Greetings, Glancers! Last time I belly-flopped for the first time into the music and mind of the painted loon known as Fish, and his band Marillion and their first single. Did you know, I went to University with a young woman called Marillion (Mary Ellen Lynn)?
In Episode 2 of Paul Rose’s (AKA Mr Biffo) Podcast Between You And Me, he and wife Sanja listen to a few of the B-Sides which were released around the time of Mary Ellen Lynn’s first album – Script For A Jester’s Tear. That album title immediately makes me think of the sometimes great Blind Guardian – Power Metal pioneers – and any number of more embarrassing acts. Power Metal was ostensibly born out of Prog, and many of the European bands not only took the musical cues of Prog to the next logical (extreme) conclusion, but much of the imagery and literary/historical references too.
One observation I’ve made as a life-long Metal fan is that many of the more territorial Metal fans view Prog as ridiculous, weak, watered down, and would be ashamed to admit to liking it, while many of the more territorial Prog fans view metal as ridiculous, uncultured, over the top, and juvenile. I prefer to squat down betwixt the twain, like a goblin gathering and hording precious arcane items, and drag as much as I can from both sides to store beneath my thighs for future fingering. I can appreciate the arguments both sides make even if they come from a closed off and silly perspective, but both genres are more similar than some fans would like to admit.
Before we get to that first album, the B-Sides I need to listen to are Three Boats Down From The Candy, Charting The Single, and Grendel – the last of which is apparently some sort of big deal. Knowing now that the band took their name from one classic of fantasy literature (The Silmarillion) and that they have a song named after a character from another (Beowulf), I have a better idea of what to expect thematically from the band. Lots of epic tales of heroism and quests, elves and dragons, and other annoying pubescent rites of passage. Hey, I love all that stuff too! Also, I’m almost certainly going to be proven entirely wrong on this assumption. I haven’t read either of those particular tomes, but I have read LOTR and am aware Beowulf exists, so that’s something.
Did you know, when I was at University with Marillion, we had a Professor in Old English Studies who was obsessed with Beowulf and was some sort of authority on the subject. He was quite an odd, bespoke character – he conversed in an indescribable lilt which in no way fit his gargantuan physical frame – it was like he had swallowed a Childe, and said Childe subsisted on a meal of helium and jelly tots. I’m fairly certain he wrote ‘child’ as ‘Childe’ and I am convinced the whole thing was an act that he tried on for a laugh at one point, but has been forced to keep up the charade for 30 years because nobody has pulled him on it. He looked exactly like what you think an Olde English Professor would look like, but crossed with Ed Kemper.
Back to the point. I’m going to listen to these three songs over the next few days, slap a few thoughts together here, then go off and listen to Between You And Me, then return and summarize. How does that suit you? Good? Good.
Starting with Three Boats Down From The Candy; I’m listening to this on Youtube so I’ve no idea if the one I’ve picked is the definitive version. There’s a bunch of 90s Remasters of this song, but the one I’ve gone for is from a B-Sides Album called Themselves. I chose this because it has a cool, terrifying, album cover – the artist or the band seems to have a thing for mouths based on the artwork I’ve seen so far.
It’s another song with a bombastic intro, synth driven, which then wriggles and remoulds into a totally different aura for the verse. The verse is ominous, smooth. Whispered vocals, still theatrical. I do get a distinct Dickinson/Maiden impression from these verses – that combination of the eerie arpeggio and theatrical, high pitched vocals. I like the quiet/loud dynamic, noticeable when the tumbling synth returns for the ‘chorus’. The whole song sees each instrument playing that sinister tumbling piece – the synth in the intro, the guitar in the verse, the piano in the middle – other guitar parts too. Much of the second portion of the track consists of a cool instrumental coda where the tumbling riffs change subtly and feel more purposeful and epic – this is probably my favourite part of the song, but it doesn’t last long (enough) and fades out. This seems like a cop out, a bit of an anti-climax, ending as if they either ran out of ideas, didn’t know how else to close it out, or originally intended for the song to run into the next piece of a larger whole.
