Album Of The Week - Marillion- B'Sides Themselves
It's time for another Album Of The Week and although I don't usually do compilations, considering I've basically done every Fish-era Marillion album in one form or another, the album B'Sides Themselves does allow me to fill in some of the gaps.
Many fans of bands will often have arguments over which side of a single is best, be it the A-Side or the B-Side, and that's no different with Marillion, especially in the context of one specific song. Marillion B-Sides are some of the most debated about, although for such, do go even more under the radar than the usual sets of songs in their back catalogue.
That one specific song I've alluded to is actually the one that opens up B'Sides Themselves, namely the supposed Suppers Ready pastiche, Grendel. Being seventeen or so minutes long means that the Gabriel-era Genesis comparisons were arguably expected, as well as its mythical subject matter. Fish has even stated in the past that when he met Tony Smith, Genesis' manager, that if he'd have known about Grendel, he would've sued. I've discussed Grendel before, although not in as much detail as I perhaps should, which will definitely be rectified here.
What this particular prog epic offers that Suppers Ready doesn't is a defined macabre sentiment with its roots in mythology; as is pretty much common knowledge now, it's rooted in the epic poem Beowulf, in which the character Grendel is one of the main antagonists. Fish was, when he first joined Marillion, obsessed with the John Gardner book Grendel and his discussions of appearance and the principle of anything ugly being dismissed. Within an interview entitled Fishy Tales in a November issue of Melody Maker, Fish elaborates deeply on the track's meaning, coining it as a"psychoanalysis of the monster", specifically honing on the impact of his discussions of religion and the nature of evil. Heavy stuff.
I remember stating in my review of the Script remaster, "whilst Supper's Ready was plain absurd, Grendel acts as its antithesis, using myth as the vehicle to shroud well-timed lyrics on religion, the destruction of resources and war amongst other topics", and to be honest, my opinions haven't changed. I was a Marillion fan before a Genesis one, and so have a certain affinity with Grendel. It's up there with Rush's 2112 Overture that I've also waxed lyrical about previously as one of prog's finest masterpieces. Just one more interesting fact for you, the Grendel mask that Fish wore on stage on the odd occasion is based on the Sutton Hoo mask (a Lego version of it has recently been made and looks great), and he still owns the original, having bought it from a chap in Italy, apparently.
The song that follows Grendel here is also one that has its roots within Fish's really early days with the band. Grendel came from a Silmarillion song entitled The Tower which to this day remains unheard for instance; nobody's sure where the tape that has the song on it resides, although it is thought to be in the possession of Doug Irvine, the band's original bassist and lead singer, before he disappeared into the sunset with it following its handover from Mick Pointer. On the other hand, Charting The Single isn't a track that has its roots anywhere other than with Fish in the band. not least given the song's clever lyrics. Compared to its Roxon demo version that can be found on all sorts of bootlegs out there, the final release slows things down a tad which makes things altogether more impactful and sounds more Marillion-like as opposed to being more of a Camel or Gabriel-era Genesis pastiche, as some critics would claim.
I remember being fascinated with Charting The Single as a kid growing up, and the last thirteen years especially have passed, every time I listen to it, I understand things a little bit more, as well as realising that every single line is some clever world play. I've tried to write random pieces of clever metaphor over my years of schooling and in my spare time, but just haven't got the knack for it. Fish, on Charting The Single, proves undoubtedly that he's a poet first and a songwriter second, but a fantastic one at that. It is indeed one of the best songs in the band's vast back catalogue and arguably its position as a B-side cements its status as a pure gem and underappreciated success. The song was also a live favourite, being performed at the 1983 Reading Festival. If you go and read my take on Fugazi, you'll see a couple of pictures taken at the festival, most notably the stage curtain with Mark Wilkinson's infamous jester.
The Script-era songs that are present on B'Sides Themselves do unfortunately near their end with what was the band's debut single and one that remains a personal favourite after many years, Market Square Heroes. Seeing Fish for the second time perform Misplaced Childhood in full, and finish with Market Square Heroes at the young age of fourteen some five years ago will go down as one of the most surreal experiences in my short life thus far, but isn't one I'll forget any time soon. Even as a younger child, it's a song I've always resonated with due to its nature as a rallying cry for misfits and those that stand out from the crowd; if you know me, you'll know I've never conformed, or indeed wanted to. It's for that reason I've often adored not only Marillion, but the prog genre in general.
