Review: Marillion hit their mark at Cambridge Corn Exchange
A dramatic curtain-raiser and some copper-plated classics entertain the faithful
Few bands in the history of rock and roll have embraced the idea of ploughing your own furrow, marching to your own drum and generally refusing to play by the pop playbook as enthusiastically as Marillion.
Taking their name from JRR Tolkien’s impenetrable fantasy doorstep The Silmarillion (not an auspicious start slap bang in the middle of the punk explosion, granted), the band found a ready audience for their brand of florid prog rock, tempered with enough of a pop sensibility to make them unlikely regulars in the Top of the Pops studio and the pages of Smash Hits.
Despite being prone to attacks of chronic verbiage (“A bleeding heart poet in a fragile capsule/ Propping up the crust of the glitter conscience”, anyone?), lead singer Fish, aka 6ft 5in former Scottish woodcutter Derek Dick, was a charismatic presence, and when he quit the band in 1988, most people naturally assumed he’d swim on to a successful solo career.
But while he floundered, Marillion regrouped around new singer Steve Hogarth, who brought a soulful, almost feminine aspect to the band, his silky voice oozing through languid melodies that that often positioned them closer to the likes of Talk Talk and The Blue Nile than Rush or (whisper it) Genesis.
In truth, neither party would scale the heights of their mid-80s commercial success again, but through a combination of canny business acumen, some very fine records and a generous helping of sheer bloody-mindedness, Marillion MkII endured, propelled by the most dedicated fanbase on the planet. (In the late 90s, they and their worldwide army of “Freaks” revolutionised the music business – and the wider world of e-commerce – by accidentally inventing crowdfunding.)
For a good decade and a half, the band shied away from the prog tag, until prog unexpectedly became cool again (though even now, they’re just as comfortable operating in the arena of psychedelic rock). And, after 20-odd years of us-against-the-world defiance in the face of almost total indifference from radio and the music press (I wouldn’t normally trust anyone who talks about “what the MSM won’t tell you”, but in Marillion’s case, it’s absolutely true), critics and record buyers alike finally began to thaw, with 2016’s widely acclaimed F.E.A.R. giving them their first top 5 album since 1987.
Last year, Marillion cemented rock’s most unlikely comeback (not that, to the faithful, they’d ever been away) by selling out their first ever Royal Albert Hall show in under 10 minutes. Which is why, after years of checking in at The Junction, their current tour brought them back to Cambridge’s Corn Exchange for the first time in more than 20 years. (Tickets, naturally, disappeared in a splintering heartbeat.)
El Dorado, F.E.A.R’s five-movement, 16-minute opener, provided the show with a dramatic, if occasionally challenging, curtain-raiser, combining moments of exquisite, delicate beauty with primal howls of rage about the obscenities of watching “someone beheaded on a smartphone”.
Top five or not, F.E.A.R. (it stands for F*** Everyone And Run) clearly won’t be to everyone’s taste: as nakedly political an album as anyone has made this decade, it finds Hogarth railing against the untouchable, moneyed elites – from Russian oligarchs to Tony Blair Inc – operating high in the clouds while the rest of us poor saps underwrite their risk. 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 something Billy Bragg might once have sung at a Red Wedge gig.
Hogarth’s outlook is not so much glass half empty as glass drained, smashed against a wall and the shards rubbed in a vein. He clearly has no truck with Barack Obama’s assertion that this is the greatest time in human history to be alive. (Also, written as it was before the seismic events of 2016, I do wonder if he feels, in retrospect, that those days of boring technocratic government weren’t so bad after all…)
Tonight, they’re not playing the album in full (which I’m secretly a bit relieved about; not that it isn’t great but… you know, it’s Friday night and all), instead revisiting songs from what Hogarth calls “the broad sweep of what we’ve been up to these last 30 years”. It would be a stretch to call it a greatest hits set – especially as very few of the songs clock in under the 10-minute mark – but it’s certainly an effective “Marillion shuffle”.
That said, it’s a song from F.E.A.R., The Leavers, that proves one of the evening’s highlights. Even if it is a slightly unfortunate accident of timing that a song of that name, which was released in late 2016 and concerns itself with much talk of “Leavers” and “Remainers”, should actually turn out, on closer inspection, to be a song about life as a Marillion roadie.
Actually, that’s a bit disingenuous: The Leavers – underscored by a gorgeous, twinkling Mark Kelly keyboard refrain – also speaks to a wider truth about atomised lives and the pain of constant goodbyes and is, in fact, entirely magical. Tonight, Hogarth dedicates the song to his daughter Sofie on her 30th birthday, his voice choking as he adds: “I’m sorry for all the times I left you.”
If his lyrics have grown steadily darker, on stage Hogarth remains a puppyish, excitable presence, with a wry line in self-deprecating humour. “This is a deeper song,” he announces at one point. “That doesn’t make it better. Just deeper.” Also, his nine-year-old son is in the crowd, so he’s been banned from swearing.
Some songs, inevitably, have worn better than others. The Release, a piledriving piece of power pop from 1989, sounds absolutely joyous. But The Party, from two years later, is a bit of a dirge. (Lyrically, it’s also peak Marillion: in the very same year Primal Scream were insisting they were gonna get loaded and have a good time, Marillion released a cautionary tale about a teenage girl whose first party proves a bewildering and terrifying experience. It’s possibly more truthful, but it’s not much fun.)
They close the set with a run of copper-plated classics: Afraid of Sunlight, the title track of their career-best 1995 album; The Great Escape, from the previous year’s Brave, which contains moments of almost indescribable beauty; and finally, we all sing and sway and swoon along to Easter, perhaps Marillion MkII’s signature song, featuring a rousing Steve Rothery guitar solo guaranteed to melt the hearts even of people who don’t normally approve of that sort of thing.
Marillion occupy a unique position in rock music in that, while their wider public image remains firmly stuck in the era of Kayleigh – the 1985 hit still available on a soft rock compilation in a motorway services near you – the “replacement singer” has so far outlasted his predecessor by 23 years (and recorded 10 more albums), and for every member of tonight’s audience who’d welcome Fish back into the fold, there are probably two who’d rather keep things as they are, if it’s all the same to you.
As such, their live shows rarely feature anything from their pre-89 back catalogue (can you imagine, say, The Stranglers not performing any Hugh Cornwell-era material, and no-one demanding a refund?). But tonight they set aside this unspoken rule for a rowdy second encore blast through Garden Party, the band’s first top 20 hit from 1983, with its withering takedown of hooray Henrys “punting on the Cam”. It’s not one of Fish’s more subtle efforts, to be honest, but that scarcely matters: everyone appreciates the gesture.
The lot of the Marillion fan can be a frustrating one. There are times when their songs would benefit from a bit more agility and economy (they’re the first to admit they never know “how to end them”). But when they hit their mark, as they do many times tonight, their music is capable of reaching out and squeezing your heart like no other band on the planet. Marillion fans have always known this - it’s just taken the rest of world 30 years to catch up.
• Marillion played Cambridge Corn Exchange on April 13, 2018