There are only two albums I have ever bought after hearing a single played once on the radio in my car. One was Watermark, by Enya, after hearing 'Orinoco Flow'; the other was Script for a Jester's Tear, by Marillion, after hearing (and this is where my memory fails me) either 'He Knows You Know' or 'Garden Party' whilst driving down the side of Central Station in Glasgow. The former I bought in Ayr as that's where I was headed at the time; as for the latter I parked the car, crossed the street to either HMV or Virgin – they were both side by side at the time – and handed over my hard-earned cash there and then; five minutes later the tape was on and I was off home with the thing up full bung. I actually know of a guy who bought the album purely for Mark Wilkinson's excellent artwork which will feature below. I have since followed the careers of both Enya and Marillion – in particular its larger-than-life lead singer, Fish (he's 6' 5" tall in old money) – and I own every studio album which they have released. Enya's records have become a bit samey over the years but it's okay background music; Fish's output is something else entirely.
Derek William Dick, a.k.a. Fish, born 25th April 1958 in Dalkeith, the lead singer of Marillion between 1981 and 1988 (after they dropped the 'Sil' for fear of being sued by the Tolkien estate) and a solo artist from then on. So, considering the options open to people when you look at his name, how did he end up with the moniker, Fish? I'll let him explain:
[W]hen I was a forestry worker and I was way up in the north of Scotland, I had a traditional little Scottish landlady who was incredibly tight with money. She started charging me extra for baths and stuff, and I was limited to one bath a week. So I used to go in for my bath one night a week, and I'd sit there and keep on running the water, and stay in there for three or four hours. And, because there was one toilet in the house, and her being the traditional tea drinking Scottish landlady, she had to go next door to go to the toilet, which was my revenge. I used to stay in there for ages.
There was a mate of mine who asked, "Are you some sort of fish?" Having a real name like Derrick William Dick, you need a nickname pretty fast in this business. I could never imagine being introduced on stage as, "Derrick Willie Dick on vocals". People still stay, "What's your real name", and I say Derrick William Dick, and they go, "No man, your REAL name." The "Fish" name just kind of stuck. – Spotlight Feature on QSoundLabs, August 2002
Now, let's be up front here. I've never been a great one for remembering lyrics. It's fine when the band's playing but I'd struggle to sing much of Dark Side of the Moon on my own and I can’t think of an album I've ever played more. I mention this because I don't really want to talk about music here. It's my opinion that Fish is one of the greatest unsung songwriters this country has produced. And I'd like to give a few examples to back up that claim.
If you go to his site and read a few of his e-mails to his fans you become aware very quickly that although he has made a living as a singer-songwriter for close to thirty years he has had to work hard to pay his bills at the end of the month. Sure he has his core of die-hard fans but that's not enough to rely on in today's marketplace which is interesting because Marillion's third album reached No.1 in the UK and the song 'Kayleigh' can be found on most compilation disks from that time; it got played to death. The thing is, although they had their fifteen minutes of fame they were never what you'd call a high profile band. I was a fan and yet I've hardly ever seen them on TV; even at the time they did a turn on Top of the Pops and that was about it.
The problem some might suggest is that, a lot like one of the bands they hero-worshipped, Pink Floyd, they weren't a singles band which is unfair because they released a lot of singles. Comparisons with early Genesis and being labelled 'prog rock' – or at best 'neo-prog' – did nothing to help them. Granted Genesis-pre-Phil-Collins was another influence and it's hard to listen to the 17 minute B-side 'Grendel' and not think prog rock – longish song, twiddley keyboards and soaring guitars – and, yes, Misplaced Childhood and Clutching at Straws were 'concept albums’ (which had really become a dirty word by then) but they were also damn good albums too with real tunes with verses and choruses and everything. He's never denied his roots:
Over all the years it's hard to pinpoint individuals but in the early days it was Floyd, Genesis, Yes as well as The Faces, The Who and Zep. Since then a lot more have been added to the broth. – 10 Questions with Fish
One thing Marillion always did, and Fish has continued to do, is include complete lyrics with each of their albums showing their high regard for them. What I'd like to do is go through the first album and highlight a few of the lines that have struck me. They're not great poetry. I think very few songs make great poetry. They're designed to be complemented by music so it's perhaps a little unfair to present them on their own but this is really only an introduction – links to all the songs are provided. Fish is master of using strong melody lines to carry the lyrics, and inflects perfect dynamics - lights and shades - so that every possible meaning is ripped from the words. I'm not going to analyse every song. I simply want to pique people's interest. Incidentally Fish does write poetry I discovered recently but I've never read any.
