Marillion - Biography
By Michael Keefe
Rock group Marillion formed in Aylesbury, England in 1979. In the early 1980s, Marillion were among the leaders of a Neo-Progressive Rock movement that included Asia, the Phil Collins-led Genesis and a retooled Yes. With original lead singer Fish, the band opened the door for a new generation of pro rockers such as iQ, Pendragon and Jadis. They rose to great popularity in Europe, culminating in a #1 album in 1985. In 1988, Fish parted ways with the rest of the band. At that point, Steve Hogarth took over vocal duties, beginning a new era of Marillion that lasts to this day. The group's popularity curtailed in the late-'90s but then rebounded in the new millennium. Thanks in part to pioneering online promotions, Marillion have increased their popularity in recent years, even charting a Top 10 UK single in 2004. After 30 years they continue to create strong records of dramatic yet highly melodic rock.
Marillion began life in 1978 as Silmarillion, taken from the J.R.R. Tolkien novel of the same name. Its founding members, drummer Mick Pointer and bassist/singer Doug Irving, went through various bandmates before settling on guitarist Steve Rothery and keyboardist Brian Jellyman in 1979. At that point the group shortened their name to Marillion. Irving left late the following year and, in January 1981, was replaced by a pair of Scottish roommates – bassist Diz Minnitt and vocalist Derek W. Dick, known to all as “Fish.” In the fall of that year, Jellyman was let go and replaced by Mark Kelly. Minnitt was fired in 1982 and Pete Trewavas took over on bass and backing vocals. This lineup recorded the band's first release, the Market Square Heroes EP (1982 EMI). Featuring the epic fan favorite "Grendel" on its flip side, the single charted at #60 in the UK.
The following year, Marillion issued their debut LP, Script for a Jester's Tear (1983 EMI). Though clearly indebted to the progressive rock of the '70s, Marillion revealed a more aggressive sound and Fish's vocals bore a sharper bite than Peter Gabriel's. Nonetheless, some critics flagged the band as Genesis clones, a tag that would dog them for years. Most reviews, however, were justifiably glowing, as the UK #7 album is among Marillion's best. The title track brims with sad romanticism, while the intense #35 UK single "He Knows, You Know" tackles drugs and insanity. Second single, the jaunty "Garden Party," is a send-up of high society and peaked at #16 in England.
Despite the great successes of Script, stilted stickman Mick Pointer was let go in spring of 1983, initiating a string of temporary replacement drummers. Andy Ward (ex-Camel), John Marter and Jonathan Mover all filled the vacated slot for a time, before Marillion found their long-term drummer in veteran session player Ian Mosley. This lineup recorded Marillion's sophomore album, the angry and lyrically dense Fugazi (1984 EMI). The first track, "Assassing," dealt with all of the band's firings. It hit #26 in the UK, while the domestic drama of "Punch & Judy" peaked at #29. The album's highlight is its lengthy title track, which rails against the world over the course of three movements. Though not without its strong points, the album didn't perform as well as Script. That same year, the band issued their first live LP, Real to Reel (1984 EMI), which features generally better and more visceral takes on the Fugazi material.
Popularity and sales grew with the band's third album and essential masterpiece, Misplaced Childhood (1985 EMI). The music is both moodier and more melodic, while Fish's lyrics are far more introspective (some are even credited to Derek W. Dick). Constructed as two side-length suites, the album's first half boasted two massively popular singles – the pretty and wistful "Kayleigh" hit #2 in England and was the band's lone success on the American charts, reaching Billboard's #74. The lovely "Lavender" hit the UK #5 spot. The rest of the album is devoted to winding atmospheric passages and brisk rock, while Fish's lyrics chronicled the descent from young love into the depths of substance abuse and, finally, a triumphant return to the purity of childhood. Stunning from end to end, Misplaced Childhood debuted at #1 in England, sold millions of copies worldwide, and reached a respectable #47 in the US, where Marillion have never been promoted well.
The following year, Marillion released the Brief Encounter EP (1986 EMI), maintaining the interest of new fans with a pair of B-sides and three live cuts. This was later appended to a CD reissue of Reel to Reel. Meanwhile, Marillion set to work on their fourth full-length, Clutching at Straws (1987 EMI). Moving ever further from their prog beginnings, the more straightforwardly rocking album conjures more comparisons to The Who than Genesis. Fish's lyrical themes turned to alcohol and pleas for redemption. The UK #2 album is nearly as great as Misplaced Childhood and is certainly more extroverted in feel. "Warm Wet Circles" and "Incommunicado" both charted well as UK singles.
That was the last Marillion studio album to feature Fish as the band's singer. When brewing internal conflicts and creative differences finally came to a head, they parted ways in 1988 while in the process of working on their next album. Most of Fish’s lyrics from the aborted sessions appeared on his solo records, especially his debut, Vigil in a Wilderness of Mirrors (1990 EMI).