The song's origins come from Fish working at the benefit office in Aylesbury, as also suggested by its original title of UB 2,000,001 which referred to the stark unemployment figures during the Thatcher age. It's at this specific office where Fish also conceived He Knows You Know, interestingly. The Scottish bigman wrote the lyrics whilst coming down from an acid trip whilst in St. Mary's Churchyard in Aylesbury which is only a few miles down the road from me, and as he came down, he noticed a sea of police cars swarming around him and his then girlfriend. Market Square Heroes was also based around another key figure at the time who was also a good friend of the band's, the mysterious Brick who to this day remains a misty character, even with his passing some years ago now.
It's a call to arms of sorts and in essence, the lyrics describe Fish's move from the churchyard and its "shuffling graveyard people" into Aylesbury's market square to stand as one of Brick's Market Square Heroes and followers. You get the sense of impending revolution and power when listening to it and also the mere fact it's an incredible track in general, not least thanks to Steve Rothery's hypnotic guitar riff and Pete Trewavas' entrancing bassline. I actually had the pleasure of seeing that Marillion reunion of sorts back in 2007 at Hobble on the Cobbles in the market square at the tender age of five, and I've got this distinct recollection of shouting at Fish from atop my Dad's shoulders at the time.
The Market Square Heroes connection continues on the thumping Three Boats Down From The Candy, a four minute sinister romp that surrounds an amorous rendezvous near a boat on Brighton Beach. Compared to the likes of Market Square Heroes which by comparison sounds polished, Three Boats Down From The Candy has this fantastic grittiness and loose sound to it that's characterised by Steve Rothery's low guitar drive, that thumping bass from Pete and Mark Kelly's brilliant synthwork. By comparison to the other songs on the Market Square Heroes single, Three Boats Down From The Candy wasn't a song I paid a lot of attention to, but in coming back to listen to it here, I realise I was sorely mistaken.
Following this comes the first and only Fugazi-era B-side, largely because there were only two singles released from the album, and one of the B-sides was a rerecorded version of Market Square Heroes. Cinderella Search has often been one of those songs I've cited as being one of the most underrated songs in the band’s back catalogue, not least thanks to Fish’s clever lyrics where the speaker searches for a woman he’s obviously met at a bar previously and as the song progresses, he ends up finding them in a “marquee of promises” which has to relate to the Marquee Club in Wardour Street, London, a favourite drinking haunt of Fish, as well as a place where Marillion performed to launch their own career.
They’d also perform at the Wardour Street venue in later years under the monikers of the Skyline Drifters (an older Silmarillion-era song title) and Lufthanser Air Terminal (intentional misspelling). Interestingly, Marillion performed a gig at the Marquee to celebrate the fans support under the title ‘A Garden Party For Forgotten Sons’ the night after Genesis had performed there under the original band name of Garden Wall as a rehearsal show of sorts for the Three Sides Live Encore tour; it’s not often to see bands go on tour in support of a live album, but that’s Genesis for you. The week after also saw their hastily arranged reunion with Peter Gabriel who was short of a few quid in the wake of the abysmal failure of his WOMAD endeavours which I’m happy to say he has turned around over the last near forty years in a show where Gabriel was wheeled out onto the stage at Knebworth in a coffin, as if he was back from the dead.
You could argue that there’s a bit of a connection between the Assassing B-side in Cinderella Search and what follows. The track that follows was not only the B-side to Kayleigh in Britain but became its own lead single in the United States as the only entry from the US-exclusive EP Brief Encounter, which reached No. 67 on the US Billboard 200 album chart, a respectable showing in the context of the band’s stateside success.. Its B-side was Heart of Lothian, although that track on its own didn’t make any real impact on the US chart, largely seen because of its outward Scottish patriotism, but it’s for Fish’s declarations that I’ve always loved it.
Anyways, back to Lady Nina. It’s the only song in Marillion’s back catalogue to make use of a drum machine which is like saying that Quartz is one of the only Marillion tracks to feature Steve Hogarth rapping. In part, it’s thanks to that odd feature that makes Lady Nina such an enjoyable listen. Much like in the case of Three Boats Down From The Candy before, I didn’t give Lady Nina a fair crack of the whip, most likely thanks to that drum machine sound. On reflection however, the drum machine sound gives it this brooding quality that entwines well with Fish’s lyrics that quite clearly discuss a prostitute, and Fish was noted for writing it when hanging around German brothels. It really is a great song, and its position as a B-side never really did it any justice, which was only compounded by the poor chart position within the States.