There are about five books now, the two originals which I don't use anymore, they stopped in about 1987 or so. There is a small blue book with my poems in which was really the main book from Misplaced through Clutching and into Vigil. And then it went onto a big black book and there is a big brown book which have got various bits and pieces in. I have always tried to take one out on the road, to sculpt the notes of it all, but it doesn't work. I don't have the discipline to really keep that one going. – Interview 17th July 1995, The Funny Farm Kitchen
Script for a Jester's Tear
If Script for a Jester's Tear don't move you lyrically, you're one stone cold soldier. – Menswear, Prog Reviewer, ProgArchives.com
The year is 1983, a few days before Margaret Thatcher wins a landslide victory over to become the first female British prime minister. Punk has devolved into New Wave and Synthpop and the New Romantics are on the rise. The dinosaurs of the progressive rock movement are shells of their former selves (Yes – 'Owner of a Lonely Heart' – I rest my case.) This was the year, driving down Union Street, I first heard Marillion.
The opening track is the title track. It begins with a quiet solo voice accompanied by a Tony Banks-esque piano:
So here I am once more
In the playground of the broken hearts
One more experience, one more entry in a diary, self-penned
Yet another emotional suicide
Overdosed on sentiment and pride
Too late to say I love you
Too late to restage the play
Abandoning the relics in my playground of yesterday
I'm losing on the swings
I'm losing on the roundabouts
I'm losing on the swings
I'm losing on the roundabouts
Too much, too soon, too far to go, too late to play
The game is over, the game is over
Live (including Gabriel-esque makeup)
That second stanza, which surprisingly isn't turned into a chorus, is very striking. The old adage is well expressed in the poem 'Roundabouts and Swings' by Patrick Chalmers. Here are the lines after the poet asks the fairground-man what his work is like:
"Said he 'the job's the very spit of what it always were,
'It's bread and bacon mostly when the dog don't catch a hare,
'But looking at it broad, and while it ain't no merchant kings,
'What's lost upon the roundabouts, we pulls up on the swings."
It's a fatalistic philosophy that's helped many people cope assuming that the bad times would be balanced out by the good times. Fish's lyric is pure pessimism but then he was depressed when he wrote it. It struck me quite strongly because I was feeling very negative at the time; life was a no-win situation. I never sat and analysed the lyrics any further. It was those lines I waited for every time I played the piece.
If you insist on drawing comparisons with Genesis then, yes, the album does begin very much like Selling England by the Pound but I'm not sure how helpful comparisons like this are. The songs are not good or bad because they're comparable to Genesis, they're either good or bad songs – full stop. Fish has one of the most unique voices in the business, charismatic, powerful, sentimental and capable of turning on a sixpence from a calm angelic voice, to an angry deranged madman. He can do a decent Peter Gabriel, yes, but I don' think I've heard Gabriel ever be as powerful or in-you-face-aggressive as Fish can be and I've heard a good bit of Gabriel's solo material as well as all his Genesis work.
