Marillion

Some time around 1984 or so, when I was heavy into progressive rock, I became aware of a fast-rising British band called Marillion.  They had a freak hit in the US called “Kayleigh,” a tale of early adulthood love and loss. The music was a throw back to a Genesis that had not existed for about ten years at that point, but that was fine.  I loved the album that spawned “Kayleigh,” the trippy concept album Misplaced Childhood.  The best way to describe it is to imagine a young Peter Gabriel writing and performing his own version of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, only with a happy ending.

So, glomming every bit of prog rock I could find, from Yes’s psychedelic classics to the overblown Emerson, Lake, and Percussionist to the weirdgasm that was the ever-reincarnating King Crimson, I happily bought Misplaced Childhood for some semblance of normalcy. Besides, their Garbielesque lead singer called himself Fish. How could you go wrong with that?

Li’l Sis and my future ex only fed this new obsession. Li’l Sis gave me copies of their first two albums, Script for a Jester’s Tear and Fugazi. Fish and I were on the same apparent wavelength. We were both angry young men in our twenties frustrated with our lives. Fish, more so than me, as the Scottish poet made no secret of his love-hate relationship with chemical recreation (“He Knows, You Know”) and letting off screaming diatribes about the politics of the day (“Fugazi”).  Yet when Marillion worked best was when the original Genesis worked best, taking that prog sound and writing broadly appealing tunes that had a sense of mischief about them. “Garden Party” and the single “Market Square Heroes” (which inspired the short story “Gotham Square Hero”) were the ones I remember best.

Here are the boys after they found their permanent drummer and before Fish’s hair left the band.

What struck me more than Fish’s voice was the guitar of Steve Rothery. Rothery is a guitar player of the David Gilmour school, feel over flash. No one puts more Gilmour through his guitar than Gilmour. Ditto for Steve Rothery. The repeat effect that “Kayleigh” is built around is probably one of the most brilliant bits of song writing from the 1980’s.

But Marillion is one of those bands that peaks in popularity before it’s actually complete.  When the writing began for Script, only Rothery was a member of the band, and he had been a replacement in an earlier incarnation called Silmarillion. Fish was recruited early on, and during the writing, the keyboard player was replaced with Mark Kelly, who probably is more responsible for Marillion’s sound than even Rothery. Kelly, however, stepped the band’s game up a notch, requiring a better bass player than the one who joined with Fish in 1980. They recruited Welshman Pete Trewavas (also known as a member of Transatlantic these days). Trewavas is one of the greatest bass players I’ve ever heard. In fact, I can only name two better that I’ve heard: My nephew and John Entwistle. My nephew is an absolute freak on the bass who makes Entwistle sound like an amateur, and you can say that about such geniuses as Geddy Lee, Chris Squire, and Tony Levin in comparison to Entwistle. In short, I think Pete’s brilliant.

During their first three years as Marillion, they went through what Fish termed “a Spinal Tap drummer period” before settling on Ian Mosely, who played on Misplaced Childhood. In 1987, the band burst out with the more mainstream tale of tour alcoholism, Clutching at Straws. Marillion was becoming a smoother, more accessible group. So they were ready to buck the coming Brit pop and grunge waves brewing in London and Seattle. Right?

Um… No.

Marillion hadn’t really found its lead singer yet. By the time I saw them live in 1991, Fish had left in a huff and in dire need of rehab. Instead of looking for a guy who would sound like Fish or Phil Collins or Peter Gabriel, they rebooted with the former lead singer of The Europeans named Steve Hogarth, better known as h to Marillion fans.

But was he a poet?

Hard to say at first. Panicking that they might not find a lyricist of Fish’s caliber, Marillion hired one. It was probably a mistake. Hogarth is very much a poet in the same vein as Fish, with a more soulful voice and a bigger vocal range. But some of those early efforts lack the mix of mischief and sorrow Fish provided. Season’s End, while interesting, has less poignancy than, say, Clutching at Straws.  It’s when h writes his own lyrics (“Easter,” “Holloway Girl”) that we see the wisdom of the band opting for same-but-different with a guy steeped in the 80’s new wave movement.

Hogarth couldn’t be Fish. Fish was a poet who drove the music. But what h brought was that missing fifth musician. It’s quite likely, if called upon, he could drum. He regularly plays keyboards and guitar and co-writes the music as well as writing lyrics. So how does Mr. H stack up against his Scottish predecessor?

This song, the title track to Marillion’s last major label release, was about the danger of celebrity destroying the person it is bestowed upon, drawing its inspiration from the tragedy of James Dean. The album also references speed boater Don Campbell, OJ Simpson (who was on trial when the album was released), and Elvis (“King”).  The line that strikes me the most in this song, one that Fish himself might have had on his mind when Marillion’s popularity peaked and overwhelmed him in the 1980’s, was “I’m already dead. It’s a matter of time.” It captures that fear that when one’s star burns out, they’ll burn with it.

Marillion went independent in the mid-1990’s, their initial popularity fading as grunge and Brit pop took over. But it meant they could shed the shackles of being a “progressive” band. Good. Because there are no more annoying or pretentious fans of rock than prog fans. I pour myself a nice cup of smug every time I hear one whine that Marillion doesn’t sound progressive anymore. That’s a good thing. Bands that stagnate are boring. Just look at Yes after 1973.

So who do I prefer? Fish? Or H? Well, let’s put it this way. Fish and I are still of like mind (only I drink more than he does these days, if only because he no longer drinks at all). And Fish and I very much like what Steve Hogarth has done with Marillion. But while Fish is happy his old friends found someone with whom could make the music they want to make, I started listening to the latter-day Marillion when my writing career stalled, my first marriage disintegrated, and, more importantly, as I met and married Nita. Shortly after Nita and I married, they released what is arguably their best album ever, Happiness Is the Road. The title track is an autobiographical song about Hogarth emerging from a dark period in his life to some sort of awakening.  Those events very nearly paralleled what was going on in my life at the time he was writing.

Happiness is the road indeed.

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