My Top 10 Live Bands – 2

Marillion

This is one band I was lucky enough to first witness in their pomp, way back in the 80s while they were still fronted by the legendary Fish and Misplaced Childhood rode high in the album chart.

I already knew that they were all first class musicians, but I had no idea just how tight and polished a band could be on stage. Anyone who bought Misplaced Childhood on vinyl back in the day will know that it’s a full-blooded, unashamed prog rock creation consisting of only two tracks, side one and side two. As it was their latest release, I was understandably looking forward to hearing some album cuts performed live on stage. What I didn’t expect was to witness the whole damned thing! Every last note and nuance, performed live, in sequence, with no breaks and no mistakes.

It was then I realised I wasn’t just watching a kick-ass live band, I was in the presence of true musical greatness. Marillion’s huge but tightly controlled energy dovetailed perfectly with the word-perfect recitals of the audience to produce a potent and mesmerising musical mix.

I’d had my first hit of the Marillion magic, and I knew had to have more…and so I did. I saw them twice more before the world came to an end when Fish left the band. After losing one of the finest lyricists this country’s ever produced, the future looked bleak for the last and greatest performing proponents of prog rock’s hugely demanding yet dying art.

Like many other fans from the Fish era, I wondered if it was the end of the road for Marillion. Still, after four hugely respected, often cited and much loved albums, that ain’t half bad.

But then, something extraordinary happened. Some obscure, small guy from Kendal joined one of the tightest rock bands in history to retool, rebrand and relaunch.

Marillion quickly stepped out of the mainstream spotlight as new singer Steve Hogarth and the rest of the guys set about building a new kind of band, a band based more around audience access and crowd funding than courting the continued goodwill and patronage of the major labels. This was a bold and revolutionary move in the early 1990s, but one that’s proved crucial to Marillion’s continued success and close relationship with its fan base.

So, after watching from afar for more than a quarter of a century, I finally decided to take the plunge and see this “new” Marillion in late 2016.

To say I was blown away is something of an understatement. Time and age seem to have only improved Marillion’s live performances, as focused experience has gradually replaced youthful exuberance. With a hi-tech video system, custom made movies, and the most balanced and powerful live sound you’ll ever hear, Marillion introduced FEAR, their eighteenth studio album to a seemingly insatiable audience.

Marillion are one of the few bands who’ve manage to pull off that seemingly impossible trick of moving with the times while also standing still. As highlights from the ever lengthening Hogarth era where delivered at full power, I realised that the tracks I was hearing could’ve been penned at any time since the late 1980s to the present day.

As I’ve said before, a Marillion gig is a masterclass in layered power rather than raw volume, and its effects on the audience are profound and long lasting.

After a long dry spell, I’m hooked on the M-stuff once again. Wanna try some?

Do you want Friars with that? – Dessert

What better way to round off a multi-course musical banquet than something sweet, uplifting and not too heavy?

Everybody knows that one of the best and most enjoyable rituals of a live gig is the false ending followed by the (almost) inevitable encores, and naturally Marillion were only too happy to oblige. Being a Friars gig, there was no way they could sneak out of the building before delivering a rousing rendition of Market Square Heroes, their very first single from the dim and distant days of the early eighties. In fact, I’m pretty sure there are local bylaws compelling them to play it whenever they set foot in the smallish town where it all began. Although it’s undoubtedly the most famous song about this unlikely musical mecca, Steve Hogarth did remind us that Bowie himself also

Charlie from David Live

tipped his hat to the very same square in the first line of Five Years.

Maybe it was because Marillion had played a mere forty-five minutes, or maybe it was the joy of going home early that gave Steve the energy to launch himself into the air with such gusto and abandon during the shouty bits of the song that launched them. Whatever the cause, he looked and sounded like he was having as much fun as the rest of us.

Naturally we were all awaiting the finale, which most of us figured had to include a Bowie number. My money was on Starman, which kind of fitted into the whole idea of the day.

