The Unsung – Marillion

In 1985, my sister spent six weeks or so as an exchange student in Germany. She went during the summer, so I’m not sure if “exchange student” is exactly what she was, but the upshot is that she spent six weeks or so in Germany, living with a family. When she came back, she had some cassette tapes on which she had recorded some records she heard while there, bands that hadn’t really made it to the States yet. One of the songs she introduced me to was “Rock Me Amadeus” by Falco (pour one out for Falco, everyone). One of the bands she introduced me to was Marillion.

On one cassette were the second and third Marillion albums, Fugazi and Misplaced Childhood. I listened to them a little, and promptly forgot about them. My sister is 16 months older than I am and was two grades ahead of me in school; in 1985 I was 14 and that autumn I entered 8th grade, while she went to a different high school. We always got along perfectly well, but we weren’t particularly close. I didn’t really think too much about Marillion over the next few years, even though Misplaced Childhood is the band’s most commercially successful album and “Kayleigh,” the first single, is their most successful song. But I was listening to classic rock in those days, and even though I dug progressive rock like Genesis and Yes, I didn’t get into Marillion. Beats me why not. Maybe I was just immature.

Over the next few years, however, I started to listen to them more. In 1987, they released Clutching at Straws, and I bought it, and I began to listen to their earlier albums as well, having bought their first album in the interim. In 1989, Seasons End became the first album I ever bought on CD (I was a bit behind the times), and I never looked back. They became my favorite band, which they still are, and Misplaced Childhood remains my favorite album ever and it’s not particularly close. For those of you who don’t know anything about Marillion … well, I’m here to help!

Marillion was born in the Great Prog Rock Decade, the 1970s, although in those days they were an instrumental band called “Silmarillion” after the Tolkien book. After a while, they dropped the “Sil” due to copyright fears and because it was “too Tolkien.” Hence the name, in case you’re wondering. They didn’t really become a complete band until 1981, when they hired a vocalist named Derek Dick, who went by the name Fish. They toured a lot in 1981/1982, with their 17-minute epic “Grendel” as the centerpiece of their live shows, released an EP, and then in 1983 released their debut album, A Script for a Jester’s Tear. It’s as pretentious as the title implies (it’s still a great album, though). Everyone by now had pegged Genesis as a big influence, which is somewhat odd because Marillion has always been harder than Genesis. Fish liked to dress up on stage, so the link to Peter Gabriel was there, but in the 1970s, a lot of performers dressed up on stage. Did David Bowie or Elton John or KISS influence Marillion? I love Genesis, too, and the comparison still seems lazy to me. I don’t know if it helped or hindered Marillion in their nascent years, but it’s never quite gone away.

The years with Fish are what casual fans remember, because that was when Marillion had what little chart success they ever did. A Script for a Jester’s Tear was a decent success in the United Kingdom, and its songs are perhaps the most “progressive” of the band’s. Fish showed that he had a gift for excellent and deep lyrics, and his Scottish lilt is a perfect fit to make the band sound a bit more mysterious than most. The best song on the album is probably “Forgotten Sons,” the anti-war tune that wraps things up, but all six tracks are pretty great. The shortest song is the terrific single, “He Knows You Know,” a song about drug use, which clocks in at 5.22. Marillion scorns your short songs! The band was off to a good start.

