Tight, intricate drumming; solid, melodic bass playing; banks of analogue keyboards providing atmosphere, wibbly lead lines and sweeping solos (without an acid squelch in earshot); textured, melodic, majestic guitar; lyrics that range from flights of mythological fancy to political soap-boxing, emotionally delivered by a large, regularly sozzled Scot wearing theatrical make-up: this was Marillion.
The Fish Years
It's England in the late 1970s. Punk has come and pretty much gone, taking an angry safety pin to the smoke-filled bubble of progressive rock's musical and theatrical excesses and paving the way for a bright new wave of pop and rock music. Guitar playing was simplified, keyboards became slaves to the sequencer, drummers were about to start fighting the drum machine and, if we believe pop culture mythology, nobody wanted to hear a song that lasted more than three minutes. Into this exciting, dynamic musical world came three young musicians who chose to ignore all of that and play progressive rock instead.
Guitarist Steve Rothery, keyboard player Brian Jelliman and drummer Mick Pointer were the three in question, based in Aylesbury, and calling themselves Silmarillion1. In 1981, short of a vocalist and bass player, they placed an ad for a 'Bassist/Vocalist' in a weekly music paper.
Meanwhile, in Lincolnshire, a Scottish vocalist called Derek W Dick (nicknamed 'Fish') and bass player Diz Mitford were trying, unsuccessfully, to form a band. They were close to giving up when they came across the ad. Diz called the band, convinced them that the bass player and vocalist should be two different people, met up in a pub and arranged an audition. Fish wrote a lyric ('The Web') to accompany a track the band had already written ('Close'). These lyrics featured an early appearance of The Jester, a sympathetic character Fish had created as a teenager and who would go on to become a narrator through Marillion's first four studio albums and cover art2. The audition went well, the song sounded great and, suitably enthused, the band set their sights on getting a contract.
With a set of re-jigged old material and a few new songs the band played their first gig at The Red Lion, Bicester. The set included the nineteen minute epic 'Grendel' (lyrically, Beowulf from the creature's point of view), a song that bore a structural and tonal similarity to the Genesis track 'Supper's Ready'. This was not the last time Genesis would crop up.
Time moved on; the band recorded a three track demo and sent it to all the major London record companies, who all rejected it, so they got back into the gigging circuit. They supported artists ranging from folkster John Martyn to, at London's Marquee club, the rock band Girl (featuring guitarist Phil Collen who went on to join Def Leppard). As the band became more successful it was apparent that they needed to become fully professional. Unfortunately for Brian Jelliman, who was holding down a decent day job, one night Marillion were supported by Chemical Alice, a band with a remarkably good, full-time keyboard player called Mark Kelly. Bye, bye Brian.
Mark's playing only served to highlight a musical inadequacy in Marillion. Having already found a replacement in Pete Trewavas, Fish was dispatched to fire the bass player; the man who introduced him to Marillion; his best mate, Diz.
Interest in the band started to grow after a Tommy Vance session for Radio One (Diz's last recorded performance with them) and a 29 date Scottish tour. One change of manager and a Marquee residency later, they landed a deal with EMI.
Script For A Jester's Tear (1983)
Marillion's first full-length studio album (their only previous release was the 'Market Square Heroes' EP backed with 'Three Boats Down From The Candy' and the aforementioned 'Grendel') featured the grand total of six tracks, but it was atmospheric, textured, intense stuff. The band were sharing a flat in Fulham (London) and, as is the way with cohabiting, enthusiastic young bands with a fresh record contract, there was much drinking, drugging, late night and early morning shenanigans.
It was a bohemian den and images from that epoch revolve around heavy drug and drinking sessions, Israeli melon, scratches on backs and accusations of infidelity (most proven), late night cafes and house specials of teapots filled with cheap wine, cloudy mirrors, bloodied streets, murmuring telephone receivers and sustained diplomacy intertwined with dynamic hedonism. A truly wonderful epoch.Somehow, despite the progressive style of the music, this atmosphere comes across on the album, especially on 'Chelsea Monday', which was influenced by the characters Fish saw during early morning walkabouts.
- Fish, 1997
The album was produced by Nick Tauber, who had previously produced the Genesis album Foxtrot, including the song 'Supper's Ready'.
Once the Script tour was over Marillion sacked drummer Mick Pointer for being a bit rubbish and, after a couple of short-lived replacements, hired Ian Mosley3. They moved to a house in Wales to write and record Fugazi, named after a slang term from the Vietnam war meaning 'All screwed up'. Again this was a fairly debauched time, with both long working hours (the band regularly worked from midday to six the following morning) and Fish's imagination being fuelled by stimulants.
There was a lot of class A naughtiness around although at the time I didn't realise how much...
