Marillion – they haven’t done too badly for a band classed as Seventies throwbacks (or the alternative popular view as a Scottish heavy metal band). Still going strong today with a rabidly partisan fanbase and thrilling the critics once more with their topically observed F.E.A.R album, Nathaniel Webb delves back into the Eighties when they made their mark before things went pear-shaped.
Ah Marillion. I have some history and insight into a band who I’ve grown up (and old) with. I recall speaking to Steve Rothery around fifteen years or so ago and commenting on how I’d first seen the band in 1982 when they were just about to explode onto the scene. “Job for life,” he quipped. And that’s what it is if you’re in the Marillion family. That’s a family akin to Metallica’s ‘fam-i-leeehhh’.
I wasn’t quite there at the very start in the late Seventies but it’s a story covered in a prologue and epilogue bookending the decade with the ‘before’ and ‘after’ parts. Being particularly picky, even I have to concede that even though the book is about the Eighties, it does have to sit within the whole context of the story of Marillion.
He does a decent and quite comprehensive summary of those early days; refreshing the memories of the die-hards who are still with the band about the ins and outs (several of the latter once the musicianship began to shift upwardly mobile) with Fish, driven by his desire to succeed, delivering more fatal blows beyond those coming to some hapless front row victim during Grendel. It also acts as a nice reminder of how the music developed and if anyone hasn’t heard the demoss of the early music, they are well worth seeking out to accompany your read.
The days when Marillion continued their rapid rise to stardom; one year’s most promising new band to the next year’s band of the year. Fuelled by talent and a non-stop touring ethic, Fugazi, the follow up to the debut, was a difficult birth and the cracks were already beginning to show. Webb records how they flitted between being the darlings of the press or an easy target at which to have a swipe. Poll winning episodes and magazine covers clash with acerbic comments about their relevance.
And then, despite the massive successes (and excesses) of the Misplaced Childhood period (my go-to Marillion album…) there’s not the happy ending that provides the final moment of the last Fish era album. I don’t think Nathaniel Webb uses the quote but Fish has gone on record (interview with Loudersound in 2016) as saying “I was an arsehole.” Fame, booze, drugs; a feeling of entitlement, swollen ego and bad management.
Analysis of the albums and the songs provides punctuation points. Some of the songs get more of a musical breakdown rather than lyrically or beyond, but as a musician himself, you can understand that from the author. We get plenty of references to mixolydian modality – so much so that as a musical moron, I had to look it up with the number of times it cropped up – and the occasional WTF moment (Lords Of The Backstage moves “through D to G to suggest a more hopeful C Lydian tonality overall” at which I’ll nod sagely and move on).
Inevitably, there will be moments of controversy. “The title track of Season’s End is also its least inspired“…hmmm, some may be tearing their hair out…and the production values of Script (“lush, dark and deep; sounding fresh even today“) that many believe was still very thin sounding. The recent remaster is fab btw – our review). Some may also baulk at the lack of insight into the importance and significance of the album covers. Almost as iconic as the Iron Maiden/Eddie branding.
The Eighties story takes us right up to the arrival at their present day incarnation in1989 with the excellent (if a little bit ‘same-y’ in contrast to Fish’s debut album that attempted to cover most bases under the sun maybe to prove a point) Season’s End. In hindsight, similar to Genesis’ A Trick Of The Tail – a band who’d also lost their iconic (although significantly more refined) front man and entered a new, more accessible era.
On major omission seems to be the lack of bibliography and reference points. Mick Wall and Claus Nygaard are mentioned and granted, this isn’t an academic tome, but scholars and fans might wonder where many of the quotes and citations come from.
Ultimately it covers a formative period when Marillion found their feet through peaks and troughs. It’s interesting that from 1989 to the present day they’ve remarkably kept the same line-up. Granted, they’ve encountered the occasional bump on the road but are much better equipped to deal with the challenges that being a musician constantly throws up. Never less than interesting.
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