Like a lot of writers Fish is not big on over-explaining his work. In an e-mail to his fans he said this:
I'm not going to explain all levels as if I was to just unwrap the goods then it would remove (a) the mystique (what there is) and (b) some of the fun in the list. I love the dissections…
The second song was the powerful 'He Knows You Know'. As it happens it's about drugs and that's how Fish used to introduce the song on stage as "The Drug Song". In the video Fish is shown in a straightjacket having visions of a Jackson's Chameleon as featured on the album artwork of Marillion's first three albums. Looking at the lyrics now it's obvious:
Fast feed, crystal fever, swarming through a fractured mind
Chilling needles freeze emotion, the blind shall lead the blind
You've got venom in you stomach, you've got poison in your head
When your conscience whispered, the vein lines stiffened
You were walking with the dead
but it was the chorus that hit me:
He knows, you know, he knows, you know, he knows, you know
But he's got problems
Official Video (yes, the jester's in it)
I wrote recently about being an imposter. This was something I have suffered from all my life, beginning with religious guilt, the fact that I didn't seem able to make contact with my spiritual side. I studied and at one time I had a quite respectable knowledge of the scriptures and I could easily quote chapter and verse. I could 'prove' things scripturally but the 'proofs' didn't mean anything to me. I was a fake, a fraud, and no one knew because I was good at putting on a front but if there was a God-with-a-capital-G up there then He would know. The metaphor of drug use hit home with me. I felt that I had venom in my stomach; my conscience nipped away constantly at me; I was as good as dead.
The song though is clearly about addiction and Fish's problems with both alcohol and drugs are well documented. The man in the song ends up "Singing psychedelic praises to the depths of a china bowl..." – certainly a more poetic turn of phrase than "Calling Hughie on the porcelain telephone" but no less pointed. In the sleeve to Misplaced Childhood he wrote:
The touring lifestyle fed my addictions on every level and when the bus dropped me off at my newly acquired house in Albert Street, Aylesbury I found myself very alone and dislocated from all the distractions that had fed my desire to escape commitments, responsibilities and realities.
I reverted to type and the 'White Swan' pub became an annexe to my house.
'The Web' which many cite as their favourite track was the one Fish wrote to get in the band in the first place which is perhaps where the opening line "The rain auditions at my window" comes from; it actually began life as an instrumental. Like a lot of Fish's stuff we find ourselves in a room remembering:
Attempting to discard these clinging memories
I only serve to wallow in our past
I fabricate the weave with my excuses
Its strands I hope and pray shall last
Oh please do last
Oh please do last
In dealing with depression you'd think this would be a track closer to my heart. It also deals again with lost love – Fish has never been that lucky in love – and I've been there too. Who hasn't?
'Garden Party' was – one the surface – a lighter piece but with clever lyrics:
Garden party held today
Invites call the debs to play
Social climbers polish ladders
Wayward sons again have fathers
"Hello, dad!" "Hello, dad!"
Edgy eggs and queuing cumbers
Rudely wakened from their slumbers
Time has come again for slaughter
On the lawns by still "Cam" waters
It's a slaughter, it's a slaughter
It's cheeky and irreverent. I loved it. Having a clear verse and chorus made it prime choice for a single and it did well; it is still a track the crowds demand after all these years.
Bear in mind that Fish's roots are working class like mine. It's only to be expected that he would be disdainful of upper class soirees like these and he rips right into them. We also see here appearing another common thread of Fish's writing, a political edge. He grew up in the same Scotland as I did. We're only a year apart in age and so we'll both remember the harsh years of the seventies, Three-Day Weeks, the miners' strike and the subsequent power cuts and lay-offs. Politics was never spoken about in our house but I could see the news and add two and two together. People think it's bad now under Labour but this was the mess when Ted Heath handed the reigns over to Harold Wilson in 1974.
