Far From Useless, Far From Good: Marillion's Script For A Jester's Tear
, April 9th, 2013 06:09
In among the pomposity and the queuing cumbers of the 80s prog-rockers' debut album, Taylor Parkes tries to pinpoint exactly why it captivated his adolescent self
Cheap laughs being inescapable, we'd better get this out of the way: Marillion's lead singer was called Fish, and Fish's real name is Derek Dick. Hahahahaha. Fish and Dick. Dick-Fish. Fish's Dick. Derek Fishdick.
It's too easy to make fun. “We don't hear much from Fish nowadays – I guess you could say he's had his chips!” “If only Fish, like his aquatic namesakes, had opened and closed his mouth silently - that would have been greatly preferable!” These are just two of the things I might say, were I interested in cheap laughs. But there's plenty of that stuff around as it is, and it's too easy, much too easy. Like shooting dicks in a barrel.
More interesting to look at what's actually there: Script For A Jester's Tear, the first album by Marillion, which is 30 this year and still has really long hair despite the fact that it's going thin on top. For anyone who doesn't know, Marillion played progressive rock, but they did it in the 1980s (there's a clue in the title here, of course - no one in 1973 could have come up with Script For A Jester's Tear, a prog rock album title that's just too parodically perfect). And the record's what you'd probably expect: a rinky dink symphony, a bit of a drag.
And when I was 14, I loved it.
Now, my other favourite groups at the time, the time being 1986, were The Smiths, The Fall, the Bad Seeds, Sonic Youth, all the old reliables: Syd Barrett, Beatles, the Velvets, Motown, Dylan, The Monkees, a bit of Miles Davis ... I mean, it's fucking nauseating. Not that any of these people made bad music - quite the contrary. It's the sheer bloody miserable depressing righteousness of it all. Even leaving aside the precocity, which is rarely appealing in teenage boys, there's something about that favourites list that makes me want to kick things over - who is this musical goody-goody? Nothing indefensible, nothing too horrible. Easy to pigeonhole, easy to control. Everything that makes me uncomfortable these days: a paragon of “good taste”.
Marillion, then, are a saving grace. WHAT was I thinking? WHERE was I at? HOW were they meant to fit into my ridiculous, polo-necked world? WHY?
Listening now to Script For A Jester's Tear for the first time in decades, I can't answer any of those questions and I don't feel anything flooding back.
It's true what they say: it sounds like Genesis. I didn't know that at the time. What Genesis sound like is one of those things you have no need to know at 14, like product liability tort law, or how early in life your knees start hurting. A little pop smartarse with six Nuggets LPs, I'd never heard a Genesis album, but as of relatively recently I have, and I must say this sounds a lot like Genesis. To be fair, it sounds like other people as well - there are bits of Yes in there, a little of Van Der Graaf Generator and some very late period Pink Floyd. Mostly though, it sounds like Genesis, specifically Genesis albums which would, in 1983, have been about ten years old. Before the recent telescoping of pop-time, this seemed a huge, uncrossable gulf - by way of comparison, Definitely Maybe is 19 years old, as are many of the people who will have downloaded it in the last six months. That's part of the problem with white rock these days. Everything seems to get lodged in its colon.
Anyway, Genesis are an easy group to hate, not just for what's on the records but because - if you can bear to listen - it's clear there's genuine talent there, being pissed away on all that showboating and smug whimsy. If they'd tried a bit harder, and also a bit less hard, they could have been almost as good as The Move, or Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich. I'm not at all sure that the same could be said for poor old Marillion, truth be told. And at least Genesis made all those records at a time when British rock albums sounded good, even if the actual music on them was lousy. Marillion were not so lucky. Most of their early London gigs were at the Marquee Club, at that time a maternity ward for the so-called New Wave Of British Heavy Metal - Marillion had none of the metallers' spunk-fingered joie de vivre, but did pick up a little of that bombed-out, clodhopping crunch. The end result is not ideal: the harlequin affectations and meandering frilliness of British prog, delivered like a can of piss hurled into the back of your head.
Now, the post-punk consensus broke down a long time ago, in case you didn't notice, but a basic hostility to prog (or at least to particular elements of prog) is one of the few things that's lingered, like a race memory. Of course, there are a fair few fabulous prog rock records, and there's something to be said for people loosening up about this stuff, anyway. But however inclusive musicians, listeners and critics become as we plough through the 21st-century, these particular elements of prog will hopefully remain toxic forever, being so blatantly anti-pop, anti-opportunity, anti-possibility: the dry elitism, the wholly unjustified snootiness, the idea that purging rock and roll of every trace of blackness and repositioning it as classical music's idiot bastard son is “progressive” ... and so on, and so on. It's worth saying, or would be, were there anyone left to say it to: The Kids, when left to their own devices, often default to being hippies. You must provide guidance; discipline. Young people crave it. One day they'll thank you.
