Fuck Me? Fuck You! Fuck Marillion? Fuck Everyone!
The heyday of progressive rock was the period 1971 to 1976; while suggestions that punk “killed” the genre are wishful thinking on the part of prog’s detractors, it’s true that the genre fell somewhat out of fashion as the 1970s played out. But prog never really went away; it simply mutated, developed and combined with (or at least informed) other musical styles.
Marillion first came together in 1979, in Aylesbury, a small city some 50 miles northwest of London. Those who didn’t know better could be forgiven for assuming the band was a bunch of hirsute proggers; after all, they derived their name from a J.R.R. Tolkien book. But in fact progressive rock was merely one style that informed the original music of Marillion.
The band released its first album, Script for a Jester’s Tear, in 1983. At that point Marillion featured a lead vocalist and lyricist known as Fish. Fish was still the front man of the band at the time its third (and for many years, best-known) album, Misplaced Childhood was released. That album was the first – and, as fate would have it, the last – Marillion album to make it into the top 100 albums on Billboard‘s chart. A single from the album, “Kayleigh,” made it to #21 on the U.S. Mainstream Rock chart, and a video for the song was a fixture of MTV around that time.
Due to conflicts with band management, Fish left Marillion in 1988. With the loss of its most high-profile member, the band could have made the decision to call it a day. Instead, they brought Steve “h” Hogarth on board as a member, completing an album (1989’s Seasons End) that was already in progress.
Marillion’s connection – however tenuous to begin with – to the progressive rock scene would become even less pronounced with Hogarth on board; his musical background had more to do with new wave and melodic rock than high-flying conceptual masterworks. But the lingering effects of the band’s sometimes prog-leaning sound would still inform the music made going forward. As a result, Marillion Mark Two (so to speak) crafts a sound that is once ambitious and accessible. And with Hogarth joining the group’s four longtime members (guitarist Steve Rothery, keyboardist Mark Kelly, bassist Pete Trewavas and drummer Ian Mosley), Marillion would go on to make more than 20 albums.
The group’s latest release is 2016’s Fuck Everyone and Run (FEAR). And though the group members continue to take issue with the progressive rock tag that’s still often applied to their work, three of the new album’s six tracks are extended, multi-part suites. And there’s even something of a conceptual theme to the record.
“I’ve been flatly denying that we’re progressive ever since I joined the band,” says Steve Hogarth with a hearty laugh. “But now we’ve got so many prog awards in the office that it’s futile.” Marillion was named “Band of the Year” at the 2013 Progressive Music Awards, and “UK Band of the Year” at 2017’s ceremony. So the prog label seems inescapable.
“When I joined the band back in ’89, I just assumed they all sat cross-legged listening to early Genesis records every evening,” he says. “And I discovered to my surprise that’s not really the case. Mark would be listening to the Divine Comedy, while Pete would be listening to the Beatles. Ian would be listening to Magma, and Steve Rothery would be listening to Kate Bush or something.” Hogarth admits that his own tastes include Joni Mitchell and Massive Attack.
“We’re all over the place in terms of what turns us on as individuals, and I think those sensibilities always work their way into what you do,” he says. But Hogarth stresses that Marillion doesn’t collectively think much about the work of other artists when creating its own music. “We just jam around,” he says. “We scratch around in the dark for something that maybe we’ve never done before, and hope we can find it.”
But lest he protest too much, Hogarth concedes that he understands why the band he’s fronted for nearly three decades is so often labeled a prog group. “They have to have a place to stick the music in the rack or something,” he says. “I mean, clearly, we’re not electronica. We’re not really a pop group, but we have those elements as well. There’s electronica in what we do. We’ve written pop songs. So, we don’t really sit too comfortably in any of the genres.”
When it’s noted that Steven Wilson – widely hailed as the current god of all things progressive – bristles at the prog label as well, Hogarth concurs. “I know Steve has the same problem. I went up to his studio the other day to listen to his latest 5.1 remix project, and he’s got loads of pictures of ABBA in his control room.” With a chuckle, he adds, “There wasn’t any King Crimson in evidence.”
And while for many, the whole idea of progressive rock means (somewhat paradoxically) looking back, Marillion has long been on the forward edge of one of music’s important modern-day developments: connecting with fans via the internet.
Marillion was among the first musical acts to realize the power of developing contact lists of fans. Having met American college student Erik Nielsen while on tour, the band agreed to let him design a Marillion website. “Especially from our perspective in the UK, this internet thing was just a dark art at this point,” Hogarth says. “We’re talking mid ’90s. It wasn’t mainstream; it was a little bit of a fringe kind of thing.”
“And we invented crowdfunding,” Hogarth says, pausing for a moment afterward. “Well, we didn’t really. One of our fans did.” Hogarth explains that Jeff Pelletier, another American fan of the group, “got it into his head one day to open a bank account and put a note up on an internet notice board, asking people to send money if they wanted Marillion to come and tour in the U.S.”
In 1997, Marillion had left major label EMI and signed with an independent label, one that didn’t have the financial means to support an overseas tour. “This guy decided that wasn’t good enough,” Hogarth recalls. “So he went about and did it. And the first I heard about it, he already had $20,000 in the bank!” At that point, Marillion got involved with the grassroots project, offering to make a live album for distribution exclusively to financial backers. The campaign raised in excess of $70,000.
“We came back from that tour with our heads swimming,” Hogarth says. “We were thinking, ‘Wow. We had no idea these people would go to these lengths for us!’ And then it was only a short jump to thinking, ‘Would our fans actually buy the next album before we’ve even finished it, maybe even before we’ve written it?’” Once again the answer was yes. More than 12,000 fans pre-ordered 2001’s Anoraknophobia.
The band leveraged the power of its website when distributing the album. “Mark Kelly came up with this brilliant idea,” Hogarth recalls. “No, maybe it was Steve [Rothery]. They both take the credit for it; it’s a great idea. They said, ‘Let’s make this album with a mail-back card in it, and a space for another CD, and the card says, ‘You can have another album to go with this one. It’s free, but you have to ask us for it.’ And then overnight we had everybody’s email address.” He readily concedes that such ideas are taken for granted today. But back then, “they were just amazing changes in what was possible.”
The financing and making of future Marillion albums would follow a similar sequence of events. By the second decade of the 21st century, direct contact with fans and crowdfunding initiatives would become an established part of the business model for many musical artists. And the platforms became more refined, meaning that a DIY approach to crowdfunding was no longer needed. Against that backdrop, Fuck Everyone and Run was funded via a PledgeMusic campaign; backers received various bonus premiums in return for their early support of the project.
And though Marillion has long benefited from its fan base’s sense of community, the album’s themes focus on the “every man for himself” philosophy that seems to manifest itself in movements like Brexit and the United States government’s recent move away from some forms of global cooperation. “You see Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un throwing shit at each other,” Hogarth says, “and you can’t help but feel a bit nervous. And then you read about Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and what he’s up to, and what he stands for, and you get a good deal more nervous.”
But in contrast with the apocalyptic themes of Fuck Everyone and Run, Hogarth remains cautiously optimistic. “It only takes one seriously bad apple, one nut job to pull the whole thing out,” he says. “We’ve just got to hope that they’ve got enough moderate people around them to go, ‘Are you sure you really want to do that?’ A very, very vast majority of people on the planet are all decent people with a sense of fairness,” Hogarth says, “so ultimately, you’d like to feel that the solution is there.”
Photo by Freddy Billqvis.