Well, we did get a Bowie number, but not the one I’d imagined. Mind you, that hardly mattered less as the first unmistakable chords of Heroes filled the theatre, the sound rising to the rafters and somehow lifting us all with it.

I never saw Bowie play live, but as all the musical contributors piled onto the stage and Charlie from David Live took the microphone, it was as though the spirit of the great man himself had returned for one final appearance. I’ll remember the way my hair stood on end for many a year to come.

Dave & Sue Stopps

Naturally, it was only fitting that both Dave and Sue Stopps were cajoled onto the stage for their own personal, and hugely deserved round of applause. After all, it was their hard work, dedication and persistence that brought us all together in the creation of the world’s first, most dramatic and easily the most memorable monument to one of this nation’s most enduring musical talents.

As the music faded and the atmosphere dissipated along with the audience, many of us stopped beside the Earthly Messenger to reflect on what the past has given us and what the future may hold. If I’m honest, I think we also lingered to drink up the last dregs of that wonderful atmosphere, in a brightly lit place where we set aside our squabbles to create something very, very special.

I like to imagine we all fell asleep feeling just a little bit heroic that night, and I like to believe we deserved it too.

Just for one day.

Images courtesy of Alan Jones

Do you want Friars with that? – The Main Course

With the Dung Beatles and John Otway having set the bar incredibly high, there was a sense of palpable and growing excitement as the tech staff busied themselves preparing for the hugely talented Howard Jones to take the stage.

Now I can’t have been the only one who had the image of a big-haired, bat-sleeved eighties keyboard wizard etched into his memory, so I doubt I was alone in my surprise when that techno minstrel’s stripped down, almost lounge scale set up began to take shape. Perhaps somewhat naïvely, I’d expected banks of preassembled equipment to be wheeled onto the stage to deliver old favourites and new experiments. However, time waits for no man and so I confess my curiosity was piqued as that middle-aged but still very recognisable musician took to the stage behind a single keyboard, accompanied only by an acoustic guitar and some kind of new-fangled, multipurpose percussion pad.

Howard Jones Alan Jones crop
Howard Jones

Whether conscious or not, Jones’ stripped down performance was a reflection of both the change and continuity experienced by most of his now older and hopefully wiser audience. In the same way that the concrete brutalism of Jones’ heyday has been reshaped and remodelled, so his musical expression has adapted and evolved to blend in perfectly with its environment. Gone are the artificial colours and flavours of his synthesised eighties concoctions, replaced by a warmer, more organic and holistic musical output. All the old favourites were there, but reimagined in a more carbon-neutral and less overbearing package. Not too loud, not too abrasive; not too shrill and guaranteed not to upset anyone from anywhere. Yes indeed, Howard Jones’ extremely competent and very watchable performance was a true reflection of the world in which we now live.

Perhaps it was selfish of me to expect to hear those synthpop classics in their original forms, but none of us can choose where we come from. In the end, I’m a child of concrete, fluorescent light, smoking indoors and no internet to tell me what I should be outraged about next. Howard Jones put on a great show and I’m glad to have been there. I just wasn’t expecting his music to be wearing carpet slippers and a safety helmet.

That’s how I found myself in a reflective kind of mood as the applause faded and the techs returned, this time to clear all available space for the imminent appearance of the mighty Marillion.

For anyone who’s never seen this legendary live band, a Marillion gig is best summed up as a masterclass in the studied application of musical power as opposed to the blunt-force assault of mere volume alone. With only a small handful of line-up changes over the decades, Marillion are unquestionably one of the slickest, tightest and most respected live acts anywhere in the world today. While many others have burst brightly and disappeared just as quickly, Marillion have remained a constant and extremely well disciplined star still burning brightly as they approach their fourth decade in music.

Their performances are the stuff of musical legend, whilst their relationship with an intergenerational fan base is one of the closest of any band to its audience. Indeed, after their short run of chart success in the eighties, Marillion turned their back on chasing mainstream success, and by doing so they built themselves one of the strongest and most fanatical followings in music today.