Their second album, Fugazi (1984), is still great, but a bit of a misstep, mainly because Fish became even more pretentious and his lyrics became a bit more opaque. There are some great songs on the album – in fact, of seven tracks, only two are a bit lesser ones – but that doesn’t mean they’re not impenetrable sometimes. “Assassing,” which begins the album, is terrific, but its lyrics include such gems as “Adjectives of annihilation bury the point beyond redemption / Venomous verbs of ruthless candour plagiarize assassins’ fervour / Apocalyptic alphabet casting spell, the creed of tempered diction,” which are nice but could easily describe Fish himself (Fish seems remarkably self-aware about his foibles, so it’s possible that he is writing about himself). But he can also write painfully brilliant lyrics like those in “Jigsaw,” my favorite Marillion song and one of the most wrenching break-up songs I’ve ever heard, with stuff like “Are we trigger happy? / Russian roulette in the waiting room / Empty chambers embracing the end / Puzzled visions haunt the ripples of a Trevi moon / Dream coins for the fountain or to cover your eyes.” We also get songs like “Incubus,” a creepy song about a fraught relationship between a director and actress, where we find “You who I directed with lover’s will, you who I let hypnotise the lens / You who I let bathe in the spotlights glare / You who wiped me from your memory like a greasepaint mask / Just like a greasepaint mask.” The title track, which ends the album, is a harrowing song about the times we live in and our increasing isolation from each other, which allows hatred to seep in, and is unfortunately as relevant today as it was 35 years ago – “Rat race scuttling through the damp electric labyrinth / Caress Ophelia’s hand with breathstroke ambition / An albatross in the marrytime tradition / Sheathed within the Walkman wear the halo of distortion / Aural contraceptive aborting pregnant conversation / She turned the harpoon and it pierced my heart / She hung herself around my neck.” The music fits well with Fish’s bleak outlook, as Steve Rothery’s wonderful screeching guitar jangles the nerves and Mark Kelly’s plaintive keyboards adds the right amount of paranoia to the album. It’s a step forward from the first album in many ways, but still feels like Fish, in particular, is trying a bit too hard.

No such pitfalls show up on Misplaced Childhood (1985), their third album, which remains my favorite album by any band ever and it’s not particularly close. A few years ago, I read something about “perfect albums,” meaning albums you wouldn’t change even a little bit, and when I mentioned it on the old blog, I got a lot longer list than I thought I would. Even albums that I think are truly great are rarely “perfect,” as there’s either one song that I could do without or even a certain part of a song that simply doesn’t work. For me, the only “perfect” album is Misplaced Childhood. From the first eerie keyboard tones on “Pseudo Silk Kimono” to the cri de coeur of “Kayleigh” (still the band’s most successful single) to the surprised hopefulness of “Childhoods End?” and the triumphant anarchy of “White Feather” that ends the album, there’s nothing I would change. Fish’s lyrics are still excellent, but he eases off the lengthy metaphors just enough to create visions that fit perfectly with the marvelous music, as everyone is on the top of their games. Just the beginning of “Kayleigh” is heartfelt and brilliant: “Do you remember chalk hearts melting on a playground wall / Do you remember dawn escapes from moon washed college halls / Do you remember the cherry blossom in the market square / Do you remember I thought it was confetti in our hair.” But Fish also recognizes the tragedy of life, which blends with the beauty, as in “Bitter Suite”: “The sky was Bible black in Lyon / When I met the Magdalene / She was paralysed in a streetlight / She refused to give her name / And a ring of violet bruises / They were pinned upon her arm / Two hundred francs for sanctuary and she led me by the hand / To a room of dancing shadows where all the heartache disappears / And from glowing tongues of candles I heard her whisper in my ear / “‘J’entend ton coeur” / I can hear your heart, I can hear your heart …” and the joyousness of “White Feather”: “We don’t need no uniforms, we have no disguise / Divided we stand, together we’ll rise.” It’s an amazing album, and I never get tired of it.

