The Most Innovative Rock Band in the Digital Age Is… Marillion?

Fish from Marillion

Marillion became huge in 1985 in the UK when lead single from third album Misplaced Childhood, the lovely (and heart-on-sleeve raw) Kayleigh hit the charts.

A newspaper discovered that the Kayleigh in the song actually existed – she was an ex-girlfriend of the lead singer called Kay (middle name Lee). There was no such thing as bad publicity and the single reached #2 in the charts.

Marillion were headed by charismatic Scottish drinker frontman Derek W Dick, who perhaps burdened with a ridiculous name decided to change it to a more sensible one; and so Fish was born.

Did I mention that he also drank like one?

Fish originally donned face paint in the fine tradition of rock stars who take themselves too seriously prog rock frontmen like Peter Gabriel and … well, like Peter Gabriel. Perhaps a closer comparison might be ’80s dandy highwayman and similarly name-changed-to-that-of-an-animal Adam Ant. I never understood the face paint – only Michael Stipe and the Washington Redskins ever really managed to pull that look off – and Fish dropped it also by the third record.

Marillion’s lyrics were credited to Derek W Dick and in an interview of the time Fish would blur the line between the two sides of his personality, seemingly unsure as to “who” had written the lyrics. He seemed to have lived several lives – his lyrics were full of broken relationships – all well over the head of a sixteen year old boy like me…

Their sound was unashamedly prog-rock. The band were fabulous musicians, evidence Pete Trewavas’s lovely creeping bass lines on Chelsea Monday or the ubiquitous widdly-widdly arpeggio keyboards of Mark Kelly on Market Square Heroes, Assassing, Incommunicado et al. Steve Rothery had a clean David Gilmour-esque tone and Ian Moseley (who replaced a collection of rather iffy drummers on early records) played the cymbals with extraordinary precision.

Between 1985 and 1987 Marillion were one of the biggest bands in the UK. A number one album, a headline appearance at Milton Keynes, sold out shows at Wembley Arena and a successful follow up album Clutching At Straws. Worldwide fame beckoned, so the band did what anyone else would have done in their position, and started arguing with each other. Fish went solo. Steve Hogarth replaced him very well. For a minute, we had two for the price of one…

Neither Fish nor Marillion enjoyed such success again, but aside from the effect this may have had on their bank balances, I’m not sure it matters. I have great memories of gigs and they left behind more than a few good tunes. Marillion retain a solid following who clubbed together to finance the cost of recording two of their albums, no less. That’s the sort of blind loyalty you only normally see in British tennis fans. Their fans remain delighted with the new records to the extent they they are doing it again.

The new record “Sounds That Can’t Be Made” will be released in the autumn and fans can pay £30 for a deluxe version which comes with a 128 page book and live DVD or £10.99 for a standard CD. The first 5,000 buyers get a credit in the liner notes and there have been several prizes for early adopters, including the chance to win your own private gig by the band. Cool. If you are new to Marillion, they will even send you FREE an album length “Crash Course” in order for you to make your own mind up.

It doesn’t take a brilliant mathematician to calculate that the band will benefit from a decent recording budget upfront. For a band that might otherwise be ignored by their record company, this is an attractive business model (not that the band like to use that term – I think they see it more as a community).

In the nicest possible way however, whilst this works for a band like Marillion, this might not be the best way forward for everyone. Take The Libertines’ comeback record as a good example. If you believe what they say in the (court) papers, give Pete Doherty £150k up front and the only real winners are likely to be the crack and heroin dealers of East London or Thailand…

It seems extraordinary that a band that is thirty years old and widely overlooked is perhaps taking the most entrepreneurial approach to music in the digital age, more so even than the likes of Radiohead. And all they are doing is selling CDs in the post. Someone should tell Guy Hands before he wastes another few hundred million buying back EMI. Perhaps he would be better off buying Marillion’s new record instead…

Record #74: Marillion – Kayleigh

Marillion’s seventeenth studio album, Sounds That Can’t Be Made is scheduled for release in September 2012, and is available to pre-order on the marillion.com website. Fish also has an album coming out in the autumn…



Categories: Music, Rock Music

Tags: , , , , , , ,

18 replies

  1. Awesome. Great read!

    In the past I have pre-ordered every Marillion disc offered, this is the first time I haven’t, due to lack of funds.

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  2. I adore “Kayleigh” and “Lavender Blue” from the album. The rest is good, but never resonated the same way those two songs did. I’m glad they’re really embracing the changes in how music gets marketed and sold. I wish more groups would do the same.

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  3. I am embarrassed to say I have never, until this morning, heard of this band. Never. A quick search revealed that they are touring North America this year so they must have some following here. If I was to listen to them, what should I listen to first?

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  4. If new to the band, try out the ‘Crash Course’ CD they will send you for free. A few of the better albums for first-time listeners would include ‘Afraid Of Sunlight’, ‘Somewhere Else’ or the fans’ favorite ‘Marbles’ or even ‘Brave’ (which might be a bit much for a first-time listener but is arguably the best long-player). The best of the Fish-era for a newbie would be either ‘Misplaced Childhood’ or ‘Clutching At Straws’ (although the debut, ‘Script For A Jester’s Tear’ and even ‘Fugazi’ are more more interesting). But every fan has their own opinion. The band had been going strong since 1979 and continues putting out quality music with innovative marketing methods. Give them a listen!

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  5. When hitchhiking to Vienna in 1987, a friend and I heard something we were sure was Genesis, Peter Gabriel and/or Phil Collins, but since we knew all their stuff, and knew that new stuff couldn’t have escaped us, we were confused. It was, of course, Fish-era Marillion. I do like the sound of some of this stuff, particularly the Gabrielesque vocals and Minimoog (I presume) sounds.

    A bit later, we saw both Marillion with the new singer and Fish. (I also saw Fish much later at the Loreley, in 2007 or so.) Neither was as good as the old stuff.

    Fans tell me that they are much better now etc. I went to see them on a double bill with Saga. Neither group impressed me much. (I had seen Saga also in 1983, opening for Tull on the Broadsword and the Beast tour.)

    Maybe I just don’t get them.

    While they didn’t exactly bowl me over, I was more impressed by Arena a few months ago (with, of course, former Marillion drummer Mick Pointer).

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  6. Marillion to me ended with Fish leaving the band, not that I am a big Fish solo fan now, I like his first solo album that’s all, if Marillion now can’t release a new album, doesn’t mean nothing to me, because I don’t buy any of their albums since of beginning of 90’s, that band could disappear long time ago, I like Arena, but even latest Arena’s album isn’t that great, there are others new and better neoprog bands, to me the best neoprog album ever is: Script for a jester’s tears, and best single Market Square Heroes.

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  7. I had never heard of Marillion until fairly recently. Then I heard the song “Lavender”, and was extremely impressed. I couldn’t download the song fast enough!

    Great article!

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  8. I’m a big fan of seasons end by Marillion, their first without fish and I also like all 4 fish albums,they have never been a fashionable band, that’s what I like about them, they are true rock survivors.

    Liked by 1 person

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  1. Top Ten 80s Songs #7: Marillion - Kayleigh

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