Naturally, being the world’s premier touring prog rock band, the big joke was how many of their ridiculously long tracks they’d manage to shoehorn into a mere forty-five minutes. I confess I was curious to see how they’d handle such a restriction on their usual running time of two hours plus.

Steve Hogarth Alan Jones crop
Steve Hogarth

With a stripped down stage and few of the usual whistles and bells that accompany a successful live act, it was kind of refreshing to see the guys cram so many old and new favourites into such a short space of time.

The crowd went crazy when the perennial Easter made the cut, and we were all treated to Steve Rothery’s legendary guitar solo that features so prominently on that decades-old track. It was wonderful to hear Afraid of Sunlight once again, a firm favourite of mine.

As ever, Steve Hogarth was in fine form, leading many of the uninitiated to wonder just how such a big and clear noise can emanate from someone who sounds so much bigger than he really is. That precocious and seemingly ageless vocal talent has earned him the affectionate nickname of Windy Shrimp in some quarters.

I’ve actually lost track of how often I’ve seen Marillion play across the years, but their gigs never grow old, never get tired and they never look or sound like they’re just going through the motions. I’ll wager they picked up a few new followers at the Bowie Benefit that night.

All in all it was an amazing evening, and we were full to bursting with four delicious and very different musical courses. At the end of the night came the question that springs to every restaurant patron’s mind as the plates are being cleared away…

Have I got room for dessert?

Images courtesy of Alan Jones Photos

The Thin White Duke’s Shadow

At last the big day dawned, cold and bright.

After all the hype, the uncertainty and the tireless campaigning of Sue and Dave Stopps, the world’s first statue of the late David Bowie was finally revealed, in the seemingly peculiar setting of Aylesbury’s market square.

That Sunday afternoon was the culmination of a long fundraising and planning campaign to have this legendary musician’s cultural contribution honoured in bronze, and also to highlight this market town’s significant yet unsung contribution to modern music.

For anyone who’s not familiar with the story, the legendary venue of Friars Aylesbury is where Ziggy Stardust made his first appearance here on Earth, while the Spiders from Mars were born in the long-demolished dressing room.

This was all before my time, although that early wave of live music legends cemented

The Earthly Messenger

Aylesbury’s unlikely reputation on the gig circuit, ensuring I had easy access to a whole host of brilliant and innovative acts when my turn came around. Looking back now, I sometimes find it hard to believe just how lucky I was.

Like so many sons of this small but sparkling jewel in Britain’s musical crown, I was only too happy to answer the call when the appeal was launched to honour one of this nation’s most remarkable, innovative and enduring musical performers. Although I’d never had the privilege of watching Bowie perform live, I gained a great deal of personal satisfaction from helping to preserve and promote this legend’s legacy after his premature passing.

So that’s how I, along with a crowd of other sponsors, musicians and well-wishers, ended up standing under the arches beside Aylesbury Crown Court on that chilly spring morning.

There’s often good reason to criticise local authorities as obstructive and bureaucratic, but Aylesbury had gone all out on this one. The Market Square, already immortalised in Marillion’s debut single, became a musical focal point once again as the air shimmered with an LED archive of Bowie’s timeless videos and live performances. Local rockers the Callow Saints put in a terrific performance to entertain the crowd, but with the great man never far from the stage, it wasn’t quite clear who was supporting who. It’s really something to be headlining from beyond the grave.

There was an expectant air as we huddled beneath those arches, staring at a custom printed cover all set to reveal the Earthly Messenger to the waiting world. As the clock struck two, both Steve Hogarth (Marillion) and Howard Jones tugged on the string…and nothing happened. It’d worked flawlessly during rehearsal, but that’s showbiz for you. I’m sure David was having a rueful chuckle somewhere in music heaven.

The applause rose quickly, and I joined in as I realised I wasn’t looking at a single image of the great man, but several. Ziggy Stardust floated, in the air, somehow suspended in time as the Thin White Duke looked on, finally at home with himself and his accomplishments.