In my first listens to these songs I don’t pay attention to the lyrics; For Three Boats, none of them stood out initially aside from the title, which is repeated throughout the song but doesn’t give me any insight into what it’s all about. As a music fan, I tend to delve into lyrics after a first listen, especially the artists who are known to put genuine effort into their words. When there is lyrical artistry, most times the depth doesn’t become apparent until you sit down and read the thing. Simplistic songs, typically of the radio Pop variation, tend to have lyrics which are designed to be easy to discern and understand immediately, consequently they have little to say and are based around limited topics. This is clearly not the case with Marillion.
On subsequent listens, I follow with the lyrics. The progression of the song and the lyrics suggests to me a journey, lets say of a boat sloping down a river, and what is seen along the way. The three images in the opening verse seem unrelated besides being images you may see on a journey. I’m sure there’s more to it according to Fish, but it’s not clear to me. I don’t think it needs to be. Proceeding through the next verses, the lyrics take on a more personal hue – ‘you ask for my love on the strength of a kiss’ is a neat line, but the follow-up lyric makes the narrator sound like a bit of an exploitative dick. That notion follows through in later lines with the narrator seemingly looking for nothing more than a fleeting fling and not wanting to be tied down into the machinations of a relationship or hindered by feelings. I do love the rhythm of the ‘You’re a memory… flotsam in a silent void’ couplet – it runs off the tongue nicely. Wait a minute… is ‘the candy’ slang for some sexy naughty word? I’ll wait until I listen to the podcast and not bother reading any online interpretations.
It’s a good song – I like it more than Market Square Heroes – which I keep mistakenly calling Market Stall Heroes. It feels shorter than it is – it’s only four minutes, but it feels like there is a lot more packed in than those four minutes suggest. I’m still not entirely sold on the vocals, but the theatrical approach matches the poetry and mystery of the lyrics and music.
Next up, we have Charting The Single. Is it another travelogue song, or is it about the band watching their songs soar up (down?) the charts? It starts with 80s stilted drums, and potentially stadium rock guitar chords. For me though, the song doesn’t live up to the potential of this intro. The major key hints at a more positive and optimistic feel than the previous songs. I strongly feel the Johnny Rotten and David Bowie approach from the vocals here – I’m getting PIL in fact. The robotic, simplistic drum beat is symptomatic of a lot of 80s New Wave type music – not something I’m a fan of because it tends to reek of repetition and lack of invention. I wouldn’t say that this song lacks invention, more that’s what the drum beat generically makes me feel. A huge organ (matron) comes in towards the end, increasing that epic vibe. This is the weakest, or my least favourite of the three songs I’ve heard so far – maybe because it’s slower, maybe because it feels artificially drawn out without adding enough musical variance. It has another fade out ending, but here it feels more natural. The song does build as it progresses, but the beat never changes and the vocal melodies remain roughly the same throughout.
There’s a lot of ‘ay-eeeee!’ in the lyrics so I didn’t pick up much more beyond that. Reading the lyrics alongside the song, it does have an element of travel to it. ‘Plastered in Paris I’ve had an Eiffel (eye-full)’ is the sort of amusing wordplay I’d usually expect from a Rapper. There’s a lot of similar wordplay throughout, and absolutely none of that was apparent to me until I read the lyrics online. As a Manics fan, I’m more than familiar with indecipherable lyrics only becoming clear once you read the album notes. Not that these are indecipherable per se, 50% of this was due to my own lack of attention. The whole storytelling, Burroughs-esque narrative flow of the lyrics is reminiscent of Bowie. The lyrics clearly make the song more interesting, I’d say they are the best component, but I doubt I’d return to this song purely because of the lyrics – the music is too drab to engage me entirely. I get the impression that the lyrics are quips and observations Fish had been building up during his life, and it feels like the band struggled to build a song around them. There was a Pizza Takeaway on the street I used to live on in Belfast called ‘A Pizza The Action’, which was enough to make me always choose it over any other after a night out. What’s it all about though? Lets just say ‘love’ because I’m aware I haven’t even got to Grendel yet.
