❉ 30 years today, That Bloke Who Isn’t Fish made his debut fronting one of Britain’s most misunderstood bands.
“In the absence of a mission statement, a line from their 1995 song Beautiful – “They’ll laugh at you anyway, so why don’t you stand up and be beautiful?” – is probably as good an expression of their working method as any”
Introducing their new frontman Ross William Wild in May 2018, Spandau Ballet were full of excitable talk of embarking on “the next chapter” of their 40-year pop odyssey. But fast forward just 11 months, and it was a rather more deflated Martin Kemp who announced from the This Morning sofa that, to cut a long story short, they’d lost their singer. Again.
Of course, it wasn’t really that much of a surprise that Spandau-minus-Tony Hadley didn’t add up: the rock and roll highway is littered with the corpses of bands who tried to recapture former glories with a new vocalist. Think of The Velvet Underground with Doug Yule, The Doors with… (checks notes) Miljenko Matijevic, Yes with a member of a Canadian Yes tribute band, and that guy who won a reality TV competition to be the new INXS frontman.
Which is not to say it can’t be done, as the likes of Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac and The (Small) Faces can all attest. Heavy metal bands, in particular, seem unusually robust in this area, perhaps suggesting that, for fans of Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, AC/DC et al, it’s the guitarist who’s the real lynchpin. Genesis, meanwhile, proved that you can get away with it once – with Phil Collins sliding off the drum stool to eclipse even the mighty Peter Gabriel – but not twice. (Remember Ray Wilson? Thought not.)
And then there’s the curious and singular case of Marillion, whose “new” singer made his debut 30 years ago this week, since when, through some act of quantum trickery, he has continued to inhabit the contradictory roles of New Messiah and That Bloke Who Isn’t Fish.
Perhaps a little backstory would be useful at this point. Formed in the rock and roll Mecca that is Aylesbury in 1979, Marillion took their name from JRR Tolkien’s impenetrable fantasy doorstep The Silmarillion (not exactly an auspicious start slap-bang in the middle of the punk explosion). Led by the imposing figure of Fish – aka 6’5” Scottish ex-woodcutter Derek Dick – they quickly built up a dedicated following for their brand of epic, somewhat florid prog rock, finding mainstream success after soft-rock classic Kayleigh propelled their 1985 concept album Misplaced Childhood to the top of the charts.
When Fish quit in 1988 (“Fish Out of Marillion Out of Marillion!” wailed Smash Hits, of which he had become an unlikely regular fixture), most assumed it was the big fella who would swim on to new waters, while his old band sank without trace.
But it didn’t quite work out that way. While Fish’s solo career has been beset by legal wrangles, bad luck and, at times, poor artistic choices, Marillion rapidly regrouped around new signing Steve Hogarth. Formerly of art-rockers The Europeans, Hogarth had also worked as a session man for the likes of Julian Cope and The The (that’s his amazing piano solo on Heartland), thus immediately lending Marillion more of a pop sensibility.
Hogarth also brought another unexpected quality to the table: sex appeal (including the first half-decent haircut ever to trouble the band), shimmying across the stage in the video for introductory single Hooks in You with a sultry Hutchence swagger. (Melody Maker even likened him to a young Iggy Pop, which is not a name you hear in the same sentence as Marillion very often.)
Contrary to its title, Hooks In You – which fired the starting gun on Marillion Mk2 on August 24, 1989 – was actually a rather forgettable FM rocker that no doubt caused some of the prog faithful to take immediate fright. Which was a shame, as the album it was cut from, Season’s End, proved a surprisingly successful attempt to graft Hogarth’s personality onto music largely written in the dying days of the Fish era, while a major European tour succeeded in winning over many remaining doubters.
The fact Hogarth looked so much like a credible pop star may have partly influenced EMI’s decision to push them in that direction for glossy follow-up Holidays in Eden, the relative commercial failure of which then prompted a rapid reverse-ferret for 1994’s brooding fan-favourite concept album Brave.