A sweeping bronze chorus line of Bowie’s other incarnations spiralled across the wall behind, reminding the world of the master performer’s constant creativity and re-invention.

Sculptor Andrew Sinclair explained how he wanted to capture as many faces of Bowie as possible, as his long and varied career meant that his identity was forever shifting in the minds of his audience. How we remember him often depends on the time and place we first crossed paths, be it on the turntable, through the radio or the internet.

Speaking of the internet, social media went crazy of course, with comments both for and against the Earthly Messenger raging back and forth across Facebook and Twitter, the forever homes for malcontents and could’ve-beens. Some bright spark has already defaced this privately funded endeavour with a political message about homelessness, and I’ve read several online rants about wasting public money. However, they are all wrong. This project was funded entirely by a group of people who wanted to honour one of the twentieth century’s most recognisable men. Clearly some in this world are just too embittered to endure anything that isn’t about them. Well, I’m sorry you didn’t get as famous as David Bowie but you’re just not talented or creative enough. Your ill-informed, pinch-faced scribblings are easily erased.

As for me, I think Bowie’s memorial is as bold and striking as the man and his music had always been. He was never afraid to take chances both with his image and his reputation, and I think that pioneering, risk-taking spirit is expressed perfectly in this unconventional dedication to that most unconventional of pop icons. Really, it could not have been otherwise.

I for one am extremely proud that my name will forever be seen in the Thin White Duke’s shadow.

The Music of my Life 1990-1994

If the late 1980s can be identified as a period of cultural and musical fracturing, then the early 1990s is surely defined by a marked and probably permanent acceleration of that divergence. With the mainstream on corporate life support and the homogenized march of nu metal through the alternative scene, the nineties are seldom remembered as a cultural or musical high point by anyone who wasn’t actually young during that period.

Nonetheless, there were some glimmers of hope in the dark, and here are my favourite albums from the first half of that difficult decade.

1990 – Elizium by Fields of the Nephilim

At the risk of committing gothic rock heresy, I’ve often thought that Fields of the Nephilim were seriously overrated. However, they proved more than capable with this absolute beauty, and what I believe is by far their strongest release. For a start they seriously dialled back on Carl McCoy’s voice effects, resulting in very pleasant surprise for many listeners. McCoy’s much improved vocals are seamlessly blended with a much more creative use of guitar, bass and keyboards to produce a languid and often haunting audio experience.

Musically speaking, Elizium takes its time, perhaps reflecting a personal and musical maturity that was wanting in the promising but not-quite-there Nephilim album. Elizium is best played loud, especially during the slower, more sweeping sections of this often ignored and unjustly forgotten album.

1991 – Hey Stoopid by Alice Cooper

Confirmed alcoholic Vincent Furnier (aka Alice Cooper) finally stopped drinking in 1983, and that personal journey partly explains Cooper’s creative rebirth and undoubtedly contributed to the two best written, arranged and engineered albums he’s ever released. Once you’ve gotten past the admittedly questionable cover, Hey Stoopid is an unapologetic orgy of rock production gorgeousness. With a really, really big sound and plenty of Cooper’s old theatrical flair, this album is like a connoisseur’s wine cellar, where all the mediocre stuff has been served to guests and the quality stock is kept safely hidden away. Tracks like Might as well be on Mars and Love’s a Loaded Gun remain true to the time honoured Cooperesque ethos, while dishing out newer and hitherto untasted dollops of bitter anger and lasting regret.

In the final analysis, Hey Stoopid just sounds so freakin’ good that it can get away with just about anything.

1992 – 1992: The Love Album by Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine

Carter USM were the back row dwelling, bogey flicking, teacher taunting bad boys of an increasingly whiney, sanctimoniously self-referential and horribly bourgeois indie scene that was bubbling up during that decade. With a great big ballsy sound and playfully insightful lyrics, The Love Album is a long overdue swipe at the establishment from the parts of Britain that were scorned and left behind during the previous decade.

Even the album’s cover is eerily prescient of the cultural and economic divide which has now been laid bare within British society, despite an increasingly discredited media class’s efforts to pretend it had never existed before 2016.