I'll let Fish tell you about 'Chelsea Monday':
Chelsea Monday was written roundabout January or February this year. The lyric idea was spun by seeing a number of people walking about Chelsea on a very, very early Monday morning. And it was this sort of actors that you don't know their names... And they were going down buying the morning Daily Expresses, it was a ritual, and they were looking at themselves in the window, as if to buy the paper was actually a take, it was part of some formal play they were in. It was also about young ladies, who often, sort of like me, live in their bedsit apartments, and they've got their Marks & Spencer's duvets and their collections of books and things. We put the two ideas together and confirmed that with the dreamers that you often get down in London that think that the paths are actually paved with gold. And we came up with this, again typical Marillion depressive vibe thing, where you've got the girl in the bedsit. She'd love to be an actress, but she's never got the guts to sort of make that jump from standard 9-5 into the great big world of entertainment industry. And rather than face the prospect of failure she decides that she's going to commit suicide and go out in a blaze of fame. It's one of those nice, sad, depressing vibes. – Interview with Mark Kelly, Radio Forth, Scotland, 14th September 1982
I guess he was feeling talkative that day. The song opens:
Catalogue princess, apprentice seductress
Hiding in her cellophane world in glitter town
Awaiting the prince in his white Capri
Dynamic young Tarzan courts the bedsit queen
My dad had a two Ford Capris when I was a kid, a beautiful Consul Capri in the sixties and then the 'classic' Mark 2, in green I'm afraid, not white. For a while it was the in car immediately recognisable on the streets of seventies Britain and as much a part of that decade as kipper ties and flared-trousers! I was a little surprised that the car in Life on Mars was a Ford Cortina and not a Capri. Perhaps that would have been too close to The Professionals.
The very early Marillion does owe some debts to Genesis but lyrically there is a far cry between the abstract lyrics of Genesis and the down-to-earth Marillion. Fish is a Scot and we Scots do not mince our words. He may not want to talk about his work line for line but when he sets his pen in a certain direction it does not miss its mark: lost love, suicide, drug addiction and The Troubles in Northern Ireland are all obvious targets.
And this is where the final track ends up, 'Forgotten Sons', a strong finish to the album and a mark of what was to come later with the next album – and especially its title track – Fugazi. The story this time, a guy has lost his girl – perhaps it’s the guy in the first song – he finds himself on the dole and then the next thing the sparkly ads – It's a man's life in the army! – have reeled him in. A taster:
From the dole queue to the regiment a profession in a flash
But remember Monday signings when from door to door you dash
On the news a nation mourns you unknown soldier count the cost
For a second you'll be famous but labelled posthumous
In the introduction to the live version on Reel to Reel Fish says: “This is dedicated to all those who fell on a pavement outside Harrods last Christmas.”
Harrods is an exclusive shop in Knightsbridge, London. On December 17, 1983, an IRA bomb exploded, killing six and wounding many others. That the song is about the Northern Ireland conflict is clear by the line:
You're just another coffin on its way down the emerald aisle
I'll leave you to work out the pun yourselves.
The album is not without its weak points: the otherwise powerful "Forgotten Sons" in which Fish reels off a parody of the Lord's Prayer is probably the low point. Who hasn't tried to lampoon the Lord's Prayer? I certainly have and mine was pretty awful too. It began, "Our father in the radioactive heavens." Nuff said. I'm told the production quality could also be better on the original – the version of 'Forgotten Sons' is supposed to be better on Reel to Reel – but I guess my ear isn't that fine tuned.
Reel to Reel version + homemade video
Is this album a masterpiece? D. Q. Ramos from Sintra in Portugal thinks it is. This is part of his Amazon review:
Script for a Jester's Tear is a masterpiece. Don't expect commercial songs here, from the lyrics, to the deep evolving songs, this album is a pearl from beginning to the end.
Would it go on my Desert Island Discs list? Edwin Roosjen from Hoofddorp in The Netherlands thinks it should:
Deserted Island Top Five: Iron Maiden - Live after death, Marillion - Script for a jester's tear, Pink Floyd - Dark side of the moon, Arena - The visitor, Rush - Chronicles
For a debut album it is outstanding on so many levels and, when you read as many reviews as I have to write this essay, there certainly are very few who mark it less than excellent and those who do tend to be people who see the words 'prog rock' and switch off. What is particularly striking are the number of people who make special mention of the lyrics in their comments. A flawed masterpiece then, though it wouldn't be on my Desert Island Discs list because in my humble opinion the group gets better but I'll maybe talk about that another time.
Now, if you've skimmed through this post without clicking on the videos for God's sake go back, do your ears a favour and have a listen to a few. I'd never seen the videos for the two singles before and they're not bad for being very eighties. (And they said the seventies was the generation that fashion forgot.)
Sites also worth a visit: