This week sees a return back to Fish, but this time with Marillion for their final album together, 1987's Clutching At Straws.
When Marillion came to record Clutching At Straws, the band had seemingly reached breaking point following, as Fish put it, "squeezing the pips dry" on runaway success Misplaced Childhood. EMI, at the time, paid for the band to go down to a rehearsal studio away from every dark influence - pubs, bars and clubs were all off limits - in an effort to write. Producers & A&R men were initially unimpressed with the band's efforts, but what came out of those fractious sessions made for one of the best albums of the eighties.
In a way, it picks up where Misplaced Childhood left off back in 1985 with brooding soundscapes overladen with Fish's incredible lyricism and also the general idea of a concept album. Contemporaries of the time called it nothing more than a formulaic record, but looking back, if it isn't broken, why fix it? The opening Hotel Hobbies is one of the album's most unsung pieces of brilliance with those classic soaring solos from Steve Rothery and some truly thumping drums courtesy of Ian Mosley. In essence, it's the opening chapter of a tale about drugs, drink and tales a bit too close to home. Hotel Hobbies soon transitions into the wonderfully smooth Warm Wet Circles, a song that none of the band barring Fish initially liked. As I have done for the last several years, I'll have to side with the Big Man on this one. Warm Wet Circles marks a more direct approach to the prog genre, and actually became a decently popular tune in the latter part of the eighties. Despite its radio-friendly length and subject matter, to me, it's one of the most intricate tracks the band produced. It's got everything that makes the Marillion sound as great as it is: Fish's brilliant lyrics; Rothery's dreamy guitar work; Pete Trewavas' effective basslines; Mark Kelly's incredible synth work and Ian Mosley's rugged drums.
It's not long before the effervescent Warm Wet Circles soon takes a dark turn not seen since the move to Blind Curve on Misplaced Childhood thanks to the introduction of That Time Of The Night (The Short Straw). This particular section marks one of the album's best instrumental pieces where each member comes in atop one another, layering up before Fish comes in and puts the icing on the cake. Initially seeming like a pretty timid affair, That Time Of The Night soon turns aggressive as Torch (the main character of Clutching) opens up and becomes more honest about the way he feels. At this point, it would be the time to discuss hidden track Going Under, but as it wasn't on the original release of Clutching At Straws, we'll move straight on to my favourite tune on this album, Just For The Record. Compared to its predecessors, Just For The Record offers something a little more optimistic and upbeat with Torch explaining his plan to "change his life around", before he comes to the realisation that with both of his minds "at the bar", maybe his recovery won't be as rosy as first planned.
Fish's discussion of a neo-Nazi resurgence in Austria on White Russian certainly makes for one of the album's most poignant moments. Fish's constant questioning of "Where do we go from here?" to me at least carries two interpretations. Firstly, he's stepped out of the character of Torch to ponder on his own the atrocities of the Austrian election of Kurt Waldheim as President in 1986. A man who was known to be part of the Nazi armed forces, the Wehrmacht, during the Second World War. In another sense, and what's probably a truer interpretation is that it's Torch questioning himself and whether he needs to face up with reality or just stay in bars drinking in his own little world. Over the course of the track's six minutes, Torch acts as a mere observer to the atrocities going on around him, before eventually running away, or "racing the clouds home". This particular tune is one of Clutching At Straws' best and is one of those songs where you can't help but listen to it multiple times over as you'll always find something new.
The overall mood of Clutching soon shifts dramatically with the raucous Incommunicado, one of the album's best-performing singles. Much like Warm Wet Circles was earlier on, Incommunicado doesn't sound like it should be explicitly released for radio. Sure, it's got a more-than-catchy hook but it's a lot more intricate and thought-old than your average Top Ten hit. With its infectiously incredible keyboard work that drives the track and Ian Mosley's pounding drums, you could easily mistake the backing for a lost Who song, which is really what the band were going for. Unlike a lot of the other parts of this record, Incommunicado ultimately feels pretty gung-ho which makes for a nice change of pace, in a similar way to Garden Party on Marillion's brilliant debut Script For A Jester's Tear. The seemingly eponymous Torch Song follows, bringing with it a slower pace and an opening with a drink being poured - it's clear our 'hero' is back to his old tricks again. You get the sense that this track is one where you can sit swilling a small glass of whiskey round contemplating a mind full of thoughts and it wouldn't sound out of place in the background. Fish's lyrics are, as always, insightful and the song's overall musicality is of course brilliant. It's Mark Kelly's hypnotic keyboards that really make this one, as well as Steve Rothery's little smatterings of electric guitar brilliance.
Torch Song soon turns into the triumphant-sounding Slainte Mhath, an old Gaelic term to mean "Cheers" or "Good health" when having a drink. As much as Slainte Mhath sounds as if it should be a victory song, it's ultimately masked by the false optimism and overzealous happiness that comes with a bit too much to drink. Fish stated in an interview back in 1987 that it's a "very Scottish song about broken dreams" which doesn't seem too far out of place given Torch's obvious position at the back-end of the record. However, to consider Slainte Mhath to be a one-dimensional drinking song would be wrong - the mentions of "barbed wires at Flanders and Bilston Glen" is a clever synthesis of locations, marking out a World War One battlefield and the battlefields of a coal mine near where Fish grew up in Dalkeith.
Sugar Mice brings Torch back down to Earth from the heights of the previous track, possibly acting as the dreaded hangover from his previous night's antics on Slainte Mhath. It's one of this offering's most melancholy tracks, marking out a realisation for Torch as to where he's ended up after this journey through pubs, bars and clubs, separated from family in a hotel room, wasting his life away as he's become unemployed. The only solution Torch has is to keep drinking - it's not like he's done much else to solve personal problems. Even with such a heavy subject matter, Sugar Mice is still one of Fish's most heartfelt tracks to date and certainly makes for an emotional listen. I've always considered it to be one of the band's finest offerings, even if it was one of their most commercial.
Clutching At Straws' kick-in-the-teeth finale The Last Straw marks out the end of the tumultuous tale of Torch and his chronic drinking problems. The Last Straw's apparent optimism is once again thinly veiled, as even though Torch realises that the only way he can go is up from where he's been over the album's course. He goes back to writing to try and fill the time, giving him the perfect excuse for a drink. This track's incredible instrumental feels similar to the triumphant nature of Childhood's End & White Feather from Misplaced Childhood before Torch comes to the realisation that deep down, everyone is one and the same - "men of straw".
Clutching At Straws is undoubtedly one of the best albums of the eighties, bookending an incredible run of the combination of Marillion and Fish. It features some of the Scot's best songwriting and some of the band's tightest instrumental sections which make for an incredible listen overall.
If you want to pick up a copy, I’ll leave an Amazon link here: https://amzn.to/3ozFeYB
Or, if you’d prefer, here’s a Spotify link
More musical magnificence to come next week!
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