- Mark Kelly, 1997
All I remember from there is saturating my body in all manners of chemicals and alcohol, sitting around in magical stone circles and listening to a lot of Van Morrison albums.
- Fish, 1997
Fugazi sounded more contemporary than Script, despite some of the songs being based on ideas written for the previous album. Fish's lyrics were more obviously personal, with subjects including groupies ('She Chameleon'), the band's line-up changes ('Assassing') and his relationship with his girlfriend, which was suffering from the pressure of touring ('Punch And Judy', 'Emerald Lies'.) As a tour had already been booked the band were under enormous pressure to get the album released on time, to the extent that the album was mixed in two separate studios. The first single, 'Punch And Judy', was released in January 1984, but few people noticed. The album did better and a large amount of touring and the resulting live album, Real To Reel, provided more success.
Misplaced Childhood (1985)
The intensive touring for Fugazi finally brought an end to Fish's long term relationship with his girlfriend Kay4. He moved back to Aylesbury and fell further into a life of drink and one night stands. One evening he received a letter from an ex-girlfriend which included a LSD trip. Fish took the trip, had a bad one and hallucinated a young boy dressed as a soldier. A fan of metaphor, Fish had an idea.
The band decided that it was a good idea and, after spending time refining it and mapping it out, they had the rough plot of a concept album. Recorded amid even more debauchery in an inspirational Berlin, Misplaced Childhood was their most successful album, both commercially and, for many, creatively.
The first single, 'Kayleigh', is the band's biggest hit to date and introduced a lot of people to their music, many of them perplexed by the album that followed, which had no breaks in the music (apart from that between sides one and two), recurring melodic themes and Fish's 'flowery' lyrics. The publicity and tour took their toll on the band, though they didn't realise it at the time:
That entire era was a blur of travelling, performing and endless interviews combined with the excesses of a touring rock band with their first worldwide hit. I was wasted physically and spiritually at the end of that road....I didn't deal with it at all well and the availability of all manner of temptations proved too much for a hedonistic soul like my own.
- Fish, 1999.
Another Genesis link: In 1986 Fish collaborated on the single 'Shortcut To Somewhere' with Tony Banks, the Genesis keyboard player5.
Clutching At Straws (1987)
The success of Misplaced Childhood and 'Kayleigh' meant that the band had more money and recognition but also the burden of expectation. The Childhood tour finished in May 1986 and Marillion almost immediately set to work writing the follow up, Clutching At Straws. Initially the writing didn't go well, with the band spending too much time 'relaxing' and playing computer games but, following a break at Christmas and a few gigs, it was completed by January 1987. The album was recorded under a tense atmosphere. The band were arguing, Fish had further trouble in his personal life and was increasingly disillusioned with John Arnison, the band's manager, who was complicit in the indulgence.
Straws did well in Europe and was supported by a successful tour, but the American leg and promotional campaign were cancelled, leading to further tension. Fish approached the band to discuss John's disruptive influence: he felt that a manager should be reining in the excess, not partaking in it. The band agreed and they decided to replace John. Unfortunately for Fish, John caught wind of this and talked the band into giving him a second chance. That was really the beginning of the end. Fish took refuge in the bottle (mirroring the decline of 'Torch'6, the narrator he had created for Straws) as the distance between Marillion and himself grew.
Marillion regrouped in 1988 to write their fifth studio album but, while there were good ideas, the band were unable to work together. Fish had financial problems which were partially attributable to John Arnison and felt that his position in the band had been irretrievably undermined when they agreed to retain John as manager. His increasing isolation had alienated him from the other four.
A meeting was arranged at Fish's house to discuss things but, when the rest of the band met up with John on the way, Fish felt that his exclusion was complete and resigned from the band.
I jumped, and I didn’t realise how high up I was or how hard the concrete was.
- Fish, 2001*
Marillion recruited Steve Hogarth to replace Fish and have continued with varied commercial success and increasing critical acclaim. Fish has pursued a moderately successful, low key solo career and branched off into acting roles.
Marillion and Fish have settled their differences, even reuniting for one song at the end of a Fish festival set in August 2007, but it seems that a reunion isn't on the cards.
- Script For A Jester's Tear
- Real To Real
- Misplaced Childhood
- Clutching At Straws
- The Thieving Magpie - La Gazza Ladra
- B'Sides Themselves (a b-sides compilation)
Singles and EPs
- 'Market Square Heroes'
- 'He Knows You Know'
- 'Garden Party'
- 'Punch And Judy'
- 'Heart Of Lothian'
- 'Brief Encounter (US EP)'
- 'Lady Nina'
- 'Welcome To The Garden Party (Live)'
- 'Sugar Mice'
- 'Warm Wet Circles'
- 'Freaks (Live)'