds fresh. ‘Market Square Heroes’ was so different to anything else I’d heard. Apart from the radio and the compilation albums, my only reference points were mum’s Cliff Richard, Anne Murray and Crystal Gayle collections and dad’s Cream and 10cc. It’s unsurprising something so left-field would have such an effect.
‘Market Square Heroes’ was bold, aggressive, hook-laden music with a particular pulse; the heartbeat of defiance. It called for rebellion and protest at the very moment I began to realise I was different, that I didn’t fit into the standard social sets at school. More than belonging to any leather-jacket wearing clan, it was Marillion where my path with the norm diverged. If nothing else, I will always have them to thank for that.
Myth-busting: 1 – If I Recall Correctly?
When your band history is 41 years young and involves a lot of people, some of whom may have been looking through rose (or substance) tinted glasses, it’s hard to maintain accuracy. A classic example is the oft-quoted story about Marillion being the first (and only?) band to sell out Hammersmith Odeon before signing a record deal.
According to Jon Collins’ detailed, if occasionally hagiographic, biography* of the band, Marillion signed with EMI in September 1982 (page 34), Script For A Jester’s Tear was released on March 14, 1983 (page 41), yet Marillion’s first Hammersmith Odeon gig was April 17 of the same year (page 43). Something doesn’t add up, unless the story is that all the tickets had been sold before the the deal was inked, which seems unlikely. Discrepancies like this bother me much more than they should.
Two – Torch Songs
The band created their own coherent universe, one that ran parallel to almost every other contemporary music of the 80s. And if that universe leaned on early 70s progressive rock tropes (long, multi part pieces with connected themes, concepts and dense lyrical explorations of subject matter that strayed from ‘where is my next shag coming from’), then amen to that. It was an education I’d never have got at school.
When I think of their first phase – Script to Straws – their real peers in the 1980s are the other musicians refusing to toe the line. Mark Hollis of Talk Talk, XTC, It Bites and The The. A decade or so later, another band became one of the biggest in the world ploughing a similar furrow – more on this later.
There’s a narrative arc with the weight of a redemptive novel in the first four albums. Will the protagonist achieve closure and resolve his misplaced childhood issues? No spoilers, but the (almost) optimistic finale to 1985’s Misplaced Childhood suggests so. It’s crushing, then, to find the reveal in Clutching At Straws two years later isn’t the bold step forward into years of milk and honey, but a handbrake turn into the easy relief provided by substance abuse and the bottle.
None more so than him, as it turned out.
Marillion’s ability to mask and blur harsh realities is the oldest rock music story of all. Marillion’s breakdowns are well documented; between the band and Fish, Fish and his own willpower, the growing resentment at EMI’s pressure for more hit singles, the falling out of love with constant touring, the – whisper it – backlash from some diehard fans because the band refused to make Script part four. It was a perfect storm. For some of us, it culminated in an almost perfect response.When there’s nothing left to hold onto, you clutch at straws.
Listening to Clutching At Straws now conjures many conflicting emotions. I’m taken back to my late teens – I was 17 in 1987 – when, just as it must have seemed to Marillion post-‘.. Childhood’ that anything was possible, I too should have been reaching for the stars. However, the storm clouds of a working life and 9-to-5 routines were just around the corner instead.
I was still a misfit. I’d grown up following the path of most resistance. A bookworm, with a penchant for melodic heavy rock who was happiest writing bad lyrics, walking in the Lakes and wallowing in the complicated emotions of a man too afraid to show his face on stage. Even as Fish’s world closed around him, mine opened up. I chose security and a wage**. I’d only recently moved out of home for the first time. I was living in digs. Needing to pay the rent is quite the deciding factor when your options are to work or run back home which, for me, meant a three hour rail journey to the wilds of Suffolk, 90 miles from my friends and the life I was trying to build.
On a grander scale, my favourite band teetered on the edge of prolonged success but fell at the final hurdle. Aren’t all the best narratives those that don’t end in ‘happy ever after’? The original recording phase of Marillion’s career remains for me a highlight of the 80s, a story rich in beautiful melodies, the true craft of songwriting and an education in how it’s okay to be the odd one out. I doubt very much whether my English language abilities would be as strong as they are today if I hadn’t spent years analysing Fish’s way with a metaphor.I remember some excruciating conversations with my mother about sections of She Chameleon and Incubus from Fugazi; did I understand what I was singing along to, she wondered?
