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Crowdfunding, anoraks and prog weekenders – how Marillion survived the 90s and beyond

Marillion moody press shot from the 1990s
(Image credit: Niels Van Iperen)

If you want to know the truth of it, the trouble really began around ten years before with the Brave album. Marillion’s ambitious 1994 concept album. An excellent and expansive piece about life, death and memory loss that went over budget, ran out of time and tore the band and their label, EMI, apart in a way that made Harry and Meghan’s exit from the Royal Family look sedate. In its own way, Brave had pulled the Steve Hogarth-era Marillion together but looked to have punched a hole through the band’s future plans.

“From our point of view, Brave had been a success,” says bassist Pete Trewavas, “because we made an album that we really, really liked. We’d had problems in our working relationship with Steve [Hogarth] in the studio for the Holidays In Eden record, just getting to know each other personally and how we worked as a band, but by Brave which was a lot of his initial ideas, we were in a good place creatively and as people.”

That wasn’t how EMI saw it. The album was delivered late and, in classic A&R man parlance, the label couldn’t hear a single. Brave reached No.10 in the UK charts – impressive, bu their lowest charting album in years. The band seemed to take their label’s concerns onboard – they followed it with the shimmering Afraid Of Sunlight, on time, under budget and brimming with songs that could have been singles. But the damage was done. Marillion were dropped. 

“We thought if we do deliver a killer album then we’d be alright,” says Trewavas. “You must remember, we’d been through all of that with Misplaced Childhood – that was going to be the last album for EMI. At one point they said, ‘The third album really has to make money as it had cost a lot to make’, and then after Kayleigh, they were rubbing their hands together thinking, ‘We’ve got a band that can write singles here.’ And then we delivered an album like Brave and they didn’t know what to do with that.”

Marillion were nothing if not resilient. They were written after the departure of singer Fish, though as his career path waxed and waned, it was Marillion Mark II that helped create the template for the modern rock band. They curated weekends around the world, set up both an in-house studio/ rehearsal facility with minimal overheads and their own Racket Records imprint, and pioneered a now familiar crowdfunding strategy that revolutionised the music industry. Their efforts paid off handsomely – 2016’s FEAR became their most successful album in 30 years.

That must have seemed like an awfully long way off in the autumn of 1996. After their split with EMI post-Afraid Of Sunlight, the band signed with Raw Power, an imprint of British independent label Castle Communications – home of such unlikely bedfellows as WASP, Helloween and Ugly Kid Joe.

Even after the commercial and critical success of the 80s, Marillion were still a band who needed to work. Luckily, they had the foresight to take the advance they received for Brave and plough it into creating the embryonic studio space that would eventually become their Racket Club HQ.

“We made a good decision getting the Racket Club and buying equipment rather than just using it to record a new album,” says Kelly, “we actually said, ‘Ok, we’re going to build our own recording studio, it’s not going to be as good, but we’ll be self-sufficient.’ And that got us through the second half of the 90s.”

One thing that wouldn’t survive the decade was their relationship with longtime manager John Arnison, who had worked with the band since their 1983 debut Script For A Jester’s Tear. While the band were determined to see things through, even with an increasingly apparent lack of any real promotion from their new label and an audience that was becoming more selective, Arnison seemingly wasn’t.

“I don’t think any of us ever felt like calling it a day,” says Ian Mosley, “but John, the manager, definitely felt that. He said to me one day, ‘You should think of doing Marillion six months of the year and doing something else for the rest of the year.’”

“I think his phrase was, ‘You’re not going to earn enough from the band going forward,’” says Kelly. “We went, ‘Fuck that, you’re not one of the team anymore.’ I don’t think he believed we had a future anymore and so we fired him. I suppose it’s like companies that fail – you can see how it happens. It takes you a while to wake up to the reality that things aren’t as good as they used to be. You have to start trimming things back to what you can afford and try and stay profitable. I know that sounds like business talk, but that’s really what it comes down to. And we weren’t businessmen, we were musicians. So, we struggled a bit.”

“You must remember,” says guitarist Steve Rothery, “We did nothing to promote the Afraid Of Sunlight album, did no press, it escaped more than it was released. But then we released This Strange Engine on Castle and saw the difference of even a major label doing a crap job and an independent, who are releasing on different labels in each territory, to see the difference that makes; to go from selling 250,000 to half that within one record, that’s when the alarm bells can ring.”

Mark Kelly recalls 1997 being the bands worst period financially. It felt like Marillion were in the doldrums as the decade made its way listlessly to its end.

“We felt like we were on a treadmill, trying to turn out an album a year and tour it. We were trying different things – we did a university tour to get a younger audience. We were floundering. I’ll be honest, I look back at those three albums and I can’t remember which songs are on which.”

The three albums Marillion released in the second half of the 1990s – 1997’s This Strange Engine, 1998’s Radiation and 1999’s Marillion.com – may not scale the critical and commercial heights of an album such as Afraid Of Sunlight, let alone some of its more celebrated predecessors, but given their besieged mindset, financial insecurities and the encroaching feeling that they were somehow falling behind, there’s much to recommend about them.