But the cracks began to appear in the band not long after the album, as Fish and the rest of the band had different ideas about the direction of the music. Fish obviously wanted to become more of a popular singer, while the band wanted to stick to their roots. Fish was becoming more of a celebrity, and he wanted a bigger cut as the front man. According to Mark Kelly, Fish also liked to party more than the rest of the band, and that led to personal tension. The recording of Clutching at Straws was contentious, but it’s still an excellent album. The mini-suite that begins the album, “Hotel Hobbies,” “Warm Wet Circles,” and “That Time of the Night,” is amazing, even though it foreshadows some of the changes the band was going through, especially on Fish’s end, as he sings in “That Time of the Night”: “So if you ask me / How do I feel inside / I could honestly tell you / We’ve been taken on a very long ride / And if my owners let me have some free time some day / With all good intention I would probably run away / Clutching the short straw.” Even more than “Kayleigh,” some of the songs on the album seem designed to be popular singles, even with Fish’s still caustic lyrics; “Incommunicado” is the first single from the album, and it’s all about how the narrator has no time for anyone because he’s too famous. It’s probably Marillion’s funniest song: “I’d be really pleased to meet you if I could remember your name / But I got problems of the memory ever since I got a winner in the fame game / I’m a citizen of Legoland travellin’ incommunicado / And I don’t give a damn for the Fleet Street aficionados.” Fish had always been personal in his lyrics, but he’s wearing his heart on his sleeve more and more on the final album, with “Torch Song” (“Doctor says my liver looks like leaving with my lover”), “Slainte Mhath” (“And you listen with a tear in you eye to their hopes and betrayals and your only reply is Slainte Mhath”) and “Sugar Mice” (“Well the toughest thing that I ever did was talk to the kids on the phone / When I heard them asking questions I knew that you were all alone”) coming in succession toward the end of the disc. In 1988, after touring for a time, Fish quit the band and embarked on a solo career.

(Fish’s solo career has been quite good, actually. His first album, Vigil in a Wilderness of Mirrors (1990), has some killer tunes on it, but it also shows his desire to be a big-time pop artist. Internal Exile (1991) is probably his best album, with “Shadowplay,” “Credo,” “Just Good Friends (Close),” “Dear Friend,” and the title track all among his best, showing both his lyrical chops and his sentimental side. Suits (1994), Sunsets on Empires (1997), and Raingods with Zippos (1999) are all good albums, but the quality dipped a bit with Fellini Days (2001). Field of Crows (2004) was a pretty good return to form, and 13th Star (2007) is his best album since Internal Exile, unless that’s A Feast of Consequences (2013), his most recent release. Fish is getting old (he turns 60 in April), so I don’t know if that’s why he’s slowing down a bit, but he still makes good music, and as of a decade ago, he put on a killer live show. He wanted to act, as well, but he’s never really been that big in the acting world. But he’s doing his thing, and I hope he keeps making music.)

After Fish’s departure, I know some fans simply lost interest in Marillion, but the band replaced him quickly, with Steve Hogarth, and in 1989 they released Seasons End. On the bonus disc of Clutching at Straws, some of the music later used on Seasons End shows up, with Fish’s lyrics that he took with him and reworked into songs for his solo albums, so it’s kind of interesting hearing the transition. The music was almost complete, and Hogarth worked with John Helmer, whom the band had hired on the lyrics. The album is quite good, even with Marillion following Fish’s lead a bit and going for pop song glory a bit. “After Me” is a terrific pop ballad, and “Hooks in You” is the first single but probably the worst song on the album (and it’s a contender for worst Marillion song ever, so there’s that). But the rest of the album is great, with “Easter,” the title track, “Berlin,” and “The Space …” the highlights. Hogarth’s voice isn’t as strong as Fish’s, but that’s fine – he emotes well, and his lilt adds some mysticism to the lyrics, which Fish lacked. It makes his singing, despite lyrics that don’t (and never do) rise to the level of Fish’s, more personal in many ways, and he sings about some more universal themes than Fish does, so it’s less like he’s working through his own problems and singing about things everyone can relate to. I still prefer Fish, but Hogarth is no slouch.

