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Marillion


Genre: Progressive rock Founded: Approx. 1979 Active: Yes Studio albums: 14 Multimedia Bona-fide Celebrities Discography

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 Members

 * Fish (Derek W. Dick) | Vocals, Lyrics | 1979-1988
 * Steve Rothery | Guitar | 1979-current
 * Pete Trewavas | Bass | 1979-current
 * Mark Kelly | Keyboards | 1979-current
 * Mick Pointer | Drums | 1979-1981
 * Ian Mosley | Drums | 1981-current
 * Steve Hogarth | Vocals | 1988-current

Prog rock is music by nerds, for nerds. Oh, you Radiohead? fans keep your noses high in the air, confident in the nerdish superiority of your chosen poison, but let's face facts. Next to the pompous potheads at a Rush concert, you're mere babes in this game of pretention.

Should anyone doubt the fact that prog is the ultimate form of creative expression for people who would have been hopeless basement-dwellers but for the fact their skill with the guitar/keyboard/Chapman Stick exceeded their aptitude for tossing dodecahedral dice to save against Zombie Dragon poison (+6), consider this: Genesis?' favorite subject prior to Peter Gabriel's departure was Greek mythology. ELP? penned a 35-minute sci-fi epic which ended with a spaceship's computer kicking its mentally-inferior crew's butts. Magma made up their own freaking language and sang inscrutable hymns about the coming zombie apocalypse, for pete's sake. And Rush?... well, they're Rush. But in all probability, no band more effectively embodies the collaborative power of prog and nerdiness than Marillion.

They were doomed from the start. The name "Marillion" is short for "Silmarillion." You know, as in J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth? version of the old testament. Yeah, that Silmarillion. This name was chosen way back in 1979, before Lord of the Rings was the ubiquitous cultural icon that it is today; Tolkien's work was still in a tenuous transitional phase: morphing into its current status from its previous state. Namely, that of a fetish object for bookish college students whose only knowledge of women came from staring at Frazetta posters while sucking down bong hits with their D&D group.

So, from day one, Marillion has been a band of men who gleefully embrace their tendency toward social misfittery. What makes them different from the rest of the prog world is they've actually figured out how to tap into both the obsessive-compulsiveness and technological savvy of their fans for fun and profit. But alas, that's getting ahead of the story.

Marillion was formed at the very end of the 1970s -- unquestionably the best part of the seventies [1], unless you happened to be, oh, say... a progressive rock outfit. Old proggers spent the latter half of the seventies longing for the glory days of 1973, back when someone like Rick Wakeman could stand within a mighty fortress of Hammonds and Moogs shrouded in a sequined gold cape and bring a stadium to its feet in reverence as he performed musical tributes to the wives of Henry VIII. But undaunted by the fact that "prog" was a dirtier word in 1979 than "disco," a drummer named Mick Pointer rounded up a group of musicians to replace all the people who were dropping out of his band Silmarillion; thus, Marillion was born. Their mission? To write lengthy songs full of lyrics laden with literary and historical references and be uncompromisingly uncommercial about it all. In other words, the traditional prog mantra. To this end, they auditioned potential lyricists/vocalists by giving applicants an 8-minute instrumental demo tape of a tune (which would eventually become "The Web") and seeing what the prospective singer could come up with.

The winner of this odd trial was a fellow by the name of Derek W. Dick. Perhaps not surprisingly, Dick performed under the significantly less embarrassing stage name of Fish. A huge Scotsman -- both tall and heavyset -- Fish was the sort of fellow you can easily imagine living a few hundred years prior and running into battle beside William Wallace, slathered in blue paint and screaming ferociously as he casually decapitated random Britons with a massive battle axe. [2]

Fish's vocal technique could best be described as "try and hit the right pitch," but he put the whole of his rather substantial self into vocalizations, which meant that what he lacked in skill he made up with sheer emotional power. "What?" you say. "A progger who could emote?" Heretical but true!

His approach to lyrics was equally scattershot, with a heavy reliance on double entendré, layered symbolism and vivid metaphorical imagery. Unfortunately, his writing had a tendency to drift between brilliant and overwrought, sometimes in the space of one line to the next. When he got it right, his lyrics were peerless... when he got it wrong, he came off as a forehead-slapping mix of a Pete Sinfeld ELP lyric and an online diary belonging to a particularly self-pitying sad teen girl in black. On the whole, though, this wild inconsistency fit pretty well with the band's musical stylings, which tended to blend Kansas-like? cheesiness with the sophistication of one of the better albums by, say, Genesis or Pink Floyd?.

