The ever evolving British rock band Marillion had their origins in the short lived progressive rock revival of the late 70s/early 80s, and have gone on to become one of the most enduring bands in popular music history.
They originally formed during 1979 in Aylesbury, England under the name Silmarillion, in reference to the J.R.R. Tolkien novel ‘The Silmarillion’. Guitarist Steve Rothery and drummer Mick Pointer were among the formation members who played their first gig in March 1980. Within a year the band’s name had been shortened to Marillion, to avoid any copyright issues. With bassist/vocalist Doug Irvine and keyboardist Brian Jelliman on board, they recorded an instrumental demo titled ‘The Web’ (the title having a significant irony given the group’s embracement of the internet in later years).
They recruited a new bassist in Diz Minitt and set about finding themselves a lead vocalist to round out the group’s sound. Enter Derek Dick, better known as Fish, who would prove the vital ingredient in transforming Marillion from low profile pub act, to British ‘neo-prog’ giants. Prior to the end of 1981 keyboardist Brian Jelliman had been supplanted by Mark Kelly, whilst the band’s third bassist in as many years entered the fray, in Pete Trewavas. Marillion’s stylistic influences were clearly centred in the progressive rock movement of the previous decade, with a harder rock element edge, drawing on the work of Pink Floyd, Queen, Rush, Yes and most notably Genesis. Fish’s vocal style contained strong echoes of Peter Gabriel’s Genesis era output.
A three track session, broadcast on the BBC Radio 1 program ‘Friday Rock Show’, led to a recording deal for Marillion with EMI. Late in 1982 their debut single ‘Market Square Heroes’ sold well enough (UK#60) and provided the appetiser for Marillion’s debut album ‘Script For A Jester’s Tear’, released in early ‘83. The album revealed a group of considerable substance, from Fish’s evocative lyrics to a rich, layered instrumental backing, and reached an impressive #7 on the British charts (US#175). It also yielded the top 40 British hits ‘He Knows You Know’ (#35), and ‘Garden Party - The Great Cucumber Massacre’ (#16). To this day, it is considered by some in the prog-rock fraternity to be Marillion’s finest work. The band continued their relentless touring schedule to promote the album, and it was during the 1983 tour that original drummer Mick Pointer departed the scene. He was replaced by Ian Mosley (ex-Curved Air), and a stable instrumental core for Marillion was in place that would last to the present day.
Marillion’s 1984 sophomore album ‘Fugazi’ (UK#5) featured a more straight up hard rock edge, with less of the ornate prog-rock leanings of their debut effort. It yielded the British top 40 hits ‘Punch And Judy’ (#29) and ‘Assassing’ (#22), and cemented Marillion in the upper echelon of contemporary rock acts on the U.K. scene. Before year’s end Marillion released their first live album ‘Real To Reel’ (#8), giving them their third top 10 British album within two years. With prog-rock heavyweights Genesis listing toward more commercial waters, Fish and Marillion had an opportunity to fill a gap in the still lucrative prog-rock market.
With their 1985 album ‘Misplaced Childhood’, Marillion not only established themselves as the new king pins on the British prog-rock scene, but challenged one time title holders Genesis for mainstream commercial dominance. The lead out single ‘Kayleigh’ was a longing love song, that enticed enough British record buyers to part with their hard earned to push it all the way to #2 on the charts. Remarkably it was the only Marillion single to crack either the U.S. (#74) or Australian (#88) top 100. The beautiful ballad ‘Lavender’ (UK#5) confirmed Marillion’s swift crossover to mainstream success (it took Genesis almost ten years to do likewise via their 1978 hit ‘Follow You, Follow Me’). ‘Misplaced Childhood’ managed to combine the descriptions ‘conceptual’ and ‘commercial’ into one brilliantly constructed package, becoming Marillion’s only chart topping album (UK#1/US#47). The single ‘Heart Of Lothian’ (UK#29) rounded out a landmark year for Marillion, and they were now filling stadiums rather than pubs.
1986 proved a less fruitful year though, as the band started experiencing internal problems, mostly revolving around Fish beginning a slippery slope toward alcohol and drug abuse. The big Scot did collaborate with Genesis keyboardist Tony Banks on his 1986 single ‘Short Cut To Nowhere’, and it was evident that if Phil Collins had decided to leave Genesis at the time, Fish would have fitted in seamlessly in terms of sound. By the time Fish finally resurfaced with Marillion on their 1987 album ‘Clutching At Straws’ (UK#2/US#103), there was increasing speculation that a split between Fish and band was imminent. The album yielded Marillion’s final top 10 hit with ‘Incommunicado’ (UK#6), followed by the top 30 singles ‘Sugar Mice’ (UK#22) and ‘Warm Wet Circles’ (UK#22). The Marillion collective managed to maintain its solidarity with Fish throughout a world tour during 87/88, but shortly after the subsequent live album ‘The Thieving Magpie’ (UK#25) was released in late 1988, Fish left the Marillion school of rock to seek out smoother solo waters.
Fish’s solo career didn’t scale the heights of his earlier work with Marillion, but his debut solo album ‘Vigil In A Wilderness Of Mirrors’ (1990) peaked at UK#5, in part due to the lingering loyalties of many Marillion fans. Fish continued a steady output of albums throughout the 90s, and maintained a strong live fan base. He also continued to collaborate with other artists, including more work with Tony Banks and a 1995 duet with the brilliant Sam Brown (see earlier post), titled ‘Just Good Friends’.