I find it easy – now – to argue that Fish went at the right time. He was a mess. It was unfair on him and the band to expect to continue under those circumstances. But in 1987, I thought it was the end of the world. No more ‘Chelsea Mondays’? No more ‘Assassing’? No more ‘Blind Curve’ and ‘White Russians’? Had he stayed, their glorious run would have undoubtedly ended, not just in the nasty break up – some of the interviews at the time were less than pleasant, from both camps – but in increasingly fractured output and the loss of the camaraderie, the togetherness they exhibited through their run of success.
But I stuck around. It’s not easy to let go of your heroes.
Three – Where Do We Go From Here?
It all started out so well.
Enter Steve Hogarth, the Professor to Fish’s Magician. Cast adrift from the fringes of pop and a gig with The The, Hogarth arrived with a bucket of ideas on tape, a voice that could hold a note and no need to hide a debilitating childhood behind face paint.
An experiment. Listen to Clutching At Straws and Seasons End back to back. Musically, some of the pieces were written before Fish left, and whilst the subject matter was less introspective and delivered in language that owed more to a climate change lecture than a sixth-form poetry throwdown, there exists in both the music and the lyrics a strangely natural progression. The extended arc is very easy to follow. You can trace it through their entire catalogue from ‘82 to ‘95.
Hogarth’s arrival steadied the ship and introduced options into the Marillion universe that wouldn’t have been considered before. Between ‘89 and ‘95 Marillion’s ‘second phase’ wrote and recorded four albums that stand shoulder to shoulder with the Fish-era work. There are songs on these albums equal to anything from 83 to 87. More than that, the band managed to maintain and nurture a connection with their listeners despite the growing chasm in style between Marillion phase one and two. Subject matters moved from the personal to the universal. Wonderfully, they largely abandoned the need to string their pearls onto one thread. Yes, there were themes, and yes, there was a concept album – 94’s Brave – but if they wanted to sing about speedboats on Coniston Water, or missing girls, or the way a city can weigh you down, they did.
Lyrically, things were more direct but no less beautiful, and occasionally, the band surpassed anything they’d achieved when the sixteen stone first footer was in residence. Listen to ‘The Great Escape’, ‘Splintering Heart’ and ‘Out Of This World’ and say it ain’t so. Fuelled by the nervous joys of new relationships and a more collaborative loosening of creative bonds, 89s Seasons End, Holidays In Eden (91), Brave (94) and Afraid Of Sunlight (95) showcased everything the band had been working towards in the early years, a combination of their insistence on walking their own path and a more commercial sensibility that allowed for the possibility of more people accessing their music.
And yes, I understand the dichotomy of saying that when Brave was a 69 minute concept album about a short news item Hogarth saw. Equally, I get that Fish era Marillion sold more than the band did after he left. The difference, I think, is in allowing for the possibility of not being a progressive rock band, of allowing themselves to record songs like ‘After Me’ and ‘Dry Land’ and ‘Alone Again..’ and ‘Beautiful’ and not feel like each one had to be a convoluted discourse on the state of the singer’s fragile ego. Hogarth may disagree with me on this last point.
Naturally, compared to the previous incarnation, hardly anyone took any notice. Each album frustrated EMI more. Each album sold less, even as Hogarth and the band solidified their relationship.
I fell in love all over again. It was more complicated now. I had to make space for both incarnations, but it was churlish to complain about having eight albums of brilliant music to listen to when I might only have had four. Other bands had arrived to carve out their space in my collection. My bandwidth was fuller, but there was still space for a band that, at 25, I could say I had been legitimately listening to for half of my life.
Four – A Few Words For The Dead
After Afraid Of Sunlight, things were different. Again. For one thing, the widening gap in expectations finally saw the band and their major label go separate ways. The dollar signs that briefly flickered around the late 80s faded and died, and in Brave, Marillion had sucked what was left of any juice out of the relationship with EMI (though, as in all good stories, a partial return to the fold that would benefit all parties occurred later in the band’s history). EMI stumped up for Afraid Of Sunlight, and when it didn’t sell a million (who knew?!), said goodbye.