In 1991 the band released Holidays in Eden, which is still pretty good, but the band’s pop sensibilities were showing a bit too much, even though there are some terrific songs among the collection. “Splintering Heart” begins the album, and it’s a killer: “So you save up your tears / For the moments alone / ‘Til the splinters you gather / Leave you glass-hard and numb / And the same sun is shining / On the old and the young / On the saints and the sinners / On the weak and the strong / And there’s a burning and freezing / And a cross for a kiss / So she learns to stop dreaming / And you know how it is.” “The Party” is a terrifically creepy song, even though it’s about freeing yourself from the conformity of your life – the dichotomy is well explored by Hogarth. “Waiting to Happen” is one of my favorite Marillion songs, a great love song: “We took ourselves apart / We talked about our faces / You said you didn’t like yours / I said I disagree / I keep the pieces separate / I clutch them in my coat / A jigsaw of an angel / I can do when I feel low.” The album ends wonderfully, too, with the devastating “100 Nights”: “You didn’t notice me / As I passed you on the stairs / How could you ever guess / Looking at my face / How closely I share your taste / How well I know your place / Even the clothes you wear / I’ve seen them when you’re not there / You say that you can win win win / If you know how to play the game / But while you’re out there playing you see / There’s something you should know / She spends your money / She spends your money on me …” Still, it’s kind of a schizophrenic album, as the band was, seemingly, trying to be pop stars even though they weren’t terribly good at writing pop songs. They seemed to realize that too, because in 1994 they released Brave, a terrific album that began a late-Nineties run of excellent (but low-selling) albums that led to a split with their record company and their pioneering efforts in crowd-funding, which has become a more standard way of creation in the 21st century. Brave is a great album, getting the band back to their progressive roots. “Living with the Big Lie,” “Alone Again in the Lap of Luxury,” and “Brave” are highlights, but the whole album is a nice return to form.

While the band had issues with record companies (they would be dropped by EMI after their next album, and they lasted a while on their next label before deciding to go it alone), they continued to release excellent albums. Afraid of Sunlight (1995) is probably the best Hogarth Marillion album, although their most recent might have a claim. It’s loosely about the perils of celebrity, and Hogarth’s ethereal voice helps make it both reflective and spooky, especially when he sings about the darkest side of celebrity – more than one song is about death, and the album’s best track, “King,” ends the album with a devastating portrait of a person who no longer knows who he is: “And they call you a genius / ‘Cause you’re easier to sell / But the fire in your belly / That gave you the songs / Is suddenly gone / And you feel like a fake / Is that what you want? / I hope for your sake / You’ve got what it takes / You’ve got what it takes / To be spoilt to death.” Hogarth gets to flex his vocal muscles a bit, and the music becomes more and more harrowing before simply cutting off. It’s a terrific song, and a great way to end the album.

After a year off, the band was back with This Strange Engine (1997), which includes another of their great songs, “Man of a Thousand Faces,” which is about the universality of certain ideas in history and whether they’re good or bad. The album ends with the epic 15-minute title track, in which Hogarth tells the story of his life. He began to be a bit more personal as his became more comfortable in the role of lead singer, and this is an indication of that. In 1998, Radiation came out, another fine album that made no dent in the mainstream music scene. “These Chains,” a song about escaping the cage you’ve made for yourself, is a superb tune, as are “Cathedral Wall” and “A Few Words for the Dead,” the latter of which is a harrowing song about someone planning to shoot up a nightclub but deciding instead to appreciate the beauty of life. If only it were that easy, but the hopefulness of the song is wonderful to behold. Finally, in 1999, the band released marillion.com on their own label. The band had embraced the internet early on, with a 1997 North American tour being financed by fans who donated money on-line, while after this album, Marillion would turn to crowdfunding to produce their records. marillion.com is another excellent album, and it shows the band’s continued willingness to experiment with their sound. “House,” the final song on the album, wears its Massive Attack influence on its sleeve, but it’s also a terrific break-up song, with Hogarth almost wailing the lyrics “When she cries she cuts me / And when she smiles I wanna die / Afraid of knowing myself / Our eyes stare out while we hide inside.” “Interior Lulu,” the penultimate song on the album (it clocks in at 15 minutes, while “House” is a brisk 10 minutes), is ironically a scathing indictment of the internet culture, even as the band was turning to the internet to continue as a band. It’s still a terrific song, with biting lyrics like “In our racing stripes / We rejoice at being ‘connected’ / Without touching / Thank god for the internet / We stare at our screens / All our lives / What a waste of eyes / ‘Til the electrical storm blows our fuses / And we gaze, dumbfounded, at the rain …” Hogarth has always been more invested in personal access, but even he came to recognize the importance of the internet! The rest of the album is quite good, too, with “Go!” being one of my favorites, as it’s about trying something new instead of being stuck in a rut, and it ends with a beautiful chant of “Wide awake on the edge of the world,” which is a great line.

