24. Fantastic Place – Marillion
Marillion are probably the least “cool” band in the UK. Certainly the least covered in the mainstream music press these days considering the size of their fan base. I suspect they don’t care and more power to them for that. They were a big, big band for me as a teenager, presumably hooked in by “Kayleigh” in ’87 (some fine hair in that video) and then going backwards into the first two albums, “Script For A Jester’s Tear” and “Fugazi”. I don’t actually remember my route in but it must have been via the singles from “Misplaced Childhood” – they were probably the archetypal “handed down from older brother” kind of band but I didn’t have an older brother. I do vaguely recall liking a girl called Hayley at around the same time and I’m trying hard to suppress a memory of changing the chorus to “Kayleigh”* to fit my unreciprocated love. Sadly, a recurring theme of my teenage years. The lack of reciprocation, not the changing of lyrics to the chart hits of the day…
To fully immerse myself in this post I decided to listen to all of their studio albums, in order, up to and including “Marbles”, from which “Fantastic Place” is taken. That’s 13 records. It took me a couple of days and I did cheat a bit on day 2 when I had to listen to something else just to break things up. What struck me was the disconnect in my head between the two versions of Marillion – with Fish, with Steve Hogarth – and the reality. Fish era Marillion was the one that I grew up with and I was still a fan during the transition as Hogarth became the vocalist – in fact, the only line up I’ve seen live was with Hogarth round about “Season’s End” and “Holidays In Eden”. I still think of the band’s output as split roughly equally between the two singers but in actuality Marillion has long ceased to be Fish’s band. Albums with Fish: four. Albums without Fish: thirteen (counting the “Less Is More” acoustic re-workings album).
I lost track of the band just after “Holidays In Eden”, the second post Fish record. Listening back to it now it has its moments but it’s a little polite, particularly for my tastes back in 1991 when I was in thrall to fuzzed guitars and singing wasn’t singing unless it was a cathartic scream for understanding. Ironically the follow up, “Brave” is a fine record – a concept album about a girl found wandering on the Severn Bridge, unaware of who she is or how she got there – and I should have given it more of a chance back in ’94 when it came out.
There’s then a run of five albums between ’95 and ’01 which I’d never heard. This run also marks the point at which the band moved away from a traditional record label model for recording and distributing their music towards an ahead-of-its-time version of fan funding. I don’t know if they did it first but Marillion were certainly doing Kickstarter before anyone had even heard of Kickstarter. There’s an interesting Tedx talk from Mark Kelly (the band’s keyboardist) on crowdfunding on the band site: here.
Hearing these records for the first time, in sequence, was an enjoyable experience. A few songs popped out straight away as warranting further attention and “This Strange Engine”, in particular, as a complete album is one that I will go back to. Marillion don’t tend to write immediate songs though so repeated listens often repay; it’s music to sit and soak in rather than stuff to stick on in the background while you’re doing something else.
Those five take us up to “Marbles”. About three years ago I had noticed that a friend (who had been a fellow Marillion fan at school) had been listening to a couple of their songs that were unfamiliar to me – via last.fm, the marvelous music-meets-stats website (my profile is here). This piqued my curiousity and I found the songs on a streaming site. One of them would have been “Neverland” which I immediately fell in love with and subsequently ordered the album direct from Marillion.com. Who says streaming services don’t work ? Artist royalties is perhaps a debate for another time…
“Marbles” is a wonderful record. Built loosely around recurring themes of madness, escape and the loss of childhood innocence it showcases the band at its best – I think it’s their career highpoint (although “Clutching At Straws” from the Fish era is also a brilliant record). Those recurring themes, eagle eyed regular readers of this blog will have observed, are like cat nip for me but they wouldn’t be enough on their own for the record to resonate. Sometimes, for me, like quite a lot of what you might term prog, Marillion can lose the balance between a song and something that extends for its own sake. Sometimes the sounds don’t seem to be going anywhere. That never happens on “Marbles”. Never happens on the 13 minute opener “The Invisible Man”, never happens on 12 minute closer “Neverland”. And even never happens during the 17 minutes and 57 seconds of “Ocean Cloud”. Everything here, every note on this record, is perfectly judged, immaculately played, and serves each song. There’s nothing extraneous which is no mean feat given the length of the album.
There are four or five tracks on the record that I really love, particularly the stellar closer “Neverland” (well worth your time, linked on the Neverland reference above) but “Fantastic Place” is the one I have taken refuge in more times than I care to remember. Sunk into it and let it spirit me away. A song about escape that I use to escape.
As is becoming a recurring theme in this list my relationship with the song doesn’t rest on a literal read of the lyrics although there are themes here which resonate, notably about opening yourself up to somebody (say you understand me and I will leave myself completely; I’ll tell you all I never told you, the boy I never showed you) and the idea of release from everyday life (take me to the island, show me what might be real life; put your arms around my soul and take it dancing). This song, for me, is all about how it builds. It’s similar in some ways to where we started, way back with Warren Zevon and “Desperados Under The Eaves” – a self contained journey from disillusionment to the potential of something better.
“Fantastic Place” is a slow burner, from the muted, subdued opening – Hogarth almost murmuring the verse – through choruses that progressively grow in scope musically; it swells like a wave building until finally breaking into the bridge. That section as the bridge lyrics run over into the guitar solo (say you understand me and I will leave myself completely, forgive me if I stare but I can see the island behind your tired, troubled eyes) is breathtaking. It’s not rare for a song to make the hair on the back of my neck stand up but it is rare for the same song to do it, in the same place in the song, every single time I hear it.
Then we’re into Rothery’s gorgeous solo (his playing throughout “Marbles” is exquisite) before the song just continues to soar through to its close. Hogarth’s vocals on this track are also worthy of special mention, particularly in the very final section where he pulls off a performance that’s technically spot on (in so far as these ears can tell such things) but that wrenches something genuine out of his guts. I deliberately posted a live version at the top of this as it’s worth watching Hogarth perform it and his reaction to the song as it finishes – he is utterly lost in it and it’s a touching moment seeing him almost return to the room, back from wherever the song has taken him.
There is a magic in this song, a transformative, transportative magic. Strong enough to make up the word transportative and strong enough to carry me away when I need to be carried away.
* Given that Fish allegedly wrote “Kayleigh” about an ex girlfriend called “Kay Leigh” I think I’m in good company. She’ll never guess, Fish.