Nightman Listens To – Marillion – Clutching At Straws (Side B)!

Marillion - Clutching At Straws (1987, Vinyl) | Discogs

Look at this – no intro whatsoever! Straight into Side B, which opens with Incommunicado. Audible sigh. I hinted in my first post on this album that, as long as nothing went disastrously wrong in Side B that this was shaping up to be my favourite Marillion album so far. Did I jump the gun on that? This song… this song is pure Rock Opera. It’s pure Quadrophenia. There are melodic moments here, there are certain musical phrases, chord choices, and rhythmic choices which feel like they were copied and pasted from Quadrophenia. Make no mistake, that’s my favourite album by The Who but this is so similar to certain songs it’s almost like listening to that album’s title track. The famous Townsend three chord attack, the keyboard twiddling moments… I don’t know if this was intentional but it’s absolutely brazen and I can’t accept it was a coincidence. I’m not criticizing the band for doing this, rather giving my most immediate thoughts.

I’ve softened on the song a tad since my first listen – I went from being too busy laughing at the similarities, moved to to dismissing the song as being Marillion’s equivalent of Zep’s Carouselambra, to appreciating it for whatever the hell it is. It starts nicely enough – it’s not until the 50 second mark that it goes full Quadrophenia. The whole thing feels like a bit of silly throwaway fun. I can’t fully get on board with the vocals – it’s the most Fishy vocal yet; he’s doing the uppy downy thing on almost every line, and when he’s not he seems to be channelling Roger Daltry. If it had a longer running time I’m not sure I could have had many redeeming comments to make, but as it is I’ll accept it as a bouncy little throwaway pop song. It was the 80s man, everybody fucked up. It has its catchy moments, it has its good moments, but in the scope of the album so far it feels out of place.

The lyrics seem conflicted, or show the lead character as conflicted. He’s tongue in cheek joking about memory loss, which could explain things, but he’s uncertain of whether he wants fame or not. He doesn’t want to be the huge star, but equally doesn’t want to be a nobody. Actually… I misread the lyrics in the second verse – he DOES want the fame. I’m assuming Fish is poking fun at the fame game with some of the lines here – credit once again for fitting ‘rootin tootin’ into a song, and most of the lyrics are suitably comic and expressive. On the whole, it seems to describe someone who is so famous and successful to the point that they can entirely withdraw from the public eye yet still be spoken about while hiding their true selves. I don’t know – my original thoughts on the song were based on my misreading of the lyrics and I’m too lazy to reassess. 

Torch Song gets us back on track in terms of the dark tone of Side A. Much of that is created by the guitar tone itself, with the bass burrowing through the space in the background. It does feel like a mid album track – robust, well made, though in danger of being lost amidst the more notable songs. What is notable is the very Fishy vocal where most lines follow the uppy downy vocal approach, and there is a lot more repetition in the lyrics to the extent that this must have been an artistic choice… repetition highlighting the burnt out nature of the main character, potentially writer’s block, possibly the inability to get out of a funk or way of thinking. The song does a good job – the whole album does – at crafting atmosphere again. Maybe it’s the drinking sound effects and the spoken pieces, those certainly add to it, but I think it’s the drowsy, loose instrumentation (mingled with the guitar tone) which imbues the song with the bar floor atmosphere. The song feels wasted – strewn on the ground, struggling to wake, or even stoned. As I’ve said, I don’t like the uppy downy Fish approach, but here it serves the atmosphere as he sounds like a drunk swaying back and forth.

I don’t need to go into much detail with the lyrical content beyond saying that it’s neat that Fish has managed to fill a whole album with boozy metaphors and songs about being drunk, without those feeling stale or monotonous. 

Slainte Mhath (you too) takes us back into Quadrophenia territory – I can’t help but want to shout ‘Looooovveee, reign o’er meeeeee’ during the piano intro. Is there a touch of Queen in there too? The guitars crash in like a Queen anthem, though that’s most likely a case of me hearing things that aren’t there. It’s a groovy start to a song, little Edge flickers of guitars, single static bass roots, dynamic drums only blasting off on a loose whim. It’s a song that feels like it, to use an inappropriate sexual term, is edging you. It wants to peak, but doesn’t ever give it to you. It teases and any peak is momentary. Taking that to a more logical, less sexual place, maybe it’s commenting on the all to brief highs of the addict.