In 2001, the band released their last great album for a while, Anoraknophobia, which was the first they asked fans to finance. You could pay for it before it was recorded, and you got your name written in a special booklet and a fancier CD package with your order. The CD that went to stores, naturally, was not as fancy. The band raised £150,000, more than they would have gotten as an advance from any record company, and the band was able to begin work on their next album as well. It is believed to be the first album completely funded by fans, and Marillion has followed the model ever since (except for Somewhere Else in 2007, because they didn’t need the money). Anoraknophobia is another excellent album, with the band stretching their musical muscles into some jazzy and funky tunes, including the brilliant “Quartz,” in which the extended metaphor has the singer claiming he’s clockwork and the woman is quartz, so while she’s perfect all the time, one day she’ll just stop, while his shaggy imperfection will last longer and “Fruit of the Wild Rose,” which is as erotic as Marillion has ever gotten, perhaps (they write love songs, but not really sex songs). “Separated Out” is a spiritual successor to a terrific Fish-era B-side, “Freaks,” in which Hogarth sings about the cruelty of people’s judgments. The final song on the album, “If My Heart Were a Ball it Would Roll Uphill,” is another unusual departure, as it’s heavier than a lot of what the band had been doing recently, but with a crunch and whine that sounds different than almost any song in their catalog.

After Anoraknophobia, Marillion slipped a little, although not too much. Part of it is that they have released two double albums since 2001, and it’s hard to do a really great double album, and the two they’ve released could easily have been edited down. Second, they released by far their worst album in 2007, Somewhere Else, which has a few decent songs on it but no great ones, and some pretty bad ones. They’ve had some great songs – “Genie,” “The Only Unforgivable Thing,” “You’re Gone,” and “Neverland” from Marbles (2004) are superb, while Happiness Is the Road (2008) contains “This Train Is My Life,” “Woke Up,” “Throw Me Out,” and “Real Tears for Sale,” which made up for Somewhere Else to a certain degree. Sound That Can’t Be Made (2012) was another step in the right direction, with “Power,” “Lucky Man,” and “The Sky Above the Rain” particularly good songs. Another problem is that Hogarth is getting older, and his voice doesn’t have the range it used to. He can’t hit high notes as well as he could in the 1990s, yet for a long time, he kept trying, and it kept the actual singing from being as good as it had been. He seems to have figured it out, though, because on their latest album, Fuck Everyone and Run (2016) his voice sounds a lot better, as it stays within his range. Another problem is that the lyrics haven’t been quite as good as they used to be, and I’m not sure why. Hogarth doesn’t work with Helmer anymore, and Helmer was responsible for some excellent lyrics in the Nineties, but so was Hogarth on his own, so that’s probably not it. He has become more prosaic as he’s gotten older, which doesn’t always work. “Montreal,” for instance, from Sounds That Can’t Be Made, contains this: “The man at immigration said his friends all knew the band / Bizarre to come so far to an outstretched hand and easy conversation / We were welcomed through arrivals without the usual transatlantic fuss / And greeted by the fans who led us to the chilly street onto the bus.” I mean, it’s nice that they had an easy time flying into Canada, but did we really need a point-by-point bulletin of their arrival, especially sung in such a dull way? A lot of latter-day Marillion songs are like that, and the ones that aren’t are the better ones. On F E A R (which I reviewed here), Hogarth seems to have regained his lyric-writing mojo a bit, and the album is the strongest one Marillion has released since Anoraknophobia. The band is certainly getting older (their youngest member was born in 1961), but I hope this latest album shows they can still make strong music.