By the following year’s career-best Afraid of Sunlight – so good that Q Magazine dared to crown it one of their albums of the year, even in the white heat of Britpop – Marillion had evolved into something really quite special, and the rest of the ’90s saw them actively pushing against the ‘prog’ label with forays into psychedelic pop (Cannibal Surf Babe), trip-hop (House) and even the odd Brazilian samba (Hope for the Future). To any journalists who would listen – and not many would – the message around this time was always the same: Marillion had kicked the Hobbit. Elvish had left the building.
…Though that did wilfully ignore the fact their albums were still at pains to include at least one really long song, broken into multiple movements, with a big guitar solo and/or keyboard wig-out – the title track of 1997’s This Strange Engine being a particularly sublime example of the form.
And this evolution was driven by Hogarth who, far from just trying to fit into an established unit, partly re-made the band in his own image – or at least inspired them to play to his strengths. Not least of which was his silky, sotto voce delivery, oozing like liquid ink through music that lost some of its former lumpen awkwardness in favour of a more soulful, languid, even feminine quality – one that better suits Steve Rothery’s trademark, emotion-drenched guitar lines, and which, in its more crepuscular moments, perhaps operates closer to the territory of The Blue Nile and Talk Talk than Genesis or Yes.
Lyrically, too, the band acquired a new sophistication. While there’s no doubting that Fish’s charisma was a huge factor in Marillion’s success, he was susceptible to attacks of overwrought, Adrian Mole-style verbiage. (In the world of Fish circa 1982, rain doesn’t just fall, it “auditions at my window” while “its symphony echoes in my womb”. This on an album, lest we forget, called Script for a Jester’s Tear.) Hogarth, by contrast, understands that less is often more, while his dispatches from the frontline of his own disintegrating marriage lend a raw, lacerating honesty to songs like The Only Unforgivable Thing (2004) and 2007’s Somewhere Else.
Not that the band saw much reward for any of this. With sales on a slow but steady downward curve, and the very name Marillion still musical kryptonite to many critics, they trod a lonely old path, sustained by a worldwide network of self-styled ‘Freaks’ (for some reason, they are hugely popular in South America) who, over time, began to wear their us-against-the-world mentality as a badge of honour. (Who else but Marillion fans would proudly wear t-shirts proclaiming: UNCOOL AS F*@!?)
But then two things happened. In 1997, when the band announced their finances wouldn’t stretch to a US tour, an enterprising American fan jumped onto the internet message boards and, within a few weeks, had amassed a fighting fund of more than $60,000. Sensing an opportunity to communicate directly with the world’s most dedicated fanbase, Marillion had inadvertently stumbled onto a whole new business model for the music industry (it’s not without reason that keyboard player Mark Kelly’s Twitter bio describes him as “the co-inventor of crowdfunding”) – one that gave them the freedom and financial security to continue ploughing whatever perverse musical furrow took their fancy. (In the absence of a mission statement, a line from their 1995 song Beautiful – “They’ll laugh at you anyway, so why don’t you stand up and be beautiful?” – is probably as good an expression of their working method as any.)
The other change in the weather is that prog itself has been largely rehabilitated: at this distance, the idea of people “fighting the punk wars” sounds faintly ridiculous, and in the new anything goes music economy, no-one’s going to judge you for switching between Jethro Tull and The Fall on your Spotify playlist. There’s even a thriving Prog magazine on the shelves of your local Tesco.
As a result of all these stars aligning, Marillion’s 2016 album F.E.A.R. gifted them their first top five album since 1987, while tickets for their first ever Royal Albert Hall show in 2017 were snapped up in under 10 minutes – an extraordinary act of vindication for a band starved of mainstream exposure for the best part of 30 years.