Anyway, I think my idea of what Marillion were all about differed sharply from the reality (I remember being genuinely horrified the first time I saw what they looked like). I don't think I even thought of them as a prog rock band, despite the fact that they're virtually a fucking parody of a prog rock band (so many notes... such little melody). This is a group whose sleeves don't just list which member played which instrument, but detail the make and model of every individual guitar, keyboard and drum; it's hard to guess whether this was so that Yamaha and Zildjian would furnish Marillion with free gear in exchange for the free promotion, or whether the group just thought their fans would find it really interesting. Maybe they did. Here's one who didn't.
And then there are the lyrics. Yeah... the lyrics. It's a shame, albeit a little one, because one thing Marillion did have over the original proggers, I suppose, was their desire to sing about something recognisably real, rather than making like J.R.R. Tolkien in Rag Week. I've never heard the 17-minute B-side 'Grendel', which I'm told goes right down the elf-warren - I don't suppose I ever shall - but those Marillion songs with which I'm familiar are free of the goblins, cosmic lawnmowers and rampaging hogweed beloved of their forebears, taking instead more familiar themes: depression, alcoholism, drugs, heartbreak, isolation, cool stuff like that. The only problem is...
“Perform to scattered shadows on the shattered cobbled aisles / Would she dare recite soliloquies at the risk of stark applause?” ('Chelsea Monday')
“I act the role in classic style of a martyr carved with twisted smile / To bleed the lyric for this song, to write the rites, to right my wrongs...” ('Script For A Jester's Tear')
Prithee, my liege! They're fucking horrible.
“Edgy eggs and queuing cumbers / Rudely wakened from their slumbers” ('Garden Party' – Fish obviously worried that these lines weren't sufficiently conspicuous, and added a massive roll to the 'r' of “rudely” in case anybody missed them)
The thing is, if Fish had been a complete illiterate it might not have been so bad - he could have got by on sheer chutzpah like so many awful lyricists before him, just as his band might have been better off if they hadn't been able to play. As it was, he had the same problem they did: he was technically competent (a decent vocabulary, and no problem rolling out long chains of puns) but had terrible judgment, no sense of proportion and almost zero understanding of the form in which he'd chosen to work. I'm certain – albeit for no particular reason – that Fish is a really nice bloke, and not for the first time I feel like I'm chucking an old teddy bear onto the landfill. But while his words are without doubt the most entertaining part of Marillion records, it's not for the reasons he'd like.
(By the next album he was, by his own admission, way out there on booze and coke, and the lyrics became even more absurdly overwrought and overwritten, almost to the point where they come out the other side and become quite good. At times they're so verbosely paranoid, they read like a kind of precognitive parody of early Manic Street Preachers: “Son watches father scan obituary columns in search of absent school friends while his generation digests high fibre ignorance / Cowering behind curtains and the taped up painted windows, decriminalised genocide, provided door to door Belsens...”)
I don't remember ever listening to Script For A Jester's Tear and thinking these were good lyrics, but I suppose I must have (probably not the one about queuing cumbers, to be fair). Trying to pinpoint exactly what I liked about this record, or what compelled me to put the Smash Hits sticker of Marillion on my chest of drawers next to the one of The Jesus & Mary Chain, is proving harder than I thought. Who would imagine it'd be so tricky to recapture your adolescence? I'll play the album from start to finish. Perhaps it will bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of its essence, the vast structure of recollection. Come on Steve, Mark, Pete, Mick and Fish!
Apparently at one point Fish was set on the idea of opening the record with a Shakespearian soliloquy, delivered by him, as though spotlit on a darkened stage. I think I'm glad the others found a way to talk him out of it. That would have nudged the album over into pure kitsch, made it more entertaining in a sick kind of way, but somehow a bit less peculiar. I mean, anyone can come up with real trash.
As it is, we begin with the title track, its opening moments kind-of nicked from 'Dancing With The Moonlit Knight' by Genesis, I now understand... until our host exclaims “I'm losing on the swings - I'm losing on the roundabouts!” and in comes something which sounds so very like 'Stonehenge' that you have to check the release date to establish that yes, this was made a full year before Spinal Tap, and it's not supposed to be some kind of bizarre conceptual joke at Marillion's own expense. The rest of the song - and at this point there are still some seven minutes left - is an interminable sequence of strained crescendos, grotesquely overemoted by Fish (the phrase “grotesquely overemoted by fish” appearing for the first time in the history of the English language, there). I've just listened to it three times in succession - and at over eight and a half minutes a go that's no small undertaking - and I still can't decide if I'm cruising on nostalgia or if there's actually something strangely loveable about this lumbering Elephant Man of a song which is, if nothing else, the second-best song on this particular album. Towards the end, as the sun rises over its massive hull, you can at least understand why they might have thought they'd done something worthwhile... and when you're struggling to find the good in something, that's half the battle won.