When the band talk about it now, they admit to the period being something of a blur, not least because it was something of a throwback to the 70s: get an advance on the album, make the record, tour the record, make enough money for the label to recoup their cash so they can advance you for the next one and off you go again. 

“We didn’t have the usual time we liked to write, the recording and the writing was all done within a year, it was unheard of for us,” says Rothery. “There are some great songs on those albums. Maybe they could have been better or more developed and polished if we’d had another six months to work with. There was change. You can’t help but have some sense of panic – at that point I did sell quite a lot of equipment just to pay tax bills and the mortgage. I got rid of quite a few guitars and bits and pieces, which I do regret now. 

“Our fans,” says Mosley, “if they know we’ve got an album out, they’ll find it, even if it was under a rock somewhere. We felt that the indies weren’t actually giving us any proper promotion, they just thought, ‘A Marillion album, it’s a license to print money.‘ So that’s what I felt like. It was a bit of a grey area in our career.”

“Castle Communications had this business model: mop up all the medium sized bands that were selling but not enough for the majors to want them,” says Kelly. “By the time we go to the end of that period that was, we were like, ‘We want out of this now.’ They came to us and offered us another deal. We’d been with [Iron Maiden’s management company] Sanctuary, who were managing us, but without a contract, and then Rod [Smallwood, Sanctuary boss] bought Castle and wanted to sign us to that. We said, ‘Fuck that, we’re not signing a record deal with our management company.’”

Though it had the ignominy of being their first album without a single to touch the UK Top 40, This Strange Engine still bristles with life, showcasing Marillion’s familiar scope of musical ambition, not least in the epic title track, often the encore at many of the band’s live shows. Ditto the thrumming Man Of A Thousand Faces, Hogarth’s hymn to his father. 

“He was a sailor and he used to sail around the tropics,” Hogarth said at the time of the inspiration behind the song. “He ultimately gave up this job in the Navy to come back to England and to us to work down a mine. He literally went from the sunset on the equator to the blackness of being under the ground digging out coal.

“Recently I’ve been revisiting those memories of just what an enormous sacrifice it was. I am often faced with similar decisions myself. I don’t see too much of my children. I wander about the world being treated like a king and I wanted to let him know that he is a better man than I am.”

What This Strange Engine also gave them was their first taste of the sort of crowd funding that would ultimately come to save their careers. Kelly, a man happy in the digital realm before anyone had even thought to coin the phrase (his TEDx talk on the origin of crowdfunding is worth 20 minutes of anyone’s time), found himself lurking – his own words – anonymously on the band’s online Freaks mailing list. 

“It was the pre-Facebook era,” says Kelly. “People used to communicate via mailing lists. And someone asked the question, would we be touring in the States, and I said, ‘No, we’ve just left EMI, and whenever we toured America, we always lost money, and the record company footed the bill.’” 

As Marillion found out – and would continue to find out – if there’s one thing that their fans have, it’s endeavour in spades. Given Kelly’s dismissal of the idea of a US tour, an American based fan called Jeff Pelletier simply took Kelly’s words as some sort of challenge and, together with another fan, Jeff Woods, set about raising the cash needed to get Marillion across the Atlantic to play the USA.

“Well, the next question was, how much would you lose?” says Kelly, “And I said, ‘Well, maybe 50 or 60,000 dollars’, thinking that would put an end to the conversation, and then this guy [Jeff Pelletier] said, ‘Well, why don’t we raise the money?’ And then some other guy said, ‘Yeah, I said I can open a bank account and put some money into an escrow account, and if the tour doesn’t happen, I’ll just give the money back to everybody.’ I was slightly concerned, but I was thinking that not much would happen. They raised about $20,000 in the first week, then I had to go and tell the rest of the band…”

“I was in Los Angeles at the time,” says Ian Mosley, “and Mark had called me to tell me about this proposed tour fund, but I thought no more about it, not a chance, you know?  And then Mark rang again a few weeks later, and said, ‘He’s raised some ridiculous amount of money.’ That was the beginning. And we toured America.”

“I remember the band promising a live CD to fans,” says Erik Nielsen, Marillion’s former Business Manager and now part of music industry powerhouse Wingnut Music. “This was just before the tour to help spur on extra donations, but we definitely sent it out some time after those dates ended as something we could give back to anyone who had helped.”

The band may have been fumbling about in the dark, but they had unwittingly, come up with the business model that would not only help bail out their careers, but set their creative spirit free and lead to some of the most compelling and celebrated records of their career. 

“Strange, isn’t it,” says Kelly. “It didn’t seem like such a big deal. I was the one that suggested it, and it wasn’t really a masterplan – there wasn’t even a new album at that point. Ian knew, but I hadn’t even told the rest of the band, as it was such a crazy idea and I didn’t think it was going to come to anything.”