I don’t know how I feel about some of the vocal decisions – I assume he’s being theatrical but some of the wails don’t land true. I give him the benefit of the doubt and assume this was deliberate to accentuate the manic nature of the lead character but it’s more likely I’m being picky. Given the song’s name, I gather that it’s another drinking song. Lyrically, it attempts to get to the core, or a core, of the drunken creative. I get the sense of a character with enough creative spark still fizzling among the embers, and a sprinkle of the lounging Dandy of eras past. The lyrics move from bar talk to comparisons with soldiers and generals – I’m sure there’s more of a story here than a simple battle/battle scar comparison, but I don’t have enough context to eek that out. 

Is Sugar Mice a term related to booze? It sounds like a dodgy club in Essex. I’m taking it more literally and thinking of sweety mice. It nails the dark tone and atmosphere, but it sounds happier. Not as foreboding. The opening riff is all smiles and calm, and as the verse progresses the melodies unveil themselves as sweet and sunny. There’s little or no musical comparison, but tonally I got the same vibe from this as something like Screamadelica – waking up in or from a stoned haze. Or alternatively, drifting away from a life and not giving much of a fuck about it. It’s soothing; there is a slight synth (I’m guessing) backing which is made to sound like a swelling of strings (would have been great to have actual strings) and the eventual swell accompanies the euphoric guitar solo. It feels like this might be a bit of an anthem for fans – a good one for the live setting? I would have been happy if the song had ended or faded out after the solo (and after the great ‘know what I want know what I feel’ vocal) – the last verse felt a little tacked on. That’s  too negative, but personally they felt like an unnecessary come down. A minor gripe. 

At this point in the narrative, if there is one, before looking at the lyrics I would have guessed this was the wake up song, the realisation point. That may be the direction the lyrics are supposed to be taken – in which case it feels like a similar journey as what Misplaced Childhood conveyed. There is introspection, guilt, acceptance. It’s all very sad, even as the music sounds quite happy, so possibly this time the story diverges from Misplaced Childhood with the characters realising that it’s too late to change or save  himself? Metaphors are left aside for simple statements and truths – blame it on me, the toughest thing I ever did was talk to the kids on the phone, when it comes right down to it – but that’s the sort of matter of fact approach you would expect at this point in the story.

The Last Straw feels like a single. That was my first note upon hearing the opening bars, but turns out it wasn’t a single. It’s in a similar vein of proggy pop rock as other songs of the era – it even feels somewhat similar to Kayleigh. Sure it’s near six minutes and it does feature longer instrumental sections – not the most ideal choice for radio listening – but those could be shaved to make a four minute hit. You would definitely lose a lot by cutting those pieces as they serve both as natural bridges and transitions, and in building or easing tension and atmosphere. The first instrumental section (around the two minute mark) leading into a low bass driven march and set of sombre melodies is my favourite part of this one. That instrumental absolutely nails the shadowy tone I’m harping on about, as well as keeping in step with the rest of the album. Near the end there’s some female vocals – I’m not going to hazard a guess at who this is, but there’s that gruff pop rock quality of a Stevie Nicks or, laughing as I type it, Lulu. Naturally I’m reminded of The Great Gig In The Sky and Gimme Shelter. I’d be curious to know if it’s someone other than a random session vocalist. It’s a terrific ending song, though it does leave me wanting something else – a shorter song to act as a resolution point. I’m not sure what it is I want after this – certainly not the actual final track – but as good as song as The Last Straw Is, I was anticipating… something else to close the album.