Next is the shortest and probably the first-best song on the album, 'He Knows You Know', in which, for once, four chords go round and round without breaking off for a trip round the houses – presumably this is why Marillion considered it sufficiently commercial to release as a single. This, though, just highlights the basic problem with their shit: a really good band can play four chords for five and a half minutes and transport you, either with rhythmic dexterity or with sheer ball-crunching momentum. Marillion don't really understand either of these things, and seem unsure what to do with a song that doesn't keep changing direction like a runaway pig, so they just sort of fiddle around, trying to look busy, digging a hole and filling it in again. The track's not too bad though, in a grody kind of way, like that weird French rock that exchange students used to like, and it ends with a moment of real hilarity: as the music trails away we hear Fish whispering “problems, problems” over an old-fashioned ringing tone, like someone's being woken in the middle of the night. They answer, and a tired-sounding female voice says “hello?” - at which point Fish screams “DON'T GIVE ME YOUR PROBLEMS!” and slams down the phone. It doesn't really come across on the page, but I can assure you this is genuinely funny. I hope very much that Marillion intended it to be funny, partly because I do want them to have had a sense of humour, and partly because if they didn't intend it to be funny, all hope is lost.
From here on in, the album loses focus – so much bombast, so many bits. All those cymbal-thrashing ladybird rides and wobbly-voiced acoustic interludes... soon, you lose your place. 'The Web' is nine minutes long, and all I can recall is the bit at the end which goes “The flaming shroud! Thus ends THE WEB!” because I remember thinking “oh, good.” Four and a half minutes into 'Garden Party', as the metre shifts again and we're pitched into an airbrushed synthesizer solo, it's like listening to the soundtrack of a promotional video from 1981 for a business park on the outskirts of Frankfurt. Still, it's a strange song, 'Garden Party', with that gross, leaping bassline and those daft lyrics full of healthy-if-hamfisted class resentment, and it's stranger still to think it reached a giddy 16 on the British charts, in between 'Dark Is The Night' by Shakatak and 'Dream To Sleep' by H2O. 'Chelsea Monday', on the other hand, is eight long minutes of overcast solos and drizzling acoustic guitar, its fade-out featuring a bit of acting which would have made Andy Warhol scream “cut!”
Finally there's 'Forgotten Sons', the second-worst song ever written about The Troubles, which starts off with a laugh (that squawking intonation of the word “Armalite”) then gets very ugly, very fast. The band lock into that galloping, clippety-clop prog rock groove, somewhere in between Riverdance and a super-wack version of the Doctor Who theme, and Fish rewrites The Lord's Prayer, which of course always works really well in pop songs. By the time they suddenly stop the whole thing in its tracks to act out another little playlet (“Halt! Who goes there?” “Death!” “Approach... friend”) you're rendered incapable of speech or movement and just have to sit staring open-mouthed at the speakers for the last two minutes while the guitarist has another go at being whatsisname out of Genesis and a children's choir sing 'Ring A Ring O'Roses' until eventually, rather than risk anticlimax, they finish on a major chord so forced and preposterous it breaks the spell, like someone clicking their fingers in your face. What the fucking hell was that?
I dunno, I've tried really hard to be fair, because 14 is a funny age, and 1983 was a funny year, and so was 1986, and Marillion ... well, I feel like I owe them something, somehow. Look for the positives, right? They're decent musicians I suppose, and Fish has a set of pipes on him, sort of, even though he constantly sounds like he's doing the death scene from Richard III. This is the problem though, or part of it. They're too far from useless to be interesting, and too far from good to be any bloody good.
And yet, and yet ... I loved them. No, that's pushing it – but I really liked them, for at least a year, until I began pretending I'd never liked them and oh look is that a red squirrel? Script For A Jester's Tear was not in fact my favourite of the three Marillion albums I owned; that was Misplaced Childhood, the one with the big hit singles on. I listened to that last night, somewhat reluctantly, in the name of research, and was rather surprised to find it went down fairly easily, all things considered. There was a lot of wiggly rubbish on there as well, and the most amusing delivery of the word “lager” in any pop song ever, and I shan't play it again for another 25 years or so (and might even leave the room if anyone else put it on, although this is unlikely), but it had tunes and atmospheres and a pea-soup melancholia which almost – not quite, but almost – redeemed the pomp and the foolishness, dilly-dilly and all. As glassy, puffed-up eighties crap goes, it wasn't too bad – we've all heard worse. At least it wasn't trying to be cool.
But a week spent listening to the worst music you ever liked is a funny old thing. You start off half-expecting some great revelation or other, but before long you're wondering what kind of wisdom could ever be gained from an exercise as pointless as this. What are you supposed to learn? “Wow man, I used to look back at my 14-year-old self and think 'That little bastard could have really got on in life! Could have ended up happy and rich and successful and valued, if I hadn't been such a fuck-up!' But no, it seems that even back then I made terrible decisions, sympathised with the wrong people, dropped my pennies down the wrong well. I guess I was always going to end up like this. It's destiny, man. It was always going to happen.” Yeah, great, thanks a lot.
In the end you remember that taste is an illusion, like the soul. Who am I supposed to be after nine bottles of Spanish beer, so much fonder of 1980s power ballads than my sober self? Or in a clear patch between depressions, coldly contemptuous of moping self-pity in pop, and elsewhere? I don't really care. It's only chemicals swirling around; a puddle churned with a stick. All you can be sure of is subjective pleasure, and the lack of subjective pleasure, and boredom, and the sense of time passing, and laughs, all of which are cheap.