Back home things were less clear, not least for Steve Hogarth, a singer never afraid of prostrating himself on the emotional altar. 1998’s Radiation album is remarkable in many respects, not least the jarring honesty in Hogarth’s lyrics. The singer was going through a messy divorce due to his infidelity, and he was, by his own admission, crashing around at home, still with his partner, but living together alone.

There was also the matter of the fact that while holed up in the Racket Club and with the notion, possibly fuelled by lack of funds, the band decided to self-produce. Consequently, the original mix of the album is the equivalent of listening to a record through a neighbour’s wall. The nuances of a song like the aching Now She’ll Never Know or the brooding lament that is These Chains are either drowned in the murk or lost to the ether. It wasn’t until 2013 and Michael Hunter’s remix that the most people realised how rich and complex Radiation was. 

“I know exactly what you mean about Radiation”, says Mosley. “I didn’t like the production to the point where I literally couldn’t listen to it. But when Mike Hunter remixed it, I thought, ‘Bloody hell, there’s some really good stuff on here.”

“These days, we’ve gone back to working with people like Dave Meegan and Michael Hunter,” says Kelly, “Dave was involved with Brave, …Sunlight, This Strange Engine, and then we tried a couple of our own and that went a bit pear shaped and then we went back to working with producers.”

The album dragged itself to No.35 in the UK charts then quickly dropped out of sight, while the remarkable, if muddy sounding, These Chains struggled to No. 78 before disappearing. No wonder the band were in turmoil – even if Hogarth’s was of his own making – but go back now and there are gems in every record, whether the band were capable of seeing them or not.

Picture the scene: it’s 2017 and it’s the third and final night of Marillion’s sell-out weekend at Center Parcs in Port Zélande. the band are ending their final show by playing marillion.com in its entirety. Despite the presence of the In Praise Of Folly string quartet dressed as four eerie Miss Havershams, plus guest appearances by sax and trumpet players (Phil Todd and Neil Yates) and sometime Marillion lyricist John Helmer, it was my least anticipated night of the three. At the time, Marilion.com had left me cold. A looser, more ambitious album than anything the band had recorded before, it even featured some trip hop and, as I recalled, quite a lot of sax and quite a lot less prog – or at least the kind of prog I’d come to associate Marillion with.

But that night the album shone brilliantly and made me re-examine the music from a period when Marillion were in a state of flux and, perhaps, on the verge of giving up on themselves. It’s said art often comes from adversity, and whatever the driving force, the impetus provided by the crowdfunded US tour, or the spark of survival, but with hindsight, Marillion.com was the sound of a band rising gracefully above adversity.

At the time of its original release, Marillion.com came with the offer of a free bonus disc in exchange for your personal details ending up on the band’s mailing list. As the album’s title suggested, the future was online – and it was bright.

“I remember we were getting ready to start work on what would become [2001’s] Anoraknophonbia,” says Ian Mosley, “And it was Mark that said, ‘Let’s email all the fans and see what they think about this idea or giving us some money upfront before we’ve written or recorded a note.’ All I could think was, it’s worth a shot. We had about 12 or 13,000 fans, and they donated money. People from all round the world, which was unbelievable. It really felt like we had freedom to do what we wanted again.”

Tellingly, the band opted to put the record on their short-lived Liberty imprint. It might not have broken any sales records, but it did prove to the band that there were at least 13,000 fans who were willing to fund the work Marillion did before they’d even stepped into a studio. It also, literally, changed the way bands started to make and release music. There’s a music business module you can study that uses the Marillion template as its model. “Like there was a template!” laughs Kelly.

 Anoraknophonbia became the infrastructure for a new way of doing business, but it was 2004’s Marbles record that really cemented their place at the forefront of the music industry’s new dawn.

“The first time we did it, it was great and successful, but it wasn’t huge,” says Kelly, “But we felt like, ‘Oh, this is a new way of working.’ By the time we made Marbles, we were feeling confident. It was really well received by fans, and we had a Top 10 hit with You’re Gone, so we could tell that things had taken a turn for the better and we were going to be OK.”

 “Looking back,” says Trewavas, “I think the songs we wrote and the records we made [with Castle] were good. I think they’re a little bit missed for a lot of people. But, ultimately, I think as soon as we started to trust our judgement and become masters of our own destiny, that was when things started to get better for us. It was just that moment of believing in and betting on ourselves.” 

Philip Wilding is a novelist, journalist, scriptwriter, biographer and radio producer. As a young journalist he criss-crossed most of the United States with bands like Motley Crue, Kiss and Poison (think the Almost Famous movie but with more hairspray). More latterly, he’s sat down to chat with bands like the slightly more erudite Manic Street Preachers, Afghan Whigs, Rush and Marillion. He ghosted Carl Barat’s acclaimed autobiography, Threepenny Memoir, and helped launch the BBC 6 Music network as producer and co-presenter on the Phill Jupitus Breakfast Show. Five years later he and Jupitus fronted the hugely popular Perfect 10 podcast and live shows. His debut novel, Cross Country Murder Song, was described, variously, as ‘sophisticated and compelling’ and ‘like a worm inside my brain’. His latest novel The Death And Life Of Red Henley is out now.