With their first album under their hat, the band came to a realization: they were all exceptional musicians... except the drummer. And thus the sole founding member of the band was unceremoniously kicked off the team in an act of sheer mercenary audacity worthy of Yes. But at least they were nice enough to commemorate the occasion with "Assassing," a song about what bastards they were.

And so the band went about their business of being largely unmarketable, living up to their "progressive rock" billing by producing progressively more complex albums. Ironically enough, their least commercial album, Misplaced Childhood, spawned the band's two biggest hits: "Keyleigh" and "Lavender." One can only imagine the shock and betrayal on the face of young British everylad Simon Smith, age 13, as he sat down with a copy of the album only to find the two hits he sought inextricably mired within a dense, mopey concept album. I have to admit I take grim satisfaction in the notion.

At this point, Fish decided he was a super humongous rock star and decided to go solo. Or something. There are suggestions that the real problem was that the rest of the band thought he was a super humongous jerkface and gave him his walking papers. As I'm not in the tabloid business, my vote is "who cares about the gruesome details; he left, the end." In any case, his solo career was not unlike that of an ensemble TV sitcom star who decides to go into film and promptly ends up a has-been. In this case, we'll draw a parallel to Kirstie Alley -- he recorded a few albums which were the musical equivalent of the "Look Who's Talking" movies before succumbing to a life of slumming in metaphorical MCI commercials. Unlike Kirsty, of course, Fish started out heavyset. And proud of it.

With the departure of Fish came the arrival of Steve Hogarth, who seems to have been chosen based on how totally not like his predecessor he was. While most bands go for a vocal impersonator when replacing a singer, Marillion found someone whose only real similarity to Fish was that he was a male human from somewhere on the British Isles. But everything about Hogarth -- his dimuntive height, his willowy physique, his lyrical habits, his vocal techniques -- seemed to be the result of a mad experiment to create the anti-Fish. He was quiche and Sauvignon Blanc to Fish's steak and Guiness. Where Fish blundered through his vocals with the grace of a runaway ox and the emotional intensity of a riot, Hogarth has a more restrained approach that actually includes considerations like melody and phrasing but tends to be a lot less intense. Like, "comparing a 40-watt bulb to the sun" less intense. But this has actually worked out pretty well; the wild differences between the two frontmen allowed the band to forge a completely new identity.

Admittedly, it's a sort of bland identity, existing in an awkward, ill-defined space between progressive rock and friendly lightweight pop (albeit with considerably smarter lyrics and arrangements than you'll find on your Clearchannel-owned radio outlet of "choice"). So in a sense, the band is dutifully upholding the "unsalable" portion of the prog rock creed. But seeing as they've sounded almost completely the same for the past fifteen years , it sort of calls into question the "progressive" portion of their billing.

As it turns out, Hogarth-era Marillion's progressive thinking has more to do with their business model than their composition, which is where the whole "by nerds, for nerds" aspect comes into play. Whereas most old proggers seem to regard the Internet as a curiosity at best (or, in the case of King Crimson, an endless source of potential to enhance their contempt for their fans), Marillion decided to jump feet-first into the whole thing and make use of the fact that the borderless online world is a perfect tool for socialization. Especially given the nature of their audience, who by and large are the exact sort of dice-tossing basement spelunkers the band would have been but for that happy accident of exceptional musical talent. And for the past six or seven years, Marillion have done an exceptional job of exploiting the Internet's social networking aspects -- something the rest of the world only recently seems to have caught onto. [3]

It began in earnest when a bunch of American fans banded together to raise enough money to pay for Marillion to tour the U.S. in support of Radiation; this was the point at which the band realized: holy crap, our fans are obsessive. And not a moment too soon, really, because as the new century arrived the faceless corporate monsters who control the music industry continued to tighten their chokehold on anyone who wasn't an internationally-successful headlining act. Especially old prog acts whose popularity had sublimated over the past two decades, leaving only the sticky residue of a loyal cult. And the band realized: holy crap, unless we totally whore out we'll probably have to find new jobs in this climate. And then it dawned on them: holy crap, we have direct access to thousands of fans who love us, and they're weirdly obsessed. Let's see if they can help us.