Later that year, Marillion took on replacement singer and keyboardist Steve Hogarth, formerly of The Europeans and How We Live. They immediately set about recording the first Marillion album of a new era, Seasons End (1989 EMI). The songs were taken from the aborted sessions with Fish and given new lyrics written by Hogarth and writer John Helmer. The band harnessed the more rock-oriented musical direction of Clutching at Straws while also returning to the expansiveness of Misplaced Childhood. Although sales weren't as high as during Fish's tenure, the album sold well and generated two charting singles in the punchy "Hooks in You" and the playful "The Uninvited Guest." When re-issued in 1997, the album included the demos from the sessions recorded with Fish.
The band ran into a creative snag when they made an obvious bid for chart success with their next album, Holidays in Eden (1991 EMI). Though plump with shorter, radio-friendly songs; Marillion didn't achieve the sales they'd hoped for and some fans were quite disappointed. That aside, there are a few classic Marillion numbers on the record. Even the obvious pop songs (three of which went Top 40 in England) are well crafted and undeniably catchy. The next year, a hits compilation featuring singles from both eras of the band emerged. Six of One, Half-Dozen of the Other (1992 EMI) contained both Fish and Hogarth-sung Marillion tracks and included a cover of Rare Bird’s "Sympathy" which reached the UK #17. Around this time, Marillion's online fan base grew in ranks and obsessive behavior, even dubbing themselves “Freaks,” after a 1988 b-side.
The band then set about creating its next masterpiece, the dark, powerful, and sprawling Brave (1994 EMI). A gritty concept album based on a girl who was found naked and catatonic on a bridge, Brave eschewed commercialism for art's sake. Producer Dave Meegan captured the recordings in a French castle, and brilliance emerged. The press loved the album, but its darker mood and dearth of singles generated low sales for the album. Meegan produced Marillion's follow-up, the quickly "knocked out" Afraid of Sunlight (1995 EMI), the band's final album for their major label of 13 years. Despite its hurried assemblage, the LP ranks among Marillion's best, mixing the goofy Beach Boys-inspired "Cannibal Surf Babe," expansive numbers that melded rock and atmospherics, and the appropriately titled "Beautiful.” The latter, released as a single, reached #29 in the UK and was Marillion's last charting single for the next nine years.
Without a label, Marillion continued on as free agents, releasing a double-live album the following year. The first disc of Made Again (1996 Castle) captured the best of Marillion in the '90s. Disc two featured Brave played live in its entirety. One year later, the band issued their first self-produced album, This Strange Engine (1997 Castle). Though a solid album that offers everything from catchy, Crowded House-esque pop/rock to the multi-part epic of the title track, this record marked the beginning of a three-year trend in which each successive Marillion album would sell worse and offer less artistically. Radiation (1998-Castle) and the horribly titled marillion.com (1999 Castle) were both scattershot affairs that went mostly unnoticed by the press and received mixed receptions from record buyers.
Their US contingent pooled together over $60,000 in a fan-sponsored Tour Fund, enabling Marillion to play an extensive series of American dates throughout 1997. The following year, the band's eight EMI albums were all re-mastered and reissued with bonus discs. Marillion also launched their Racket Club in 1998, selling CDs of past concerts through their website. That year also began a new tradition – entire weekends where fans would occupy a lodge, treated to nightly performances from the band.
Fan involvement culminated in 2000, when the band asked their loyal listeners to pay in advance for their forthcoming album. The overwhelmingly positive response of 12,500 pre-orders allowed Marillion more studio time and the ability to again retain the services of Dave Meegan. Once more, he piloted Marillion to victory with Anoraknophobia (2001 Intact), the first release on Marillion's own label. The strongly reviewed album was their best in years, with several of its long tracks constructed from Trewavas's grooving bass loops. The "Between You and Me" single sold 10,000 copies and won Marillion coveted BBC radio airplay.
The double-album, Marbles (2004 Intact), produced again by Meegan, was also pre-sold to fans – this time to finance promotions to radio. Lead single "You're Gone" reached the UK #7 and its follow-up, "Don't Hurt Yourself," made the Top 20. The album is another of Marillion's strongest, earning more critical praise. That fall, they staged their first US tour since 1997. Three years later, the band released their 14th album, Somewhere Else (2007 Intact). Produced by their longtime touring partner, Michael Hunter, the record hit #24 on the UK album charts. It yielded the #15 single, "Thankyou Whoever You Are/Most Toys," a double A-side pairing of Somewhere Else’s best songs. As of summer 2008, Marillion were taking pre-orders for their second double-album of the decade, Happiness Is the Road. Again produced by Hunter, its anticipated release date is September 2008.
Over the course of three decades, Marillion rose to unlikely superstardom, fell to the ranks of struggling cult band, and ascended back into the pop charts. While many 1980s rock bands are mere nostalgia acts today, Marillion continue to follow their muse, crafting creative rock albums, forging innovative means of connecting with their loyal fans, and providing a true alternative to the latest musical fads.