No band has had more of an effect on my adult life than Marillion. Saying that is surprising even to me.
So, seeing them for the first time since 1985 in Orlando the other night just down the road from where that club shooting took place was something I needed both personally and professionally.
It was a reminder of what I owe myself and, you, my audience as I enter my second half-century.
Rush is the band that forms the intellectual and musical backbone of my life. Marillion forms the emotional core. Their my Id to Rush’s Super-Ego. And the two intersected at a concert in New Jersey in 1985, back when I thought I wanted to be a professional musician.
I came for Power Windows, I left with Misplaced Childhood in my head.
Things have changed since then. And while it took me a while to embrace Marillion as led by Steve (H.) Hogarth, I have zero reservations about the band now.
This Strange Music
The other night in Orlando was a different experience. I went with a good friend, also a musician, who hadn’t given the band a second thought in twenty years. He was excited when they pulled material out for us from that era; the first iteration of the band, led by Fish.
Me? Not so much. It was nice, but I wanted more time with the songs that showcased what a monstrous group of artists they’ve become. I didn’t want them to give me the ‘greatest hits.’
But, that’s me being selfish. So, while they crushed songs like “Kayleigh” and “Garden Party” I wanted to hear “Between You and Me,” “Man of a Thousand Faces” or literally any song off of their incredible album, “Happiness is the Road.”
But, I also knew that they could have played for another three hours and I still would have been hoping for something else. So, that’s on me.
They did honestly surprise me with “Afraid of Sunlight,” a song so beautiful I literally cannot sing along to it because it leaves me speechless.
But, what the two eras of the band share is a singular commitment to wringing every erg of emotional connection from the song possible. If that means meditating on a four-chord progression for 12 minutes like in “Neverland” from Marbles, then so be it.
If it means creating five-plus minutes of pop-song perfection like “Don’t Hurt Yourself” or “Map of the World” all the better.
Opera-ness on the Road
The set was dominated by what I call the band’s soundscapes. They opened with “El Dorado” (warning 16+ minutes) from the latest album, F.E.A.R.; a perfect example of where they are as artists today.
My friend I went with, also a musician at his core, made the observation that Marillion makes music much more like opera than anything else. There’s no A-A-B-A, verse-chorus-bridge-outro structure to these pieces.
They move from moment to moment, shifting keys, tone, mood and, yes, time signatures to tell a story that culminates with the kind of emotional release too many of us are frankly afraid of allowing ourselves to feel.
Afraid of Sunlight, indeed.
It doesn’t always work. But, when it does there is little in the world of music like it.
It’s that fearlessness to explore, that honesty, that has earned them their truly unique relationship with their fans. And that was also the thing that surprised my friend. He didn’t understand the level of commitment the fans have to their band.
Until he saw just a glimpse of it in Orlando.
Marillion isn’t just a band, it’s a community. It’s England’s version of the Grateful Dead, minus all the California hippie stuff. It’s at once a musician’s band because who doesn’t want to play guitar like Steve Rothery or drums like Ian Mosely?
At various times in my life I’ve wanted to do both.
But they don’t indulge the musicianship at the expense of the point of the song. Under H. this band is focused purely on where the emotional journey takes us. If they get to cut up every once in a while, great.
But, at its core, Marillion is a refuge for people who don’t feel quite at home anywhere.
And their commonality is music that speaks directly to those things we feel are lacking in our lives. That hole that can only be filled by someone else who reaches out to help you confront them.
The songs may be melancholy, but they aren’t hopeless. They are the opposite of the line from Jethro Tull’s “Thick as a Brick.”
They can make you feel but they don’t need to make you think.
Bravery Begets Loyalty
Music is intensely personal. It’s supposed to bring out the best in us and maybe some things we’d rather not remember.
Steve Hogarth leaves a part of himself on the stage with every song he sings. It’s incredibly brave but almost disturbing. I’m over-joyed at seeing it live, finally.
He does it because, like all great artists, he can’t not do it. And it elevates the live performance to something truly special, something that would melt even the hardest heart.
That said, they lost me for a while in the mid-90’s. I wasn’t receptive to what they were selling. It was me, not them. In fact, it was Afraid of Sunlight that pushed me away. Maybe I was afraid of the music.
I was alone in my love for the band as my wife never made the transition from Fish to H. And that loneliness eventually wore me down.
I’m not sure what brought me back to them but it was in 2003, I believe. And I heard about this weird thing they did, asking their fans to pre-order an album they hadn’t written yet, Anaroknophobia.
The story is famous now. They are credited with doing the first type of crowd-funding (a 1997 tour to the tune of $60,000). Services like Kickstarter and, yes, Patreon, owe a debt to Marillion.
But, the corporate control of music was always going to create the innovation. It is the very best part of capitalism. They got there first because they had done the hard work, having a big enough following to lead the charge. A smaller band might have been as relatively successful but not nearly as influential.
Marillion went from the butt of prog-rock jokes to the envy of the industry.
It comes back to the strength of the connection between them and their audience. Even they were surprised at the response.
Without it, everything changes.
The funds raised from these ventures allowed them the independence to build their own business, studio, etc. They were free to produce music their audience loved, not that which the record company demanded.
They did what I wished so many artists had the fortitude and opportunity to do.
When I heard about this they were raising money for “Marbles.” I couldn’t sign up fast enough. I bought the albums I’d been missing and the rest is history. It took me a while to truly grok it. But, eventually, I let my guard down and that was that.
The Great Escape
Theirs is the story without which I wouldn’t be here today. I started my first blog, “Being Thomas Luongo” right after that. My goal was to get published at LewRockwell.com. Modest yes, but given the quality of the writing at the time, a lofty one.
Not only are Marillion brilliant musicians but entrepreneurs as well, whether they realize it or not. Their authenticity is what keeps us coming back every year. It is what our society is screaming for. There is no “Authenticity Gap” with Marillion.
They serve us with memories that last a lifetime and by doing so serve themselves with well-earned remuneration.
Approach your work like they have and the community around your art becomes its own self-sustaining thing.
The community is the goal. The product is a means to that end.
It is the lesson that all aspiring entrepreneurs need to internalize. Authenticity breeds loyalty. Honesty builds trust. Phone it in and you’ll lose their respect.
So, even though I don’t love every one of Marillion’s albums, I’ll happily buy the next one because I know they’ll never phone it in.
As my friend said to me after the show, “It’s peculiar music.”
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