And so began, if not the wilderness years, an uncertain period of retrenchment. 1997’s This Strange Engine hinted at a lack of direction, though there was plenty for fans to get excited about in ‘Estonia’, ‘Memory Of Water’ and the title track. No-one could accuse Marillion of not writing good, if not great, songs, but as a whole, the album still feels like a group reaching out for something they could hold onto; a purpose perhaps, a way to survive in an increasingly fractured music industry. I remember the press writing it off. In one case, it was mooted as being too experimental, which, given their history, is nothing short of hilarious.
I was in my late 20s. My musical palette had expanded, but I kept in touch with their releases. I remember being concerned that their wish to find themselves was clouding the blue skies Brave and Afraid Of Sunlight had promised.
The nadir for me came in two albums that spanned the millennium. The first was 98’s Radiation. It was the closest I’ve come in my relationship with the band to backing off, to saying goodbye. I listened to the album again for this piece, and I struggle to like any of it. ‘Now She’ll Never Know’ is an overwrought ballad and ‘These Chains’ is.. okay. The opening track, a ‘humorous’ Beatles-lite acoustic short called ‘Costa Del Slough’ has the worst lyric ever recorded by the band – ‘And anyway, what’s wrong with the odd melanoma, if it gets us all out, of a coma.’ Ouch. The experimentation was laudable, but the execution and quality control was lacking. It also suffered from a truly horrendous mix, rendering any light and shade irrelevant in the murky depths of its muddied sound.
I have no doubt the emergence of Radiohead spun the band round a few times too. Though the origin of their music was in more mainstream rock, they quickly diverged and, thanks to 97’s OK Computer, became a world dominating ‘alternative’ music machine.
In 2001, they released Anoraknophobia, by a country mile their worst album title and cover. Anorak. No Phobia. Geddit? By now, their continued attempts at self—deprecation, testy responses to questions about their status in the industry’s eyes and poorly executed, barely restrained interview answers began to expose the insidious creep of bitterness. Despite that, the sublime ‘This Is The 21st Century’ and ‘When I Meet God’ hinted at progress, but all of a sudden I was having to pick out songs when in the past they’d all been great. The loss of consistency was little short of horrifying.
The album in between Radiation and Anoraknophobia, 99’s .Com was far better than both. It was coherent, maintained itself thematically and had some excellent songs; ‘Go!’ and the trilogy that ended the album, ‘Tumble Down The Years’, ‘Interior Lulu’ and ‘House’ all remain favourites today. I was still picking songs out of the whole though. Looking at this period now, it feels like Marillion were trying too hard. They seemed to have forgotten what brought listeners to their door in the first place, that sense of ‘other’ that marked them out but that was, in essence, very good songwriting, strong melodies and subject-matter that made people think. To anyone who really cared, how cool or not they were in the eyes of the music industry, magazines and influencers just wasn’t a consideration. The sense of a not-so-subtle hypocrisy – we don’t need the industry, but look at what they’re doing to us – became hard to swallow.
Marillion were in the middle of another reinvention. Their use of the internet was breaking new ground. Pre-funded albums were a novelty and they were one of the first to try it, hoping that their intense relationship with a large fan base would see them through (it did, and has done so on several occasions since). But for all the innovation, a listener is only satisfied if the music is good. It often was, but I’d been spoilt. Until Radiation, it had mostly been great.
I was hanging in there by the thinnest of threads. I was about to embark on an MBA. I got rid of my television for six years. I listened to far too much Radio 4 and spent bewilderingly lonely nights struggling to understand the weighted average cost of capital. I was in my early 30s. I’d been sucked into believing a life behind a desk in the City was what I wanted, what I might be good at. It was perhaps my last chance to take the alternative way, but I failed to do so. For various reasons, these were dark years for my family, and I remember the first eight albums coming to the rescue on more than one occasion before I graduated in 2009.
Myth-busting: 2 – To be, or not to be Progressive?
What’s missing in most dissections of Marillion’s output is the fundamental understanding that, even with Fish, they were already moving away from the backroom bar, Aylesbury digs, university Union gig, drug-influenced jams that had Yes fans nursing an erection and half a pint of snakebite. ‘Punch And Judy’, a clinical evisceration of a relationship breakdown married to a 3:22 minute pop tune, was 1984. ‘Kayleigh’ and ‘Lavender’ were ‘85; ‘Just For The Record’, ‘Incommunicado’ and ‘Sugar Mice’ in ‘87. If ‘Cinderella Search’ (from the mini live album Real To Reel (1984) and, latterly, various compilations and special editions) isn’t a catchy pop*** song, what is? The point at which Marillion stopped being the band that wrote ‘Grendel’ was a lot earlier than their critics give them credit for and (some) of the fans wanted.
The Prog thing is a heavy burden and the Hogarth era band approached it in all the wrong ways. Denial first, then frustration, latterly as a badge of pride. Confused? For all Lucy Jordache’s great work as their post-EMI PR, they found themselves further and further down the rabbit hole until, and this is completely understandable, nobody could take them seriously. What started out as incomprehension in the 80s turned into little short of derision by the late 90s and early Noughties. A lot of that was self-inflicted.
The Sisyphean, and only partially successful, climb back has seen them embrace the Prog world in ways they would not have contemplated then. Members of the band now regularly contribute to glossy Prog magazines. Contemporary luminaries of ‘the scene’ like (the great) Steven Wilson master anniversary editions of Fish era albums. Most peculiarly, they’ve written albums in the second decade of the twenty-first century that owe more to Genesis and Van der Graaf than anything since 1984’s Fugazi. The band that wrote such brilliantly fluid yet coherent albums like Seasons End and Afraid Of Sunlight, records that took all that was best of both worlds, have struggled with the hall of mirrors trap. They’ve often overreached in both song length and an earnestness that can sometimes be difficult to listen to. The very things they railed against when Hogarth joined, enough that radical change was discussed.
In an interview in 2000, Hogarth expressed regret about the band retaining their name after he joined:
The longest song on a Fish era studio album is the multi-part ‘Blind Curve’ on Misplaced Childhood, clocking in at 9:29. Since 2000, they’ve recorded twelve songs of ten minutes or more across fourteen albums, almost one per album. 2004’s Marbles has three alone, as has 2012’s Sounds That Can’t Be Made.
That’s not to say some of these songs aren’t very good, but it’s difficult to equate the band’s much-documented stance of ‘we’re not a progressive rock band’ with continued examples of them writing music that most people would consider fits into that genre. For Marillion, perception has always been nine tenths of the truth. To the casual listener, someone who’s seen ‘Kayleigh’ performed on TOTP and seen Fish in full Peter Gabriel make up, the die was cast by the mid-80s.
Five – This Is The 21st Century
Marillion have issued seven studio albums since 2000. Some groups don’t release that many in their entire career. F.E.A.R., released in 2016, was officially their eighteenth. Their slick web presence, ownership of their own studio and record label and a huge fan base means that countless ‘bootleg’, live and studio offshoots are available from the albums of this period; try negotiating the discography on Marillion.com. As mentioned above, they’ve also seen their Fish era albums remixed at least twice, latterly by Steven Wilson. The latest versions, boxed with more extras than an Eastenders market scene, retail at c.£60. For people who have three versions already (the original vinyl, the remixed compact discs, the first vinyl remix) this is taking loyalty to whole new heights, but it’s difficult to criticise the marketing strategy. They tour the world regularly, they’re involved in a myriad of solo and ex-Marillion projects, and in 2017 sold out the Royal Albert Hall. Some of this can be put down to nostalgia and the rise in popularity of vinyl again, but to do so would be unfair; the band has very loyal fans, and they’ve worked as hard as any band I can think of to nurture that relationship. Any late-period success should not be sniffed at, it should be applauded.
The studio albums are now ‘event’ music. They are released in various formats, usually including fan-favourite, limited edition box sets. Some of them benefitted from funding by those who wanted to listen to them, a bizarre concept in the Noughties but common currency now. My name is on most of the records they crowd-funded, because.. well, because its not easy to let go of your heroes.