The lyrics feature further call-backs to other moments in the album and it feels like a summary and conclusion of everything that has happened, with the bleak final admission that even after it all we’re still drowning, clutching at straws. Yet it feels defiant. Or celebratory. I’m not sure they’re going for a celebration of going down in flames as much as a ‘well, if we’re going to go down we may as well have fun doing it vibe’. I know enough about the history of the band now to draw obvious parallels between the lyrics and Fish’s stance. Like any good lyric, you can understand the writer’s intent but also choose to ignore that and apply your own meaning and circumstance. Actually, that’s probably not an example of good writing, but I wouldn’t say anything here is vague or misleading or contradictory. In this instance, as a listener who is not currently part of a successful band that I want to be rid of, I can instead read this as general frustration with some part of my life – a career, a friendship, something deeper. I don’t know at what point Fish did leave the group – if it was a few months or a year after the release of the album then the listeners at the time may have interpreted the lyrics differently, or applied the frustrations to the character of the piece instead of the bloke behind it. 

Happy Ending is someone laughing.

cover art for Script For A Jester's Tear - Side 1

Before I get on to the podcast, I’ll lock in my own opinion. This is my favourite Marillion album so far. Much of that is down to the atmosphere – it’s a little dark, a little grimy, it takes the listener to depressing places, and while it doesn’t have the big, obvious, hooky singles, most of the songs have prominent vocal melodies and cultured riffs which work their magic on you post-listen. I took a break from listening to this album over the Christmas break, but little pieces would often float out of me as I was making breakfast for the kids, playing with the cat, or indeed pouring myself a rum. Coming back to the second half of the album to write this post, those pieces fell together and all of the nuances I’d missed began to bubble up. Now when I’m pouring the cat a rum while eating my kids for breakfast, I sing the songs with that little bit more detail and oomph. Even the earlier songs on the album which I wasn’t overly impressed by in my first listens I am more positive about.  

I strap myself in for the 90 minute-ish episode and anticipate what the guys are going to say about this one. We begin with a couple of B-Sides and a discussion on what Marillion fans call themselves. ‘Freaks’ isn’t the best name – it sounds to commonplace, like it could be assigned to any group. Marillionacs? Members Of The Shoal? I haven’t listened to these songs – maybe in the future. I have a feeling one of them came on after listening to an album track – remembering I’m listening on Youtube so any old crap automatically comes on after, including conspiracy theory adverts and people prompting me to purchase Grammarly. Which I willn’t. 

Marillion missed out on the Highlander soundtrack – there can only be one, after all – and had a variety of management mishaps which pissed them off. When you have a taste of success and want more, but see your managers (in retrospect) making the wrong calls, it’s going to have a bit of an impact. Plus touring, plus addiction, plus existing turbulence – these all fed into the product we’re discussing today. What is it, Biffo – there’s always a wasp in your stories/Digi bits. Man, I miss giving songs and albums the time of day. I mean, look at all of the ‘reviews’ of Bowie and other critical darlings – of course I’m not going to love them after a single listen. When I was young, spending my hard earned pennies on a new single or even a big boy (album) you could be damn sure I was going to drain every millisecond out of the thing. Two listens of a new album every day was probably a minimum. 

But onto the album – Paul talks about the album being a Concept album (is someone going to mention Rock Opera) with Fish hiding his problems behind a character. At least he called the dude ‘Torch’ – he could have called him, ah balls, Paul got to the joke first. I was going to type Fash, but that made me think of Gladiators. Awooga.

Incommunicado seems like a bizarre choice as first single. Or a single at all, but there you go. What maniac made that decision. I did have some bands that I would listen to with friends – yeah, sometimes on my first listen. Kyle and I would have listened to Nirvana and G’n’R songs for the first time together. Biffo’s not a fan of the album cover – saying it was rushed and miserable. I don’t hate it – it’s not good, but it does concisely alert you to what you’re getting in the album. What would the alternative been – a lion with a pint in each paw, soaring over the sun being ridden by a jester? Seems like young Biffo (and Fish) loved the album, at least back then. 

Sanja admits to struggling a little with the album – maybe because of the distance between listens, maybe because it is in the unfortunate position of coming after Misplaced Childhood. Admittedly, I did have several gaps in my listens of this. Certain songs I did instantly like, and those only grew. Even the few I wasn’t so keen on I have softer opinions on. What can I say – I’m instinctively drawn to darker material – not just dark in lyric and content, but in sound. Look at two of what have in my personal favourite albums – The Holy Bible and The Wall – you don’t get much darker than those, in both respects. 