The Misplaced tracks keep on coming with Freaks which has since become a rather fitting nickname for Marillion fans, alongside The Web fan club which takes its name from a track on Script For A Jester's Tear. The ties to the Freaks name indeed continued into the Hogarth era, although not necessarily in an intentional manner on Separated Out from Anoraknophobia which is in itself a more recent nod to the fans being seen as odd, or Anoraks.
Freaks' lyrics don't necessarily discuss the fanatical fans, however. Much like a lot of Fish's other writings, Freaks originated in Aylesbury where he'd spent time with some people who he saw were "all in wheelchairs, they'd been in motorbike accidents and stuff or like from birth or whatever, and we used to drop acid together a lot, and the guys were heavily into speed and shit." When Fish went to visit them one night, one of the guys turned round and shouted "All the best freaks are here!" which then became the basis for the song itself. Even as a B-side, it encapsulates the true intentions of the Misplaced Childhood suite of songs, given its proper atmosphere and Fish's rather cold delivery. This then of course builds, as some of the longer songs on Misplaced do with its triumphant guitar solo, purposeful drums and Mark Kelly's lovely synth work. Interestingly, the song was also Marillion's last Fish-era single, released as a thank you to the fans in 1988.
Those sinister sentiments continue into Tux On which stands out as the only Clutching-era track present as B'Sides Themselves draws to a close. There might've been the chance of including Going Under, the hidden track on Clutching At Straws that sits between That Time Of The Night and Just For The Record. However, including that may have broken up the flow of B'Sides Themselves somewhat, which makes Tux On a great inclusion. Much like Freaks before it, Tux On fits ideally with the sound present on the Marillio's fourth album, making things a little bit darker than on Misplaced Childhood and even though some fans may disagree, there's this double-edged nature to the sound on Clutching At Straws.
On one hand, it sounds even more polished than Misplaced Childhood but at the same time is a slight return to the band's roots given that darker nature.Of particular note is Steve Rothery's incredible guitar solo, one that's been lauded by fans as some of his finest work, as well as Fish's slightly more aggressive delivery. This was once again the case when he used this track as an encore back in 2018 when I had the pleasure of seeing Fish play the entirety of Clutching At Straws for its anniversary outing. At the same gig, I had the pleasure of picking up a couple of Mark Wilkinson's art prints and meet the man himself, even if there was an issue with his card machine!
Indeed, B'Sides Themselves comes full circle with its final offering, a live cut of Margaret from the Edinburgh Playhouse from December 1983. This song is one with quite an interesting course and history, given that it is not only a bastardised version of two Scottish folk songs, but also an ode to the band's old green Commer van, who was nicknamed Margaret. It also has its roots as one of the earlier Marillion tracks entitled Scott's Porridge which was then changed to Margaret Gets Her Oats, a possible nod to John Lennon at the beginning of a take of Two Of Us where he states, rather randomly, "I Dig A Pygmy by Charles Haughtry And The Deaf Aids. Phase One in which Doris gets her oats."
Margaret is one of those tracks that, as a Marillion fan, you either love or you hate. It's one of a few songs that was reserved for being a set closer which is definitely the case on this take, not least given it sees Fish give introductions to the rest of the band who each in turn play their own piece. There's a great bit of footage from Roskilde Festival in 1983 where a whole host of dancers join Fish and the band on stage for some inherently Scottish dancing. The crowd look entirely bemused as this takes place, which makes it even more of a humorous watch. As one of those live takes, it's no real surprise that this rendition of Margaret is one of the most haphazard caught on a Marillion record, but what it does is capture the essence of one of their early live shows.
As a career anthology of the even more obscure sides of Marillion's back catalogue, B'Sides Themselves is a marvellous record, and in its own respect could've even been its own album - that's how strong the material present is. For those who are the die-hard fans out there, you'll know each of these songs inside out, and even if you aren't, it still shows one of the most underrated bands of the last four decades at their creative best. It just goes to prove that B-sides aren't always throwaway tracks like people seem to think.
Note: A big thanks to Marillion - Explanations Of Song Elements for providing some fantastic detail on each of these songs - these Marillion articles wouldn't really have a backbone without them.
If you want to pick up a copy, I’ll leave an Amazon link here: https://amzn.to/3fACztX
Or, if you’d prefer, here’s a Spotify link:
More musical magnificence to come next time!
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