Because Grendel is so long, I’m going to type my random-first-impression-jotted-down-notes first, and work from there. Here’s what I came up with on my first listen:
‘Grendel begins. House Of The Rising Sun guitar. Paint It Black guitar. Images of a jester frolicking around a grand Court while a disinterested King ponders a coming attack on his borders. Nice falsetto. Slow and gentle opening. I assumed before listening that this would move through various phases and tones and styles. Of course it does. Dragonforce synth. I wonder what my old Professor would think of this. The second verse (if that’s what I can refer to them as) sees the vocals a little more unstable at the falsetto moments – the notes aren’t quite hit cleanly, not sure if that’s on purpose. Then it all goes buck nuts into a light-speed disco section with a rocket up its arse, while retaining the main chord progression. Great twiddly solo. I’m only vaguely aware of Beowulf, so I’ve no idea what a ‘shaper’ or a ‘rim walker’ is. This is the most Floyd song so far – I mean, there’s not a lot actually comparable to Pink Floyd here beyond the length and the ambition. Musically it’s more relatable to me with some of Alice Cooper or Iron Maiden’s more rambling, epic moments. The bass from around the 7 or 8 minute mark is almost identical to Cooper’s legendary Halo Of Flies. Look Mummy, another big organ. Look Around You synth. I’m only going to be able to listen to this a limited amount of times before I post this, so I’m only scratching the surface of what it’s all about and my feelings about it. But I’ll certainly listen to it in the future. It’s the sort of song I wish I knew in and out, every detail and lyric and inflection, but that would take a lifetime of listening, and there’s only so many epics I can keep in my skull.’
I’ve since listened to the song a few more times, and most of my original impressions remain. I’m more aware now of the twists and turns which the song takes but I still feel, like with most epics, there’s a lot more to uncover, and I haven’t mentioned the lyrics yet. Tonally, I don’t mind whether songs longer than six or seven minutes retain the same vibe throughout, or if they completely shift. As long as there is some meaning behind those shifts that’s more than purely artificial, and as long as there is some sort of progression in terms of additional production or instruments in the mix for those songs which don’t shift as much. If there’s an overall tone I get from the song as a whole, it’s one of manic melancholia, like a sadness in the midst of panic.
I think the slower, calm section which runs until just after the nine minute mark drags the whole down somewhat, it’s too much of a dirge and too uneventful, and rather than acting as a build-up for the faster or (what I feel are) the more emotional moments, it just has me skipping forwards to get to the good stuff. ‘Dirge’ feels like too much of an insult, it’s simply not as interesting to me as everything before and after it. The slower phase from after nine minutes to around 11 minutes is much more potent, especially when we factor in the way Fish belts out some of the lyrics. I can’t get past the synth making me think of Wish You Were Here and Look Around You. I’d be curious to know how this was all put together – that’s something I enjoy hearing about in songs in general, but particularly epics. It’s like Making Of Documentaries on DVDs and Blu Rays. I’m curious to know if this was always planned as a single song, how much of it came together in jam sessions, was it originally a series of other songs and ideas consolidated over time into a single piece. Maybe Biffo will go into this in his Podcast.
Onto Grendel’s lyrics. The first thing I should say is, like any great epic, the song has SECTIONS. Lyrics are partitioned in some sort of over-arching plot in that great pretentious way much of Prog and Progressively tinted Metal follows. Grendel is divided into Hereot’s Plea And Grendel’s Awakening, Grendel’s Journey, and Lurker At The Threshold. Having not read much of Beowulf, I’m not qualified to talk about what any of this means. The opening verse scans nicely and reads like a poem if spoken aloud. It’s a scene-setting introduction with an overt hint of threat. The second verse, or do I dare use ‘stanza’, is more simple, yet tells me less – the terminology being foreign to me. Musically, it’s the second and fourth simple stanzas which are the loud half of the quiet/loud dynamic, with the first and third verses filling the quiet quota, though whether or not that was intentional or has any greater creative meaning, I’ll leave to the experts. I’m assuming with all of the fear in the 3rd Stanza that Grendel is one of the monsters in the tale – was it a Dragon, or a Witch or something? It’s interesting that the funky disco part of the song comes in this first section of the song – reading the lyrics I would have expected this to come in Grendel’s Journey.