With several Sinatra gags and parodies thrown in for fun, the chart topping Love Album is possibly the biggest poke in the establishment’s eye since Never Mind the Bollocks went and gobbed on the mayor’s car back in ’77.

In fact, the unstoppable Carter stopped after only a decade, and many of us still lament the departure of those very gifted and unashamedly rowdy street poets.

1993 – Songs of Faith and Devotion by Depeche Mode

Following on from the massive success of Violator, Songs of Faith & Devotion was produced by a band who were at the peak of their powers and charting an exciting new creative direction. Gone are the last vestiges of the eighties pop band, shoved aside by something with a much harder edge and a far more subversive sound.

Accompanied by a massive tour, Songs of Faith and Devotion is arguably the first album by the “new” Depeche Mode of the nineties and beyond. Not afraid to experiment and seemingly less interested in the fickle tastes of pop fans, it’s almost as though these guys had decided to keep the fans they themselves had grown up and matured with.

This is not an album that fits easily into any category, and although the newer influences of the growing grunge movement can clearly be heard, SOFAD stubbornly refuses to be tied down creatively. Some have decried this as a creative identity crisis, while I believe Depeche Mode were blazing a trail for others to follow with this album.

1994 – Brave by Marillion

Brave is Marillion’s third studio album fronted by the hugely talented Steve Hogarth, marking yet another course adjustment on their seemingly endless musical voyage. Much smaller of stature than Fish, Hogarth nonetheless more than manages to fill the big man’s shoes as Marillion return to the prog rock roots that were, and remain the cornerstone of their continued success.

Based on a report of a young amnesiac girl, Brave charts her fictional, troubled and invisible life within an insular society that found her easier to ignore than to protect. Another prescient piece of work given the seemingly endless procession of disturbing cases of conscious institutional neglect we’ve uncovered in recent years.

Showcasing all of their musical flexibility and creativity, Brave also marks Marillion’s departure from an increasingly insular mainstream music scene as they set out to build a much more independent operation. Their years of hard work and forward thinking have been amply rewarded with a corporate-proof fan base and enviable creative freedom.

The nineties can be thought of as the first skirmishes of the often cited “culture war” which is raging across most of the West. During the decade of Brit Pop and the Spice Girls, it was difficult to shake the feeling that doubters and thinkers were being deliberately driven out of mainstream culture, to be replaced by safely sanitised short skirt rebellions. The unpalatable truth is that Girl Power was merely the creation of middle aged men in tall buildings, who were smart enough to make a ton of money by selling an insurrection deliberately designed to go nowhere.

However, the culturally cleansed did not simply disappear. They retreated to the internet and patiently waited for their time to strike.

The Music of my Life 1980-1984

The eighties was a decade defined by contradictions. The neon dawn of a beckoning consumer age shone brightly against a dusty background of industrial decay. Newfound freedoms and lifestyles rubbed shoulders awkwardly with centuries-old social norms, often chafing against them. The gender benders shocked on Top of the Pops, while the bowler hatted city men were overrun by the hungry and street smart barrow boys who’d finally broken into the City’s sacred inner sanctum.
It was a time of both economic expansion and industrial contraction, which somehow managed to co-exist within the space of a single frantic decade.
With a little less wealth but a lot more personal freedom, it was a great time to be growing up, and I would never trade it for today’s paranoid, smoke free and calorie counting childhood.

1980 – Vienna by Ultravox

It seems to be an unwritten rule of the music world that one may like either the John Foxx or the Midge Ure incarnations of this band, but never both. That’s a rather short sighted outlook in my opinion, as this technically advanced offering from Midge and the boys is one of the finest examples of the post punk synth wave. While certainly more commercial than their first three albums, Vienna nonetheless displays a high degree of creative integrity. Indeed, I would argue that New Europeans is the single greatest new wave track ever. Never a band to chase the teen romance demographic, this album’s title track is emblematic of a bygone age when bold, innovative and unconventional music could still attain chart success.

