Locus Focus: the story behind Marillion's Clutching At Straws cover

The concept was to create the ‘Great Bar in the Sky’, the setting was an old spit and sawdust pub in Colchester, the result was the worst cover design for Marillion’s best album.

At least that was frontman Fish’s verdict on Marillion’s 1987 release, Clutching At Straws. The idea to mock up a drinking scene featuring famous artistic types whose lives had been cut short in unhappy circumstances was actually Fish’s. It should have been a prog Sgt Pepper… but a ridiculously short schedule resulted in a less than satisfactory end product. Designer Mark Wilkinson and Colchester photographer Janus van Helfteren were originally charged with creating a pub scene featuring 30 characters inside Colchester’s Baker’s Arms but that figure was whittled down. Robert Burns, Truman Capote, Lenny Bruce, Dylan Thomas, James Dean, John Lennon and Jack Kerouac all ‘appear’ alongside Marillion. Wilkinson’s impossible deadline couldn’t do justice to the concept and EMI added insult to injury by complaining about the back cover, where Fish was pictured in the pub’s pool room lighting a cigarette. Despite its inauspicious start, Clutching at Straws was propelled to No.2 in the UK album chart. Fish’s ‘Great Bar in the Sky’ was renamed the Beer House before being smartened up as a residential property.

The Beer House, at 126 Magdalen Street, Colchester, is location No.111 in the new edition of Rock Atlas UK & Ireland, published by Red Planet.