Review: Marillion is the most important band you never heard
By: Jon Epstein
First a confession: I took the assignment to review the Marillion concert on Feb. 12 in Durham knowing full well that it’s pointless to “review” a Marillion concert. This is a band that I have seen numerous times over the past 30 years, and in all that time they have never played a bad show. Marillion is a concert machine, and they have made it their mission to dedicate themselves to their craft to the point where there are no weak links, no phoned in shows, and hence no bad reviews. In every respect, Marillion is among the best live bands in the history of rock. What makes this remarkable is that outside of their extraordinarily committed fan base, not many people know the first thing about them and how they are the definition of a “cult band.”
When journalists try to put the Marillion phenomenon into context, it is inevitable that a comparison to the Grateful Dead fans, or “Deadheads,” will occur. On the surface, the comparison seems justified. Marillion fans are a community. Fans often travel thousands of miles and cross oceans, simply to attend the band’s concerts. Discussions of first times are the inevitable subject of conversation at fan gatherings, ancient concert T-shirts are worn as a source of pride, and tattoos of the band’s iconography are common. That, however, is where the comparisons stop. As one writer put it recently, “it’s like the Dead, without all the hippy stuff.”
I was first made aware of Marillion in a truly random way. In 1988 my band, Haymarket Riot, released a single with the help of the Piedmont-based indie zine The Dixie Voice. As was not uncommon at the time, the magazine was distributed in Europe through a network of independent record shops which resulted in our single “New Day Rising” receiving radio play across Europe which spawned a number of articles about Haymarket Riot that more often than not compared what we were doing to a band called Marillion who was at that time, riding high on the top of the European music charts on the strength of the single “Kayleigh” from their most successful album Misplaced Childhood. I had heard the band name, but was not familiar with their music until one day, totally randomly, I stopped into the old Drugmart on Battleground Avenue in Greensboro where I noticed a copy of the band’s debut album “Script for a Jesters Tear “ in the cut-out record bin and purchased it for a dollar. To this day, I consider it the best use of a dollar I have ever had.
The first thing I noticed was that the writers who compared my band to Marillion were clearly on drugs. What I was hearing was straight up progressive rock, with a decidedly Genesis vibe. The second thing I noticed was that their lyrics were intense, almost painfully personal and remarkably poetic and literate. I reasoned that fact alone accounted for the band’s lack of impact in America. I hadn’t even made it through my first listen when the song “Chelsea Monday” turned me into a fan. I had never heard anything like it: raw, emotional, tragic, yet subtle, poetic and deeply moving. It was a masterpiece.
Because music critics can do such things, I immediately contacted the band’s North American publicist to try and arrange a feature story on the band. It turned out that after struggling to find some common ground and failing, that the band, and it’s original vocalist Fish, had parted company and that the band had replaced him with the then unknown vocalist from The Europeans, Steve Hogarth, commonly referred to as “H.” At first glance, it was obvious that H was undoubtedly not Fish and had his work cut out for him. Their publicist arranged for a pre-release copy of the band’s fifth album, and the first with H, 1989’s Season End, to be over-nighted to me and arranged interviews with both Hogarth and Keyboardist Mark Kelly with whom a lifelong friendship was born.
Seasons End turned out to be an exceptional album, one that was recognizable as Marillion largely on the strength of guitarist Steve Rothery’s unique and atmospheric playing, but in all other ways was about as far away from the “Genesis clone” comparisons that they could get. To this day, almost 30 years later, songs from this album, particularly the epic single “Easter,” remain in the bands live sets. It was clear that Marillion was still in the game.
The 1990s were a time of great changes in the world of popular music, the public demand for progressive rock began to diminish, and Marillion began to struggle to maintain the standards they set for themselves while fighting a music industry that wanted them to become something else entirely. This lead to some short-lived tenures on some record labels, where publicity departments vexed over how exactly to market the band. Most notably, and to the amusement of the band, a new genre was conceived for them by IRS records to coincide with the release of “Afraid of Sunlight” and in 1995, “Adult Rock.” Thankfully, this label did not stick, but the difficulties of remaining true to their vision, and the constraints being placed on them by the music industry, began to result in less attention in the music press, which in turn lead to a drop in record sales.
Things were looking grim when the band released their first album, not on a major label “This Strange Engine.” While sales of this album to the general listening public were bleak, the reaction from the bands fans was overwhelmingly positive, particularly among it’s American fans, and began a conversation on the bands Internet fan mailing list “Freaks” about the possibility of the band touring the United States, only to have their hopes dashed by the news, provided by keyboardist Kelly, that as much as they would like to do so, the band simply could not afford to tour in North America. Members of the Freaks e-list responded by offering to create a “tour fund” to offset the band’s expenses and allow them to tour the United States. The band eventually agreed to allow the tour fund to proceed, eventually raising over $60,000 and resulting in the bands 1997 American tour. This event is now considered the very first example of “crowdfunding,” a business model that the band further refined by being the first band to “pre-sell” an album to raise the money necessary to record. Thus the first crowd-funded album in history, Anoraknophobia was recorded with the funds raised by presale orders topping the 12,000-mark. The names of all fans who contributed were printed in the “thank you” section of the albums resulting in one of the longest set of liner notes ever printed and giving the band the ability to become the most successful “indie” band in rock music history.
This independence has allowed Marillion to continue to maintain a connection to their fan base that most bands simply do not have. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the creation of the annual Marillion Weekends, three day long conventions held in The U.K., The Netherlands, and less frequently in The United States and Poland during which the band performs three distinctly different concerts in the evenings and spend days socializing with their fans in a way that most artists simply do not. It is clear that Marillion is very aware of the symbiotic nature of their relationship with their followers, and that awareness has resulted in an intensely loyal fan base.
For the band, that loyalty has paid off in big dividends. Marillion fans are intensely loyal and committed to this band, many traveling thousands of miles simply to attend one concert. During the recent “fan meet-up” in Durham I met people who had traveled from California, Washington, Mexico City, Dublin, Ireland, Montreal, Quebec, and Brazil many of whom planned on attending every show on the tour. That level of commitment has allowed the band to have the kind of career that few other independent music groups ever achieve. Most recently this has resulted in the band being admitted to the Guinness Book of World Records for fastest production of a concert DVD in history, a little over 10 hours from the recorded performance to the first retail sale. Not a bad trick, that. Their most recent album, 2016’s F.E.A.R., debuted in the number one position in the British charts despite there not being a single, which in turn lead to their first concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall which sold out in three minutes, which may also be one for the record books.
Marillion is the most successful independent rock band in history despite their never achieving the name recognition that many more well-known bands have. Their influence on other rock bands such as Muse, Radiohead and virtually the entire “neo-prog” genre is well known and acknowledged, and their rightful place in the history of British rock is well solidified. Add to that the innovations in marketing and management that they singlehandedly created, and the result is a band that defies all convention, ignores trends, and thrives. Why? As the band puts it “All the best freaks are here.”