I won’t lie, though: the lot of the Marillion fan can still be a frustrating one. For me, they’re capable of moments of exquisite transcendental beauty that move me in ways no other music can. It’s there in the skyscraping codas to The Great Escape (1994) and Neverland (2004); in the sinuous, serpentine melodies of Interior Lulu (1999) and Trap the Spark (2008); and in the elegiac lament of Out of this World (1995), which the Cumbria-born Hogarth wrote about Donald Campbell’s fatal water speed record attempt, and which directly inspired the recovery of Campbell’s body, and the wreckage of his craft Bluebird, from the depths of Coniston Water.
But for those of us who identify as, at best, prog-curious, tracks like 2004’s Ocean Cloud (18 minutes, with only the occasional appearance of what you might call a tune) can be a challenging listen. As, indeed, can F.E.A.R. It stands for Fuck Everyone and Run, and is as nakedly political an album as anyone has made this decade. In an age when pop has consciously shied away from politics, who would ever have thought it would fall to Marillion, of all people, to deliver a line like “We sold your council houses, not to you but the banks”, which sounds more like the sort of fire-in-the-belly protest song Billy Bragg might once have sung at a Red Wedge benefit.
Given the seismic events that have taken place since its 2016 release, though, you do wonder if Hogarth’s apocalyptic outlook might have been a tad overcooked for what now feels like a Panglossian era of boring technocratic government. (Plus, it’s a slightly unfortunate accident of timing that a song called The Leavers, released in the summer of 2016 and concerning itself with much talk of “Leavers” and “Remainers”, should turn out, on closer inspection, to be a song about the life of a touring rock band.)
Over the years, I’ve interviewed Steve Hogarth several times, and he once told me that not changing the band’s name and starting afresh in 1989 was “probably a mistake”. But that was back in the ’90s, and I’d be willing to bet he changed his mind when the band’s patience and bloody-minded perseverance finally started paying dividends.
None of which changes the fact that the mid-’80s was Marillion’s commercial peak, or that the public perception of the band remains stubbornly stuck in the era of Kayleigh, lavenders blue (dilly dilly) and that man Fish – a fact his successor has been known to wryly acknowledge by wearing a t-shirt declaring himself the “New singer since 1989”.
“It’s terribly annoying,” Hogarth told me a few years ago. “But it’s like the English weather. Kayleigh for me is just another rainy day – it gets on my nerves, but you have to accept it comes with the territory of being the singer in Marillion. The upside is that I get to walk out on stage in front of a couple of thousand people who love me like a brother. That is an incredible feeling. And they love me for what I am – they don’t love me because the band wrote a song called Kayleigh in 1980-something.”
And that’s the point. It’s not just that Hogarth has the raw numbers on his side (30 years of active service compared to Fish’s seven; 14 studio albums against four). Unusually – perhaps uniquely – among second-act singers, the man they call ‘H’ isn’t just accepted. He’s loved. As far from being a replacement bus frontman as you can imagine, he’s the beating heart and soul of Marillion. There can’t be many Stranglers aficionados who wouldn’t welcome Hugh Cornwell back in a heartbeat – and Spandau Ballet’s fans have already spoken decisively with their feet. But, while most Marillion fans continue to hold Fish in great affection, there are few who would wish to see Steve Hogarth pushed aside to facilitate his return.
Indeed, it was several weeks after watching that triumphant Albert Hall show two years ago that it occurred to me they hadn’t played so much as a note from the Fish era that night – and no-one appeared even to have noticed.
So as Marillion prepare to enter their fourth decade without a single personnel change – a remarkable feat in itself – remember that name: Steve Hogarth. New singer since 1989.
❉ Steve Hogarth’s memoirs, The Invisible Man Diaries, are exclusively available via the Marillion website: http://www.marillion.com/shop/merch/hogarthbook01.htm
❉ Paul Kirkley is a writer whose recent work includes articles for Classic Pop, Doctor Who Magazine, TV Years, SFX, Yahoo Movies and The New Statesman. He is also, to the best of his knowledge, the only paid TV critic for a national supermarket chain.