1981 – Rage in Eden by Ultravox

That’s right, two in a row for this highly creative musical quartet, and in fact my single favourite album of all time. Too often overlooked by nostalgia channels and list shows, Rage in Eden is a triumph of dark-tinged electro pop that clearly doesn’t give a damn whether the “inkies” deem it worthy or not. Indeed, so cleverly constructed are the tracks and running order of this album that its lengthening shadows creep imperceptibly across the listener’s consciousness, while masquerading as a high quality synth-pop creation. With a brooding, concrete production style and lashings of dark, quasi monastic backing vocals, Rage in Eden is a neglected jewel of the eighties synth movement. Slide the CD into the player, sit back and experience the hidden depths and darkest corners of this most unlikely of masterpieces.
Indeed, time has vindicated this band’s creative approach as Ultravox are still touring in their own right, as opposed to being rolled up into some last hurrah of a fading revivalist roadshow. In hindsight, whilst their commercial triumph was much smaller than the Spandaus and the Durans of the day it has endured far, far longer. Perhaps there’s a lesson for us all in this story.

1982 – A Broken Frame by Depeche Mode

If Ultravox were dark synth with a poppy undertone, then Depeche Mode were their mirror image of poppy synth with a dark undertone. The early eighties marked a distinct societal as well as musical shift, where the groans of that wounded industrial world were processed, digitised and remade in the imagined likeness of the coming computer age. Many bands attempted to balance these opposing cultural currents, more often than not falling off the beam and into day-glo derision or respected obscurity. Somehow Depeche Mode managed to harness these two opposing forces to create something that is both easily accessible yet just a little off key. The video for the popular single See You is a brilliant example of that gravity-defying juggling act. Anyone old enough to remember those dark, frosty and atmospheric BR stations will immediately smell dust, diesel fumes and cigarette smoke in those wonderful opening frames. An album made by young men who were themselves shaped by the greater forces at work during those important years.

1983 – The Golden Section by John Foxx

The third of John Foxx’s post Ultravox projects is less well known than Metamatic or The Garden, and that’s a great shame. The master of the discordant dream and the fleeting shadow finds his strongest abstractionist voice in this glowing, warm and yet distantly chilling production. Perhaps finally trapping the phantom he’d been chasing for over a decade, The Golden Section is a triumph of musical arrangement that takes the listener on a journey to a quiet, melancholy place. This collection of beautifully crafted musical tracks brilliantly succeeds in triggering introspection and a longing for something once known but now forgotten, distilling ideas of shuttered shops and overgrown ruins into a vague longing for past freedoms. The greatest trick this album plays is that it achieves its ends by deception and subterfuge, forswearing any pretentious teen dirge in favour of a far more mature and nuanced musical expression. This album demonstrates an advanced and intuitive understanding of both music and the human condition, where discord somehow gives birth to beauty. An unrivalled triumph of the era.

1984 – Fugazi by Marillion

The second album by the last of the prog rock children is a veritable feast of musicianship and poetic prowess. Fish’s peerless lyrical agility finds a new confidence in this virtuoso display of song-writing and studio production. Steve Rothery shines as the most underrated guitarist of his generation, ably matched by Mark Kelly’s dazzling keyboard skills. Indeed, Steve’s soaring, weeping solo on Jigsaw is my personal favourite.
With major chart success still elusive, Fugazi makes little attempt to chase the then lucrative singles market, as the butchery of Assassing into a short seven inches makes all too plain. Who would buy a single like that?
It’s also worth noting that this is an album that arrived at exactly the right time for music fans like me, providing a vital escape route for those of us who’d spotted the scouts for the Stock, Aitken & Waterman invasion. It’s both an end and a new beginning as the musical mainstream begins its steady and seemingly irreversible decline.

Yes, the eighties are remembered with great fondness, but they also mark an irreparable fracturing of the music scene. By mid-decade the music charts had become increasingly homogenised and predictable, so there was only one thing for it. To misquote a very famous British singer, it’s time to go underground.