I’ve always been a fan of prog rock, although I’m not sure why it started for me. Despite branching out into other kinds of music over the years, it’s always been my favorite genre; I love long, twisty songs, complicated arrangements, and the more poetic the lyrics, the better. That’s just one reason why Marillion is my favorite band. They’ve always been willing to experiment with different styles, and they never seem to be coasting on old laurels. Fish’s lyrics are still brilliant to sing along to, and while Hogarth’s (and Helmer’s) are a bit of a step down, the songs are still about something, and they hit you on an emotional and an intellectual level. I like heavy metal and pop and rap and other kinds of music, but I really enjoy listening to a band that is both lyrically and musically powerful, and I’ve never come across a band as good as Marillion. I’m certainly aware that the band doesn’t have the greatest reputation. Critics tend to like their albums and dismiss them as dinosaurs in the same sentences, which is odd. They made an impact on pop culture a bit in the mid-1980s, but that faded, and today, most people know Marillion (if at all) because of The Young Ones, maybe?

Below I’ve linked to the Amazon page of Misplaced Childhood, even though I know no one buys albums anymore, but if you’re interested, buying it that way gives me a tiny slice of the money. I also linked to Jon Collins’s terrific biography of the band, Separated Out, which covers through 2012 and will probably need another upgraded edition eventually (it originally covered through 2002). I know that music is more of a visceral thing than much of the arts, so while people might be able to convince you to buy a comic or see a movie, music connects to us on an emotional level and it occasionally makes no sense why we love it. I can give you plenty of reasons why Marillion is amazing, and if it doesn’t hit you in just the right way, you’re never going to like them. And that’s cool – we all have our own opinions here, and that’s why pop culture is so much fun. But if you’d never heard of the band, maybe these examples will introduce you to a new favorite. Have fun!

9 Comments

  1. Edo Bosnar

    Although I’m a big fan of prog rock (I mainly like the ‘old-guard’ bands like Yes, King Crimson, Gentle Giant, etc.), I never really got into Marillion – sorry. I remember kind of liking “Kayleigh” back when the song was popular, but that’s about it.
    I have to say, though, that I’m really impressed with the way they’ve been financing their albums since the late ’90s. That’s some very creative use of the internet.

    As to perfect albums (which I define as one with awesome songs that can be enjoyed on their own but which go together, well, perfectly), there’s a few that pop to mind immediately: Fragile and the Yes Album by Yes, Abraxas by Santana, The Key by Joan Armatrading, and A Different Kind of Tension by the Buzzcocks.

    1. Greg Burgas

      They’ve been smart and successful at financing, and they get to retain ownership of everything, so it’s worked well.

      I ought to do a post about “perfect” albums, because a definition would definitely be in order. It would be fun to see what people think!

  2. Eric van Schaik

    For me it was Yes too, not Marillion.
    Me younger sister killed it for me.
    Sometimes my dad played one of my cassettes in the car with 70’s hardrock which he sometimes liked. At one time my sister complained that she never have her cassette played. Because of that my parents thought it was fair to hear her tape too. On it was the maxi-single of Kaileigh . After hearing all the songs twice it was over for me. Sorry 😉

    1. Greg Burgas

      Eric: You’re dead to me!!!!! 🙂

      Younger sisters strike again! My sister has pretty terrible taste, which is why I was surprised I liked Marillion so much. She did something right in the pop culture realm in her life! 🙂

  3. Eric van Schaik

    oops, posted too soon. Here some other stuff that you don’t have to look up.

    Rammstein – Buch dich, which gave them big problems in your country. The clip will show you why. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WLRt_1kQJ3Y

    Temples – Move with the season (a beyond the wizards sleeve re-animation)
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EVgCHH3A7e0

    And Also The Trees – Slow pulse boy, the definitive song and some other followers of this site agree with me 🙂 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=izd_V8-AMhk

    Voivod – Atronomy domine (pink floyd cover)
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xGNMeLTClBw

    Paradise Lost – Faith divides us death unites us, which is one of the favorites of my second son. When the come to Holland even he wants to go
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AdS_ewqiuHs

    The Gentle Storm – The storm. I saw the first and the last show of the tour
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_qpseRKIYuE

    Anneke van Giersbergen – Come wonder with me https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_qpseRKIYuE

    Oceansize – An old friend of the cristies. A modern progrock band who stopped a few years ago https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IYmaS1c9Xr0

    Millionaire – Ballad of pure thought

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