At Real Gone, we pride ourselves on covering a wide range of musical styles, but rock music is pivotal to our everyday listening. In the years building up to the site’s creation, Marillion were one of our all time favourite bands. They have arguably one of the most obsessive fan bases of any band ever. Hours have been spent discussing the merits of various works – with their ‘Radiation’ album being particularly divisive – and, while the fans often agree, they’re as likely to disagree on various things.
For what it’s worth, Real Gone offers what we feel are ten of their best, briefly outlining why each track made the cut. Whether you’re a hardcore fan – someone likely to think about this list and draw your own conclusions – or someone to whom Marillion remain unfamiliar beyond their early hits, we invite you to read, listen and hopefully enjoy the tunes we’ve chosen. If it inspires some of you to revisit old friends, or even dig a little deeper, our work is done.
KING OF SUNSET TOWN
The opening track of the second phase of the band’s career, rarely have they chosen a more perfect opener. From the minute the melodies slowly fade in, there’s an atmosphere being built. At the point that Steve Rothery’s lead guitars burst into life, it’s like being wrapped in a musical comfort blanket. 1989 introduced a new vocalist/lyricist in Steve Hogarth, but musically, this is a continuation of the band you loved before. The opening lyric, too, introduces the change directly, before delving into political territory – in this case, the brutal events in Tianemen Square earlier in the year. Rarely has a heavy lyric been juxtaposed with such an uplifting melody so effectively. Of particular note is the work of the rhythm section throughout: Ian Mosley’s drums have a superb sound, especially on the rocky parts, while Pete Trewavas offers a brilliantly structured bassline. With a vocal that effortlessly rises from a hushed sound to rock belt, Hogarth puts his mark on the band instantly and forever. For those willing to embrace the change, this track marks the beginning of a great journey.
Like ‘King of Sunset Town’, this track shows once again how Marillion are able to create the perfect opener. 1991’s ‘Holidays In Eden’ is one of their more commercial albums – not to the delight of everyone – and that’s clear from the outset, especially with Mark Kelly’s choice of a more shiny AOR keyboard heartbeat. Hogarth seems ever more at ease with the poppier style, but this track shouldn’t be written off as lightweight. At the halfway mark when the drums kick in and Rothery breaks into his featured solo, it’s incredibly powerful – perhaps even one of the best moments on any Marillion recording ever.
COVER MY EYES (PAIN & HEAVEN)
If ‘Splintering Heart’ seemed too commercial to some fans, those fans probably had a heart attack when they first heard this. Released as a single, it’s a brilliant piece of radio friendly rock, placing Marillion alongside the likes of Cutting Crew (whose frontman would collaborate with Hogarth many years later). A great riff, an even better chorus and an amazing overall melody come together to make this the great hit that never was. Peaking at #34 on the UK chart, it’s a mystery as to why the radio stations didn’t get firmly behind this. It’s the top ten hit and rock radio staple that should have been. Those who hate it can shut up.
THE HOLLOW MAN
As part of the ‘Brave’ concept album, this track makes so much sense. When released as a standalone single in 1994, eyebrows were raised. To call this track “slight” would be an understatement. It presents little more than four minutes of moody piano and mumbling voice. In the right setting, though, it’s the perfect tribute to self-loathing, full of questions, with a line about fairground ducks being especially emotive. It makes our ten best as it’s out there on its own compared to anything in the Marillion catalogue previously. Decades on, it’s stripped back style makes it seem more timeless than ever.
1995’s ‘Afraid of Sunlight’ is believed by some fans to be the finest of all Marillion albums. We’re flummoxed as to how that came to be, especially considering the previous year’s ‘Brave’ was incredibly deep. Most of ‘AoS’ feels light by comparison – occasionally even tossed off (both ‘Cannibal Surf Babe’ and ‘Beautiful’ are genuinely nasty) – but this set closer offers redemption. A push and pull between quiet and loud, the music always seems to sympathise with the lyric concerning the various pressures of fame. It became a regular live set closer for very good reason and in that live setting, the years have done nothing to diminish its impact.
THIS STRANGE ENGINE
Autobiographical pieces can be tricky beasts. Coupled with a chorus-free arrangement of some near fifteen minutes, this could be seen as the ultimate self-indulgence. Luckily, Steve Hogarth’s childhood – the sights, the smells, his dad’s Triumph motorbike – all maintain a narrative interest, thanks in no small part to a great arrangement of many moods, hinging upon a hushed moodiness, a few chunky riffs and more besides.
A somewhat controversial choice, given how most fans hate ‘Radiation’. The album has a rawer sound than most, with Steve Rothery constantly experimenting with new guitar sounds throughout. ‘Cathedral Wall’ is one of the album’s highlights, with a tussle between a haunting quietness and howling anger. Mark Kelly’s keyboard sounds are suitably ugly, serving the song excellently, but it’s a vocal peppered with effects that leaves the strongest impression. Years later, the album would be remixed for people with more sensitive ears and no sense of adventure and, unsurprisingly, the impact of this track was ruined. The original take, though – as heard below – is stunning. In the words of Neil Buchanan, try it yourself.
A close relation to the previous album’s ‘House’, this musing of life changes after a divorce comes with a proggy/trip hop hybrid that offers a superb bassline against a spiteful lyric. Pete gets ample chance to shine, while Hogarth’s rising anger creates one of the best performances from 2001’s excellent ‘Anoraknophobia’ long-player. If you’re one of those people who’ve never heard Marillion since 1990 and still think you know what they’re all about, this might surprise you.
This understated tune is great for a number of reasons. The lyric, regarding solace found in a late night radio station and a friendly DJ taps into the healing powers of music in a really effective way, which coupled with Hogarth’s slightly mumbly vocal sets the tone for the small hours. Musically, too, it’s the perfect fit: Mosley’s drums never rise above a gentle brushed rhythm; Rothery’s guitar lines tap farther into jazz than ever before, with his lead work evoking the tones of Grant Green’s Blue Note releases, while Trewavas offers a perfect bassline throughout. To borrow one of Marillion’s own phrases, “play it loud with the lights off”.
Clocking up some seventeen minutes and weighing in with an unashamed political angle, ‘Gaza’ is epic in every sense. It’s always bold when a band offers a political opinion, but thankfully, the lyric here is thoughtful and heartfelt (not crass, small minded and quite racist, as per Pendragon’s ‘Green and Pleasant Land’). Perhaps the greatest reason for offering this as one of Marillion’s masterworks, though, is it’s approach to applying a musical backdrop. This literally has a little of everything the band have crafted over the years: prog, pop, a surprisingly heavy section, some superb bass parts and even a foray to ambient keyboard soundscapes. It’s a track you can really lose yourself in.
Of course, picking ten numbers from such a vast catalogue is a thankless task. On another day, any number of other tracks could have made the cut, but we suggest these for further listening: ‘The Damage’, a most uncharacteristic attempt at power pop that has a hint of XTC at it’s core; ‘Born To Run’, the nearest Marillion have ever ventured to a straight blues – all aching vocal and soaring leads – and ‘Separated Out’, a full-on rocker that fuses hooks and power to create one of their best ever gig openers. Each one presents something powerful, but shows a different side to Marillion each time.
Maybe at some point in the future we’ll take a different look at a band who’ve often been one of our favourites…but, in the meantime, happy listening, wherever you are.