Sanja and Paul both mention a lack of cohesion between the lyrics and music, which is interesting as this felt like one of the biggest and most obvious positives to me. The lyrics and the tone of the music – it’s all right in the pit for me, it’s all touching those dark places. I’m aware the band weren’t in sync behind the scenes, but none of that came across to me in the music. It feels more like an example of a band using that tension and forcing that into the music in a solid, creative, cohesive manner. It sounds like the album is a fan favourite in any case. 

Sanja picks up on the 80s TV feels of the intro to the first track _ think I pegged it as an 80s action movie, but apples and pears. Sanja is not much of a fan of the sound of this one – like most of the songs on the album it’s fairly obvious what it’s all about. I still find this song somewhat bland, but it’s still that solo which sticks out. Paul calls it a scene setter and an admission that Fish is not enjoying things anymore. Paul and Sanja both agree about Warm Wet Circles being a weird choice as single. Those ‘warm wet circles’ are any number of things – still sounds filthy regardless. Onto That Time Of That Night – Fish sees the song as him being scared of being trapped in a ‘normal world’ while Paul sees it more as a loss of innocence. As always, the truth is somewhere in between. Fannies.

Sanja again didn’t like the song at first – seeing it as a No Man’s Land – which it turns out is what it is exactly supposed to be. Fish apparently made the lyrics up on the fly, explaining the brevity and oddness. It’s another cry for help. They don’t spend much time on this one, straight into Just For The Record which Paul got a Police vibe from. That was actually one of my first notes before I changed my thoughts from Sting to Phil Collins. I have a feeling I’ve made a white reggae comparison before when talking about Marillion – but I’ve been writing so much about 80s music recently that I could be mixing up posts, songs, and artists. White Russian – anti-Semitism as I correctly picked up on. Again, not sure of the context of the time it was written in – we had out own problems over here during the 80s to worry about. Sanja saw it more as a continuation of the story and the metaphor but it seems more outward looking even if Fish did explain the lyric as a character piece. They’re not huge fans of the song, bar the outro, but appreciate the sentiment. Apparently it sounds a little like a song on the next album.

Onto Incommunicado and Paul instantly mentioning the The Who comparison. It’s not merely the vocals – the vocals are probably the least obvious thing about it for me – the whole thing could have been lifted off Quadrophenia the similarities are so amusingly glaring. They both seem to love it – it’s fun and playful and silly, but it feels to me like a bit of a shark jump. Sanja does not like Torch Song – maybe it’s because it’s downbeat and worn out. Again, that can be my sort of jam if it’s done right. Paul makes a totally, wholly, unfathomably unforgiveable faux pas by stating that Johnny Depp played Jack Kerouac in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, when of course he was playing a fictionalized version of Hunter S Thompson. I assume by the time I post this someone on Twitter will have picked him up on this. Both blokes were known for their writing and ‘intake’, of course. Paul says ‘the whistle’ is the whistle of the factory, which makes perfect sense. I don’t think I even considered this due to checking out on the lyrics as they mostly covered the same subject. It’s Sanja’s favourite on the album, while Paul’s is Sugar Mice. It’s interesting to hear the lyrical discussion given that I wasn’t really investing much effort into breaking those down for a change. 

Sanja doesn’t like The Last Straw. I’m surprised by this and by the fact that Paul doesn’t love it. Maybe it’s not a good Marillion song but it is a good rock song. I’d say it’s one of my favourite songs on the album but I don’t mind when any random band does a rock song, or when a band does anything outside of their meat and veg. I don’t think Incommunicado is anywhere near a standard rock song. The Last Straw is, it’s not prog, but it’s good, regardless. I take the point though, as a non-Marillion super fan it’s not an issue for me. I agree about this as an ending which varies from Misplaced Childhood – I originally expected the album to finish in a similar way, with the hero escaping – but it doesn’t. I stand by the sense of defiance though, dark and depressing as it may be.

Oh God, they’ve just shouted me out on the blog. Um… shucks, thanks for that… apologies for not keeping up with these as much as I had been! Next time we’re onto Marillion without Fish. There may be other episodes which talk about the in between antics without actually speaking about specific albums – I’ll listen to those but probably won’t write about them. 

Let us know as always what you guys think of Clutching At Straws!

Tell it like it is!

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