Of the albums in question, there are moments of brilliance on 04’s Marbles, 08’s Happiness Is The Road and 2016’s F.E.A.R.. 2007’s Somewhere Else suffered similar confused quality issues to Radiation and is largely forgettable. Only 2012’s Sounds That Can’t Be Made stands up as solidly good throughout, despite the aforementioned weakness for long songs. In fact, the 14 minute ‘Montreal’ is one of the best things they’ve written since the late EMI era, a paean to travel and to the bond the band has with its supporters. It’s been a long time since a new album has been a guaranteed slam dunk, though at this stage of their journey, it might be too much to expect another Misplaced Childhood, Clutching At Straws or Afraid Of Sunlight.
Me? I’m four months shy of 50. Married, with two children. The eldest of them will be 10 next year. I regularly play vinyl of all sorts, interested in seeing which albums she might pick up on. To date, Billy Bragg and The Mamas and The Papas. I’m hoping that soon I might get the courage up to put some Marillion on.
I don’t get as much time to listen to music now, but it’s still important to me. It still means something. It retains its ability to take me out of myself, and now it comes with added bitter-sweet and beautiful memories; new layers for the cake. I suspect, when Marillion announce a new studio album, I’ll buy it on vinyl and wait for a moment when the house is empty so that I can play it, loud and uninterrupted. I’m looking forward to it. You can never let go of your heroes, and neither should you.
Six – Enlightened
If you’ve made it here, well done. Having done so, you might be forgiven for thinking I like Marillion at all. I’ve been critical of their music, honest about their tendency to take themselves too seriously, shown my frustration at their occasionally ill-conceived attempts at PR. The truth is I could no more discard this band than I could my own brother. I love them. I love them for what they gave me when I was 12, 15, 18, 25, 33, 42 and whatever they give me next.
It’s because Steve Rothery can ring emotion out of a guitar like no other player I know. When he leads on ‘The Great Escape’, ‘Splintering Heart’ and countless other songs, it’s hard to describe what it does to me.
It’s because Pete Trewavas and Ian Mosley do so much more than keep tight four-to-the-floor rhythms, mixing beats and signatures at a moment’s notice – I used to wait for a good hi-hat push from Mosley on each new album; both players are so sympathetic to the overall sound yet remain fully engaged with the melodies too.
It’s because Mark Kelly regularly takes his keys into flights of fantasy, often guiding the mood of the song with a simple run or a collection of minimal notes – ‘That Time Of The Night’ is a great example but there are so many.
It’s because I identified with a six foot plus hairy Scot who found a way to achieve a connection with this world by creating one of his own, one that allowed him to do so on his own terms, and thereby taught me it was possible. Words that started out a puzzle, but when I understood them, gave me more pictures than any other wordsmith has done, then or since.
And it’s because his replacement crafted a new journey, from ‘Gaza’ to ‘Gazpacho’, ‘Easter’ to ‘Essence’, ‘The Party’ to ‘Power’, a window on the globe and all its faults and its joys, all laced with that Hogarth eye for detail and, when necessary, a tongue firmly locked to a cheek.
Together, they are more often than not breathtaking. I can’t imagine waking up without them. To paraphrase ‘Berlin’ from Seasons End, it would be with a hole in my heart.
*Collins has updated the 2002 version with additional chapters – you can purchase it here. My research is taken from the original publication.
**regrets? I’ve had a few.
***don’t get riled by the term ‘pop’. It means popular. Marillion were popular, to the tune of 10 million albums; get over it.
Quotes and lyrics used without permission of the authors.
I must have put together over a hundred Marillion ‘best ofs’ over the years. Best ofs are subjective to the point of redundancy, so here instead is a starter for ten. Some of these may not appear to be the obvious choice. Some aren’t my favourite from that album. Together, they represent the wide, wildly inventive group that I’ve delighted in since that night in 1982, listening to Tommy Vance. One track each from their eighteen studio albums to date, even those for which I’ve been less than kind. From Aylesbury Friars to the Royal Albert Hall. And it only took 34 years.
|Song / Album / Year||Song / Album / Year|
Script For A Jester's Tear
|Tumble Down The Years
|This Is The 21st Century
|That Time Of The Night|
Clutching At Straws
|A Voice From The Past
Holidays In Eden
|Trap The Spark
Happiness Is The Road
|The Hollow Man|
Less Is More
Afraid Of Sunlight
Sounds That Can't Be Made
This Strange Engine
|Eldorado ii The Gold