And so Marillion put out the call: pre-purchase our next album and we can pay for our own production costs, thus procuring a favorable publishing deal with the freedom to do things our own way. We'll make it worth your while. And thousands of fans said, hey, rad, and ponied up the asking price. The resulting album, Anoraknophobia, was produced in a limited edition for everyone who preordered. And the fans and the band alike saw that it was good.

Thus for their follow-up, the band made an even bolder offer: send us forty bucks [4] and we'll go all-out. Your investment will pay for the creation of a double album and net you a special limited boxed version with a 128-page hardback book that includes your names as evidence thanks. And then we're going to produce some singles and use the leftover cash from your investment to hire ourselves a crack PR firm to promote our music and make us famous again. Maybe we'll even chart or something.

Weirdly enough, it's working, which means either the whole idea was a stroke of brilliance, or the fans are genuinely obsessive. (Not to discount the possibility that both answers are correct, of course.) Marbles was mailed out to something like 13,000 fans a few weeks prior to its official release, right about the same time that the albums first single -- "You're Gone" -- went on sale in Europe. In a terrifying inversion of natural law, the single actually hit #7 in England, making it their first top ten tune in seventeen years. This has of course brought great joy to the British music press, whose lust for savaging prog rockers has gone disappointingly unslaked in recent years; however, it's also caught the attention of actual journalists, who are less interested in making dismissive comments about old farts than they are examining the ramifications of a band who have managed to circumvent the increasingly corporate nature of the pop charts by creating a direct line of communication with their fanbase.

For all that the future of the music industry is embroiled in vigorous debate, it's amusing that Marillion have managed to avoid either of the most popular projected outcomes (suffocating corporate control vs. free downloads for everyone). There's probably a lesson in here for us all, but as much as I complain about Fish's habit of writing lyrics that beat the listener over the head with his point I'm probably better off letting everyone come to their own conclusions. In any case, it should be interesting to see how this artificially-induced comeback affects the band's future, and in fact if anyone else decided to adopt the "beg the fans" approach. It works for all kinds of websites, after all. We nerds are a clannish bunch.


Six-Song Starter Pack

Six of the band's best songs to help get you started on your exciting new musical addiction. Includes iTunes Music Store links where possible, because... well, just because.

Jigsaw | Fugazi, 1984

Fish chokes back the bitterness long enough to offer this sober, thoughtful reflection on why relationships fail. Hint: people are often stupid.

Warm Wet Circles | Clutching at Straws, 1987

Just a slice-of-life sort of thing. As usually happens when you look at others' insignificant passions and pursuits from without, it's all a bit depressing. Be sure to track down the single version of this -- it works better on its own than as part of the album suite.

White Russian | Clutching at Straws, 1987

A cutting critique of otherwise good people who sit passively and allow bad things to happen -- in this case, the rise of Neo-Nazi sentiments in '80s Europe. Of course, this song has absolutely no relevance in these more enlightened times. Nope. No parallels to be drawn here. Nuh uh.

Waiting to Happen | Holiday in Eden, 1991

Yeah, it's a love song. So? The whole point of the song is letting go of your cynicism and appreciating sentiment, so let's just all agree to stop being so damn jaded and enjoy it.

This Strange Engine | This Strange Engine, 1997

A hauntingly autobiographical piece by Steve Hogarth that stretches for a good 15 minutes and makes every one of them count, encompassing every element of Hogarth's Marillion without feeling disjointed. The finale is incredibly stirring, and it's rare for me not to hit "repeat" on my iPod once the final notes die down for a second listen. Probably the single best song the band's ever created -- personal without being self-absorbed, lengthy but never dull, proggish but free of pretense. If all music were this good, I'd probably just sit in my room all day and listen to my albums until I wasted away.

Interior Lulu | Marillion.com, 1999

Another lengthy one -- in fact, it shares a lot in common with "This Strange Engine." The really remarkable thing about this song is the fact that it actually manages to climb inside the mind of someone half the age of the average band member and look at things like, say, the Internet without seeming forced or contrived. It's like the band is... I dunno, relevant or something.



[1] In that the '70s were very nearly over by this point.

[2] You know, if you were an ignorant American whose knowledge of Scottish history and culture was limited to Braveheart, or something.

[3] See: Friendster. Also, a certain gaming website we all know and love.

[4] OK, the asking price was in "quid" rather than "bucks," but I'm a self-conscious American and realize how utterly asinine it sounds for me to use the term "quid." So I did a little currency conversion into my natural slang. Alright?