Grendel’s Journey is mostly the dirge-like part I mentioned earlier. Lyrically, it’s still littered with image driven choices which would likely mean more to me if I knew the story in detail. Lurker At The Threshold sees the song building up again – the build up is drawn out and the many stanzas here mirror this increase in potency – the words coming and coming and coming while the music reaches a crescendo. The lyrics are at their most violent in this section, which (I’m assuming) makes sense as Grendel has arrived and started to eat legs and wear the skins of tavern wenches – again, I don’t know the story. Grendel does seem like more than a mere murderous creature from the lyrics, it questions and condescends and mocks those it attacks, and the final lyric of ‘Receive your punishment, expose your throats to my righteous claws, and let the blood flow, and let the blood flow’ is particularly evocative and gruesome. I don’t think the actual delivery of the line is as powerful as seeing it written – I read the lyrics and thought ‘is that what he really sings, I’d better pay more attention to that last line this time, because that’s a great ending’ but that delivery is an anti-climax, plus it’s followed by another minute or so of music rather being the dead stop such a line perhaps deserves.
If I’m ranking these songs, and I don’t think I’m going to continue to in the future, but it’s Three Boats, then Grendel, then Charting The Single. Market Square Heroes would be between Grendel and Charting The Single. So far, there isn’t anything I would switch off if it popped up on my, what do people listen to these days, my radio/Alexa/Shuffle, but I’m not yet feeling a tug to listening to any again. Three Boats is the one I’ve found myself singing most since I’ve started this, so possibly I’ll return to it. All that’s left is to hear what Paul and Sanja make of it all, so I’ll be back once I’ve listened to the podcast.
Aaand, I’m back. Paul tells me that the B-Sides were live staples pre the first album’s release. That’s fairly standard as bands go – sometimes bands get sick of their early stuff, or don’t feel it fits on their first official release, or feel… embarrassed? Other bands just translate their live sets on to record and then struggle with their sophomore effort. Sanja’s approach to the podcast is the same as mine – listen, then lyrics. Her impressions are of the first song being elegant, but then being befuddled by the lyrics, which is fair enough – musically it sounds sweeter than the lyrics suggest.
Don’t worry, Biffo, Geddy Lee’s voice annoys everyone. His timbre is more grating. I love falsetto in general but if it goes too nasal or screechy, then it’s like claws down your back. Fish doesn’t call a spade a spade – or himself by a human name. Fish says the song is about a one night stand, under a boat, which was three boats down from a boat called ‘The Candy’. That sort of makes sense, though my reading of the lyrics was more cynical. Everything Paul says fits with what I read. It sounds like Paul and Sanja cringe a little at the lyrics and how they fit with the band’s early persona – I don’t mind them, but I’m new.
Interesting that Paul says this phase of the band only lasts for the first album, so I’m already curious to hear what that new phase is – and I haven’t heard the first album yet. Sanja feels Charting The Single is likeable filler – that about sums it up, though given that it’s not my preferred style I’d say it’s more on the dislikeable side. The subject of the song is expanded from my ‘love’ to being a parody of rock stars shagging their way around the world. Good. Paul loves this one more that Three Boats.
Paul’s Perverted Pranks should be an episodic bit. It sounds, I’m getting a slight sense, that they like Grendel. It was played at their wedding. They love the rolling rrrrs, as do I. I love when people are enthusiastic about songs, even more so when it’s a song I love too so we can all galivant around in our echo chamber. I don’t love Grendel, but I agree that it’s a good song. There are many more epics I enjoy more, and more epics I think are better, but then I’m much more familiar with those. And we’re not here to talk about those. It’s great that it has inspired Sanja to go back and read Beowulf. Double Hot Chocolate references!
Another good episode, I got more information about the band, but the best part is hearing the childlike glee as our hosts talk about something they love. Can’t say we don’t need more of that in the world these days. That’s about it from me, it’s a sunny day at the time of writing, and I want to go outside and play. And let the blood flow.
Let us know in the comments what you think of these early Marillion B-Sides!